Women and the Struggle for Democracy in Iran: A Discussion With a Nobel Laureate
Wednesday 04 November 2009
by: Cynthia Boaz, t r u t h o u t | Interview
Nobel Laureate Dr. Shirin Ebadi, a prominent human rights lawyer and democracy activist from
"The Iranian women's movement is not simply demanding equal rights alone. It is demanding a larger universal reality, which is democracy." - Shirin Ebadi, October 9, 2009
A couple of weeks ago, I had the rare chance to sit down with Nobel Laureate Dr. Shirin Ebadi, a prominent human rights lawyer and democracy activist from Iran. She was at
Dr. Ebadi holds strong views about the vibrancy of the ongoing resistance and movement for democratic rights in her country - views that both the Islamic Republic and the larger mainstream media audience might find stunning. During our talk about the state of the pro-democracy resistance in
There is no consensus as to exactly when the contemporary women's movement in Iran first emerged, but it is generally understood that demands for gender equality stretch back at least to the Constitutional Revolution of 1910. Conventional wisdom now seems to accept that the 1979 Islamic Revolution marked a turning point in the mobilization of women for equal rights in
Between 2005 and 2007, democracy activists came under brutal attack by the regime. Many women were arrested, a number were reportedly tortured, and rumors of rape by security forces were widespread. Independent media outlets were shut down for their complicity with the movement. Within the official institutions, more than one hundred defenders of women's rights (including one male MP) were arrested and received a combined sentence of almost a decade for their role in supporting the movement. in that two-year period, more than 16,000 women were arrested by the regime for "immodest" dressing, and a new quota program was instituted to reduce the ratio of female university students to male students (women currently make up more than 65 percent of university students in Iran, a statistic which undoubtedly helps to explain the extraordinarily high degree of participation amongst women in that country).
It was in the atmosphere of this wave of repression targeted at women and women's rights defenders that the women's movement was roused from its silence and that the One Million Signatures campaign emerged. The campaign stands out amongst other women-led campaigns for several reasons, including the breadth of its appeal. It was started in 2006 as an effort to acquire a million signatures on a petition to the Iranian Islamic Republic, demanding that it acknowledge the equal status of women under the law. In the more than three years since its birth, numerous activists linked (or in some cases, simply rumored to be linked) to the One Million Signatures Campaign, including Esha Momeni, a graduate student at the California State University - Northridge , have been arrested, detained, jailed, lashed and otherwise persecuted for their connection to the campaign. The campaign is known to be active in a majority of
Dr. Ebadi suggests that "The most important event that has [recently] occurred in
Although the Iranian women's movement is operating in conditions of extreme repression and lack of political space, their advantages - namely, their sophisticated understanding of how nonviolent movements succeed against violent opponents and their ability and willingness to use their skills tactically - outweigh the obvious disadvantages.
For example, while there is a tenacious conventional wisdom that the use of repression by a regime opponent signals the end of a nonviolent people's resistance, in fact, when placed in its larger context, violence is more accurately understood as a sign of weakness on the part of the government. As the number of threats and arrests against the women of Iran goes up, the more the Islamic Republic confirms what many in Iran and the Middle East already know: the Iranian women's movement is effectively chipping away at the last vestiges of political legitimacy and moral authority of that regime. When martyrs are created (e.g. "Neda," whose death transformed her into the face of the Green Revolution and highlighted the significance of women to the resistance), internal or external parties who were previously on the sidelines can be galvanized to action. Each time the regime represses, it actually helps to recruit new members to the resistance. This includes men, whom Dr. Ebadi says have become persuaded that the movement for women's rights in
Another explanation for the relative success of the Iranian women is tactical. The movement has been extraordinarily clever about using "dilemma actions" as part of its strategy. A dilemma action puts the opponent in the unwelcome position of having to choose between two bad options, either of which the movement can claim as a victory. For example, during a 2006 World Cup qualifying match at
The movement has also demonstrated skill and tactical innovation in its use of techniques such as internet blogging, the emphasis on international coalition-building and the ability to come up with low-risk but high-impact actions such as pushing the hajib a few inches back on the head. This kind of tactic is effective because it comes with a high degree of plausible deniability, but when applied en masse, has a powerful symbolic effect. Furthermore, the Iranian women's movement generally, and the One Million Signatures Campaign specifically, seem to be doing a skilled job of meeting the three primary requirements of a successful nonviolent movement: cultivation of unity across both membership and message, emphasis on long-term strategic planning, and adherence to nonviolent discipline in implementing their tactics.
The successes demonstrate that even under conditions of very little political space, victory is still an option. Dr. Ebadi has an explanation as to why it's so difficult for the regime's repression to crush the movement: "The more the women are repressed, the stronger this movement becomes. And more importantly, this movement does not have a leader. It does not have a central office, nor [does it have] branches. It rests in the hearts and minds of every Iranian household. And that is why it is invincible." Although some Western commentators prone to conspiracy thinking and Iranian government sympathizers have endeavored to paint the Iranian resistance as US-commandeered, only a truly indigenous movement could generate unity of such notable breadth and depth.
I asked Dr. Ebadi how the world generally, and Americans in particular, could support the democracy movement in
Note: The author acknowledges Greenwood/Praeger, publisher of the forthcoming anthology, "Peace Movements Worldwide: History, Psychology and Practices," in which some of the material on the history and dynamics of the Iranian women's movement will appear.
Cynthia Boaz, Ph.D., is assistant professor of political science at Sonoma State University, where she specializes in nonviolent movements and quality of democracy. She is an academic advisor to the
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