Challenges of the Iranian Women’s Movement – Old & New
|By: Sudi Farokhnia
December 12, 2009, Los Angeles, “Art for Humanity Program” in observation of 61st anniversary of Declaration of Human Rights
|Discrimination on the basis of gender.
Women have historically been subjected to systematic discrimination based on their gender. Some of this discrimination has been based on cultural stereotypes that cast women primarily in the roles of wives and mothers. In the patriarchal (male-dominated) societies around the world, women have been viewed as the “weaker sex,” who needed protection from the rough-and-tumble world outside of their homes. Such beliefs were used as justifications for preventing women from voting, holding public office, seeking higher education and working outside of their homes. In the cultures that portrayed wives as appendages of their husbands, women had often been invisible to the law.
The ability of women to use the law to fight gender discrimination in employment, education, domestic relations, and other spheres is a recent development across the world.
As modern society has made clear, women have the ability to perform with equal skills and succeed in every endeavor engaged in by men — including employment, athletics, academics and politics. Yet discrimination on the basis of gender has a long history across the world and even here in the US, and its residual effects still operate to keep women’s salaries lower and the opportunities fewer in the employment realm. Second class citizen status, name calling and labeling by the society, violence specifically domestic violence against women, placing the burden of proof of capabilities on women’s shoulder are all common discriminatory practices in most cultures.
In Iran with over 50% females within the society, and the women’s rights movement for over 100 years, women still have to defend their right and quest for equality. While all along, women, for nationalistic reasons, have supported the three Iranian revolutions of the past 100 years, during the recent presidential election campaign, it was the first time that they got involved in the political scene to voice their demands that were specific to women’s rights and gender equality. This decision was no surprise because the women’s rights movement and specifically the One Million Signatures Campaign acknowledged that five elements were required to be present in order to change the culture that tolerates gender discrimination. These five elements are:
Public Sensitivity, Awareness, legal protection, Open and Candid discussion protected both by society and the law, and Continued Education. None of these elements alone could bring about change and changes in the laws would only result from the active participation of all levels of society in bottom-up grass root movements, otherwise no politician would ever, spear head such project.
In an effort to change the discriminatory conditions, the movement has focused on three main strategies:
Intro on Iranian Movement
I along with some other women’s rights activists believe that the most important event affecting the women’s status in Iran was the 1979 revolution, which led to many civil, legal and cultural changes and although in many cases it made the conditions much worse for women, it led to higher presence of women in the public sphere because the new Islamic society was deemed safe enough for women from conservative and religious families to leave home, get educated and join the workforce. This was huge as today we witness that over 60% of university students are women.
Almost all of the current discriminatory laws have been around during the past 100 years but instead of advancing with time and improving, they have regressed. The most important laws that deeply affect the daily lives of women in Iran are laws regarding marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, the right to travel, right to choose place of employment and education as well as many others that discriminate against women.
Post 1979 revolution, women were eliminated from many professions such as being a Judge, Freedom of attire was taken away and the Islamic hijab was enforced. And beside the deep changes in the legal system, there was a cultural revolution master minded by the government of the day, in form of a huge propaganda that was advertised in schools, magazines and TV; which portrayed the ideal picture of a woman through motherhood, and the definition of a good mother was said to be, one who sacrifices herself for her family and for the son she gives back to the society.
The Campaign is not a group or party or faction or an organization
“The One Million Signatures Campaign to change discriminatory laws, as its name suggests, is a movement seeking a space to express demands for specific legal rights and to bring changes to the laws through the collection of signatures and through face-to-face interaction. The initial signors were 54 individuals with different political, ideological and intellectual leanings, and not a party or a faction. They were only the initiators and the founders of this movement and not its owners or guardians. Perhaps foreseeing the horizontal expansion of this effort in a patriarchal society where all facets of society are controlled, was not simple. Neither the women’s rights activists nor the state’s security forces expected it to continue. But it did, and carried on in its path for more than three years now. Spreading the quest for equality in all corners of the world, in different forms, as well as its variation in an extensive network of different leanings and ideologies, is the secret to the longevity of this action.”
