Inequality is far more revealing than equality. In Iran, a positive step has been taken in the direction of lessening discrimination against women in law. A divorced woman will now be able keep custody of her son and daughter till they are aged seven, while formerly she was only allowed this in the case of her daughter. She could keep her son only until he was two. The new law itself reflects the disturbing depths of discrimination against women. Yet this is a society where women are hardly thought to resemble the prototype of the Muslim woman that the non-Muslim world is used to. The new law is obviously a very small step, and raises more questions than it answers. It is a less than halfway return to an earlier situation where divorced women had the right of custody till the children were eighteen. Besides, women cannot keep custody of their children if they remarry. In all cases, the divorced father takes over the right to custody irrespective of his qualifications as parent. Men have the sole right to petition for divorce under Iranian law, and can divorce their wives without their consent. A woman’s only grounds are her partner’s drug-addiction and impotence, both of which are almost impossible to prove. The list can go on. This was not the situation before the ascendancy of the revolutionary extremists. Their revision of existing laws began with the repeal of the reforms of the previous regime. But there is also a realization that repression in the name of interpretation of religious texts will no longer be practicable. This, possibly pained, realization is the direct effect of the history of Iranian women in the last one hundred years, and is also the cause of the present efforts at strategic “moderation”.
There is here an extremely important lesson for India. The barriers to improvement of women’s status in Iran, where women have known and lived a very different kind of life, appear almost insurmountable. The powerful guardian council had twice thrown out the law earlier, but this time the parliament has got it passed through the agreement of the expediency council. The changes, and the impulse to bring them about, are coming from within the community. Each small change registers a move towards equality; the effort demands patience, courage and clarity of vision. In Iran, what can be called the “modernist Islamist” trend has been motivating women to try and extract humanitarian and egalitarian concepts from religious texts and traditions. It is very likely that they will find what they are looking for.