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Feminist waves in the Iranian Green Tsunami?

29 Jun 2009 14:4016 Comments


By GOLBARG BASHI in New York | 29 June 2009

[TEHRAN BUREAU] As pictures of women, young and old, religious and non-religious, have plastered our Internet and TV screens chanting and bleeding for a recount in what many in Iran believe has been a fraudulent presidential election result in June 2009, their extraordinary heroism and sheer numbers have awaken the international media to the sizable female presence in the Iranian Green Movement (Nehzat-e Sabz).

A poignant question to ask at this point might be where and what are the positions of Iranian feminists inside the country. They have been for long at work demanding their civil liberties. To what extent are they now participating in defining the goals and aspirations of the Green Movement?

Unknown to perhaps many outside Iran, the Iranian women's rights movement has been relentlessly working and expanding its demands for an end to gender discrimination in a country where in the realm of family and penal law, women are treated as second-class citizens. Since the 1990's various NGO's, magazines such as Zanan, individual lawyers, and specific campaigns such as the One Million Signatures and the Stop Stoning Forever Campaign have worked relentlessly and across ideological divides to publicize, mobilize and realize their specific demands for women's rights in the legal sphere. The women we have been seeing marching in the streets of Tehran, Shiraz and elsewhere did not grow like mushrooms out of nowhere. They are the robust children of decades of sustained and grassroots struggle.

A Feminist Awakening (without the "F" word) slowly but surely has emerged in post-revolutionary Iran. Over 63% of university graduates are female in Iran and contrary to many countries in that region, Iranian women are visible in all areas of public life. They are lawyers, doctors, artists, publishers, journalists, bloggers, politicians, students and professors. In 2003, when I was visiting Tehran and other major Iranian cities, during any given state radio news broadcast, the entire news team were women, as their names were announced: Negin, Parvaneh, Sara, Fatemeh... This was often the rule and not the exception. Be that as it may, one should not paint an overly rosy picture of women in Iran. Only 12.3% of them are part of the public workforce and for many marriage is the only gateway out of their parental home. The staggering rate of 30% unemployment is particularly acute among young women, who also face additional gender discrimination in the workforce.

During the presidential campaign of June 2009, Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of the Green Movement candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is herself an accomplished painter, professor and former university chancellor held her husband's hand and spoke to thousands of women of gender equality. Her presence prompted many women to vote for Mir Hossein Mousavi. Rahnavard was removed from her administrative duties at Al-Zahra women's university where she was the Vice Chancellor once Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over the office of presidency in 2005. Her story is one of a Muslim feminist like many others who realized that the Islamic Republic was not fulfilling its religious, constitutional and international duties in protecting women's rights.

But Zahra Rahnavard is only the tip of the iceberg. In April 2009 weeks before the 12th June 2009 presidential election, a coalition of women formed and proposed that "we--as members of the women's movement in Iran and as civil rights activists from diverse areas such as NGOs, political parties, campaigns, press and trade unions--have realized that there are many ways in which to achieve women's demands. When it is necessary, we have stepped in unison with one another.

Today, we have decided to form another coalition in which to present the demands of women within our country through the pivotal period and space of the presidential election. The only goal of this coalition is to declare women's demands. We neither support any specific candidate nor are we interfering in a citizen's right and decision to participate or not in the election."

However, this proposal was not signed by some of the most prominent members of the women's movement, namely secular feminists such as Parvin Ardalan and Sussan Tahmasebi. In her famous blog, Leila Mouri, an active blogger and member of the Stop Stoning Forever Campaign who is now a student in the United States wrote:

"I wish my friends in the women's rights movement would have been more active than before these days, and as a progressive social movement had a more pronounced presence in these crucial times. Perhaps they have the answer to some of the questions I have [e.g. have they joined these demonstrations just for their votes to be counted or are there other demands for which we have been fighting all these years], and which I am very eager to know. I very much hope the civil demands of women are not forgotten in the midst of all this."

Much ideological strife has divided the women's movement in Iran. But that hasn't stopped ordinary women in actively participating in the June 2009 pre and post-election rallies. As history tells us, Iranian women have once again been at the forefront of their country's democratic aspirations and social uprisings.

Starting at least from the Babi movement of the mid- to the Tobacco Revolt of the late 19th century to the Constitutional Revolution of the early 20th century, and down to the struggles for nationalization of Iranian oil industry in the 1950's and ultimately the 1977-1979 Islamic revolution, Iranian women have been key to the success of these iconic events. But once the challenges of these definitive turning points were courageously met, often with a heavy toll on women, they were forgotten and sidestepped.

What we are witnessing in Iran is a natural consequence of years of feminist presence and the active participation of powerful women in the public sphere which has taught little girls that being a woman does not mean just being a mother or a wife and that women must be present and fighting in order to achieve their rights and demands.

These women are putting their lives on the line to save the little that is left from their republic. The majority of them has insisted on non-violent resistance and has protected both the riot police and the common people from being killed or beaten. They have in return been brutally beaten and even killed by the security forces, as best known in the tragic case of the twenty six year-old philosophy student Neda Agha-Soltan who was shot point-black on the streets of Tehran. Her last moments on earth was captured on a grainy cell-phone video and has now become the iconic symbol of the Green Movement.

