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International Women’s Day in Iran: What it means to those outside

Article by Tahirih Danesh and Drewery Dyke

March 8, 2018

International Women’s Day in Iran: What it means to those outside

In the past year alone, women around the globe have challenged entrenched patriarchal structures. Individually and collectively, women have set about establishing a new social order in which greater equality exists or will exist, not only between men and women, but those who self-identify with neither or with elements of both; and indeed in respect to racial, ethnic and religious communities that have previously faced discrimination or, at best, that majority, male-dominated societies have ignored.

In what many in the West may brand as post-Weinsteinian, Time’s Up and #MeToo-era appears to have hastened the end of the reign of those who want to wield power over women’s bodies, minds and futures. But what about Iran?

The country, from which we get vast shipments of oil and natural gas, filling our petrol tanks and heating our homes; whose foreign policy is pivotal for peace in the Middle East and beyond; whose markets for goods and services have been opening in the years since the conclusion of an international agreement regulating Iran’s nuclear programme, is also facing significant social change. A reality, at least in the longer term, could well change how the country governs itself and, crucially for those outside Iran, how it pursues its interests abroad. For that reason alone, we need to be vigilant about the rights of women in Iran.

In recent days and weeks, women in Iran have circulated calls to demonstrate on International Women’s Day, 8 March, including, for example, outside the Ministry of Labour – as this piece goes to print, arrests were taking place there. Women have shared moving clips about women’s struggles and aspirations and have called for the re-claiming of public space.

 “We want to be able to leave our homes on this one day out of an entire year and to remain in the streets. After all, these are the same streets in which we have struggled for our rights. We have had a revolution in these same streets. We have been bombed in these same streets. We have demanded our rights and have faced crackdowns and repression in these same streets. We have had acid thrown on our faces and for the crime of not observing proper hejab we have been arrested in these same streets. We have stood atop platforms in these same streets and have gone to prison with broken bones as a result. We have passed through these same streets to go to sports stadiums only to end up in detention centers. We women live in these cities and we want to spend this day, our day, in the streets of our cities.”  Statement posted on Iranian Women. 

The emerging generation of activists, the grandchildren of the 1979 revolution, has come of age since the post-election unrest in 2009, seen by many as an election stolen by the authorities, determined not to allow a now-imprisoned, reform-minded candidate to win. This generation, raised in equal measure in the shadow of state repression as well as the glow of a screen linked to the internet, appear to no longer harbour illusions about ‘reformists’ or ‘conservatives’ in Iran’s political landscape. Arguably more empowered – or simply too fed up to care anymore – their calls are not steeped in political sloganeering but rather the brutally blunt calling out of economic marginalisation; stifling corruption and impunity of political leaders.

In December and January, in some 80 smaller cities and towns, mainly in the north east and across the west of Iran, swathes of people demonstrated their exasperation with their plight and the bleak environment facing them. The demonstrators came from a wide variety of social strata but tended not to be linked with political groups present or allowed in Iran. The government detained thousands but the demonstrators’ near-existential cri de coeur shook the government, possibly to its very core.

Emerging from this wave of unrest came Vida Movahed. She stood in Tehran’s Revolution Street, on a utility box, removed her mandatory headscarf, or hejab, and waved it on the end of a stick. Amidst wider social upheaval, she said no to compulsory hejab. She now faces prosecutions for this peaceful act, thus becoming an Iranian Rosa Parks, but for gender rather than racial equality.

Mandatory hejab laws are a physical symbol of the post-1979 revolutionary Iran. From 1981 onward, the government enforced this clothing restriction, along with other forms of social limitations through a systemic national implementation process termed the ‘Islamic Cultural Revolution’. Everything from women’s clothing; images of women and an array of places and people; TV shows, school text books and university departments placed women under the de facto control of men. It came to alter the minds of the first post-revolutionary generation, in respect to women and their place in society, both in public and private spaces.

Yet in the few months since Vida Movahed’s brave act, many others have emulated her, re-staging her actions. Termed in Persian the Daughters (or women and girls) of Revolution Street (Dokhtaran-e Khiyaban-e Enghlab) are now a quasi-political movement, holding a candle to an issue long covered-up by successive leaders in the Islamic Republic: that since its inception the state’s particular interpretation of Sharia law has meant women’s access to their rights must be controlled by men.

These women activists are writing a new chapter in the annals of women’s rights in Iran. On 28 February 2018, Amnesty International reported that dozens of women faced ill-treatment and were at risk of long jail terms for peacefully protesting compulsory veiling. More than 35 women have been violently attacked and arrested in Tehran alone since December 2017 for taking part in the ongoing peaceful protests against compulsory veiling. On 23 February, the police warned that women would now be charged with ‘inciting corruption and prostitution’. This carries a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment.

On Thursday 22 February 2018, a video emerged showing a police officer pushing another woman, Maryam Shariatmadari off one of the utility boxes in Tehran while she waved her headscarf. She reportedly required hospitalisation and the authorities now hold her in Shahr-e Rey Prison, just west of Tehran. Officials also detained her mother, Mitra Jamshidzadeh, on 23 February, for some 30 hours, during which time she faced beatings for seeking information about her own daughter’s whereabouts. All this since a handful of women acting alone have stood on elevated street furniture, and have removed their legally required headscarves, and quietly and peacefully waved them on the end of sticks.

Judicial officials have denigrated the women who have protested, ill-treating or torturing some of them; claiming also that they are linked to foreign enemies or that they are inciting moral corruption or even prostitution. The reaction betrays the home-grown threat these brave women exemplify to a deeply misogynist political order. Today, we have reached an Iranian #MeToo and Time’s Up moment.

