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Rivals on Women & Minorities: ISIS v Iran

The contrast between the Islamic State and the Islamic Republic is especially visible in their treatment of women and minorities, evident in ISIS documents and Iranian laws.

Cameron Glenn and Garrett Nada

The contrast between the Islamic State and the Islamic Republic is especially visible in their treatment of women and minorities, evident in ISIS documents and Iranian laws. On paper, both discriminate. But in Iran, women and ethnic or religious minorities generally enjoy greater rights and freedoms than either group living under ISIS control.


The Islamic State actively recruits women to move to the territories of Iraq and Syria it now controls. Ten percent of its recruits are reportedly female. Jihadist social media portray the Islamic State as an idyllic Islamic society and an alternative to life in the West. But media accounts and testimony of women who have escaped indicate women experience violence, rape, forced marriage, and general repression.

In the Islamic Republic, women play visible roles in politics, economic life, education, the professions and public life. Women hold seats in parliament, run their own businesses, attend universities and participate in (segregated) sports. Despite protections in the constitution, however, they face discrimination in many respects. The dress code is not as restrictive as under ISIS, and women do not need a male escort to leave their homes.

Women’s Rights and Role in Society

Image removed.The Islamic State

Image removed.The Islamic Republic of Iran

“Stability is in the house, inherently the khidr,or women’s quarters, and go out [from the house] only when necessary for the guidance of the mothers of the believers… blessings upon them.” - From an ISIS city charter

"Woman was created to populate the Earth just as man was. But, as God wanted it to be, she was made from Adam and for Adam. Beyond this, her creator ruled that there was no responsibility greater for her than that of being a wife to her husband." - From a manifesto on women released by the al Khansaa Brigade, translation via the Quilliam Foundation

In practice:

In ISIS territory, women’s freedoms are severely curtailed. They are encouraged to stay at home and are required to have a male escort to go out in public. In Raqqa, for example, women have reportedly been beaten or arrested for traveling outside their homes without a male chaperone.

Many young Syrian women in ISIS territories have also reportedly been forced to marry against their will. ISIS opened “marriage bureaus” to facilitate marriages between women and ISIS fighters. Militants have financial incentives to wed, as married fighters receive a $1,200 grant, a home, and fuel for heating.

Many women have been victims of violence and assault, and militants have executed women for adultery. ISIS stoned eight women to death in Raqqa alone in June 2014. After seizing Mosul in June 2014, ISIS militants reportedly went door-to-door assaulting women. The UN estimated in 2014 that ISIS forced 1,500 women, girls, and young boys into sexual slavery.

ISIS provides limited educational opportunities for young girls. It has established female-only religious schools, which teach students to memorize the Quran. ISIS enforces gender segregation in these schools, and prohibits male teachers from teaching girls.

ISIS is also unusual among jihadist groups in that it has an all-female morality police. The al Khansaa Brigade in Raqqa arrests and punishes other women for not abiding by ISIS’s strict rules on women’s behavior in society. Members of the brigade reportedly ask women questions to test their knowledge of prayer, fasting, and the hijab.

In January 2015, the brigade released a semi-official manifesto on the role of women in society. It encouraged women to stay at home and detailed three limited circumstances in which it was permissible for women to leave the house: jihad, studying the Quran, and serving as a doctor or teacher.

Article 20

“All citizens of the country, both men and women, equally enjoy the protection of the law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, in conformity with Islamic criteria."

Article 21

“The government must ensure the rights of women in all respects, in conformity with Islamic criteria, and accomplish the following goals:

“1. create a favorable environment for the growth of woman's personality and the restoration of her rights, both the material and intellectual;

“2 .the protection of mothers, particularly during pregnancy and childrearing, and the protection of children without guardians;

“3. establishing competent courts to protect and preserve the family;

“4. the provision of special insurance for widows, and aged women and women without support;

“5. the awarding of guardianship of children to worthy mothers, in order to protect the interests of the children, in the absence of a legal guardian."

