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Women in Iran

June 10, 2010

The face of last year's protests in Iran was above all female. Years of discrimination in their daily lives brought hundreds of thousands of women from all walks of life on to the streets, joining the opposition.

woman in iran with "women should have same rights as men" on her hands
Iran's women's movement wants equality for men and womenImage: picture-alliance / dpa

Last year's protests in Iran showed that the country's women are tired of waiting for change.

"This is a women's revolution in Iran," said Mina Ahadi, an Iranian political activist living in exile in Germany, fighting for women's and human rights in her home country.

"Millions of women in Iran have recognized over the years that this regime is against women," the 54-year-old Ahadi told Deutsche Welle.

Legal practices are extremely discriminatory in Iran. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, many women's rights were made obsolete as they opposed the Sharia, or Islamic law. Numerous examples show that Iranian laws don't recognize women as free and equal individuals: a woman is only allowed to work or travel with the approval of her husband, for example. Her testimony in court is only worth half of a man's. She requires her father's consent to marry, has to tolerate polygamy, and sons receive twice as much inheritance as daughters do.

Isobel Coleman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and an expert on Islamic feminism, said women really feel the repression of the government on a day-to-day basis. It affects their daily lives more than men's.

Female protester holds banner saying "change"
The women's movement in Iran is fed up and demanding changeImage: AP

"There were high hopes from the election last year that Mir Hossein Mousavi would really lead to a much better life for women in the country," Coleman told Deutsche Welle. "He campaigned promoting women's rights alongside his wife, Zahra Rahnavard. It was a model of a progressive Iran that was very attractive to many women across the country."

Although Mousavi's defeat shattered the hopes of the opposition, it did not paralyze women into inaction. Rather, the situation contributed to growing courage within the women's movement in Iran. Last year, women not only protested, but also attacked heavily armed policemen, were beaten and imprisoned.

And it was a young woman - Neda Agha-Soltan - who came to symbolise the public uprising against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory. She was shot dead during the protests in Tehran; millions of people watched an amateur video of her last moments posted on YouTube.

A broad-based movement

Over the last 30 years, activist Ahadi said, Iranian women have lost all of their freedom.

"We could only live out our wishes and desires within our homes," she said.

Still, young women in particular have found small niches - mainly in appearance - to oppose the stringent regulations in their daily lives: bright nail polish and lipstick, a conspicuously shifted headscarf, or flashy designer sunglasses. The relatively open atmosphere last June even encouraged women to protest without headscarves, walking side-by-side with men - an affront to the forced segregation of men and women in Iran.

A female supporter of Mir Hossein Mousavi, flashes a victory sign with her green painted hand
Mousavi's campaign color was greenImage: AP

Of course, the government has severely cracked down on the opposition, arresting a lot of its leaders. Dozens of women are also in prison. But according to Coleman, the government is not able to slash back the women's movement on a large scale.

"The women's movement is very broad-based at a grassroots level," Coleman said. "It has carved out a space that has allowed them to continue to exist by not demanding an overturn of the government, but specifically focusing on an overturn of repressive laws that relate to women."

Still, the opposition would not be what it is without women, who play a central role in mobilizing people. Women were often the ones who urged the men on to take to the streets last year. Ali Ansari, history professor at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and founding director of the university's Institute for Iranian Studies, said this extensive role is sometimes difficult for western observers to understand.

"We want to see the women's movement as something distinct," Ansari told Deutsche Welle. "But in fact, the real point of the women's movement in Iran in a sense is that women are integrated into the overall protest movement while playing a pivotal role in it."

Support from abroad

In the past few months, opposition activities in Iran have settled down.

"Now, there is a lot of regrouping going on and thinking about what we want in the future," political activist Ahadi said. Nevertheless, the people's dissatisfaction remains. "The fight will continue."

mina ahadi
Mina Ahadi says women have nothing left to loseImage: ZdE

European organizations wanting to support this fight are in a difficult situation, though. On the one hand, the moral support from Europe gives Iranian oppositionists "very much strength," Ahadi said.

Ansari agreed that moral support from the West helped, as well as increased media attention to turn a spotlight on what was happening in Iran.

"But it's been very difficult for people outside the country to do anything anymore," he said. "Many groups in Iran are very wary about having too much support from outside because then the government says, oh you're nothing but a stooge for western infiltration."

One possibility to help is technical support, in particular for Iranian women's rights groups, said Nadya Khalife, a researcher in the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch. This would improve their communication networks with other international organizations.

"More can be done to help advance their work by focusing on concrete steps to help them gain greater access to the internet, for instance," Khalife told Deutsche Welle. "Since most activists use technology to share information with the rest of the world through email, websites, and blogs, for example, some of these effective measures could be to develop better and easier ways to access the internet or to improve email security."

But even without western support, it will take a lot more than tougher laws and arrests to crush the women's movement, Khalife said.

"I think that even in today's tense political climate in Iran, women's rights activists have proven that they are very resilient," she said. "The women's rights movement in Iran is still strong and working diligently to guarantee the human rights of Iranian women."

According to Coleman, women will persevere, no matter how long it takes.

"The government has been good at winning this battle, but personally I think they're going to lose the war - whether it takes several more years or not," Coleman said.

Economics may be the sticking point

Opposition leaders Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi are seeking to stage fresh demonstrations on June 12 to mark the first anniversary of the presidential elections. But Ansari said he questions whether public opposition activities are even the right platform for change. Economic reality may end up being the catalyst for a political shift, he said.

"The state is under lots of economic pressure," he said. "If I was in the opposition at the moment, I'd pull back. I wouldn't be too visible, and let the government wallow in it a little bit. Let the economy take its toll."

Ahmadinejad announced last month that the government will begin cutting subsidies for fuel and basic goods in September, replacing them with targeted grants for the poor. This plan could backfire on the government - and benefit the opposition if they keep a low profile.

"The strategy is: you created this mess, you deal with it," Ansari said. "We (the opposition) are here. We're not going to create a fuss for the time being."

Without economic success, Ahmadinejad cannot have the support of the people - and that includes women, said Coleman.

"Economies cannot prosper without the full participation of half the population," Coleman writes in her latest book "Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East," published earlier this year.

Author: Sabina Casagrande
Editor: Rob Mudge

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