Paradoxes of Iranian Society Spur on Heroic Women
Sunday 12 June 2011
On Wednesday, security forces attempting to cut short the
Sahabi had been let out of prison, where she was serving a two-year term for human rights activism, to attend the funeral. A photo of her holding a picture of her father - Ezatollah Sahabi, a prominent dissident in his own right - just before her death has now joined other iconic images of
Several of those who have died in street clashes or been executed by the regime over the past two years have been women. The best known is Neda Agha-Soltan, a 27-year-old philosophy student who was fatally shot Jun. 20, 2009 on the streets of
Among the most prominent political prisoners in
"This existence is at times happy and upbeat, at times calm and demure, at times watchful and analytical, but always tolerant and willing to compromise; a tolerance that will eventually lead us to achieve our goals," she wrote.
Women have participated and died in all of
However, in the past they tended to walk behind or separate from men, said Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East programme at the
Esfandiari, herself jailed for four months in 2007 on nebulous allegations of promoting a "velvet revolution" in
Despite the fact that they lacked legal equality, they often become breadwinners and household decision-makers when their husbands lost jobs, became too demoralised to function or were sent off to fight during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
Encouraged, even obliged to take part in pro-government demonstrations, women developed a habit of political activism. They figured prominently in the successful 1997 and 2001 presidential campaigns of Mohammad Khatami, a reformist cleric, and in the 2009 campaign of Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister who ran against incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Mousavi promised to end inequality of women in inheritance, court testimony and child custody – restrictions placed on women by the Islamic regime. The fact that his accomplished wife – former university president Zahra Rahnavard – campaigned alongside him was also a major factor in attracting women's support.
Other Iranian women, such as human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who in 2003 became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, have led efforts to regain equal rights. An online petition campaign – the Million Signatures Campaign – was started in 2006 by women seeking legal equality.
The expanding profile of women in
Women from traditional religious families who had shied away from higher education under the Shah began attending in greater numbers once all women were forced to wear the veil and many public spaces became segregated by sex. Now 64 percent of those attending higher education in
The paradoxes and contradictions of Iranian society in regard to women are a spur to activism.
Milani notes in a new book on Iranian women writers, "Words, not Swords", "Women can vote and run for some of the highest offices in the country but they must observe an obligatory dress code. They can drive personal vehicles, even taxis and trucks and fire engines, but they cannot ride bicycles…
"They have entered the world stage as Nobel Peace laureates, human rights activists, best-selling authors, prize-winning film directors and Oscar nominees, but they cannot enter governmental offices through the same doors as men."
The fact that so many women are incarcerated in
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs