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Women of the revolution

Thirty years after the toppling of the Shah in Iran, Azar Sheibani looks at how Iranian women have defied the reign of misogynist terror

January 30, 2009
10 min read

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.

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