I worked in Tehran from 2009 until 2014 as a journalist for foreign media outlets. I was a member of a tiny group covering news from Iran in English. I wasn’t the only woman, but there weren’t more than a few of us.

Many more women work as news writers, reporters, photographers, and editors for domestic newspapers and state radio and TV. Although we face various forms of discrimination due to Islamic laws that dominate public and often private life, not to mention the unwritten rules of traditional patriarchy, women are present in almost every profession in Iran.

We have to navigate around this network of restrictions, which put us at a disadvantage. It is often harder for women to exercise even the limited rights we do have than it is for our male countrymen.

But dating back to the ancient Persian era, Iranian women have always been hardworking, progressive go-getters. This is especially true when compared with our sisters in some other regional countries. Despite the extensive restrictions imposed on us, our history of assertiveness has ensured that no power has succeeded in truly limiting us.

Instagram photo/video.

Iranian women’s willingness to accept public roles became particularly apparent right after the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979, when many Iranian men went to fight the eight-year war with Iraq. A generation of women, including many mothers, stepped up to become breadwinners for their families. Suddenly more women were in schools and holding jobs than their male contemporaries.

Still, the glass ceiling is low in Iran.

As a girl I was always interested in sports. While I was socially supported in pursuing athletics, resources, such as stadiums and equipment, were much more limited for girls. So it was for getting a job when I became an adult. I learned quickly that I would never be able to rise past a certain level, since leadership positions in most organizations are reserved for men.

A combination of Islamic beliefs and Iranian culture has created the widespread perception that the quieter a woman is, the more ladylike—and therefore better—she will be considered by society. I was a troublemaker from the beginning. From the age of 10, I ran around with boys, climbing trees and playing soccer. Although I was always a good student, this habit gave me a reputation with my teachers and the school’s dean. I graduated at the top of every class, from elementary school through my master’s degree, but was nevertheless seen as controversial because I was outspoken.

The temperature in Tehran can swell in the summer months, and when I was young I wanted to climb walls alongside my cousins and the other boys in our neighborhood. So I dressed like a tomboy for years—wearing caps, shapeless shirts, and baggy jeans—to avoid the confines of Islamic garb. I even rode a bicycle around, which has been outlawed for women in recent years.

By middle school, I already regarded the hijab with contempt. Iranian women must wear a headscarf, known as the rusari, and a long overcoat, known as the manteau, outside the home. Some prefer to wear a black cloak known as the chador, which literally translates to “tent.” This dress code is law for all women; offenders can be fined or imprisoned.

The law is strict, but where you live plays a major role in what a girl in Tehran can get away with. In affluent neighborhoods located in the northern part of the city, women tend to push back their headscarves to show a bit of their hair. Their manteaus are stylishly multicolored, with open fronts. In conservative southern parts of the city or in rural areas, black chadors are more common.

Instagram photo/video.

The first term of reformist President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 was a turning point in the lives of Iranian women. The first coffee shops opened, Internet cafes flourished, and we were allowed to wear colorful headscarves for the first time in my life.

Since then the unspoken rules of women’s dress have varied from one season to the next, depending on which political faction comes to power. If reformists are in office, girls feel brave enough to wear their rusaris loose and in bold colors. If hard-liners are in power, the morality police stationed in every corner of the city makes you cover up every strand of your hair. In our very hot summer the forced covering feels the most cumbersome, the most oppressive.  

As a journalist, I always maintained a more conservative look so I could blend in. Although I worked for foreign media, which had a certain cachet for my subjects, especially political officials, I realized that my look and fashion choices had a huge impact on my ability to communicate with other Iranians. I connected with average people, both men and women, more easily if they felt that I respected their values. It was a compromise that I had to make often, but I learned to accept it because it gave me more access to do my job well.

Claiming my independence as a woman in a male-dominated society was one of the key struggles of my young life.

Claiming my independence as a woman in a male-dominated society was one of the key struggles of my young life.

I got my driver’s license the day I turned 18, the legal minimum age. I felt so empowered. Almost all women drive in Iran, and they have for decades. From the time we started dating to well into our married life together, one of the many anomalies of my relationship with Jason was that I drove us everywhere. Tehran’s traffic is not for novices. He was content to be chauffeured through madness, and I was elated to be with a man who never tried to bump me out of the driver’s seat.

However, the unfortunate reality is that men in Iran, especially those in government, have put up roadblocks against women’s progress, often to the nation’s detriment.

Women make up more than half the country’s university students. These days, even in small cities, it is considered unacceptable if a young woman hasn’t earned a degree. Yet in 2012, under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s top public universities banned female students from studying more than 50 specific majors, including engineering, accounting, chemistry, and aerospace.

I had graduated a few years earlier—I hold a B.A. and M.A. in English translation, and my older sister is an accountant—but I remember interviewing many girls who were furious about the decision. One of them told me that after studying relentlessly for admission to aerospace engineering, the university administrators transferred her to physics. The policy had changed the course of her future.

Iran is known for the severity of its brain drain. Many highly qualified Iranian women like her—and me, I suppose—end up leaving to relocate to countries where our expertise is welcome.