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In a Different Voice

by FERESHTEH MODARRESI in Tehran

11 Jun 2009 21:36No Comments
Iran-elections-An-Iranian-002.jpg[ dispatch ] It's 3:00 a.m. A friend and I are cruising the streets of Tehran, which have turned into virtual discos. The music ranges from Persian pop to rap and electronic house music. Those who have come to a standstill in their cars, socialize with others. And the youth have put their public dancing skills on display in the streets; this is one of those rare moments the youth partying enthusiasts rise from the underground to on the ground, from private sphere to public space.

Green headbands, scarves, balloons and banners, the color of Mousavi's campaign, is seen everywhere.

The number of women in the streets is stunning. Former primer minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, considered President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's main rival, has promised equal rights for women. This has attracted a lot of female voters, who are chanting, "We don't want the government of moral police patrol."

Over the past week, many, notably the young, have been organizing debate parties. Friends watch the debates together and discuss them afterward, just as they do for important football matches.

This was not only the first time the candidates engaged in live televised debates; as millions watched, for the first time they publicly accused each other of financial corruption and called each other liars. These debates have provided an opening for a lot of people to start speaking out too. In fact, it was the language used by Mr. Ahmadinejad, which kicked the whole thing off and given the people so much momentum.

A woman leans into our car. "Vote for Mousavi! He is going to make it possible for women to decide freely about their headscarves! He will let women regain their real social status!" Another group of women say that they will remove their scarves as a symbolic gesture the day Mousavi is elected.

For me, more remarkable than all of this, is the fact that the candidates have moved women's issues to the forefront of their campaigns for the first time. This is a show that they now know women's demands--and their vote--does indeed matter.

As Mousavi actively campaigns with his wife, even details such as always waiting for her to sit before he does, is noted by many women.

Though authorities have been criticizing western-style freedom for women for decades--women in the West are used for commercial purposes, Islamic cover will revive women's dignity, and so on--none of the candidates are touting such slogans now. Now they talk about the demands women have.

Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist candidate and a cleric, says that women should not be forced to veil. He has promised to grant a number of cabinet seats to women. Mohsen Rezaie, the former head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, also talks about reforming laws to allow for more equality for women, and for better access to employment and education.

Other candidates have been making campaign appearances for the first time with their wives. According to Hamshahri newspaper, Mousavi's wife has been the most visible, Ahamdinejad's, the least. Karoubi's wife was also a head of his campaign headquarters and Rezai's wife was present during the candidate registration process.

Gashteh Ershad, or the "moral patrol," created during the President's term, to enforce Islamic dress for women, is nowhere around.

It's not just the women with headscarves just about to fall who so enthusiastically seem to be supporting Mousavi. We pass a car with a number of very religious women also waving posters of Mousavi.

We chat with a 34-year-old woman whose name is Maryam. She describes herself as a very religious woman and the long black veil she dons speaks to her conviction. "Discrimination against women in our society is so great, it's not a wonder why women wear so much make up and pay so much attention to their appearance," she says. "It is only because they are being repressed and prevented from living their lives in a manner they choose to."

According to Hamshahri on Wednesday, a number of conservative and reformist female officials have created a coalition to better defend women's rights. The members of this coalition include Jamileh Kadivar ("the hijab is a personal matter and not something that should be compulsory in nature"); Faezeh and Fatemeh Rafsanjani, daughters of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Faezeh used to be an active member of parliament, defending women's rights; she was also the director of "Zan," or woman, newspaper, which was shut down.

Conservative former parliament member Raft Bayat, who also tried to run for president this year, but was disqualified by the Guardian Council, is another member of this coalition. This coalition also includes women who have been members of Islamic government circles.

The question remains whether this coalition would be willing to include women's rights activists who are representative of other segments of the population, including those activists behind the "One Million Signatures" campaign, a movement that for the past three years has been collecting signatures to petition the government to change discriminatory laws in matters of marriage and divorce, inheritance, child custody, testimony and equal compensation for bodily injury and death.

It's not until 5 a.m. when police start to close off some of the roads to lead people back to their homes. Campaigning officially came to a stop at midnight on Wednesday. But text messages are still going around. People are sending more jokes about Ahmadinejad and warning of measures to prevent vote rigging in tomorrow's election.

I think to what Shadi, a 27-year-old woman said earlier: "This time we are going to carefully monitor the performance of the next government. We're going to ensure our demands are addressed. We don't want our votes to be in vain."

*** text messaging appears to have been shut down in Tehran.

Photo: Mousavi supporter shows her hands with the inscription, in Farsi, "woman = man" during a campaign rally in Tehran, 30 May 2009 Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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