By Lili Mansouri,
BERLIN-The election on June 12 will always be remembered in Iran as the day of a coup d'état to alter Iran's politics, but it should also be remembered as coup for women. Four years earlier, on June 12, 2005, thousands of people who had participated in a demonstration asking for the elimination of all discrimination against women. That year, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was running for president for the first time. He was the only candidate who did not have any campaign slogans regarding women and their affairs. Once he took office, it became apparent that he did not have any plans for women either.
One of the first moves made by the new administration was to cut funding for women's issues to as low as one-third of the amount of appropriation. The office of women's affairs, located in the presidential compound, became the focal point of all women related activities and soon, the name of this office changed from "Office of Women's Participation" to the "Office of Women and Family Affairs."
Since then, the government of Ahmadinejad brought forth various pieces of legislation increasing restrictions on women, such as setting gender-based quotas for university admissions in order to cap the number of women going to college each year. These laws also made it easier for men to practice polygamy.
Women activist tried to stay involved in order to campaign for their rights by holding workshops, publishing articles, and using the cyberspace. They insisted on being able to enjoy basic rights such as the right to file for divorce, the right to guardianship of their children, the right to leave the country without their husbands' permission. They also demanded banning the practice of stoning and being able to enter athletic stadiums like men are.
On June 12, 2006, women's rights activists marched on the streets again to demand quality, but this time, the police and security forces attacked the crowds and detained many of the demonstrators, including a former member of the Iranian parliament. In the following days, many more activists were summoned to the courts.
A Costly Networking
The administration of Ahmadinejad showed from the very first days that it had no other intention but to silence its rivals and the opposition. Women's rights activists felt that their connection to society might be effectively cut off by the government through filtering their websites. Therefore, they thought of new solutions.
The "One Million Signatures for the Repeal of Discriminatory Laws" was born in this atmosphere. Many women's rights activists, both religious and secular, focused on a common cause and that was discriminatory laws against women. What made this movement different than others was the way in which these demands were brought up. Demonstrations were replaced with face-to-face meetings. Members of the signature campaign were sent to the streets so they could show the people those discriminatory laws in question, and if they liked, they could sign their petition.
Since the summer of 2006, when the campaign began, large numbers joined this cause. This meant an exponential growth in the number of women fighting for their rights. Now, Tehran was no longer the only center of activity for women's rights. This created a very active network of men and women working on and around the campaign across the country.
The government of silence did not tolerate this. The campaign's site was filtered at least twenty times. More than fifty members of the campaign were arrested. And other members of the campaign continue to work under the constant threat of being accused of engaging in activities against Iran's national security.
A Voice in the Silence
In the years when Iranian society was silenced by the government, one of the very few voices left was that of women's rights activists. The last attempt to speak out made by these activists was during the June 12 election. A number of activists began discussing and consulting with presidential candidates about their issues. Their goal was not to choose from among the candidates, but rather to publish the results of their discussions for the public.
The difference between who was elected and who the people thought was going to be elected was shocking. At that time, women who could not whisper the word freedom now could be heard. Neda Aghasoltan, the woman who was shot dead in the street last summer and became a symbol for the opposition, was one of those women.
Since those days, Neda's mother, and the mothers of many more young Iranians who were killed during demonstrations, created a group called the Mourning Mothers. Their demands include the release of all political prisoners, which included a number of women's rights activists and journalists, and the formation of a just court in which the murderers of their children would receive justice. These women gather at a park every Saturday and sing songs, a practice that always is met by police violence and the detention of a number of these mothers.
A Teacher for Today
The coup that took place on June 12 is a dark day, but has increased the potential for women's social growth. Now that the government is acting so violently against all sectors of society that oppose it, the peaceful movement for equal rights for women is becoming more and more attached to the Green Movement. Social capital is the gift of the Green Movement to Iran's women's rights movement and other social movements. In return, Iran's progressive social movements, chief among them the women's rights movement and the One Million Signatures for the Repeal of Discriminatory Laws, are great teachers for the Iranian people to learn about networking and making efforts without using any violence.
Lili Mansouri is an Iranian journalist
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