June 22, 2009
Women and the Iranian UnrestBy Rosslyn Smith
Are the Ayatollahs learning that hell hath no fury like 34 million women scorned, forced out of the workplace, harassed and humiliated by religious police for three decades? I have noticed some of the bravest protesters in Iran have been women, including a few who have been without headscarves and showing a great deal more of their figures than the regime would approve. Roger Cohen of the NY Times has noticed this, too.
CNN has noted that for at least some of these women it is about far more than a stolen election.
Earlier stories about the Iran election noted that Mir-Hossein Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard is a formidable political force in her own right, having been the first woman chancellor of an Iranian university since the Revolution. That she may have lost that position in a purge of reformists after Ahmadinejad was elected President in 2005 helps explain some of the enmity between the candidates. Unusual for Iran, Rahnavard actively campaigned for her husband, particularly among university students and women. On the campaign trail she noticeably flaunted violations of the dress codes that tightened up after Ahmadinejad's 2006 election. Her head covering was a brightly colored scarf, her use of makeup was noticeable and her chador was worn so you could glimpse the outfit underneath.
The flouting of the moral police was probably political theater. A more substantive reason that Rahnavard active campaign presence excited women is this dismal fact about how the kleptocracy of misogynist ayatollahs has thwarted human expectations: More than 60 percent of Iran's university students are women, but women only make up perhaps 15 percent of the workforce. One sector often favored by college educated American women, that of civil service, has been increasing hard for women to access under Ahmadinejad.
Women left alone with children after the death or desertion of a husband are particularly hard hit in a culture that openly discrimintes in employment. So are those in abusive relationships with fathers or husbands. One of Iran's dirty little secrets is how many women are forced into prostitution. News stories from 2002 reported as many as 300,000 women were engaged in prostitution in greater Tehran. In an area with a population then estimated at 12 million that is close to 5% of the total female population.
The religious fig leaf for the business of selling sexual favors is a practice allowed in Shiite branch of Islam know as sigheh, or a marriage contracted for a fixed period of time. Supposedly the woman contracted in such a marriage is not to enter into a new contract until one menstrual cycle has passed. This was obviously not the case because the reason prostitution came to official attention in 2002 was that two women engaging in the trade infected over 1,100 men with the HIV virus.
I am not a bit surprised that women are among the leaders of this revolt. Several years ago I read Azar Nafisi memoir of life in Iran during and after the 1979 revolution, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Educated in the West where she was active on the political left, Dr, Nafisi returned to Iran in 1979 to teach English language literature. Some of the best passages in the book relate to her fight not to have to wear the head covering and shapeless cloak increasingly being mandated by Iran's new rulers. Those forcing her to become a walking mummy included Marxists who went along with the Islamic fundamentalists on the issue before they too, were squeezed out of the power structure. The Marxists argued that staying with western style dress was a symbol of solidarity with colonial oppressors! When Nafisi lost the fight on the chador, she vowed to teach her own children, sons and daughters alike, about the injustice of such restrictions on women.
Dr, Nafisi knew that her favorite students mostly agreed with her on such issue, but she later learned she had also had a great influence on some others who had gone with the flow in 1979. Near the end of the her book, when she is preparing to emigrate to America, Dr. Nafisi runs into one of her students. This young woman had belonged to the Muslim Student's Association. She had vocally objected with fellow MSA members on being made to read about "immoral" characters like Heathcliff and the foolish, unreasonable, stubborn and equally immoral Daisy Miller. It seems the student had been far more engaged in the material than her classroom protests would have indicated. She told Nafisis she had continued to read literature "for her own heart" after leaving school. She was married now, with a newborn daughter she named after the professor!. Not the name on the birth certificate. That was the name of a favorite aunt, now deceased.
When I read Nafisi's words, I thought of how one of the events that helped the women's movement initially resonate in America was the manner in which some women who had taken jobs outside the home during the labor shortages of WWII were summarily fired in peacetime. A good friend's mother who taught at a noted left wing university during and immediately after the war never let her son forget that she had lost her job just as soon as a male with a newly minted degrees under the GI bill had became available. The injustice done American women pales besides those inflicted on the women of Iran. But in both situations the women made sure their sons, daughters nieces and nephews all knew that such discrimination was wrong. And like the student who wished she has spoken for herself instead of following the MSA to speak for her, many American women of the post war era urged their own daughters to do what they had not dared not do.
When I watched the brave and often incredibly beautiful young Iranian women take to the streets the last few days, I also thought back to how Dr. Nafisi's favorite students mocked a culture that allowed them a university education while attempting to confine them to gender roles more appropriate to 7th century warring Arab nomads. One favorite way to do so was to parody the opening sentence of their favorite novel from Dr. Nafisi's syllabus
I could see them marching through Iran's cities, casting a wary eye at onlooking security forces even as they poked fun at then. They talk about how the Islamic Revolution was for men who couldn't find a wife another way and how Elizabeth Bennett wouldn't go near a man who wanted a child bride -- or multiple wives.
Iranian-American journalist Roya Hakakian, who left Iran in 1984 at the age of 18 echoed the sentiments of Nafisi and her students in a recent interview in which she noted that in the last ten years a new generation of women have organized in ways not seen since 1979. She notes this generation learned an important lesson from their predecessors.
Azadeh Moaveni, born in Palo Alto of Iranian parents in 1976 and co author Iran Iran Awakening with Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi had this to say about the extent of the repression. .
Azar Nafisi, now a professor at Johns Hopkins told CNN
she has been watching the footage from Iran with "inordinate pride."
After Saturday, Dr.Nafisi probably wants to add "and great sorrow" to her statement.
Another Iranian woman not allowed to use her education who has taken to the streets.
Perhaps the most poignant words about what is happening comes from an Iranian woman sending messages to Nico Pitney at the Huffington Post who has been living blogging events for a week now. She wrote that she would be in Saturday's demonstrations where she may be killed. Saturday evening she got out a message that she was okay, but that her "sister" had died.
Here is the translation of part of her message.
Much of the world has seen the video of this beautiful young woman, sister to us all, taking her last breath before our eyes. It is being reported that her name was Neda, which is said to be Farsi for voice or call. Her actions give voice to the oppressed woman of Iran and calls out to all of us to stand with them against oppression.