Female Faces of Farsi Freedom
Author: Jaclyn Nardone
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 01/11/2010
“Is Iran on the brink of a new, female-friendly order?”[i]
Tehran hosted Iran’s 10th official presidential election on 12 June 2009. The main contenders in this race to reign the Islamic Republic were conservatives Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mohsen Razaee, and liberal opponents Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. “Of the 39,165,191 votes counted (85%), Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won with 24,527,516 (63%) and Mir-Hossein Mousavi came in second with 13,216,411 votes (34% percent).”[ii] 53 million ballots were printed in total, however only 39 million were counted, thus leaving a surplus of 14 million estranged ballots.[iii] Reasoning behind this blatant electoral fraud was unthinkable, and thus unacceptable, so the people took to the streets, demanding their voices be heard. However, amid the millions of protesters, mobile phones, Basiji Militia attacks, green ribbons and victory symbols, there was yet another group working to pave this Green Path of Hope.[iv] “Inside this movement of oppressed freedom-seekers there was a second, less obtrusive movement, of women playing with their status.”[v] The role of women in Iranian society has flourished and faltered over the years, much due to revolutions, which “throughout history, are well known for this betrayal to women.”[vi] These eras of liberation and subjugation were all melancholically mirrored this past summer. The pivotal roles that women played in June’s election and post-election protests, at the “forefront of their country’s democratic aspirations and social uprisings,”[vii] grew from past political involvement, the One Million Signatures Campaign, violent interactions, firm policies, liberal reforms, the presence of candidates’ wives and the approval of a female parliamentarian.
The 2009 protests resembled Iran’s peak of modernization; “one of the most remarkable features of modern Iran is women’s multi-dimensional presence in public life, arising from their own increasing political awareness.”[viii] This female presence is best appreciated when examining the struggles of Iran’s past. “The story of women’s rights in Iran is one of advances and setbacks, stretching back to the start of the twentieth century, when a national women’s movement first took shape.”[ix] In the country’s 1979 revolutionary uprising, those who protested “opposed the system’s repressive nature and demanded political freedom, democracy, social equality, and economic justice.”[x] The Shah’s troops regarded female protesters as whores, attacked them for wearing make-up[xi] and kept their public appearances unpublicized. Jumping ahead 30 years later, June 2009 introduced a new era of female involvement in demonstrations, wherein their presence on the streets was proudly exposed. Among these demonstrators were young female generations hoping to seek change and “65 year old apolitical mothers”[xii] who had endured political excitement for their first time. This expansive female presence explains feminist theorist Zillah Eisenstein’s notion that women’s bodies are the “most inclusive site for mobilizing an inclusive radical democratic politics.”[xiii] Moreover, the changing roles of women in the 2009 political demonstrations prove author Naomi Sakr’s observation that Islam is in fact becoming “compatible with feminism.”[xiv]
Of the women who flooded the streets, some identified as feminists, while others as “women fighting for democracy, or as participants of the “Million Signatures.””[xv] Iran’s One Million Signatures Campaign is a “grassroots effort which seeks to raise cultural awareness about the negative impact of laws on the lives of women.”[xvi] Much like the new Iranian feminist movement, and in coherence with Eisenstein theory, this campaign is represented by “three generations of women and men, committed to equal rights for women, representing all classes and backgrounds, religious and secular, young and old, are working together to create positive change.”[xvii] The streets of Iran saw this exact diversity of protesters; “women, young and old, pious and non-religious, who danced, cried, shouted and spent days and nights in the streets.”[xviii]
This diverse crowd of united protesters stood on grounded feet, even amid the Basiji’s enforced violence. Iranian-American Melody Moezzi affirms that although people care about the regime, they care about people more, and will not surrender their own personal freedoms and safety for the betterment of the administration. “You have old women in full chador saying ‘No, I am not leaving.’ And they are getting beaten. Beating old women. You can’t beat our grandmothers and expect us to support you. Forget it.”[xix] Negin, an Iranian woman who protested in Tehran, recollects her violent experience with the Basiji Militias; “they ran past, but not without hitting me as they did. I remember thinking, this young man is hitting and insulting a women he doesn’t know, who is old enough to be his mother!”[xx] And also on the streets, exposed to gruesome violence, were women young enough to be ‘his’ sisters or daughters. One of the most notorious women of this election was Neda Agha Soltan, whose death by a Basiji Militia, was recorded via a mobile video phone and uploaded on YouTube for the world to see. She went from being a bystander at a protest, to becoming Iran’s amulet face of freedom, and the inspiration behind the “Where Is My Vote?”[xxi]“Soltan became the face of a powerful movement that threatened the hard-line government’s hold on power.”[xxii]
Withholding Neda’s liberal influence, Sussan Tahmasebi, a women’s rights activist, reinforces that women’s rights was “a major issue in this election.”[xxiii] Unwilling to enter the uncharted grounds of liberal feminism, Mohsen Rezaee and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad both firmly valued the traditional roles of women in the home, as housewives and mothers. Rezaee reinforced that idea of equity, over equality, “which emphasizes the concept of fair treatment of men and women but claims that women and men are different and therefore they have different roles, responsibilities and rights.”[xxiv] Ahmadinejad furthered this idea, campaigning to change the Center for Women’s Participation, to the Center for Women and Families.[xxv] This change would reinforce the customary roles of women, “in a country where in the realm of family and penal law, women are treated as second-class citizens.”[xxvi] Ahmadinejad also vowed to implement the Family Support Bill, which would “ease restrictions on polygamy and impost a tax on mehrieh,”[xxvii] and the Social Safety Program, which would monitor women’s dress codes. These candidates reinforced the idea that “today, the Islamic republic’s gender laws are among the harshest in the world.”[xxviii] However, the opposing liberal candidates narrated a different story, inciting political pluralism, which highlights “readily identifiable groups or factions with distinguishable philosophies or approaches to public policy.”[xxix]
