Iranian women standing up for rights


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It was meant to be a peaceful demonstration in Tehran's Jamal Zadeh Street on Saturday, but Negeen, a 24-year-old Tehran University student, was one among nearly 200 Iranians -- mostly students -- who soon found themselves bombarded by Basiji forces.

"They were using tear gas to send us away," she said. "Many were arrested. Many tried to find shelter."

Negeen and several other protesters ran to the nearest house, where an elderly woman let them in.

"Everyone gathered in one room," she said. But the Basiji broke into the house and "threw tear gas in the small room where we were gathered." A couple days after the incident, Negeen, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her identity, is still experiencing nausea and is vomiting blood. But she said she will continue the protests as soon as she recovers.

Negeen is not alone. Women have become a staple of the current demonstrations in Iran and in many protests they outnumber men.

Women "are suffering the most under the current regime," said Melody Moezzi, author of "War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims."

One such woman was Neda Soltan, whose brutal death projected internationally on television and on YouTube has fueled Iranians' outrage throughout the world. When a group of about 300 Iranians gathered in Tehran's Haft-e Tir Square on Monday to mourn her death, many were beaten and arrested by Basiji militia.

"'Shirzan' or 'lioness' is the word that is used to describe [Neda]," said Babak Rahimi, assistant professor of Iranian and Islamic Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Mr. Rahimi, who is in Iran, estimates that about half to two-thirds of protesters are women.

"Neda is now rapidly becoming the heroic face of the expanding social movement, with women playing a major role in it," he said.

Under Islamic Republic laws, women are treated as second-class citizens, with men as their legal guardians, Mr. Rahimi said. They are discriminated against when it comes to, among other things, inheritance rights, divorce rights and child custody rights.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has tightened these restrictions, strictly monitoring women's dress and proposing laws that make polygamy easier and allow a man to divorce his wife without informing her.

Women "felt like they had more at stake in these elections," said Simin Curtis, founder of the Pittsburgh Middle East Institute. "Iranian women are very highly educated. They do not consider themselves lesser than men ... They consider themselves modern and they want their equal rights under the law."

Mr. Rahimi has witnessed several protests in Iran and was struck by the presence and persistence of women in the ongoing movement.

"The female demonstrators tend to be the bravest, since they know that what these civil protests do is to force the state to recognize their existence, their participation in a movement that calls for gender equality and freedom," he said.

Because they're viewed as second-class citizens, women are taking greater risks than men. They face harsher punishment if arrested during the protests.

"Behind bars, gender becomes a factor in how men and women prisoners are treated," said Nima Naghibi, an expert on Iranian women's issues, citing "a body of Iranian women's prison writings that suggest there is some pressure on women prisoners to submit to the sexual demands of their prison guards or their interrogators."

"However, as far as I know, this kind of abuse is not legislated," she said.

While it may appear that women's activism in the latest upheaval is new, women have always been active in Iranian politics, said Ms. Naghibi, an assistant professor of English at Ryerson University in Toronto who has written "Rethinking Global Sisterhood: Western Feminism and Iran."

"What's interesting is that it just never seems to register, at least in the West, because the media reports, 'Oh, look Iranian women are visible.' But this is not new," she said.

Iran has seen many female activists, like prominent Iranian scholar Zahra Rahnavard, the former chancellor of Al-Zahra University in Tehran and political adviser to former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami. Ms. Rahnavard, who is opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi's wife, has inspired women to vote in record numbers, analysts say.

"Zahra has hit a chord, and she has now come to stand in for a certain future possibility for women. But I don't think she's unique," said Ms. Naghibi, citing women like Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the women behind the 2007 One Million Signatures Campaign, which called for an end to discriminatory laws against women.

Mr. Rahimi agrees. "The presence of women in the recent wave of unrest is only the latest chapter in the long history of women activism in the everyday politics of Iran," he said, adding that women had significant voices in the Constitutional Revolution from 1906-11 and in the movement supporting former Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, who was ousted in a coup d'etat supported by the British and U.S. governments in 1953.

Despite restrictions, today more than 60 percent of Iranian college students are women, a hopeful sign in the fight for women's rights in Iran, Ms. Moezzi said. These women major in a variety of fields, from medicine to English to engineering, but in a country with a 12.5 percent unemployment rate, they make up only 27 percent of the labor force.

"We've been winning small battles over and over and over again," Ms. Moezzi said. "This is the big battle."


Elham Khatami can be reached at ekhatami@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1478.


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