A movement that started with 54 people has now expanded to a wide network of individuals and groups in Tehran, the provinces and other countries which have a real and obvious presence and continue their active existence. At least one of the principal successes of this movement is that the discussion of the subject of violation of women’s human rights by cultural practices and within the parameters of the law is no longer taboo, and in recent months it was able to make the Iranian presidential candidates aware of women’s demand for their equal rights and the importance of the role and the opinion of women.
How would civil movements such as The Campaign make a difference?
This year, we witnessed several examples of this concept in Iran’s political scene:
Allow me to tell you short story. In 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified which granted women the right to vote. But many other laws had to pass, in order to protect the basic human rights for women. Title VII (7) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, provides strong protections against gender discrimination in employment.
But how these laws were introduced and passed through the congress is the ugly truth that is hidden. In February 1964, Representative Howard W. Smith, a powerful Democrat from Virginia, offered an amendment to include sex (which gender is a more accurate label) as a protected class. Many suspected, that he had alternative motives, because he was known to be very prejudice towards race, and in order to undermine the success of the whole title VII, he thought that he can add sex to the list of protected classes such as race, religion and age. But his plan back fired and the amendment passed.
What makes this story interesting and relevant is the following:
As you can see 5 elements were required to be present in order to change the culture of this country in regards to sexual harassment: These 5 elements are: Public Sensitivity, Awareness, Whistle blower protection both by society and the law, legal protection and Continued Education.
Let’s talk about the Achievements of the women’s rights movement
Of course, there are many challenges, some are old and some are new. Challenges inside of Iran are in 2 categories: Government imposed & publicly imposed
Publicly imposed challenges are: general public is not widely engaged in following the news and due to limited access to computer, Satellite TV, lack of women specific publications, slow internet connection and consistent filtering practices by the state, as well as increased security concerns, has made it very hard to distribute the message of Women’s rights movement, also, the women’s rights movement is cornered, yet again, to defend its identity and its relation to the green democracy movement despite the widely publicized presence and contribution of the women, and as such, women not only pay the price of the political dictatorship but also are challenged by the cultural dictatorship.
There are challenges and comments we have received from the community outside of Iran
So, what is the answer to all these challenges?
Also we should not loose sight of the fact that the general public’s outcry for democracy also known as green movement is supported by a rainbow of various civil movements such as “Women’s Rights Movement”, “Student Movement”, “Worker’s Movement’ and others who for years have had the opportunity to practice activism in a democratic manner.
An above all, women’s rights are human rights and everyday is the right day to talk about it.
سودابه فرخ نیا که ۲۵ سال هست در خارج از وطنش ایران زندگی میکند در حرفهٔ حسابرسی مشغول به کار هست و در طی این سالها همواره مشغول به فعالیتهای مدنی و فرهنگی بوده و در ۲ سال و نیم گذشته فعال حقوق زنان زیر چتر کمپین یک میلیون امضا در جنوب کالیفرنیا بوده است. او اشتیاق بسیار به فرهنگسازی مثبت دارد و مصمم در راه رسیدن به فرهنگی فاقد از تبعیض جنسیتی، مذهبی، نژادی و مسلکی کوشا میباشد
Sudabeh Farokhnia was born in Tehran and graduated from High school in Iran. She has lived the last 25 years in Germany, Michigan and California. She obtained her bachelor in Accounting and Finance from Oakland University. Although she enjoys working as a Financial and Compliance Auditor, her love for people, Iranian Culture and determination in doing the right thing has kept her active in the public work. She along with 4 of her friends spear headed the establishment of the Persia House of Michigan which promoted Iranian Culture by opening a school for teaching Farsi to children and adults, book projects in public libraries, art exhibitions and more. She participates in many charities related to children, specifically Mahak also known as ISCC foundation. In the past 2.5 years she has passionately been active as a women’s rights activist in the One Million Signatures Campaign of Southern California and along with other student and professional members of this network, they have been educating the public on discriminatory practices against women both in the Iranian laws and cultural teachings. The driving force for her activism is the hope for achieving an Iranian Society free of discrimination on basis of gender, race, religion, nationality and age.