In continuing with Tahmasebi, she notes that this election “marks the first time that reform of women’s rights has been addressed so specifically and in such detail in an election.”[xxx] Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Houssein Mousavi introduced a pro-democracy movement in Iran, which supported the “aspirations of millions of Iranian women for more independence and dignity in their lives.”[xxxi] Both candidates campaigned for women to have a presence in parliamentary politics, promised to reappraise the laws that discriminate against women, planed to sign and enforce the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)[xxxii] and petitioned against the notion of forced veiling, and other hard-line measures to ensure strict Islamic dress for women. In their attempts to reevaluate and reroute the ‘glass ceiling’ effect, these candidates sought to end female oppression, by empowering women to succeed professionally, economically and educationally. These changes would revolutionize that fact that although Iranian women are very well educated, “the social and professional avenues open to them are often disappointingly narrow.”[xxxiii]
Both of these female friendly politicians were accompanied by their wives along the campaign trails.[xxxiv] 63 year old Fatemeh Karoubi, former Vice Minister of Social Affairs under Khatami’s regime, fought for female representation in government. She was disheartened by the notion that 42 women were banned from running in the elections, wondering “why the Council [of Guardians of the Constitution] did not qualify a single woman candidate in these elections.”[xxxv] Though Karoubi’s presence was strong, it was 64 year old Zahra Rahnavard who was “one of the most powerful campaigners in this important election and the most valuable asset of the leading opposition candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who is her husband.”[xxxvi] Rahnavard is a successful painter, professor and former university chancellor, who through the various campaigns, “held her husband’s hand and spoke to thousands of women of gender equality,”[xxxvii] hence their strong attempts toward “working and expanding demands for an end to gender discrimination.”[xxxviii] She also reinforced the right for men and women alike to choose their own professions. Rahnavard is a Muslim feminist, who like many others, realized that the “Islamic republic was not fulfilling its religious, constitutional and international duties in protecting women’s rights.”[xxxix] Much like Karoubi, she directly fought against oppressive policies, proving to the public what a powerful woman can do within the realm of politics, if given the chance.
Eisenstein confidently anticipates that in this “historical moment, hopefully Iranian women are positioned to show the rest of the world how to build a radically democratic society that is uniquely and plurally anti-patriarchal.”[xl] Even though patriarchy has made men the dominant members of worldwide parliaments, it is “a woman’s human right to participate and be represented in political decision-making,”[xli] and thus “greater participation by women in social”[xlii] and political life is much needed. This directly proves that a society of equality (rather than equity), understanding and democracy can only be achieved with the “full participation of men and women.”[xliii] Under the regime of Reza Shah’s son, women were not only allowed to vote, but also allowed in parliament.[xliv] Farrokhroo Parsay became Iran’s first female parliamentarian in the 1960s, but was later “executed on corruption charges”[xlv] amid the 1979 revolution. For the first time since Parsay, and in the wake of the green movement’s feminist momentum, Ahmadinejad sought to invite three women into his parliament; Susan Keshvaraz as Minister of Education, Fatemeh Ajorlou as Minister of Social Security and Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi as Minister of Health.[xlvi]
When evaluating these women’s agendas, it becomes unclear if the potential new appointments would represent “a nod to the active role that women played in the opposition,”[xlvii] or if Ahmadinejad was using them as puppets to reinforce his hard-line ideologies. Far from the dogmas that modern Mousavi supports expressed; Dastjerdi fought for segregated health care and Ajorlou supported enforcing the strict Islamic dress code and “limiting the number of female university students.”[xlviii] These ideologies did not rest comfortably with many insiders, nor with many outsiders looking in. In response to the article Women? In Ahmadinejad’s Cabinet?, anonymous reader and commenter Jamileh, profoundly states that “these women do not dignify the role of women, they are “yes persons” for the hard line ways, to say and do as they are told.”[xlix]
However patriarchal these agendas may sound, not all principles were traditional enough for Iran’s aggressive regime, and not all women earned seats in parliament. This was much due to Mohammad Taghi Rahbars’s widely shared concerns and religious doubts, over the abilities of women in managerial positions.[l] However, Dasjerdi proved Rahbars wrong, earning herself the first female seat in parliament as Minister, since the Islamic revolution. “I think today women reached their long-standing dream of having a woman in the cabinet to pursue their demands. This is an important step for women and I hold my head high.”[li] This appointment proves that Ahmadinejad is in fact following through with his promising of ““a new era,” complete with “major changes” to the government.”[lii] Iran and the international world, represented by opinionated Jamileh and others, hope that Dastjerdi’s appointment will move Iran forward in its treatment of women, rather than coming around full circle, and ending up back as in the post-1979 era. Whatever the result of this green movement, and of “women playing with their status”[liii] may amount to in Ahmadinejad’s upcoming regime, “the leaders of the women’s rights movement will have to bank on the heroic presence of the women in the forefront of the struggles and not allow for their blood to have been shed in vain.”[liv]
Bio: Jaclyn Nardone is an MA candidate at the University for Peace and a regular contributor to the Peace and Conflict Monitor.