In practice:

Despite protections outlined in the constitution, Iranian women face serious discrimination, especially in matters related to marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody. A woman, regardless of her age, needs her male guardian’s consent for marriage. Women also require permission to obtain a passport and travel abroad.

Child marriage, though uncommon, is not illegal. The legal age of marriage is 13 for girls and 15 for boys. A judge can grant permission for children to marry at even younger ages.

Rape is illegal and subject to harsh penalties, including execution. But the government reportedly does not enforce the law effectively. Spousal rape is not addressed as sex within marriage is considered consensual.

Iran’s laws do not specifically prohibit domestic violence. Little data is available, but a 2011 University of Tehran study suggested that a woman was physically abused every nine seconds in Iran.

Women make up some 60 percent of university students. Yet quotas and restrictions limit subjects women can study, notably medicine and engineering. Only about 16 percent of the workforce is female, according to a U.N. estimate.

In the workplace, women reportedly earn about 61 percent as much money as men in similar jobs. The law does not require equal pay for equal work. Women must have a man’s consent to work outside the home.

Women serve in parliament and hold high positions in government ministries. But all of the approximately 30 women who registered as candidates for the 2013 presidential election were disqualified by the Guardian Council.

Iranian women are educated, capable & powerful. In this Gov. we're hoping to ensure equal opportunity

— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) September 2, 2013

Women's Dress Code

Image removed.The Islamic State

Image removed.The Islamic Republic of Iran

“To the honorable women: God is in decency and loose jackets and robes.” - From an ISIS city charter

“Women…are completely forbidden from showing their eyes [and wearing] open abayas that reveal colorful clothes worn underneath.”

“[Clothing] must not be decorated with beads, sequins, or anything else.”

“[Women] must not wear high heels.”

“Anyone who violates this will be penalized.”

- ISIS statement distributed in Deir Ezzor (translation via the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights)

In practice:

ISIS requires that women over the age of ten veil from head to toe when leaving the house. A November 2014 UN report said police regularly evaluate women’s clothing at multiple checkpoints in ISIS-held towns.

ISIS also inflicts harsh punishments on women who do not comply with dress requirements. ISIS documents do not detail punishments, but a woman in Mosul was reportedly sentenced to 40 lashes for violating the dress code. Men are also punished if ISIS determines that a woman within their family is not dressed properly.

Article 638

"Anyone in public places and roads who openly commits a harām (sinful) act, in addition to the punishment provided for the act, shall be sentenced to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes; and if they commit an act that is not punishable but violates public prudency, they shall only be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes.

“Women, who appear in public places and roads without wearing an Islamic hijab [veil], shall be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment or a fine of fifty thousand to five hundred Rials.

- Islamic Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran –Book Five

In practice:

Iran lacks a clear definition of appropriate dress for women. Hijab literally means covering and could describe many different types of clothing. Some women wear traditional chadors, while others boldly express themselves. The prevalence of leggings led lawmakers to summon the interior minister in June 2014 to questioning on lax implementation of dress codes. Women risk being fined or sentenced to lashings based on the opinion of male and female members of the Basij militia who enforce the dress code on the street.

The dress code, however, does not prevent female athletes from participating in international competitions. Eight out of 53 of Iran’s competitors at the 2012 Olympics were female. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said Iranians should be proud of female athletes who make it to the medal podium wearing hijab. President Hassan Rouhani has congratulated female athletes on their accomplishments several times. 


#Syria: latest Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham advertisement for modest dress for women in #Raqqa:

— Aymenn J Al-Tamimi (@ajaltamimi) November 28, 2013

Particularly proud of our women's historic performance in #AsianGames while upholding Islamic values.

— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) October 4, 2014


Religious Minorities


ISIS has tried to cleanse its territory of people it deems unbelievers, including Shiites and non-Muslims. It has reportedly killed hundreds of Shiites and Yazidis, among others. The militants have also destroyed property belonging to minority groups, including ancient holy sites.