If the Green Movement that seems to be way ahead of all its leaders and theorists is ever to succeed, it is imperative for the leaders of the feminist groups to be integral to its inner leadership circle and for them not to back down an iota from women's demands for civil liberties and rights once the dust settles. For that to happen a coalition of various women's rights organizations and positions will have to be part and parcel of defining what exactly this Green Movement is. As the month of June draws to an end and after two weeks of heavy crackdown on the protestors, there is no way of knowing what will become of this movement. But what ever its future, the leaders of the women's rights movement will have to bank on the heroic presence of women in the forefront of the struggles and not allow for their blood to have been shed in vain.

Bio: Golbarg Bashi teaches Iranian Studies at Rutgers University. She has recently completed her doctoral thesis on a feminist critique of the human rights discourse in Iran. She has contributed articles on women and human rights issues in Iran to online magazines such as OpenDemocracy, Tidningen Kultur, and Qantara, Deutsche Welle.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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They are a lovely sight & a trillion times braver than their male gender's that is going about doing the most horrendous crimes. I wish every government leader in 2009 had as great a spine to be as brave as them, & I think now's the time for the world to "Wake Up" & if they don't at least the free people in their respective countries should even start a tornado of sound of "God is Great" to blow the dictator's over there out of their perch & maybe a few more along with them.( There's an idea, "Tehran Bureau" you could organize with "Twitter", but "Please oh Please" warn North Korea, or they might think the West is attacking them) So woman of Iran...take a major bow...because you're great & I can promise your day will come not in 2 years, not in one, ...but at a closer date. The world won't once take their eye of you...because the good people in it, want to see you get through & reclaim your very important "Human Rights" & your "Freedom"!

This is what an old friend in Ireland said to me, recently;

When you see a country's people kill its other country's people; you'd know their government, was definitely a right shower of "Shiites". No offence to their good other namesakes in the world!

v.gerrard / June 29, 2009 11:15 AM

Given the misogynistic track record of Iranian Islam,it is my guess that Neda was shot on purpose. Her murder was intended to make a public example of what happens to Iranian women participating in protests. It was planned to set fear in the hearts of all protesters. Instead it backfired by creating a martyr. So much for the law of unintended consequences which affects tyrants as well as their subjects. By this one act of intentional violence and brutality the IRI won the world's contempt.

Richard Kadas / June 29, 2009 11:26 AM

My honest opinion, after all I've read and looked at, the person who shot Neda was a stupid Basij kid with little or no idea what he was doing who either thought he'd get close enough for a warning shot or could somehow "wing" her. It sounds like he honestly did not want to kill her. That does not, however, rule out an intention to harm her.

Ben Kibbey / June 29, 2009 11:42 AM

This is what I am saying!


Christina / June 29, 2009 12:30 PM

This isn't about feminism, it is about equality, in which God created us all equal in His image. The women of Iran deserve Kudos and great praise for their courage to take back what was given to them by their Creator. No man, or woman, has the right to take their FREEDOM away from them, Never, Ever!

Ruth / June 29, 2009 12:52 PM

And will as you say "after the dust" settles...Barack Obama sit down with the Tyrannt ? Yes he will and women as well as men in Iran and America by that act will be disgraced..ignored...and betrayed.

NewOrleansPuma / June 29, 2009 2:33 PM

Will Barack Obama sit down with the Tyrants of Iran even after what we have seen in the streets? What we have seen done to human beings in the

streets who seek freedom of speech and assembly?

Yes..he will and by that act he betrays the very essence of these right s. He is the 21st century Chamberlin...Are you afraid to allow this free speech on this site even as you support others?

I am an American....Please do not remove this comment. Thank you.

NewOrleansPuma / June 29, 2009 3:06 PM

PUMA, please get over the fact that Hillary lost. This is about the Iranian people, not your sour grapes. Hillary is the SOS, and thus will have to deal with Iran, too. Hopefully, it will be with the rightfully elected government, and your concerns about dealing with tyrants will not have to be addressed.

Shauna / June 29, 2009 3:23 PM

Obama, better not or the day he does he can miigrate to there...& live as a slave to these "TURDS"!

& for any Legacy so far, it will be ripped into "Shreds"!

Jaker / June 29, 2009 5:33 PM

Keep Giving them hell Iranian women fight for your freedom!

Ghost / June 29, 2009 6:44 PM

I wish more men would stand up with the women of Iran.

secularcanadian / June 30, 2009 12:02 PM

I still don't understand why the F(eminist) word seems to be such a taboo today.

So many women want to be very clear about the fact that certain issues are not feminist ones and that they themselves are certainly not a feminist.

Ok, sisters of the second wave may have overdone it and left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouth. But that is some 30 years ago! There is nothing wrong with modern feminism and feminist points of view!

We most certainly should distance ourselves from the feminist = man hater equation, but don't scrap the whole concept!

Christina / June 30, 2009 1:26 PM

The bravest women in the world. I'm in awe of you and feel small in comparison to such great women.

Dave In America / July 2, 2009 2:00 AM

I send out my thoughts to these women. I hope someday people will realize what they have. These women have stood up, for what has been thrown in the dark for so long...

...keep fighting. keep being strong. i send my thoughts out.

may the spirits guide you.

BRI / July 2, 2009 9:18 AM

The huge success of the June demonstrations are due to wemen participation in full. Could not be done with only half the population. Shows the progressive society far advanced with internet tools in the hands of men or female. "We the people" had true meaning here.


Borzu / July 3, 2009 12:38 PM

When you put an "ism" at the end of your belief, you inevitably will strive for that "ism", not your belief anymore. Your "ism" becomes the master and your belief the slave. We have seen this too often to fall prey again. It's a proud moment to see the most culturally sophisticated Iranian female activists have roundly rejected feminism.

arta / July 7, 2009 12:08 PM