Women’s rights in Iran

Women face deeply entrenched discrimination through Iran’s laws and practices. Their testimony counts for less in criminal matters; their access to divorce, employment, equal inheritance and political office are all restricted. These restrictions, in turn, make it harder to fight widespread violence against women and girls; or early and forced marriage. The government and monitors harasses women’s rights activists. But it was not always thus.

State recognition of women’s rights in Iran arguably began with the Constitutional Revolution in 1906. The 1936 ban on hejab itself and 1963 provisions granting women the right to vote extended women’s place in society. The 1967 Family Protection Law guaranteed women rights of divorce, child custody, and marriage. But by the mid-1970s, opponents to the then Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi termed such measures as Westoxification – denigrating such measures as those taken in unthinking awe of ‘western’ values rather than as measures in line with international human rights standards.

The 1979 establishment of Islamic Republic facilitated the popularisation of a hybrid approach to religious interpretation of laws regarding women that, amongst other things, manipulated the education of both women and men about the status and rights of women. By 1983, basic manifestations of this reality, such as hejab laws, public gender segregation and limited rights to marriage, divorce, inheritance and custody were in place.

Though the government denies it, the ideological pillars of the Islamic Republic meant that women’s aspirations alone constituted an existential threat to foundations of the state itself. Government supporters, accordingly, cast universal rights a western-inspired, ideological poison. The ideology of discrimination coupled with state violence in order to “promote virtue and prevent vice” meant that every woman’s existence was predicated on serving the interests of and strengthening the legitimacy of the – discriminatory – state itself. Amongst other things, these measures limited women and girls’ space particularly with regards to education, thus hindering their socio-economic and political progress.

Granted, within even this context there has been a small degree of ebb and flow: under President Mohammed Khatami (1997-2005) there were moderate advances: civil society in Iran began to flourish and the presidency established a Centre for Women’s Participation in the Office of the Presidency, which encouraged the formation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working to promote the rights of women and children and they flourished.

Between 2000 and 2004, Iranian parliamentarians passed bills to improve the position of women, although most – including a proposal that Iran should ratify the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women – were rejected by the Council of Guardians, the body, composed of clerics and lawyers, that assesses legislation for conformity with Islamic law and the Constitution.

Khatami’s successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005 – 2013), among other things, rolled back women’s access to higher education and the space for civil society. During a speech amid widespread protests following Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 re-election, the Supreme Leader called for the ‘Islamisation’ of universities and claimed fields such as sociology, were too western-influenced and had no place in Islamic Iran.

This trend continued until further controversial measures implemented in 2012 restricted women from studying 77 specific academic fields at 36 government universities. However, Iranian universities lacked the faculty and the resources to enforce this policy among all subjects. Those universities that did follow the policy, faced significant financial challenges. And so, the application of sex segregation and gender quotas in Iran was ineffective.

Armed with education, the women of Iran are fierce

According to Saeed Moidfar, a retired sociology professor from Tehran: “Traditional politicians saw educated and powerful women as a threat.” There are plenty in Iran and in the future, arresting and forbidding women from entering stadia to attend football matches will be the least of the government’s concerns.

Flying straight into the face of the state’s discriminatory laws and practices; its repression, education is a way that the Iran of tomorrow – one that perhaps better adheres to international human rights standards – may well be born. In Iran, education can be as political as the hejab itself: it is the struggle for the minds of tomorrow’s leaders.

Yet, education is also something the government needs to act upon to maintain its legitimacy. In a 2016 report to the United Nations (not available online), the state’s High Council for Human Rights set out measures to uphold women’s rights. Reading between the lines, it is clear that the authorities are wary of women’s aspirations, including in the field of education, yet are compelled to set out measures currently in place or those planned in order to advance women’s rights, such as access to and participation in, notably, higher education.

Despite chronic challenges facing Iranian women, such as lack of an organised approach to women’s movement or regular, continued access to newer feminist literature, state imposed quotas and segregation and educational bans, they have continued to excel in education: the numbers of women attending university rose at unprecedented levels. In 1997, women formed 37% of all university students. By the year 2000, they this number rose to 45%, in 2005 it grew to nearly 60%, though in recent years faced a roll back following Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

Fuelled by incendiary references to a feminist conspiracy against the core of the Islamic Republic, the charged and complex dynamics around the perpetual power struggle between women and the Islamic Republic’s interests are in the balance as never before. We are in the second half of the political football match that women are not currently allowed to attend, and there is everything to play for.

The starting point of the Daughters of Revolution Street and activists of today is one of absolute equality. They may not feel entitled to speak, but they certainly feel entitled to be heard. The aspirations of the Islamic Cultural Revolution have been swallowed up by #MeToo and Time’s Up demands. Iranian women are, in many, though not all respects, as much a part of our world as they are of theirs.

Today Vida Movahhed and the other Daughters of Revolution Street are lifting the veil off the state agenda that has replaced education and empowerment with discrimination and repression; development with demagogues of power. But Iranian women, too, are saying Time’s Up.

Iran women impose themselves today and every day on state structures in Iran that keep them down. They demand their #MeToo rights and – leaving aside their willingness – paying a price to assert their rights. Iranian women are not victims, they don’t need saving by foreign powers; we are seeing a new, home-grown generation that is amongst the most highly educated in the region; plugged-in and nearly fully charged. This is the promise of the Iran; and indeed the promise for us all, globally.

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