Iran has not attempted to wholesale convert, expel or kill its religious minorities. According to Iran’s interpretation of Islam, some minorities are considered “People of the Book,” and are thus entitled to protection and some autonomy. The constitution provides for representation of Armenians, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians. But Baha’is, Iran’s largest religious minority, are not protected under the law, are not allowed to practice their faith, and have faced persecution. Although minorities face discrimination from wider society and the government, they generally do not fear for their safety on a daily basis as minorities in the Islamic State do.

Image removed.The Islamic State

Image removed.The Islamic Republic of Iran

“Be very wary of allying with the Jews and Christians, and whoever has slipped by a word, then let him fear Allah, renew his faith, and repent from his deed. […] Even if he supported them just by a single word. He who aligns with them by a single word falls into apostasy– extreme apostasy.” - Issue # 4 of ISIS's "Dabiq" magazine

On Yazidis:

“Their creed is so deviant from the truth that even cross-worshipping Christians for ages considered them devil worshippers and Satanists.”

“Unlike the Jews and Christians, there was no room for jizyah payment. Also, their women could be enslaved unlike female apostates who the majority of the fuqahā’ say cannot be enslaved and can only be given an ultimatum to repent or face the sword. After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Sharī’ah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations.”  - Issue # 4 of ISIS's "Dabiq" magazine

In practice:

ISIS does not permit Christians to build new churches or display religious symbols in public places. There have also been reports of Christians being forced to convert to Islam or face execution. In Iraq, ISIS has destroyed Christian property and churches.

ISIS deals with other religious minorities even more harshly. Militants invaded Yazidi communities in Sinjar in August 2014, killing those who refused to convert, and driving tens of thousands from their homes. ISIS has also killed Shiites in newly captured territories. One ISIS member stated that the Islamic State’s territorial gains in 2014 “purged vast areas in Iraq and Syria from the filth of the Safavids,” referring to the sixteenth century Persian Shiite dynasty.

ISIS is also widely reported to kidnap, sell and rape women and children who are deemed unbelievers, most notably Yazidis. In late 2014, ISIS released a pamphlet attempting to justify the kidnapping, enslavement, and rape of non-Muslim women and children.

Article 12

“Other Islamic schools, including the Hanafi, Shafi'i, Maliki, Hanbali, and Zaydi, are to be accorded full respect, and their followers are free to act in accordance with their own jurisprudence in performing their religious rites.

Article 13

“Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.

Article 14

“In accordance with the sacred verse ("God doesn't forbid you to deal kindly and justly with those who have not fought against you because of your religion and who have not expelled you from your homes" [60:8]), the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and all Muslims are duty-bound to treat non-Muslims in conformity with ethical norms and the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights. This principle applies to all who refrain from engaging in conspiracy or activity against Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran."

In practice:

Iran does not differentiate between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in reporting statistics. But Sunnis are thought to number between 4 and 8 million, or five to 10 percent of the population. Sunnis reportedly face discrimination and restrictions on building mosques and schools. Marginalization of Sunnis in Balochistan led to the formation of Jundallah, an armed separatist group, in the early 2000s. Sunnis in Iran are from several ethnicities, such as Baloch, Arab and Kurd.

Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians collectively make up less than one percent of Iran’s population. Yet they are guaranteed places in the 290-seat parliament proportionate to the size of their communities:

• Two seats for Armenian Christians,

• One for Assyrian and Chaldean Christians,

• One for Jews,

• One for Zoroastrians.

But minorities  reportedly still face discrimination in education, employment and property ownership. Authorities also sometimes charge them for moharebeh (enmity against God), “anti-Islamic propaganda” or threatening national security for their religious activities.

But Iran’s largest religious minority, the Baha’is, are not protected under the law or allowed to practice their faith. They reportedly number up to 350,000 and are considered apostates by the state.  

Other Christians not associated with an ethnic group, such as Protestants, are not represented in parliament. And conversion from Islam is punishable by death. So proselytization is banned.

The #ISIS pamphlet on which women are eligible to be slaves

— Newsweek Europe (@NewsweekEurope) December 12, 2014

Cameron Glenn writes for The Islamists Are Coming, hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.

Garrett Nada is assistant editor of the Iran Primer hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace. He is on Twitter: @GarrettNada.

The views expressed are their own.

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