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>> The Financial Times


WOMEN OF THE REVOLUTION

The Financial Times - May 17, 2012

by Monavar Khalaj and Najmeh Bozorgmehr

Narges, an educated Iranian woman whose birth coincided with the 1979 Islamic revolution, owes the fact that her destiny is different from that of her older sisters to the political upheaval. A kabaddi (tag) player, she freely travels for national competitions outside her home in Zabol, a poor and conservative town bordering Afghanistan in the south-east.

“I could not have had a university education or travelled outside Zabol alone if Iran were not ruled by an Islamic regime,” she says. “My father would not have allowed me to. He would have forced me to marry like my sisters.”

Narges represents millions of Iranian women from religious and conservative backgrounds who gained relative freedom and a good education because families assumed the ruling clerics would not authorise women to do anything un-Islamic.

The revolution was partly in response to the cultural shock that the Pahlavi dynasty’s western-style modernisation imposed on a society that was uneducated and deeply religious. The appearance of naked women on cinema screens and the drinking of alcohol on television led many families to impose further limitations on women. Monireh Nobakht, an official at the High Council for the Cultural Revolution, says the Islamic regime provided women with security and, hence, more freedom.

Human rights activists doubt the regime intended to liberate women. But the results of repressive policies, they say, have benefited those in the middle and lower classes, thanks to these the relentless efforts of those among them to turn restrictions into opportunities.

When the clerics swept to power they were quick to change the image of the country by enforcing the wearing of the hijab, obliging all women cover their heads and bodies in public. The obligation has ironically helped rid many women of their most immediate level of pressure: their families.

Nayereh Tavakoli, a sociologist, says the hijab “provided women who were struggling with domestic chauvinism with an opportunity to leap over the strict borders that could not be overcome otherwise”.

Many female activists argue the revolution pushed Iranian women backwards. Others insist the pre-revolution trend, because of its un-Islamic nature, was more progressive but not as inclusive. It left behind a significant number of women in poorer areas, who are now represented in universities and the job market.

Although Iranian women have never experienced an organised movement, they joined the pro-democracy Constitutional Revolution (1905-1907) and later achieved voting rights and the right to stand for public office in 1963. A 1975 family protection law gave women the right to divorce and to have custody of children, even though it was annulled after the revolution.

The struggle to gain equal rights continues but the regime’s suppression and arrest of women activists have led to a leaderless and unorganised movement that relies on sporadic campaigns by prominent activists and lawyers.

The clergy finds the demands for equality by educated women, who occupy more than 60 per cent of university seats, incompatible with Islamic teachings. The result has been only meagre achievements in this regard, but an increasing number of women have found back channels that enable them to skip legal discrimination.

Iranian women want their educational achievements to be translated into senior jobs. The Global Gender Gap Report 2011 of the World Economic Forum ranked Iran 130 out of 135 countries in the political empowerment of women. These shortcomings contributed to Iranian women playing an unprecedented role when they led men during the biggest anti-regime street protests in 2009, rejecting the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the president, as fraudulent.

The footage of Neda Agha-Soltan, a 27-year-old student, being shot in the chest and dying in the road rocked Iran and the world, turning her into the symbol of the pro-democracy Green Movement.

Minoo Mortaazi-Langaroudi, a human-rights activist, says Iranian women have struggled to find a domestic pattern by relying on Islamic ideology to have a “modern lifestyle”, which could be “the most precious experience” for Arab women who have gone through the Arab uprising.

“Even the most hardline politicians now feel the need to have a plan for women,” Ms Mortaazi-Langaroudi says. “Showing belief in women has become a vital slogan for politicians, whether reformists or fundamentalists.”





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