Western imperialism’s sabre-rattling against Iran has prompted the Tehran regime to intensify its suppression of grass-roots progressive movements. The regime uses the threat of war to claim that radical and progressive movements – like the women’s, workers’ and students’ – are in league with imperialism, are somehow ‘fifth columnists’. Harsh repression inevitably follows.
The irony is that the experience of two imperialist invasions in the region has shattered any illusions among women and other social movements about the so-called ‘liberation’ on offer from US-led intervention. The barbaric consequences for the women of Afghanistan and Iraq are eloquent testimony to that. Women in Iran are fully aware that they are the only force that can change their destiny.
In its way, this is a legacy of the 1979 revolution – despite its ultimate failure. Women who participated in this – one of the great revolutions of the 20th century – have a collective memory of its successes and the visions of freedom it offered. The momentous events of that year politically matured tens of thousands of women. From then on, women looked at their achievements at the height of the revolution’s sweep and liberatory élan as the baseline for their continuing struggle.
Given the sort of society Iran is today, the crucial role of women in that upsurge is often overlooked. As we celebrate the revolution’s 30th anniversary, it is important to set the record straight.
The failed 1979 revolution in Iran
The mass participation of women in the 1979 uprising in Iran marked a turning point in the history of their struggles for freedom and comprehensive equal rights with men. Iranian women were already active in the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911) and other major political events of the century. But it was the expansion of Iranian capitalism under the Shah that drew women more fully onto the political stage.
Women had to be absorbed into the labour market in order to respond to the demands and gaps in the modern sectors of the economy. This is something that, despite major anomalies and contradictions between running a capitalist system and adhering to archaic religious diktats, the Islamic regime continued. Women do not experience oppression in a vacuum and the capitalist form in Iran – even under very different political regimes – has produced the contradiction between their productive role in society as wage earners and their lack of equal rights.
Thus, when the combustible material in Iranian society burst into flame in 1979, women were on the streets en masse and left a major impact on the revolution. Women’s active and visible presence in the 1979 revolution added a significant impetus to the mass demonstrations leading up to the uprising. (This included women from traditional sections of society.)
As organisers and leaders, their active engagement broke through centuries-old patriarchal walls. For the first time, women felt that they were alongside men as equal contributors and not as mere numbers. Throughout the 1970s, secular Iranian women had certainly regarded themselves as a component part of a worldwide struggle for equality. But to many, the revolution appeared offer a chance to find an independent voice as Iranian progressives, as socialists and feminists.
It is one of the cruel paradoxes of that revolution that women played an important role in toppling the Shah’s regime as frontline fighters in charge of barricades, demonstrations and strikes. Yet today, women in the society that revolution – or rather its failure – produced occupy an oppressed and subordinate position.
The first war of the Islamic regime
Islamisation of society started with an attack on women the moment the regime had consolidated its power on the back of the defeated revolution. The Islamic regime quickly sensed the confident presence of women and their enhanced awareness of their rights. It understood that these radicalised women could represent a major barrier to the Islamisation of society.
It was no coincidence that after only 15 days of securing political power, Khomeini began to issue a number of key religious decrees (fatwa) that amounted to a full blown assault on women and their rights as women, wives, mothers and citizens. This started with a decree abrogating the Family Protection Law of the pre-revolutionary era (1967). Five days later, he announced that women could no longer be judges as this would conflict with fundamental Islamic beliefs that women do not have the intelligence, rationality and other necessary faculties to hold such positions. Then, only two days before international women’s day on 8 March 1979, he issued his infamous decree concerning women’s dress code. This ordered women to wear the Islamic veil (hijab) in the workplace (later extended to all spheres of life). This single decree was of enormous symbolic importance. It – and the muted reaction to it – changed women’s lives under the Islamic regime forever.
On 10 March 1979, women organised a massive protest against the hijab’s imposition. This was savagely crushed by the regime and an important turning point was reached. It became clear to many women that most of their male political allies were not prepared to support them in this struggle against the regime. Many progressive organisations – exclusively led by men – as well as some women regarded the issue as marginal at best. This was a fatal mistake.
Progressively more and more aspects of women’s private and public lives were violently invaded.
State-sponsored misogyny, violence and discrimination
Islamic law (Sharia) now legitimated state violence against women, dispensed through official bodies such as Islamic law enforcement agencies, ‘morality’ patrols and the ‘Revolutionary Guards’. Sexual apartheid became one of the main building blocks of the Islamic regime’s ideological identity, perhaps the defining element. This is evident in all public spaces, including the labour market, universities, schools, recreational centres, beaches and buses. The Islamic regime created numerous institutions to actively interfere in all spheres of women’s lives, including sex.
