By Aghileh Djafari Marbini
Iran is a country of seemingly contradictory faces and this is true of its women as much as anything else. The face that we are often presented with in the western media is that of oppression and subjugation by the patriarchy. Although this is part of the story, it is not the full picture and does Iranian women a great disservice.
The story of contemporary Iranian women, like the story of the 1979 revolution, is a story of two halves. The media would have us believe that the Iranian people were living a paradise existence and in a fit of madness they decided to embrace Islamic fundamentalism to overthrow a benevolent king. This is very far from the truth and it’s a narrative that serves only to ‘other’ Iranian people in a faraway land.
The Iranian revolution was grounded in the ideas of freedom and self-determination for a nation and these had particular resonance amongst women. During the protests in the late 1970s, women were for the first time at the forefront of demonstrations and activism in Iran. Prior to that a privileged minority of women had space outside of the home, but this was the first in time in which a large numbers of women from all backgrounds and classes participated in mass activism. In a first of its kind Ayatollah Khomeini encouraged women to participate and did not follow the usual tradition of forbidding women from attending demonstrations for religious reasons.
After the revolution, tyrannical elements took power and within a short time they began their oppression of minorities, the political opposition and women’ rights. Finally they organised a coup against the freely elected president of the new republic, Abolhassan Banisadr. Women of Iran did not stay quiet – the genie was out of the bottle. Just a few months after the revolution, thousands of women rallied against the compulsory hijab in the streets of Tehran to stand against the ‘revolution devouring its children’.
Despite the long-standing oppression of women under the current regime, the 1979 Iranian revolution should still be seen as a stepping stone for Iranian women to be at the forefront of all civil society and activism. The work of human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and women’s and human rights activist Narges Mohammadi are examples of the work bravely carried out by these women. Many pay a heavy personal price for their struggle, Narges has spent years in prison and has missed out on seeing her twin children growing up.
Throughout the four oppressive decades of the Iranian regime, women have pushed forward the cause of women’s rights, no matter how much they have had to pay for it. One can see the results of this struggle in the education and social sectors if not in terms of rights and laws of the land. By 2005 65% of Iran’s university students were women and interestingly almost 70% of university graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects are also women. This does not translate into jobs: only 19% of women are in the workforce. In the last two parliaments 5.8% of the parliamentarians elected have been women.
In December 2017, Vida Movahed climbed on top of a utility box on one of Tehran’s busiest streets. She stood there with a bare head, calmly waving her white scarf on a long stick. Her display of defiance went viral and other women followed suit; many were arrested.
In August 2019, the Iranian football federation lifted the ban on Iranian women’s entry to football stadiums for the first time in 40 years. On September 8th, 2019, Sahar Khodayari set herself on fire after being arrested for trying to enter a stadium. She died a week later as a result of her injuries. Following her death, the football federation assured Iranian women they could attend stadiums starting from October 2019. On October 10th, 2019, more than 3,500 women attended the Azadi Stadium for a World Cup qualifier against Cambodia.
These are only a few examples of the defiance of a nation against a brutal regime. However, what is a constant is that in the struggles of the Iranian people for democracy and self-determination in the last four decades women have been at the forefront.
Iranian women stood against the tyranny of Pahlavi dynasty with courage and determination and they have stood for over 40 years against a post-revolution regime that turned its back on them. Iranian women don’t deserve or need our pity, they deserve our solidarity. I salute my Iranian sisters for their courage and defiance. I know that you shall overcome, for your perseverance is truly deserving of reward.
Happy International women’s day!
Aghileh Djafari Marbini is a Labour Party activist in Harrow.
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