By Shima Shahrabi
March 13, 2019
Zahra Rabbani Amlashi is the daughter of Ayatollah Mohammad Mehdi Rabbani, who was one of the most prominent figures in the Islamic Republic in the early years after the revolution. She is married to Ahmad Montazeri, a cleric and son of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was once the designated successor to Ayatollah Khamenei, but who then fell out of favor with the Leader after he criticized gross violations of human rights and basic democratic principles.
On Sunday, November 27, 2016 Iran’s Special Clergy Court defrocked Ahmad Montazeri and sentenced him to 21 years in prison for activities against national security, propaganda against the regime and for publishing classified information. The court’s actions came in response to Montazeri’s decision earlier in 2016 to release an audio file from 1988, in which his father can be heard arguing with three officials Khomeini had appointed to carry out the mass executions of political prisoners. As of now, his sentence has been suspended.
After the authorities issued the sentence against her husband, Zahra Rabbani spoke to the media on several occasions about her husband, but also about a range of other topics, including human rights. Among her work as a civil rights activist, she has published open letters in the media to protest against the imprisonment of human rights defender Narges Mohammadi, against the policy of compulsory hijab and in support of political prisoners.
IranWire talked to Zahra Rabbani on International Women’s Day, March 8, about the restrictions that women face, and particularly about what it’s like for the families of Iranian clergymen.
You grew up in a family of a clergyman. What was your experience of gender discrimination in such a family?
The gender divide in the family of clergymen is very wide, but there are some modern and progressive-minded clergymen. One of them was my father. We were four sisters and one brother but my father never discriminated between us.
For example, my brother and I are one and a half years apart in age and my father encouraged me to go to university in the same way that he encouraged my brother. Perhaps I can say that a friend of mine and I were the first daughters of revolutionary clergymen to go to university. But when I passed the university entrance exam [under the Shah’s regime] my father was exiled to Ferdows, a city in Khorasan and, to keep appearances, he never told anybody that I was going to college. That is, when I moved to Tehran to go to the university in 1975, he concealed it. He wanted me to do my own thing, study and advance, but, at the time he had to be a little on guard about what people would say.
Did you go to Tehran by yourself?
No. My brother was also a university student in Tehran and I stayed with him. Nevertheless, I had certain restrictions. For example, I could have been accepted by Tehran University to study dentistry but since they said I had to work with men in this field I could not choose it. Tabriz University’s medical school accepted me but I did not go there because it was too far and I was alone. My brother studied at the University of Science and Technology and I was accepted by Tehran University’s School of Science to study biology. We rented a room together and studied at the university.
Why did you place restrictions on yourself?
Because I respected my father and wanted to protect him. Nobody was forcing me and I chose freely. These days they use force and people resist it but, at that time, I always thought that since my father had granted me the freedom to study then it was my duty to protect his prestige.
What was the status of women in the household of Ayatollah Montazeri?
We were married in 1978, around eight months before the revolution. At the time Ayatollah Montazeri was in prison. One of the slogans of the revolutionary clergy and of Ayatollah Montazeri was: “We have conferred dignity on the children of Adam” [Koran 17:70]. The ayatollah was a true believer in the equality of men’s and women’s rights and was always kind and attentive toward the daughters of the family. I have one daughter and five sons and Ayatollah Montazeri always told my sons that they must honor their sister.
So prominent pre-revolutionary clergymen like your father and your father-in-law did not believe in sexual discrimination. Where do you think this post-revolutionary gender discrimination came from?
The discrimination that we unfortunately see now is not what Islam and the clergymen who believe in Islam want. The compulsory hijab that is now forced on the society is not something that was supposed to happen when it started. “Let there be no compulsion in religion” [Koran 2:256], let alone compulsion in hijab. Governments that enforce such restrictions will suffer from its harmful consequences. I have no idea why they don’t get wise and solve the problem. They are under the impression that if they have said something they must prove that that is what will happen.
What do you think vexes Iranian woman the most?
In general, Iranian women do not feel safe and this makes them feel hemmed in. For example, I myself do not feel safe to leave home late at night, even in a religious city like Qom. And then the way women are viewed is humiliating and very hurtful. For instance, if you look at how men and women are treated differently after divorce, you will notice that the way people view a divorcé is very different.
Women do not enjoy equality in employment and are usually discriminated against. If a woman is the guardian of the family, she does not enjoy necessary job security. Women are paid less than men and, as a result, they have many problems in managing their livelihoods.
As a woman who is the daughter of a clergyman and who is married to a clergyman, did you have to deal with more restrictions than other women?
The truth is that as the daughter of Ayatollah Rabbani, the daughter-in-law of Ayatollah Montazeri and as the wife of my clergyman husband, there are a series of things that are permitted [under sharia] but we cannot do it. I mean [these things] are appropriate for others but are inappropriate for us as women from a clergyman’s family. Of course this could be true of any family in whatever position.
Can you give some examples of these additional restrictions?
In how we dress and how we carry ourselves. For instance, at the moment in Qom, the official outfit for women from a clergymen’s family is chador. Women who have exchanged chador for manteaux and headscarves are looked at with disapproval even if they observe perfect hijab. They say, for instance, that “the daughter of the ayatollah has now become a manteau-wearer.” And this is a problem.