The way women dress, conduct their sexual life in the privacy of their homes, eat or drink, choose which subjects to study, travel or look after their children are issues for the Islamic state to decide, not women themselves.
The Islamic constitution and the penal codes prohibited women from the presidency, religious leadership, judgeship and entering certain educational fields. All civil courts were replaced by Islamic courts. The Law of Retribution (Qisas) and its barbarically archaic practices were re-introduced into Iran after 13 centuries. Via the constitution, the Islamic penal code and the Council of Guardians’ directives it is legal to value a woman’s life as half of a man’s life in blood money exchanges (deyeh), to stone adulterers to death, torture women for not observing the strict hijab and showing some strands of their hair (Ta’zir), punishing them by cutting parts of their body (including blinding by gouging an eye out), rape virgin women in prison before execution (so they are excluded from ‘heaven’) and much more.
It should be emphasised that although ‘children’ are exempt from such punishment, all of the above can apply to girls aged nine and above and boys aged 15 and above. In the civil law of the regime, this is the age that girls and boys reach puberty.
The discriminatory religious laws against women do not just limit women’s rights: They also confer privileges on men. For example, polygamy (giving men the Islamic blessing to have up to four permanent wives at a time and unlimited temporary wives, Sigheh); the right to divorce is exclusively male; custody of children after divorce and many more outrageously sexist ‘rights’. Sexual violence in Iran became a state affair, legalised and sanctified by religion.
Thus, in Iran, religion saturates all the legal, political, economic, cultural, social and private spheres and processes of society. Any basic demand from women is regarded as a threat to the Islamic regime as it questions the validity of Islam and therefore the regime. Women’s resistance against the compulsory hijab, for example, is seen by the Islamic regime as an open political confrontation. If women want to object to the fact that they do not want to live with their husbands in a polygamous relationship, their objection is regarded as subversive. For even basic demands, women have to confront a mighty religious state rather than the traditional family patriarchs. The same logic applies to the Islamic regime. That is why women have been kept under 24 hour surveillance in the past thirty years and their moves are monitored closely both in private and public life.
The potentially explosive nature of women’s rights in Iran is illustrated in the regime’s handling of one section of the women’s movement in particular. One of its most successful ‘counter-insurgency’ strategies over the past thirty years has been to indirectly empower the Islamic sections of the women’s movement in order to marginalise the secular and left tendencies. Through this it was also able to claim that an active women’s movement and the Islamic regime are not necessarily incompatible. (The cadre of this section of the movement were actually often related to leading male figures in the regime.) Now, the regime’s repression has reached a point that it cannot even tolerate these women’s restrained demands for piecemeal reforms within an Islamic framework. By imprisoning them, the regime has made martyrs of them – something that unfortunately diverted attention for the struggle of working women from equality.
Women’s magnificent defiance
Misogynous laws, systematic violence, hostile patriarchal structures, discrimination in public and private, constant harassment, imprisonment, torture and execution have not managed to silence women in Iran. In the last 30 years, women have defied the reign of misogynist terror and have managed to exhibit a splendidly imaginative and innovative repertoire of resistance.
This ranges from the micro-level of relations within a family to broader political initiatives. For instance, Iranian women have now occupied a prominent position in arts, literature and cinema. Feminisation of art is a new phenomenon in Iran and has been part of this strategy of resistance. Women have created influential websites and blogs and, like others in the grassroots progressive movements, uses the technological revolution to devise new resistance strategies.
What now after 30 years?
The women’s movement, in its broad sense, has been a prominent example of resistance against the Islamic regime over the past 30 years. Women are no longer prepared to join anti-regime movements in a marginal capacity. They know the value of their independent struggle and other movements such as the workers’ and students’ acknowledge their status. They are well aware that while they participate in the broader struggles they must simultaneously fight against patriarchy within the movement. This is a new development.
There is a naïve school of thought in the West which sees the limited space women have won as being evidence of the Islamic regime’s growing ‘moderation’ or self-democratisation. In truth, the gains women have made have been heroically won over the last 30 years in the teeth of fierce opposition from that regime. It is an insult to the women of Iran to suggest even for one second that their democratic achievements somehow belong to the government rather than themselves.
The women of Iranian – in alliance with other progressive movements – hold the key to their liberation in their own hands. It is our duty to support them against both US-led imperialism and the Tehran regime.
Labour's 1983 election campaign has long been used to say it is impossible for a leader like Jeremy Corbyn to win any election from the left. Alex Nunns digs out the truth
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out