A recent (March 2011) Christian Science Monitor article written by a CIA agent called for regime change in Iran because the country violates the rights of women. Of course it is true that thousands of women have been imprisoned and some executed for what would otherwise be crimes of gender bias. Therefore, it is a cheap defense to argue that the neighboring country, let us say Israel or Saudi Arabia, has a bad human rights record, or that women are just as badly treated in other countries that the West does not criticize. The real issue is how to address the problem institutionally and work toward lessening human rights abuses, especially toward women.
As traditional society, Iran under the Shah had moved toward secularization that entailed women were beginning to make some inroads with regard to education, jobs, and general integration into an otherwise patriarchal society. When Ayatollah Khomeini took power in 1979, his theocratic regime immediately limited women rights by forbidding married women to go to school, repealing the Family Protection Law and allowing girls as young as 13 to marry, by imposing a traditional dress code indicative of submissiveness, and by segregating women in what became a strong male-dominated culture where women were legally and politically unprotected.
The return to traditionalism Medieval-style in Iran was justified in the name of decadence that had been institutionalized under the Westernized Shah regime that had surrendered the country's identity to the hedonistic West. An even more convincing argument was that traditionalism, which entailed strict conformity to theocratic rule, was in the name of protecting the country from external enemies like Israel and US. Not that the US and Israel were not factors in Iranian policies, but those countries became a pretext for the clergy to enforce conformity and default all problems to Zionism and US.
Periodically, the police and courts made examples of women by arresting and imprisoning them if they committed any violation as inconsequential as non-strict dress observance. Just a reminder that the regime was not to deviate from theocratic authoritarian rule. However, the economic modernization of Iran required that the government unleash the creative and productive potential that women carried but were restricted from expressing. This meant that Iran was forced to allow more women in higher education to the degree that today there are more college-educated women than men, although some professions like medicine, civil engineering and others have strict quotas for women. Reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami was in the forefront of the movement to provide more rights for women in the 1990s, but it helped women's rights cause that Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Prize.
The majority of the clerics whose popular base is in rural areas are adamantly against what they deem moral corruption which stems from permitting women to have equal rights as men and allowing women to be integrated into society's institutions with men. Women fought back in 2006 when they bagan collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures to end legal discrimination. The government imprisoned a number of the leaders of the 'one million signatures' movement to stop the trend for women's rights and human rights.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been influenced by the modernization wing of society that realizes the country cannot move forward economically without first settling the controversial political issue of women's role in society. In the past five years, women have acquired more rights cloaked under 'family laws'. However, Iran has not done anything about the Siqeh, or temporary marriages, that are in essence legalized prostitution.
The refusal of the theocratic regime to end the gender discrimination regime has resulted in permissive behavior by men who gang rape women but courts blame women for improper dress code. Although some men have been executed for raping women, the culture of male control of women remains intact because it is legally protected. Even worse, women as well as men in custody suffer brutal torture, and those that have a high profile and have attempted to speak out have been arrested and charged with propaganda and spying against the state.
The reformers within President Ahmadinejad's circle have tried to make some small steps to improve the situation. The Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology has requested an end to gender segregation, but the Supreme Leader refuses to introduce reforms. Iran has been able to deflect internal and external criticism of human rights and gender rights problems by arguing that the West, Israel and some pro-US Arab nations are conducting a hostile campaign against the country.
Therefore, retaining theocratic authoritarianism is one way to maintain social cohesion and national unity in the face of external enemies. As Iran is launching development in a number of areas from nuclear energy to nuclear medicine, it will have no choice but to abandon the Medieval treatment of women for it only undercuts its own societal interests. Blaming Israel and the US for everything under the Persian sun has its limits and many educated Iranians know that the answer is reform not distraction through propaganda.