Feminist waves in the Iranian Green Tsunami?

By: Golbarg Bashi

Wednesday 1 July 2009

By GOLBARG BASHI in New York | 29 June 2009

[TEHRAN BUREAU] As pictures of women, young and old, religious and non-religious, have plastered our Internet and TV screens chanting and bleeding for a recount in what many in Iran believe has been a fraudulent presidential election result in June 2009, their extraordinary heroism and sheer numbers have awaken the international media to the sizable female presence in the Iranian Green Movement (Nehzat-e Sabz).

A poignant question to ask at this point might be where and what are the positions of Iranian feminists inside the country. They have been for long at work demanding their civil liberties. To what extent are they now participating in defining the goals and aspirations of the Green Movement?

Unknown to perhaps many outside Iran, the Iranian women’s rights movement has been relentlessly working and expanding its demands for an end to gender discrimination in a country where in the realm of family and penal law, women are treated as second-class citizens. Since the 1990’s various NGO’s, magazines such as Zanan, individual lawyers, and specific campaigns such as the One Million Signatures and the Stop Stoning Forever Campaign have worked relentlessly and across ideological divides to publicize, mobilize and realize their specific demands for women’s rights in the legal sphere. The women we have been seeing marching in the streets of Tehran, Shiraz and elsewhere did not grow like mushrooms out of nowhere. They are the robust children of decades of sustained and grassroots struggle.

A Feminist Awakening (without the “F” word) slowly but surely has emerged in post-revolutionary Iran. Over 63% of university graduates are female in Iran and contrary to many countries in that region, Iranian women are visible in all areas of public life. They are lawyers, doctors, artists, publishers, journalists, bloggers, politicians, students and professors. In 2003, when I was visiting Tehran and other major Iranian cities, during any given state radio news broadcast, the entire news team were women, as their names were announced: Negin, Parvaneh, Sara, Fatemeh… This was often the rule and not the exception. Be that as it may, one should not paint an overly rosy picture of women in Iran. Only 12.3% of them are part of the public workforce and for many marriage is the only gateway out of their parental home. The staggering rate of 30% unemployment is particularly acute among young women, who also face additional gender discrimination in the workforce.

During the presidential campaign of June 2009, Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of the Green Movement candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is herself an accomplished painter, professor and former university chancellor held her husband’s hand and spoke to thousands of women of gender equality. Her presence prompted many women to vote for Mir Hossein Mousavi. Rahnavard was removed from her administrative duties at Al-Zahra women’s university where she was the Vice Chancellor once Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over the office of presidency in 2005. Her story is one of a Muslim feminist like many others who realized that the Islamic Republic was not fulfilling its religious, constitutional and international duties in protecting women’s rights.

But Zahra Rahnavard is only the tip of the iceberg. In April 2009 weeks before the 12th June 2009 presidential election, a coalition of women formed and proposed that “we—as members of the women’s movement in Iran and as civil rights activists from diverse areas such as NGOs, political parties, campaigns, press and trade unions—have realized that there are many ways in which to achieve women’s demands. When it is necessary, we have stepped in unison with one another.

Today, we have decided to form another coalition in which to present the demands of women within our country through the pivotal period and space of the presidential election. The only goal of this coalition is to declare women’s demands. We neither support any specific candidate nor are we interfering in a citizen’s right and decision to participate or not in the election.”

This proposal was not signed by some of the most prominent members of the women’s movement, namely secular feminists such as Parvin Ardalan and Sussan Tahmasebi. In her famous blog, Leila Mouri, an active blogger and member of the Stop Stoning Forever Campaign who is now a student in the United States wrote:

“I wish my friends in the women’s rights movement would have been more active than before these days, and as a progressive social movement had a more pronounced presence in these crucial times. Perhaps they have the answer to some of the questions I have [e.g. have they joined these demonstrations just for their votes to be counted or are there other demands for which we have been fighting all these years], and which I am very eager to know. I very much hope the civil demands of women are not forgotten in the midst of all this.”

Much ideological strife has divided the women’s movement in Iran. But that hasn’t stopped ordinary women in actively participating in the June 2009 pre and post-election rallies. As history tells us, Iranian women have once again been at the forefront of their country’s democratic aspirations and social uprisings.

Starting at least from the Babi movement of the mid- to the Tobacco Revolt of the late 19th century to the Constitutional Revolution of the early 20th century, and down to the struggles for nationalization of Iranian oil industry in the 1950’s and ultimately the 1977-1979 Islamic revolution, Iranian women have been key to the success of these iconic events. But once the challenges of these definitive turning points were courageously met, often with a heavy toll on women, they were forgotten and sidestepped.

What we are witnessing in Iran is a natural consequence of years of feminist presence and the active participation of powerful women in the pubic sphere which has taught little girls that being a woman does not mean just being a mother or a wife and that women must be present and fighting in order to achieve their rights and demands.

These women are putting their lives on the line to save the little that is left from their republic. The majority of them has insisted on non-violent resistance and has protected both the riot police and the common people from being killed or beaten. They have in return been brutally beaten and even killed by the security forces, as best known in the tragic case of the twenty six year-old philosophy student Neda Agha-Soltan who was shot point-black on the streets of Tehran. Her last moments on earth was captured on a grainy cell-phone video and has now become the iconic symbol of the Green Movement.

If the Green Movement that seems to be way ahead of all its leaders and theorists is ever to succeed, it is imperative for the leaders of the feminist groups to be integral to its inner leadership circle and for them not to back down an iota from women’s demands for civil liberties and rights once the dust settles. For that to happen a coalition of various women’s rights organizations and positions will have to be part and parcel of defining what exactly this Green Movement is. As the month of June draws to an end and after two weeks of heavy crackdown on the protestors, there is no way of knowing what will become of this movement. But what ever its future, the leaders of the women’s rights movement will have to bank on the heroic presence of women in the forefront of the struggles and not allow for their blood to have been shed in vain.

Bio: Golbarg Bashi teaches Iranian Studies at Rutgers University. She has recently completed her doctoral thesis on a feminist critique of the human rights discourse in Iran. She has contributed articles on women and human rights issues in Iran to online magazines such as OpenDemocracy, Tidningen Kultur, and Qantara, Deutsche Welle.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau


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