When Iranian authorities suppressed the results of last Friday’s presidential election, they also suppressed a huge outpouring of feminist political fervor. Contrary to media reports focusing on the outspokenness of Zahra Rahnavard, wife of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, feminist politics are hardly new to Iran. Iranian women have been agitating for political change since the early 20th century, when they participated in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. In 1979, women provided key support for the Islamic Revolution. During the intervening years, they have played a key role in subtly subverting Islamic law, in part through pushing restrictions on women’s dress to their breaking point.
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But by almost every measure, the Ahmadinejad era has represented a leap backward for Iranian women, leading to a resurgence of feminist organizing. “I wouldn’t say the election was a turning point for women,” says Sanam Anderlini, a Washington-based consultant on international women’s issues. “But I would say women were the turning point for the election.”
Female voters provided key support for Mousavi, who campaigned on a platform of expanding women’s economic and legal rights, yet who was hardly known as a feminist champion during a term as prime minister from 1981 to 1989. The far more salient factor was Ahmadinejad’s dismal record on women’s rights. Working with a conservative parliament, his government spent millions on propaganda telling women their proper place is in the home. Universities capped the number of female students admitted. In 2005, the regime launched a “culture of modesty” campaign aimed at enforcing stricter veiling. It replaced the Center for Women’s Participation, founded under the liberal presidency of Mohammad Khatami, with the Center for Women and Family, whose exclusive goal is to promote “modesty.”
Most shockingly, last summer Ahmadinejad and his supporters attempted to push a “family protection law” through parliament, easing restrictions on polygamy and taxing mehriyeh, the traditional payment a husband gives a wife upon marriage. In a country where 42 percent of young women looking for a job are out of work, Ahmadinejad went so far as to cite polygamy as a solution to female unemployment. And mehriyeh offers women some modicum of financial independence within a legal system that severely limits their rights to divorce, child custody, and inheritance.
Unsurprisingly, these moves were deeply unpopular among women. A coalition of high-profile feminists, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, poet Simin Behbahani, and film director Rakhshan Bani E’temad, successfully lobbied against the legislation. But as Iranian sociologist Fatemeh Sadeghi reports in the latest issue of the Middle East Report, even conservative women activists, those who typically hit the streets enforcing the regime’s hijab (or veiling) laws, were put off by Ahmadinejad’s support for polygamy and sigheh, the religious “temporary marriages” that allow men to engage in consequence-free sex with prostitutes. Widespread disgruntlement with Ahmadinejad’s gender agenda was a harbinger of things to come—namely, reformist and moderate women’s deep commitment to ousting him from office.
That commitment has been on display this week in the streets of Tehran, where women are protesting alongside men. According to some reports, at least one of the student protestors killed at Tehran University was a woman. “Like men, women are being beaten up by the basij [paramilitaries] in the streets,” says U.S.-based Iran historian Shiva Balaghi. Photographs from Tehran depict women clashing with police and on the scene when tear gas was released into crowds.
That makes this political unrest unusual within the regional context of the Middle East, where women are rarely seen on the frontlines of street protests. In Iran, though, there is ample precedent. In June 2006, police violently attacked a women’s rights demonstration in Tehran, leading to the founding of the One Million Signatures Campaign, a feminist endeavor to grant women equality under Iranian law. Since then, hundreds of signature gatherers have fanned out across the country, distributing a pamphlet detailing each and every way the country’s legal code discriminates against women, from family law to the prohibition against women running for president.
“I wouldn’t say the election was a turning point for women,” says Sanam Anderlini, a Washington-based consultant on international women’s issues. “But I would say women were the turning point for the election.”
This effort is diffuse and grassroots, but widely seen as influential. Dozens of the campaign’s leaders have been arrested or jailed, and its Web sites have been shut down by the government. Newspapers have been threatened with closure for reporting on its activities.
If Ahmadinejad remains in power, there are fears that this emerging feminist movement could come under even harsher attack. “I don’t think a reform government would be entirely peachy sweet for women by any stretch of the imagination,” says Anderlini. “But it would open up the space for them to continue to air their demands and have a discussion. Under the conservative government, activism is seen as a threat to national security.”
Dana Goldstein is an associate editor at The American Prospect. Her writing has also appeared in Slate, BusinessWeek, and The New Republic.