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Women Make Strides Amidst Iran's Crisis

By Mahour S.,

TORONTO-Two days before the Iranian New Year, Mir Hossein Mousavi released a video message to the people of Iran. Surprisingly, Zahra Rahnavard, his wife, who is a prominent intellectual and political activist, issued a Norouz message of her own. In the thirty-one years of the Islamic Republic, when it is customary for the president and the Supreme Leader to release Norouz messages, not only were we hearing a message recorded by someone with no official position within the administration, but it was the first time a women addressed the nation with a greeting.

Zahra Rahnavard

While the message was only twelve minutes long, it took decades of work by activists, intellectuals, and writers who have painstakingly endured hardships, prison, and persecution for it to become a reality.

Nayereh Tohidi

"The revolution itself and the participation of women in the revolutionary movement of 1979 invigorated the society at large, and women especially" says Nayereh Tohidi, women's rights activist and professor of Gender and Women's Studies at California State University, Northridge. Even though the revolution was to defeat many of their demands and aspirations, as a result of the revolution, women were politicized and more involved in the day to day affairs of their society. Women were the ones to organize one of the very first rallies against the policies of the Islamic Republic, in a demonstration against forced veiling shortly after the revolution. Over time, however, their demands were silenced, especially with the start of the war with Iraq and the suppression of all internal opposition forces.

But while they were formally silenced, they were making their way into office buildings and universities at unprecedented rates. Women's rights activists today are forced to endure prison, daily threats, harassment, and intimidation from the highest officials in the country, but women's rights is now a part of our social consciousness and social dialogue, in a way that it has never been.

Shahla Sherkat

Zanan [Women] magazine was one of the very first concrete manifestations of this dialogue. First published in January 1992, four years after the war, by journalist, writer, and women's rights activist Shahla Sherkat, it was the highest circulating women's magazine in Iran, with a circulation of 40,000 (its leading competitor had a circulation of 5,000).

Sherkat has since said of the magazine's efforts: "When I first published Zanan, my only aim was to do something useful. This job required a lot of courage, because the word feminist was considered a profanity."

Sherkat published Zanan after serving as the editor-in-chief of Zan-e Rouz [Modern Women], a weekly magazine published after the revolution with a focus on women's issues. Zanan first obtained its publication rights under former President Mohammad Khatami, who was then the cultural minister.

Faezeh Hashemi

While Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has never been directly associated with women's rights activists or the women's movement, she was elected to parliament in 1995, and her campaign, along with her newspaper Zan [Woman], was another notable event in the long, grueling women's rights movement in Iran. During her campaign, Hashemi promised to provide facilities for female bicycle riders in Tehran, and that was met with extreme anger in conservative circles as well as with great enthusiasm, especially amongst the youth. The Bicycle Dialogues became the hot topic of debate in many circles around Tehran.

In 1997, Khatami ran on a platform of change and reform, with an emphasis on women's rights-from the need to address physical education classes in girls' schools to the plight of working mothers. His message was met with overwhelming support from women and women's rights activists to a point where it has become popular belief that the youth vote and the women's vote was what brought Khatami to power. It is, however, unimaginable that his message would have been met with such enthusiastic support had it not been for the calm, consistent work of Sherkat and her colleagues at Zanan, who were one of the only centers of dialogue for women throughout the first two decades of the revolution, before Khatami's rise to prominence.

Zanan was able to bring religious and secular activists, lawyers, intellectuals, and journalists together, to give their plight a non-ideological message. "The religious orientation of Muslim feminists, alongside their less religious or secular counterparts actually gave more momentum to the women's rights movement inside Iran" writes Tohidi.

"But Khatami is the only candidate who has openly discussed the issue of women's rights!" quipped a fourteen-year-old student caught in a fierce debate with a fellow classmate during the presidential debates. While this student was not even old enough to vote, the Iranian election brought politics, and women's issues, to every corner of the country, including middle schools.

With the election of President Mohammad Khatami and the rise of reformist publications, starting with Jame-e [Society] newspaper, women's issues became a prominent part of the newly forming wings of civil society. These newspapers were avidly read by intellectuals and taxi drivers alike, and one common scene during the morning rush hour traffic was taxi drivers under Tehran's heavily congested Seyed Khandan bridge reading and discussing the daily newspaper.

These were some of the efforts that culminated in the One Million Signature Campaign, which began in 2005, and has now become a movement for women's rights to end discriminatory laws against women. This is an effort, which activists like Taghi Rahmani, have coined as the "demand-oriented" nature of the movement. By "demand-oriented" they mean that the women's rights movement was expected to stay out of politics, and place a number of "demands" on the table. This is the group that, in the words of Asieh Amini, "believes that women's rights activists should never enter the realm of politics to put forth their demands; that the women's movement should take on a social, rather than a political role, and penetrate deep within different layers of society to change society from below, instead of lobbying with politicians and interest groups from above."

Men across the political spectrum have reacted very differently to the women's movement. The avid participation of women in the 1997 presidential election and onward and the growing women's movement have forced everyone but the group now known as the hardliners-supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad-to show at least limited support for their cause. This support comes both from reformist candidates who openly invite discussion and have active members within the movement as well as from the pragmatic conservatives such as Mohsen Rezaie, who participated in a campaign video about the women's movement during the 2009 elections. It is important to note, however, that despite the hardliners' outspoken opposition to the movement, it was Ahmadinejad who appointed the first-ever woman minister in his cabinet. It is widely reported that Khatami never made the move because he was too afraid of a political backlash.

Despite the heavy crackdown on dissidents and activists during President Ahmadinejad's first term, the One Million Signature Campaign has gained widespread recognition. The state's efforts to suppress and silence the campaign and those activists, students, and journalists involved with it have given their efforts even more national and international coverage.

Now, months after the election, with the heavier crackdown on dissidents and activists involved in many efforts, there is a call for a return to an agenda-driven campaign mentioned by notable activists such as Shadi Sadr and Zahra Rahnavard.

The rise of political couples is one of the other notable changes in Iran's political sphere, and one that cannot be ignored. Aside from the wives of political prisoners who have gained prominence for their speeches, letters, and fiery interviews, nowhere is that better evident than the dual Mousavi/Rahnavard Norouz messages. As one commentator put it, Rahnavard's message was "much greener" (that is, more determined and explicit in citing the demands of the green movement).

Of the Rahnavard/Mousavi duo, Zahra Rahnavard serves as the more radical wing, much like Faezeh Rafsanjani, the daughter of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has declared that her father's aims "are at one with the green movement." In both cases, the women are seen as the more "green" member of the political pair and while neither has a direct leadership position, their influence and prominence alongside their other half cannot be ignored-especially in increasing their appeal among women and youth. And specifically because they are not in concrete leadership positions, they have more room to maneuver, talk and discuss issues in which their male counterparts can never indulge.

It is certainly too soon to draw conclusions or write endings for a fragile movement that has been under increasing pressure, but just like other aspects of the green movement, it is the outreach of the women's movement within society that gives it strength and prominence. Despite the heavy crackdown on some of its most notable leaders, as long as fourteen-year-old girls across Iran are engaging in conversation, it will be an ongoing struggle and a voice that cannot be silenced.

Mahour S is a journalist who has recently spent time in Iran.

About: is a bi-weekly journal of analysis and research written primarily by scholars and activists living inside Iran and those who have recently left the country. Our purpose is to provide in-depth information about the internal political dynamic that is unavailable in the mainstream media. Through research and commentary, we will continue to document the political and theological crisis.

... Payvand News - 04/02/10 ... --

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