Iranian women are the heroes of their own stories
On 14th December 2022, the UN, after massive lobbying by both Iranians and non-Iranians, removed the Islamic Republic from the UN Commission on the Status of Women. This was seen as a great victory because it signalled to the women of Iran that the world is finally listening!
The importance of this action is closely tied to the pivotal role women have played in the current protests in Iran, both in terms of their visibility, numbers and the centrality of their experience and demands, which also resulted in them being named Times Magazine Heroes of the Year.
To understand the significance of all this, it is important to call attention to the fact that Iran went through not one, but two revolutions in the 20th century – the first was the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911 and the second one was, of course, the Revolution of 1978/79, known to many as the Islamic Revolution (a somewhat erroneous term as it describes the outcome rather than the variety of political parties involved).
Both of these revolutions failed women, albeit at different degrees. In the first instance, despite women’s active participation in the Constitutional Revolution, which heralded a modern era in Iranian politics, the “woman question” remained ignored due to a long tradition of clerical influence in the politics of the country.
"Since women were the first to bear the burden of the rule of political Islam, they were also the first to challenge its legitimacy"
With the Revolution of 1978/79, not only did women not gain any rights, but they actually lost all the rights they had acquired in the previous Pahlavi regime, even though many of them, both secular and religious, had supported the Revolution.
This was because Ayatollah Khomeini had, disingenuously, promised women equality under an Islamic regime – so women never imagined that they were going to lose their rights. Their demands were, therefore, unfocused and predominantly in terms of independence, freedom, and class equality.
The “woman question” was considered a natural appendix to these and so women did not rally around gender-specific demands.
They were, consequently, not a priority in the new Islamic regime, as demonstrated by the fact that the new constitution only dedicated four of its 175 articles to women, and these spoke only of women's role within the context of the family and the framework of Islamic law and principles.
"Women see themselves in Mahsa Amini. A lot of women are saying: 'This is how I dress. Are you going to pick me up, take me to detention and have me end up in a hospital & die?'"— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) October 30, 2022
Negar Mortazavi on the ongoing #IranProtests 👇
However, since women were the first to bear the burden of the rule of political Islam, they were also the first to challenge its legitimacy. Paradoxically, the Islamic regime’s stance on women turned many previously passive and apolitical women into activists, and nurtured new generations of dissidents.
The regime’s obsession with women as repositories of family honour and sources of temptation, and with women’s appearance and conduct, served to keep the women’s issue at the forefront of public discussions, and to heighten the consciousness of women, especially the young, of their own condition.
The globalisation of feminism has also contributed to the rise in the consciousness level of Iranian women. Common grievances have led to an unprecedented gender solidarity between women of all classes, convictions, and ethnicities. Women have increasingly been at the forefront of civil society debates, insisting particularly in recent decades on being visibly active in all aspects of life.
We saw this in the aftermath of the disputed presidential elections in the summer of 2009, known as the Green Movement, where women were very noticeable in the protests, although the demands were (once again) not centred on women's rights.
In the face of constant arrests, imprisonment and mounting violence, women’s rights advocates have become more active, vocal, and fearless over the years. They have employed both individual and collective strategies to enhance public awareness of the situation of women in the Islamic Republic and to create coalitions to call for international solidarity.
One such initiative was the One Million Signatures Campaign, or Change for Equality, the petition calling for the repeal of discriminatory marriage and divorce laws, which spread rapidly online and was joined by thousands of young women in their teens and early twenties.
Likewise, platforms such as My Stealthy Freedom, the brainchild of US-based activist Masih Alinejad, which has become the largest civil disobedience campaign to challenge the compulsory hijab laws in Iran, have been very effective in organising feminine disobedience.
"Not only have women come out in large numbers, but they have also used their bodies in revolutionary defiance and disruption of the state-prescribed masculine order"
My Stealthy Freedom also created a number of other initiatives such as the popular #whitewednesdays movement, where Iranians post pictures and videos of themselves wearing white headscarves or pieces of white clothing as symbols of protest. Such initiatives inspired many women, such as the “The Girls of Revolution Street” to publicly defy the regime by removing their hijab in protest.
The growing awareness of Iranian women about international female empowerment is also evident in the emergence of the #MeToo movement in Iran in 2020, which quickly gained traction with women sharing their experiences of sexual violence, including by men in positions of power.
Consequently, despite the regime’s attempts to undermine them, both individually and collectively, Iranian women have proved difficult to stop and have become a visible political force.
In today’s protests, echoing the “Woman, Life, Freedom” slogan, we can discern a clear vocal feminist presence both in the streets and in cyberspace, in what has been dubbed the first feminist revolution in the world.
This time, however, in contrast to previous popular mobilizations where women's rights and demands were relegated to an afterthought, women are now envisioning alternative futures with their freedom as a prerequisite for a free society.
Not only have women come out in large numbers, but they have also used their bodies in revolutionary defiance and disruption of the state-prescribed masculine order.
This feminist subversion is performed by ordinary girls and women, by female athletes, such as the climber Elnaz Rekabi, who competed without her veil and is reportedly under house arrest as a result, by the female basketball team and their coach who posted their picture unveiled, despite the threats from the regime, as well as celebrities and actresses.
"The young Iranian women we see fighting for their rights today are the heirs of at least a century of feminist resistance and a collective journey of sustained activism and struggle"
The young Iranian women we see fighting for their rights today are the heirs of at least a century of feminist resistance and a collective journey of sustained activism and struggle.
They have learned from the mistakes of previous generations and are not only more confident, but even more focused and determined to demand and fight for their rights.
They have become visible to themselves, individually and collectively, through the power of their ideas and are conceptualising a different feminine narrative – one that resists previously prescribed accounts and historical categorisations – empowering them to become the heroes of their own stories.
Katy Shahandeh is a final year PhD candidate at SOAS, a research and teaching assistant. Her academic interests are Middle Eastern (with an emphasis on Iran) art, history, culture and society, and her research, based on the works of contemporary Iranian women artists, is located around issues of gender, identity, and society, and informed by feminist and post-colonial theory. She has presented papers at many international conferences and has contributed to a volume published by Routledge entitled Curating as Feminist Organizing (2022).
Follow her on Twitter: @KShahandeh
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