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:
1. Aim to prevent or support those who were victims of the law
2. Inform and educate
3. Resist suppression and work towards changing the dominant structures  

Intro on Iranian Movement
Women’s rights movement in Iran started over 100 years ago. The first voices for women’s rights in Iran were heard in 1900s, during the constitutional revolution, when women started an underground political participation in the revolution advocating the women’s right to share the social space.   At first, they had basic demands such as right to education because they believed that through education the conditions would improve for women.  Soon formation of NGOs (such as Association for Freedom, and Women’s Secret Union) followed and they actually became strong enough to establish the first primary schools for girls in 1907. After these primary steps, there was a big wave of publications and periodical written by women for women; which expressed the dissatisfaction of women of their social, cultural and political limitations and called for change.  Since then the Iranian Women’s Rights Movement has experienced many ups and downs.

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.
Meanwhile, the new legislations after the revolution, except for voting right of women, abolished the small accomplishments women had achieved in area of legal age, divorce, temporary marriage laws and custody, till that day.

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.
So, women in Iran who up to that point had successfully gained some social freedom, cultural openness, and political power were instantly placed 100 steps behind, and were treated as the second class citizens.
Women were first to demonstrate against the regime’s discriminatory practices such as the mandatory hijab and they were first victims of violence inflicted by the state, however as the pressure build up, they found more reason to resist and finally during the reform era and the Khatami’s presidency, new NGOs such as The Iranian Women’s Cultural Center was formed, and eventually they started to publicize their message of gender equality; which led to the birth of the One Million Signatures Campaign.
Now in the words of Parvin Ardalan, one of the founders of the One Million Signatures Campaign, I like to talk about the Campaign which is a three year old project, that has expanded the Iranian Women Rights Movement across the globe.

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.
The campaign has had an immediate impact on the society by entering people’s homes and hearts and by making women’s rights discussion, part of the public discourse, which expands beyond the concerned activists, scholars or the feminists.  This road has been rough, yet rewarding. Although the movement collectively and some of its members individually, have received international recognition in form of several different awards, (most recently the Simon De Beauvoir Women’s Freedom Award, Feminist Majority Foundation 2009 Global Women’s Rights Award, and the 2009 Women of the Year award from Glamour Magazine),  this movement has paid a heavy price in the form of arrests, detention, and punishment for making our message public and widespread.

How would civil movements such as The Campaign make a difference?
The essence of gender discrimination is unequal treatment on the basis of gender. The treatment must not simply be different, but also unequal, and therefore unfair.
Almost all amendments and new civil laws are approved not because our representatives in Congress review the laws on the books and find the deficiencies and short comings in them, but rather because the public outcry is formulated in to petitions and lobbied on the floor of the congress.  Sadly, in many cases, the laws that are currently protecting women’s rights here in US were also not the result of the fair and impartial legal system review of the laws, rather an event that women had been complaining about for a long time, finally happened to a man, or, an opportunistic politician came up with a clever idea to use women’s issue to deliver his own agenda to the public.

This year, we witnessed several examples of this concept in Iran’s political scene:

§  As a result of the social demand in recent years for more freedom for women and gender equality, before the election, for the first time candidates specifically addressed and publicized their plans for women. Their wives accompanied them in the presidential campaigns and during interviews, and had a new presence in the media.

§  In order to win popularity, Ahmadinejad selected three women for his initial cabinet, although none of these female candidates had supported matters related to women.

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.
Sexual harassment is a type of gender discrimination: Women and men have the right to secure and perform their jobs free of unwanted demands for romantic or sexual relationships, or unwanted communications or behaviors of a sexual nature that interfere with their ability to work. Workplace harassment is another form of unlawful discrimination.

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:
1)   Although the protective laws were passed in 1920s and 1964, hardly any woman stepped forward and voiced their complaints due to cultural and societal pressure.  They did not have any substantial success through the legal system either. What changed the situation was that a man became the victim of the sexual harassment and filed suit against the woman who imposed it upon him.  The subject of the law suit became widely known and he received a favorable judgment in his case and finally the women started to have confidence in the practicality of the laws that were passed years before.
2)   Setting a legal precedent, encouraged women to step forward and speak up about  their challenges and issues.  Of course, in many cases the communities they lived in placed the blame on the women’s shoulder and mark them with shame for discrediting their predators.  But the taboo was broken and it became a wide spread practice.
3)   As a result of more cases surfacing, and the success of legal law suits in favor of the victims of sexual harassment, public became less tolerant of harassing words and behaviors and more perceptive and encouraging to people who spoke up.
4)   The final impact is that today, every school program and HR Training program includes extensive training on the subject of sexual harassment and these trainings must be repeated at least annually.

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.
So you may ask: Why did the message of the Campaign spread across the world so quickly?
Many of us refused to accept the status quo, and wanted to do something that would lead to positive change.  The Campaign provided a venue that people from various walks of life with different religious, educational and political background could come together and work towards a common goal: An Iranian society that does not accept nor practices gender discrimination. Besides supporting the efforts of the Campaign members inside of Iran, campaign had to become active outside of Iran, in order to build a culture that does not tolerate gender discrimination.  By communicating examples of everyday issues that women face at the civil and civic level, we challenged ourselves and others to think about the gender discrimination around us, and to look for solution.

Let’s talk about the Achievements of the women’s rights movement
Beside their brave contributions to the women’s rights movement, women also are a Significant driving force in the green movement.  In addition to, bringing the challenges of women out in to open, demonstrating the capabilities of women, documenting the contribution of women, there are recent cases of public demand for justice and respect for human rights which have clearly learned from the non-violent opposition tactics of the women’s rights movement.  For instance, the birth of the group known as the “mourning mothers” who seek information  and justice in cases of their martyrs of the post 2009 disputed Iranian election or the “Men in Hijab Campaign” which was formed in defense of  Majid Tavakkoli, sheds light to the ever growing support of men in fight for gender equality.  They are spreading this message all over the internet , “ Being a woman or Wearing the hijab is not shameful”

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
Government imposed challenges consist of: wide spread arrests such as recent arrest of over 20 participants of the mourning mothers, lack of freedom of speech or press or assembly, firing practices due to women’s activism in women’s movement (such as the recent case of Narges Mohammadi), and the second wave of cultural revolution against women that is taking place; where the field of studies, choices of universities and attendance quota are aimed to limit women’s presence in society.

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
Although in most cases we have received encouraging feedback from the Iranian community living abroad, some small group of the community, not only have not supported us but also they have engaged in labeling tactics.  Some of the comments are:  Any civil movement that is not focused on the demand for democracy is creating diversion (nefagh),or,  civil activists are acting as agents of the government, or, you are delusional in thinking that we can have an impact or change hundreds of years trend of patriarchal society, or, blame all of Iranian women’s challenges on religion, or,  challenge the women movement to prove its support of the broader social and nationalist movement by setting aside its demand for gender equality.

So, what is the answer to all these challenges?
Well, I believe in contemporary world that we live in, the fear of the unknown and presence of tradition should not prevent us from embracing change.  After all, demanding Gender Equality neither means that a patriarchal society will shift to the opposite spectrum and become a matriarchal society, nor it is a treat to securing democracy for the entire nation.

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.