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Patriarchy and Unjust Laws Create Obstacles for Women’s Employment in Iran

November 6, 2020
Mahrokh Gholamhosseinpour
10 min read
Katayoun Lamehzadeh, a longtime Islamic Republic News Agency correspondent, posted on Twitter about a lawsuit that resulted in a doctor being banned from work
Katayoun Lamehzadeh, a longtime Islamic Republic News Agency correspondent, posted on Twitter about a lawsuit that resulted in a doctor being banned from work
Narges founded and ran a successful cleaning services company. Her husband sued her using Article 1117, claiming her job had damaged the family, and she was ordered to stay at home
Narges founded and ran a successful cleaning services company. Her husband sued her using Article 1117, claiming her job had damaged the family, and she was ordered to stay at home

In Iran, many women have successful careers but end up agreeing to be housewives at the request of their husbands, or even being forced by the courts. The laws of the Islamic Republic, in particular Article 1117 of the Civil Code, grant husbands with the means to control their wives’ employment, and gives them access to the courts if required.


Narges is the founder of a well-known cleaning services company in Tehran, which she set up nine years ago. During this time she has managed more than 50 staff. And yet, she was sued by her husband on the pretext that her job had weakened the foundation of their family, disrupting their children's lives and affecting how they were raised. The court ruled that she had to stay at home, citing Article 1117 of the Civil Code.

The dispute between Narges and her husband had gone on for a long time before he filed an official complaint. "He saw my managerial ability," she says, "that my company's profit was increasing day by day, and he was upset about all this. He said, ‘I am the man and the head of the family and I forbid you from working,' and that this right had been given to him by law. He said, 'no matter how much you are respected by your colleagues, when you live under my roof you follow my rules.'"

Narges says before the argument went to court, she tried to resolve the issue and address her husband's unjust behavior: "I tried not to do anything that would make him want to impose his authority. I did whatever he ordered, and said okay, even though it was unfair. I would make concessions and bear the load. Despite being tired after work every day, I cooked every night, to give him no excuse. But in the end, my company was shut down at his will."

The text of Article 1117 reads: "A husband may forbid his wife from a profession or industry that is contrary to the interests of the family or to the dignity of himself or his wife."

The article was approved 85 years ago, in 1935. Throughout these years, and especially in recent years, efforts have been made to amend the law, but each time it has been blocked and the article remains in place.

Narges says Article 1117 has created a "serious vacuum" in the lives of Iranian couples, rooting inequality in the institution of marriage in Iran. 

"This law produced an environment of imprisonment and oppression in my life," she says. "My lawyer advised me to honestly discuss everything with the judge at Branch 2 of the Family Court. The court would determine whether my job was against the 'interests of the family' or not. I explained to the judge that I looked after my children most of the time and had hired a nanny for the children for the rest of the day. I said that seven days a week, if I am not home at noon, I make home-cooked food at night. The judge asked, 'Is your husband in need of money?' I said no, that he had inherited a considerable amount of money, but my problem is not money, it is a sense of identity and self-confidence. I shed blood for this company for years."

After all this explanation, Narges says, the judge paid no attention to her reasoning: "He asked my husband whether he would pay me enough money if I stayed at home. My husband said he would definitely do that. The judge told me to stay home. He said, 'You do not need to work. The house is yours, you have a car.' Then he said to me in a humiliating tone: ‘Are you happy in your heart? Are you sick to insist on going to work when your husband is not satisfied, and argue with him all the time? Sit in the corner of the house, fix your nails, dress nicely and support your husband."

However, Narges’ story is not unusual. On Twitter, journalist Katayoun Lamehzadeh posted a photograph of a court ruling in the case of an emergency doctor whose husband took her to court to force her to stop working and won.

The details of the case state that the husband presented the patient waiting list for his wife and said that her work employment in several hospitals had disrupted their life together. Originally the court ruled that the woman’s field of work, emergency medicine, was one of the most important specialist professions in the country given the coronavirus pandemic and that she should remain in her job. However, the Court of Appeals also relied on the patient waiting list, overturned the original court ruling and gave the husband the  right to stop his wife working. The court also referred to the wife's membership to the scientific board of the faculty of medicine and ruled that her employment at the hospitals would "shake the family.”

Responding to Lamehzadeh’s tweet, another woman said that her ex-husband “obtained a court ban on my employment in the legal profession, claiming that his wife took the bar exam without his permission and that her employment in this profession harmed their children.”


The Limits of the Law

A lawyer told IranWire that in the case of the doctor, because she "has an employment contract with the hospital,” the court ruling is enforceable, but that it is not possible to rely on Article 1117 to invalidate a medical license, a power of attorney, or any other legal document.

