Ordinary Women are Extraordinary in Iran

Elham Gheytanchi

Sunday 28 June 2009


Ordinary women are performing extraordinary acts of bravery in Iran today.

Neda’s image and her brutal death in Tehran this past Saturday in a street protest demanding the annulment of the results of the country’s tenth presidential election has brought the role of women in this post-election crisis to light. At the forefront of these non-violent demonstrations violently suppressed by the government-backed militias (Basij) are brave Iranian women.

The story of Iranian women’s rights movements and their demands go back to the beginning of the formation of Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979.

Ayatollah Khomeini called on Iranian women to rid themselves of Western influences and become ‘truly’ liberated through active participation in Islamic Republic.

Iranian women’s liberation was only possible, according to Ayatollah Khomeini, if they wore the Islamic hejab, which became mandatory in 1980. As a result, the secular women were driven to the margins.

By the start of the Iran-Iraq war, it was the martyrs’ wives who were the first women demanding their rights from the Islamic state that had promised them Islamic justice. These martyrs’ wives wanted the state to grant them custody of their children and not allow their husbands’ families to raise their children. The Islamic state had to flex the sharia laws (Islamic family law) in order to meet this challenge.

By the end of the war, women who had taken part in the job market were no longer willing to go back to their homes. Women flooded the universities in unprecedented numbers, demanded more of their share in family matters and forcefully lobbied the authorities to grant them right to divorce in Islamic family courts that barred women to be judges.

Today, 62 percent of all university students are women, rates of divorce initiated by women have accelerated and women’s rights have become an issue for the leaders of the country.

Iranian women’s rights activists who have become technologically savvy launched grass-roots movements against the discriminatory laws against women in their country. The One Million Signature Campaign is one example of a social movement that started in the mayhem of the previous election.

The campaigners focused on gender inequalities in the constitution and, through face-to-face interactions, successfully raised awareness among other women.

The Campaign quickly spread to 16 provinces and even made the members of the conservative eighth parliament to react to their demands. But Ahmadinejad was determined to eradicate demands for gender equality under the banner of national security and alleged that women’s rights activists were motivated by the ‘enemies of the state.’ His government arrested more than 70 activists over the course of the past forty years.

But as the arrests continued to rise, so did the number of volunteers in the campaign and other women’s rights initiatives. More women began to lobby for rights. They formed a broad coalition one month before the presidential election to demand all four candidates to respond to women’s issues. The coalition specifically demanded two things: the Iranian state to become a signatory in CEDAW (Convention of elimination of discrimination against women) and changes to discriminatory articles in the constitution that lead to gender inequality.

The presidential candidates did respond to women’s issues. Zahra Rahnavard, Mir Hussein Mousavii’s wife, released a public statement stating that Mousavi’s cabinet will make Iran a signatory of CEDAW and will work hard to improve women’s rights. Jamileh Kadivar, the spokeswoman for Karoubi even went further to question the much taboo issue of mandatory hejab.

Whereas Ahamdinejad’s government had gone to extreme measures to suppress women’s rights activists as agents of the West, the presidential debates raised women’s expectations.

Ahmadinejad had proposed to make polygamy legal in the country where it is socially unacceptable and to lower the number of female attendees in universities through a gender quota system. The national TV which works under direct control of the supreme leader which has shown his support for Ahmadinejad before and after the disputed election, made one program after another advocating the women’s ‘proper place’ in an Islamic society.

So, it is not surprising to see waves of women in chadors or rusari (headscarf) to come to street to protest a fraudulent election, a coup indeed to re-elect Ahmadinejad. Iranian women know that there is much at stake for them. Four more years of Ahmadinejad will bring more morality police into the streets that harass women and more pressure on Iranian women’s rights activists.

Today, Iranian women are in the streets protesting and throwing themselves at the Basij to protect the lives of the youth, the students and all those who want their voices be heard through a non-violent movement. The middle-aged women remind the Basij of the Islamic Republic’s promise to women; Islamic justice that would be better than any Western ideas including feminism. The bloody face of Neda will export the revolutionary promises but in a completely opposite way than what was initially intended by the founders of the Islamic state.


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