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Women Continue Struggle for Rights Despite Barriers

Opinion article by Mansureh Shojayee (source: Rooz Online)

On December 10, 1950 the UN General Assembly proclaimed the day as Human Rights Day to bring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the attention of people across the world as the common standard for all peoples and nations.

Sixty four years forward and unfortunately human rights violations in different forms continue to take place in all human societies. Unlike the efforts of those who fight for human rights and follow the Declaration’s goals, the implementation of the principles of the declaration is not realized particularly in the countries of the Global South.

The focus of this presentation is on the struggles of members of the women’s movement in Iran against human rights violations, particularly since the 1979 Islamic revolution, up to 2014.

I will try to show how Iranian women have succeeded in taking a stand against human rights violations, even as problems continue.

The emergence of a women’s movement in Iran goes back to the beginning of the 20th century at the time of the Constitutional Revolution. At the time, women demanded their rights for free association, education and freedom of the press.

However, in 1906, when the nationalist movement succeeded in establishing a constitution demanding the “equality of all citizens in law,” women were not recognized in the definition of “citizen.” The turning point for the Iranian women’s movement came when they began to focus on the right to vote!

This demand finally materialized in 1961 when women gained the right to vote and also the right of to be members of parliament. In addition, they could get benefits under the family protection law. These were made possible because of women’s historic struggles and also the reforms of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s so called “White Revolution.”

During the Islamic revolutionary period in 1979 when the movement against the Shah was formed, women were again a major force for change. And, for second time in the history of Iranian revolutions, women were not granted equal rights with the men.

Soon after the establishment of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Khomeini demanded the abolition of the Family Protection Act law, ordered the implementation Sharia laws across the country, and issued a decree demanding that women dress “properly.” At the same time, women were banned from some professions such as the judiciary.

Knowing full well the implications of these laws, women responded en-masse. On March 8, 1979, International Women’s Day, thousands of women appeared in the streets, demonstrating against the forced hejab and the abolition of the Family Protection Act.

After the terrible years between 1983 and 1988 when mass executions and the 8-year war with Iraq took place, some progressive reforms were gradually put in place. During the reformist presidency of Mr. Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2004, women were able to establish independent organizations and to elect some female representatives for parliament.

In 2005, soon after the establishment of the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, groups of organized women launched activities against legal gender discrimination.

These movements worked on a variety of issues including: anti-violence, anti-war and anti-discrimination. Some organized the Anti-Stoning Campaign and almost all joined hands to create the One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality. The last one is the most important historical event shaped by the Iranian women’s movement.

During Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005-2009), the founders of the Campaign and young members of several other women’s movements were arrested and were imprisoned.

Given these harsh conditions, women activists spent the last months of Ahmadinejad’s presidency waiting for an opportunity to resurface.

By relying on the collective power of active women and by implementing collective action, the activists of these women’s movements formed the coalition known as ‘’Women for Civil Demands at the Time of Election” based on common goals and ideals. Using this power and understanding they then joined the general civil uprising and the Green Movement.

In this way the different factions of Iran’s women’s movement joined together and succeeded in contributing to the Green Movement’s focus in demanding civil rights and democracy.

This major coalition of many groups and waves of the women’s movement participated in the 2009 presidential elections with two clear demands: first, for Iran to adhere to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); and second, the amendment of a number of discriminatory articles in Iran’s constitutional law.

The collection of these demands under the slogan of ‘We vote for women’s demands’ announced the movement’s entry into the political sphere, albeit without the support of any of the presidential candidates.

During the spread of Green Movement’s street protests, caused by vote rigging, the significant participation of women activists showed its commitment to the united struggle to achieve democratic demands. Women who had originally taken to the streets with the slogan ‘We vote for women’s demands’ now continued their march with a new public slogan: “Where is My Vote?”

The violent events after the 2009 presidential election stopped the social movements from being succeeding in pushing their demands for democracy any further.

After eight years of suffering under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the economic hardships resulting from sanctions, mass violations of human rights, growing violations of women’s rights, military threats, forced emigration of activists, and so on ... led to a moderate approach both by civil society and governmental groups for Iranian presidential election in 2013.

Women’s groups began to re-assert greater political activities. A coalition named “Hamandishi” emerged which included secular feminists, progressive religious feminists, ordinary women and also women who were both pro-equality and close to the government.

These groups mainly demanded political participation and citizenship rights. This was a much less radical engagement than earlier one.

In the end a candidate from moderate movement with something of a moderate approach regarding domestic and international policies, human rights and women rights won the election (Mr. Rouhani).

The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West (2013-2014) and their effect on economic and political crises in Iran on one hand, and instabilities in the region, particularly in Iraq and Syria and the appearance of ISIS on the other hand, negatively affected the importance of the civil rights and women’s political participation and discourse.

Under these conditions, the new government decided to mainly focus on foreign policy which meant ignoring the promises it made regarding the protection of human rights inside the country.

Meanwhile, the violations of human rights, increasing discriminations against women and economic instabilities directed the society to experience pessimism once again.

Apparently, the presence of a few pro-equality women in the government was not effective, which showed itself in issues such as the failure of women in their demands for the implementation of the family law and civil rights, in the restrictions on opportunities for women - particularly single women - to have jobs, in the surgical sterilization procedures that were promoted for both women and men, in legislating gender distinctions at universities and work places, and in the “legal” violence to establish “the law on forced hijab”.

For example, on October 2014, parliament passed the law on the protection of forced hijab which resulted in attacks, by extremist and violent groups, on women who in the eyes of the regime were not “properly veiled.”

Women activists interpreted these brutal crimes as signs of the empowerment of fundamentalist and extremist groups in the region, mostly those related to ISIL’s ideas, within the Iranian extremist groups. Despite all threats, women activists organized a demonstration in front of parliament to protest against acid attacks. Unfortunately, police forces chose to arrest several women activists in this civil protest rather than arresting the aggressors and violators who perpetrated the acid attacks.

But despite the arrests of these young activists such as Mahdieh Golro, who continues to be kept in prison, these attacks seem to have stopped! It is noteworthy that even some governmental members condemned the attacks.

In spite of many restrictions and limitations, the members of the women’s movement are still struggling against human rights violence in Iran. They are fighting for their rights, even though they are still far from the equality “written” in the Universal Declaration.

Nearly 67 years after the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the struggle of Iranian women against human rights violations is minute compared to the roaring sea.

... Payvand News - 12/18/14 ... --

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