"It is not the case that all courts, as soon as a man decides, rule that a woman should not be employed," explained the lawyer, who gave her name only as Aileen and said she lived in Tehran. "In many cases, women do not face such dangers.

"It is clear that her case was referred to a branch where a fanatical judge looked at the issue of women and their employment with a petrified mindset and did not see her as an independent human being with equal rights and freedoms," she said. "He viewed women as a parasite living on a male, and the man's right to guardianship over an educated woman was of the utmost importance to the judge."

Religious institutions in Iran, especially the seminary of Qom, have considered any amendment to Article 1117 or similar laws in contravention of Islamic jurisprudence and so have strongly opposed it. In 2018, for example, several members of the women's faction in the 10th parliament submitted a proposal to amend the article, highlighting three parts of it that should be reformed, but the push for change did not succeed.

Supporters for this reform point to the social harms this and other laws cause, and its role in spreading discrimination against women. In addition, a number of jurists and lawyers have pointed to the legal implications of this article.

Saba, a family lawyer and legal adviser based in Iran, says that Article 1117 addresses three points: the conflict between a woman's job with "family interests,” “the husband's dignity" and “the wife's dignity.” However, "family interests" are ambiguous and unclear, she says. "A man may claim in a court case that the interests of the family are at stake and there is no way to determine this interest.”

The lawyer said that a woman can make a claim, but the article contains restrictions for women. "According to this, a woman's claim should not disrupt the family's livelihood, which is often impossible.”

But men are not entitled to force their wives out of work if she is responsible for the care of other people, Saba says. "For example, if a man dissuades a woman from doing her job, what will happen to those who are dependent on the woman's income for whom she provides? For example, a child left from a previous marriage and who the mother has custody of, or parents who are sick and whose daughter may be their only source of income.”


The Psychological Impact

The lawyer also said the psychological impact is also considered, such as in a case when a “woman, who until a few days before [a court case] was successful at work and had responsibilities and who then has to leave them behind.” This, Saba says, would mean she would “incur serious psychological, reputational and occupational damages.”

“Having gained experience, she is now practically back to square one, and these are the challenges of Article 1117 of the Civil Code, which [in a case such as this] the legislator has not paid attention to."

But the article presents another challenge too. If a wife is prevented from continuing her employment by the will of her husband and by order of the court, she must still pay the damages that her unemployment will cause.

"It means that the court order is binding and must be accepted, and at the same time damages must be paid, and the man who made such a claim has no responsibility to pay those damages," said Aileen. "It means they make the decision for you, the court obliges you to abide by it and you have to pay for their decision."

Article 1117 has other "side effects,” Aileen says."Sometimes a decision may not necessarily lead to a woman being barred from working, but the wife may, as a result of her ‘disobedience,’ run into other problems, such as her husband's remarrying, or not receiving alimony, and labeled disobedient."

Aileen said she had encountered this in her personal life as well. "My ex-husband was a respectable person and basically not a man who wanted to harass others, but at one point in life, our views diverged and our worlds fell apart," she told IranWire. "This law provided him with the opportunity to impose his views on me under certain circumstances.

"Perhaps if it were not for this law and my husband did not have such a tool, we would have been separated more easily and more peacefully, because I was willing to give up my dowry and wanted the custody of my children. But this gentleman, with the same privileges as the legislator, wanted to prove who the boss was and to let me know that if he wanted to, he would be able to turn all my efforts over the years into nothing."

She said, however, that her husband's actions never prevented her from continuing her career, but it did cause her many problems: "A lawyer's case can only be annulled through the judges' disciplinary court, but what could have been a problem for me was that my husband, having this vote in his hands, could go to the Bar Association, and create a problem for me, [threaten] my credibility with my colleagues, and my clients.” She said this particular aspect was particularly important, and had an impact on her sense of dignity and mental health. “For this reason, in those days, Article 1117 preoccupied me for a short time and caused me psychological stress.”

A woman called Mahdieh says some men use this aspect of the law to seek other benefits altogether. "I lived in Ilam province and worked shifts after my computer degree and before marriage," she told IranWire. "After marriage, I moved to Tehran, where my husband had lived, but even though I got a work permit from a reputable company and I did not have children, my husband did not allow me to work."

Mahdieh pointed out that her husband eventually sued her for her insistence that she continue her career. According to her, although her husband initially made excuses such as she worked in an "inappropriate environment" and that she was contributing to "the deterioration of society,” when she tried to resolve the issue through dialogue, he said, “on one condition: that I give up my dowry and then he said he would have no problem with me working."

A number of jurists have pointed out other challenges in Article 1117, saying that it violates Article 28 of the Constitution, which states: "Everyone has the right to choose a job that he/she wants and it is not against Islam, the public interest or the rights of others. The government is obliged to provide all people with employment opportunities and equal conditions to obtain jobs, taking into account society's need for a range of jobs."



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