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Michael Theodoulou, Foreign Correspondent, The National, June 17. 2009

The iconography dominating global television coverage of Iran’s biggest demonstrations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution is stunning: women are on the front line of the protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s allegedly fraudulent re-election. It is no surprise. They feel most robbed by his “stolen” victory.

“We feel cheated, frustrated and betrayed,” said an Iranian woman in a message circulated on Facebook. Iran’s energetic female activists are using the social networking site to mobilise opposition to Mr Ahmadinejad. Iranian women also have a dynamic presence on the country’s blogosphere – the biggest in the Middle East – which they are using to keep up popular momentum against the election outcome.

Many Iranian women will suspect that a prime reason the election was “stolen” was to keep them in their place.

To the regime, their demands for equal rights are inseparable from the opposition’s drive for greater democracy.

During Mr Ahmadinejad’s first term in office, women who campaigned peacefully to end discriminatory laws have been harassed, detained, some even jailed.

The president’s record on women’s rights – and human rights in general – was attacked earlier this month in an open letter by Shirin Ebadi, who in 2003 became the first Muslim woman and first Iranian to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

“As a citizen and human rights activist, I urge you to prevent security and political pressures by the institutions under your command,” wrote Ms Ebadi, a lawyer revered by most Iranians but increasingly targeted by Iran’s hardliners for taking on highly sensitive human rights cases.

Mr Ahmadinejad’s two reformist presidential challengers, acknowledging the significance of the female vote, made women’s rights a central plank of their campaigns. No female candidate was allowed to contest the elections but many women had invested their hopes in Mir-Hossein Mousavi, whom they insist was the rightful winner. He had pledged to reform laws that treat women unequally, to rein in the Islamic vigilantes who enforce the dress code for women and to appoint women to influential posts.

His charismatic wife, Zahra Rahnavard, played an inspiring public role in Mr Mousavi’s campaign, and is now instrumental in masterminding inventive non-violent opposition to the election outcome.

Thousands heeded her call to take to their rooftops and chant “Allahu Akbar”, a rallying cry of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The women at the centre of the protests are from all sections of society. Many are elegant young Audrey Hepburn lookalikes, with bright headscarves barely covering western hairstyles. But many are also middle-aged and some conservatively dressed in black.

Their presence at demonstrations will damage the tarnished regime even more if it dares authorise security forces to open fire, especially as many women – wisely following advice spread by mobile text messaging – are carrying photographs of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

The presence of so many women in opposition demonstrations also carries an uncomfortable historical resonance for the regime. Women turned out in huge numbers during street protests against the US-backed Shah three decades ago. Despite their role then, women have only a token presence in Iranian politics.

Mr Ahmadinejad has boasted that Iranian women enjoy the highest levels of freedom. Certainly, Iranian women have a more socially dynamic role than in many Arab countries.

They outnumber men in Iran’s universities and have the right to vote, drive, work alongside men and run for most public offices. But they do not have equal divorce, child custody or inheritance rights and a woman’s testimony in Iran’s Islamic courts carries only half the weight of a man’s.

Meanwhile, enforcing the dress code for women – possible only by the heavy-handed activities of morality police – has been a key tool for the regime to demonstrate its control over society.

For years, especially in affluent north Tehran, many women have pushed the dress code to its limits by sporting open-toed sandals, wearing make-up and thrusting back headscarves to display extravagant hairstyles.

The regime, reluctant to wholly alienate young women, has largely tolerated such defiance, despite sporadic crackdowns during Mr Ahmadinejad’s four years in office, which Mrs Rahnavard branded “the ugliest and dirtiest patronising treatment of women”.

Making headscarves optional, however, was not on her agenda. Mrs Rahnavard, who wears a flowery scarf visible beneath her black chador, told the BBC: “In Islam, women have always worn the veil – it tells them women must cover themselves.”

In the wake of the Islamic Revolution, many women demonstrated unsuccessfully against the imposition of the hijab. But today, securing equal legal and other rights for women are more important issues than the dress code to most Iranian women activists and Islamic feminists.

The regime has made clear its fear of peaceful female activism and the democratic tools it uses to press its cause.

The authorities have branded as illegal the “One Million Signatures Campaign”, a three-year-old grass roots movement that is pressing for legal reforms that would end discrimination against women. Campaign leaders have braved arrest and detention. Several were imprisoned.

But there is no sign yet that regime intimidation will stifle peaceful dissent by women on the streets.

A huge opposition rally was under way in north Tehran last night, despite a ban on such protests by the authorities who have arrested scores of protesters.

A sweeping clampdown on foreign media meant there were no early television pictures – but women at the protest can be relied on to swiftly post their own proud and defiant mobile phone footage on the internet.

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