Back on June 12, 2006, Iranian activists took to the streets of Tehran in a peaceful protest to demand changes in the laws that discriminate against women. The protest was dispersed violently, and more than 70 people were arrested. In the years since, women activists designated that date — June 12 — as their day of national solidarity, but with each passing year, intimidated by the authorities, their commemorations went further underground. In 2007, they met in private homes. In 2008, they resorted to pushing an online petition.
And in 2009, they went to vote. There’s no way of ascertaining how many women sided with the reformist candidates in Iran’s disputed, discredited national election on this year’s June 12, but we do know that women played an active role in the tumultuous campaign leading to that vote and in the bloody days that have followed. The tragic death of Neda Agha Soltan, captured on grainy video and transmitted worldwide, may well become the symbol of this remarkable uprising, but she was apparently a passersby caught in senseless gunfire.
Behind her, around her, are the countless Iranian women who are fighting for basic human rights and have slowly, painfully gained strength even as government repression grew. Their brave participation in the ongoing protests is no accident.
Rather, it should serve as a potent reminder that feminism wears many different faces, and sometimes they are covered by the hijab.
Women in Iran have long been the most highly educated in the Middle East, and now constitute a majority of the nation’s college students. But that comparison belies the difficult fact that many alive today remember Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when women had far more freedom. And many of the younger protesters today remember life before the brutal regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose subjugation of women has fueled their activism.
Even Shirin Ebadi, who in 2003 became the first Iranian to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her legal and social activism, is facing increased pressure and intimidation. In December, the government shut down the human rights group that she led. Her daughter has been threatened, and Ebadi herself has been roundly criticized for having the chutzpah to represent Ba’hais and homosexuals.
Still, she and other women persist. And while many are agitating for new elections, their demands go to even more basic issues. According to the One Million Signatures campaign, Iran’s discriminatory laws give men the sole right to divorce and, except in special cases, the right to custody of children. One man’s testimony equals that of two women. Women cannot serve as judges. (Ebadi, once a judge herself, was forced to give up the position after the Islamic revolution. That is, evidently, what turned her into a tenacious campaigner for human rights.)
This election campaign was the first in which these women’s issues were directly discussed, which is undoubtedly why the ruling clerics ignored results that didn’t maintain the disgraceful status quo. “I see lots of girls and women in these demonstrations,” a woman named Parisa told CNN. “They are all angry, ready to explode, scream out and let the world hear their voice. I want the world to know that as a woman in this country, I have no freedom.”
It is deeply ironic that June 12, women’s solidarity day, will now forever be associated with an election that has rocked Iran more violently than anything since 1979. Whatever the outcome of the people’s protests, however Ahmadinejad and the mullahs seek to hold onto power, whoever officially tries to rule this troubled country, this moment belongs to Iran’s 34 million women. This brave quest for human rights and dignity is their legacy.