Fan the Sparks of Feminism in Iran

On the issue of women’s rights in Iran, there is bad news, good news, worse news and potentially good news:

  • Let’s start with the bad news: Women’s rights in Iran, as in most countries ruled under Shariah laws, are severely limited I comparison to Western countries. This article is much too short to get into all of the oppressive laws and traditions so you might want to check out this quiz to test yourself or simply google “women’s rights Iran”.
  • The good news is that “the only way is up”. When women are legally worth only half of their male counterparts and they are forced to dress and act in certain ways, any improvement in women’s rights will be a substantial change from the current situation.
  • Unfortunately, there is worse news: Under the oppression of the regime, there are little or no opportunities for women to fight for their rights. The regime, which views any criticism as a sin, is hell-bent on maintaining the status quo of the Islamic Revolution. Women, and men, who do present an alternative in which women and men enjoy equal rights are either branded as prostitutes, accomplices of the hated “West”, “seditionists” etc…
  • Finally, the potentially good news…Even under such an oppressive regime, there are some isolated cases of people, especially women, who are fighting for better rights, for equality with men, for more power in public office, for the end of gender segregation, for the end of enforced hijabs etc… These brave women might not have, yet, brought about the change that they struggled to achieve but they are noteworthy and should be supported.

In a country where change can only happen in leaps and bounds, each spark, even a small one, can light a bonfire if there is enough grass-roots support to fan it to life.


Increased awareness in women’s rights

Although the regime might be able to stifle actions that may improve women’s rights, it can’t extinguish the growing awareness of women, and men, to the notions of women’s rights in other countries. Trips abroad, meeting foreigners, access to social media and word of mouth are opening windows for Iranian women to view what their rights could be like and then compare the potential to the glum reality. The gradual increase of secularity over time through the younger generations, is also another impetus for change since secular Iranians are less likely to support and accept Shariah laws. Richer Iranians, especially those living in and around Tehran, are also more secular and more open to emulate notions of freedom which they see in the West.

Furthermore, over the last 3 years, three political events have added their own pressure to the potential of liberating women’s rights (emphasis on potential):

  • In 2013, Hassan Rouhani was elected to the presidency on a ticket for massive changes in foreign and domestic policy. His first task was to tackle Iran’s isolation and the signing of the JCPoA is a testament to his success in this field. He made 74 distinct promises of which 13 were achieved and 26 are in progress but his promise for equality for women is officially stalled. Rouhani is openly sympathetic to women’s causes but unfortunately, he remains a puppet of his Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who wants to retain the status quo.
  • The signing of the JCPoA is sure to raise awareness of the tattered state of women’s rights as foreigners, foreign brands and foreign communications, even if they are not from the West but from countries such as Russia or India, will promote more rights for women. Unfortunately, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s emphasis on a “resistance economy” and his paranoia of “foreign influence” are bound to inhibit the influence of foreigners in Iran.
  • The last parliamentary elections doubled the number of female members of parliament from 9 (3% of 290) to 17 (6%). This may sound like a huge win for Iranian women but Iran is still ranked 175 out of 193 countries for the percentage of women in national parliaments. Underneath the 100% increase lie two major problems:
    • 1) only 586 (9%) out of the 6,229 parliamentary candidates were women meaning that not enough women are motivated enough to strive for public office.
    • 2) An estimated 97% of the female candidates were disqualified during the vetting process prior to the parliamentary elections by the religious and hardline Guardian council leaving only 19 women…the same council disqualified 100% of all female candidates for the Assembly of Experts.


Sparks of women’s rights

Most of the brave women who are sparking up the issue of women’s rights are not activists per se in that they aren’t carrying picket signs nor are they really “working” at doing so. Take the hundreds of Iranian women who shared pictures of themselves without hijabs on the facebook community “My Stealthy Freedom“: these women are taking a big risk by sharing these pictures – two weeks ago, the regime cracked down on models and photographers in the fashion industry who did exactly this, closing down their social media accounts, shutting down businesses and forcing them to openly “confess” of their sins. The hijab-less women in My Stealthy Freedom may escape the regime’s radar since they are not famous but they remain in real danger. It is awe-inspiring to see the pictures of these brave women and even to see the support they receive from their husbands through pictures of their husbands supporting their cause or pictures of couples kissing.

For now, though, the regime has kept far away from My Stealthy Freedom, probably due to the high level of global awareness of this campaign. Other campaigns such as the “ID card challenge” in which Iranians shared pictures of themselves as opposed to pictures of their ID cards were promptly shut down by the regime.

Two weeks ago, another spark was ignited when Taraneh Alidoosti, a prominent Iranian actress in the Academy Award winning film, “The Salesman” inadvertently exposed a “feminist” tattoo, a “woman power” symbol made of a purple female sign and a clenched fist. As could be expected, the hardliners took a critical view of the tattoo and its meaning and immediately went on the attack while supporters of women’s rights defended the tattoo and its bearer. The issue raged on her twitter account and included, to date, over 6 thousand likes and at last 1 thousand retweets . “Keep calm and YES I am a feminist“, she wrote and while some attacked her (“You are advertising foreigners”) others were cautionary (“Keep calm and You will be in Evin Prison Tomorrow”).

And then, there is the case of Atena Farghadani, the Iranian cartoonist who drew a caricature of Iranian MP’s as animals following a proposed bill to deny and limit contraceptives in order to increase the birth-rate. She was arrested and sent to jail for 12 years and 9 months but managed to be freed after 18 months in her appeal following worldwide pressure to free her.

Another ongoing campaign is taking place over the rights of women to cheer on Iran’s national sports teams in volleyball, football etc…from stadiums which are legally gender segregated. Some women like Ghoncheh Ghavami protested by entering a stadium openly while others like “Shakiba” snuck in disguised as a man. This campaign has great potential only if the governing bodies such as FIFA (football) and FIVB (volleyball) decide to enforce their laws against gender segregation and forbid international games in Iran until the stadiums are open to women as well.

Each win by each Iranian citizen to improve human rights might seem limited: sharing a picture without a hijab, a woman power tattoo, 18 months in jail instead of 253 months, sneaking into a sports stadium…these all sound very small to cultures in which loudly protesting women bear their breasts publicly or sue their governments in order to improve women’s rights. But in Iran, each spark of activism should be cared for and shared with others because no one knows which spark, as well as where and when the spark occurs, will light the bonfire of massive protests.


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4 thoughts on “Fan the Sparks of Feminism in Iran

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