Thursday, July 23, 2009

Women have played an unprecedented role in Iran’s postelection demonstrations, showing that the movement has strong grass-roots support that extends beyond the country’s male-dominated politics and can help maintain the protests’ momentum.

Although women have been active in street politics in Iran in the past, they have been seen by the thousands in recent weeks demonstrating, arguing with police and encouraging men to protest the disputed results of the June 12 presidential election.

Their participation reflects women’s gains in society during the past 30 years as well as the grievances many hold against the Islamic republic.

“They protest alongside men, not behind them, and not in a segregated manner,” said Nayereh Tohidi, chairwoman of the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at California State University at Northridge, who was participating in a panel discussion July 13 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Women turned out by the thousands in the most recent big demonstration after Friday prayers. Scores have been arrested, including Shadi Sadr, a lawyer and human rights campaigner.

The iconic martyr in the protests has been Neda Agha-Soltan, 27, a philosophy student who was fatally shot June 20 on the streets of Tehran. Graphic footage of her death created a worldwide phenomenon on social networking sites.

The concept of martyrdom has lofty merit in Iranian society, a reflection of Shi’ite Muslims’ veneration of religious leaders killed by unjust rulers. In addition, images of young Iranians who died in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war are plastered all across Iran. Before the death of Miss Agha-Soltan, however, martyrdom was reserved for men.

The other icon has been Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. She is the first Iranian woman to campaign alongside her husband in a presidential election.

“Women from all walks of life were active in Mousavi’s election campaign because he promised reform and, along with his wife, raised their hopes for a major change in laws affecting women’s rights,” said Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American who directs the Middle East program at the Wilson Center.

“When the elections were stolen, women felt betrayed. They, too, took to the streets. Images of security forces beating up women were shocking and fueled their anger. At times, the number of women exceeded those of men in the protest.”

Women had particularly high hopes for the June election.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad initially made efforts to reach out to women, such as suggesting that they be allowed to attend soccer matches, but he reversed course and increased the harassment of women over matters ranging from dress to equal rights.

As a result, many Iranian women were attracted to Mr. Mousavi, a former prime minister who spoke openly of ending legal restrictions against women in matters of inheritance, court testimony and child custody.

Many also were drawn by Mrs. Rahnavard, a prominent academic.

“When Mir Hossein Mousavi became prime minister of Iran, his wife was so well known that some politicians would say ‘Rahnavard’s husband became prime minister of Iran,’ ” said Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former member of the Iranian parliament.

Mr. Mousavi and his wife were seen as the power couple of Iran’s reform movement.

A Tehran University student, who asked not to be named to avoid government reprisal, compared the presence of Mrs. Rahnavard on Iran’s campaign trail to that of the U.S. first lady.

“In the recent U.S. elections, the presence of Michelle Obama beside her husband influenced more women to participate in the elections and vote for Obama,” the student said. “The presence of Zahra Rahnavard next to her husband reflected the open-mindedness of Mr. Mousavi and also a change in the chauvinistic system.”

Women formed a coalition one month before the elections to urge all candidates to address women’s issues in the campaign. Among their demands was that Iran sign the International Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

Mr. Mousavi promised in the campaign to name Iran’s first post-revolution female Cabinet minister.

His wife, in a campaign video, said, “We should reform laws that treat women unequally. We should empower women financially. Women should be able to choose their professions according to their merits. Iranian women should be able to reach the highest level of decision-making bodies.”

Women are not allowed to run for president and have been barred from senior religious posts. However, since 1979, two women have served as appointed vice presidents and dozens have been elected to parliament, including Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Ms. Hashemi was briefly detained last month after speaking at several banned opposition rallies.

Other prominent feminists include Shirin Ebadi, a lawyer and campaigner for women’s rights who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize.

“The root of the current unrest is the people’s dissatisfaction and frustration at their plight going back before the election,” Ms. Ebadi said. “Because women are the most dissatisfied people in society, that is why their presence is more prominent.”

Important gains since 1979 that have spurred women to more ambitious goals. Female literacy now exceeds 80 percent, and 65 percent of university students are women - the result, ironically, of the dress code and sex segregation that made traditional, religious families more willing to educate daughters.

However, unemployment is much higher among Iranian women than men - 44 percent among women younger than 30 compared with 20 percent for young men, said Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an Iranian-American professor of economics at Virginia Tech.

In 2006, women launched the One Million Signature Campaign, with the aim of gathering 1 million signatures in favor of equal rights.

Since the June elections, the campaign has been involved in protests and reported on the activities of new groups, such as Mothers in Mourning and the Peace Mothers, who gather to commemorate those killed by security forces.

Many Iranian women chafe at laws that require them to cover their hair and wear knee-length, long-sleeve coats over ankle-length pants.

Women have pushed the limits of the dress code in recent years by flaunting more and more hair and wearing heavy makeup and tighter and shorter tunics and coats.

“So many people look at us young Iranian women and think that we are superficial and materialistic because of our appearance. We are aware of this but we dress provocative within the Islamic boundaries around us as a form of resistance,” said a young woman who owns a boutique in wealthy northern Tehran.

“We can drive. We can vote. We’ve proved in these demonstrations that the world had the wrong idea about Iranian women,” she said. “We don’t sit in the corner and wait for the men to make change. We make change for the men. Iran has had enough male leaders. We are the mothers of Iran.”

Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.

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