By Mahrokh Gholamhosseinpour
May 18, 2020
This year, as female applicants to the Dental Assistant Course entrance examination were filing out their registration booklets, they came across a bizarre addition on page 33 of the test guide: a consent form for their husbands.
It transpires that this written commitment, which has shocked women and civil society activists, has been a requirement for years.
In the past few days, news of the arcane requirement for female would-be dentists to gain their husband’s consent to take an exam has once again raised the issue of broader disregard of women’s rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
This Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) approached the secretary of the Ministry of Health’s Dental and Specialized Education Council, Behzad Houshmand, to question him about the matter. ISNA was told this compulsory measure was nothing new, and had in fact been in place for years.
Houshmand said the stir it had caused was “the propaganda of foreign media, which seeks to create sidelines”. He stressed that the consent form did not ask a husband’s permission for his wife to continue her education, but to agree to the applicant’s place of work during her mandatory service program.
This regulation is, apparently, part of the resolutions that were approved in 1991 at the ninth session of the Dental Education Council.
It states in part: “Female applicants must submit their husband’s written and notarized consent to the secretariat of the department where they are studying during the assistant course, to go to the place of service after graduation. Also, women who are not yet married are required to obtain their spouse’s consent to take part in the exam, at the time of marriage and according to the form.”
In previous years commitment forms were given only to women admitted to the course, but this time all participants in the entrance exam were required to complete it.
In the past, decisions of this nature appear to have been made by officials at the Ministry of Health in coordination with the Secretariat of the Dental Education Council. IranWire contacted the Ministry of Health’s assessment center for clarification, but its PR team refused to respond.
Lawyer Zahra Ravan-Aram told IranWire that these measures totally contravene contradiction of Article 28 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic. Article 28 stipulates that everyone has the right to choose his or her job, insofar as it does not oppose Islam, the public interest, and the rights of others – and that the State is obliged to provide employment for all and create equal conditions for all jobs.
“Everyone, in this article, refers to both sexes, and there are no notes that can be interpreted as gender segregation,” says Ravan-Aram.
But at the same time, this law is in conflict with Article 1117 of the Civil Code, according to which a husband may forbid his wife from taking a certain job if it is contrary to “family interests”.
“These contradictions cause each department and organization to have a series of restrictive and arbitrary by-laws for women based on their taste,” says Ravan-Aram. “There is no unique and single definition of family interests, and this expression is left open to interpretation.
“For instance, if I have a small child it may be in the ‘best interests’ of the family for my wife to stay at home and be a housewife and mother, because her workplace is far away, and it is not in the ‘best interests’ of the family for her to return home late at night, and people will gossip about to her, or her work is stressful, and this will adversely affect our relationship, and the dinner is not ready on time, the housework isn’t done well… and a thousand other excuses to prove that the ‘best interests’ of the family are at stake. All of these different interpretations are signs that the law is unfounded.”
The knock-on effect, Ravan-Aram says, is not limited to husbands being able to approve or reject their wife’s place of work in the dental field. “A woman who has a tailor training business needs her husband’s consent in order to put her first name on the sign. In my opinion, all these regulations are rooted in the man’s patriarchal view of women.”
Families Buckle Under Pressure From Archaic Requirement
Shiva is one of the would-be dentists whose world has been turned down by this requirement. The mother-of-two has long dreamed of taking the Dental Assistant Course entrance exam in dental prosthesis. She passed her first year in general dentistry while pregnant and then after giving birth to twins. Her well-educated husband owns a transportation company and their children are now five years old.
Despite his promises before their marriage, her husband will now not give his consent to her progression. Shiva says he has stopped at nothing to prevent her from advancing in her career or establishing an income of her own – because he believes the “family unit” is strong only if the wife’s freedom is limited.
“I am an independent and mature human being,” she says, “and I do not understand why they should approve a regulation according to which I, as an equal citizen, have to give concessions or beg for my natural and human rights, for hours and hours. Doesn’t the legislature know that in a patriarchal system, men naturally believe in the deprivation of women and use every legal opportunity to impose their own conditions?”
The secretary of the Council for Dental and Specialized Education of the Ministry of Health said that the decision was in line with “strengthening the family”. But Shiva believes the decision will lead to disagreements and conflict between couples, and is sceptical of this: “What they mean by strengthening the family is strengthening the man of the family!”.
Another former applicant, Sahar, was forced to hand the consent form to her husband some years ago and he did fill it out. Sahar is now a pediatric dentist and faculty member at a prestigious university:
“My compulsory place of service was in Garmeh in Ardabil Province,” she says. “My husband was a general practitioner and his compulsory place of service was on the same city. We actually met in that city. But after our marriage, they said this commitment form should be signed.”
When she had to bring her husband the consent form, she felt helpless and frustrated: “It felt just like when they ask the husband’s permission for the wife to get a passport.”
System “Treats People Like Minors”
Some people in the profession, such as Alireza Seifi-Zadeh, a student at Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences, claim the husband’s consent form in the Dental Assistant Course entrance exam is a positive thing.
“Some female students are taking advantage of their marital status,” Safi-Zadeh said. “Some female residents – of course, I emphasize that this attitude does not apply to everyone – are shirking their responsibilities under any pretext. They change their place of compulsory service for a better one, on the pretext that their husband won’t let them. They don’t take night shifts and say their husband won’t let them. They ask for a better shift and schedule, saying their husband is not satisfied.
“This is the same husband they use as an excuse to get better conditions. I wish they didn’t use their position in favor of positive inequality in other circumstances, if they believe that compulsory spousal consent is a kind of inequality.”
Women’s rights activists have a different standpoint. They believe straightforwardly that the law is unjust and backward, and provides grounds for the abuse and exploitation of women, potentially depriving them of the basis for progress and independence.
Shahdokht Mostofi, a student of women’s studies at the UC Davis University of California, describes this compulsion as “medieval” and the requirement as contrary to human rights.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a man’s permission for a woman or a woman’s permission for a man,” she says, “if the legal system of a country considers adults as having no personal intelligence and decision-making power, and treats them like minors, this needs to be revised.”