The images from Iran in the last two weeks have stunned the world: hundreds of thousands of women and men marching peacefully, first in support of reformist candidates and later protesting the government’s version of the results. Women played a prominent role at every level in this movement; in fact what unfolded in Iran would not have been possible without them. It is their quiet and thoughtful community organization, constituency building, message development, and pioneering use of the internet in recent years that accounts for the scope of the protest in Iran. Their grassroots mobilization has showed that more lies at the heart of democratization than burning tires and shouting slogans, and that a democracy requires more than ballot boxes and purple-inked fingers. And that accomplishment will prove consequential not only for Iran’s future but also for the future of the whole Middle East.
As a student of the women’s movement in my native land for nearly four decades and an intimate observer of their recent struggles, I can say with confidence that women’s leading role in these events has been no accident. Iranian women began fighting for their rights over a century ago, at the time of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, and have not stopped since. In the 1930s and 40s they formed their first effective associations. In the 1960s they struggled and succeeded in getting the right to vote and be elected and once in parliament they were able to replace archaic family laws with new progressive ones. In 1979, they joined the nation’s drive for political freedom, but this time they did not get what they had fought for. The revolution swept Ayatollah Khomeini to power and in less than a month after his triumph, before there was a constitution or a government, the ayatollah annulled the new family law and decreed obligatory veiling and gender apartheid.
The first massive protest against the new Islamic regime was the women’s demonstration in March 1979. That protest was ruthlessly suppressed, but over the next three decades Iranian women heroically fought against the further erosion of their rights. Ironically, by imposing the veil, the fundamentalist regime made public areas safe for veiled women from traditional families, who emerged for meetings and exchanges with secular women. This helped consensus-building and cooperation. The secular and the religious joined and together forced the regime to retrench. Women have been quietly building networks of supporters, devising ways of communicating, organizing civil society groups so they could lead decentralized but coordinated political campaigns. They did more than just advocate women’s causes. In 1997, they used their organizing and mobilizing skill to elect Mohammad Khatami as president, only to despair when he failed to make good on his promised reforms. And it was women’s resulting boycott of the 2005 election that allowed Ahmadinejad to power.
On June 12, 2006 women embarked on a new path. Several women’s groups joined hands to organize the “One Million Signatures Campaign” to eliminate discrimination against women in marriage, divorce, child custody, employment, and the like. The regime struck back. Every one of the thirty founders of the campaign was arrested and tried for acts against state security, imprisoned, and fined. Each carries a suspended sentence as a sword of Damocles to force her cease the fight. But they and others persisted. They published pamphlets and recruited volunteers, and mobilized grassroots support by going door-to-door to explain the goals and ask for signatures, leaving brochures with information about discrimination whether or not the women signed the petition. Simultaneously, they reached out to other civil society groups to build a broad coalition that included intellectuals, student and labor movements, and political activists. They gathered the one million signatures in record time, and more important, got a third of them from men.
The internet was indispensable for exchanging information internally and with the rest of the world. The organizers behind the “One Million Signatures Campaign” learned from experiences of women elsewhere in the Middle East, often via the internet. Moroccan women who had won an important battle reforming family law in their country in 2004 shared with Iranian sisters their research on conflicts among schools of Islam and national laws on the status of women. Iranian women in turn have been sharing their experiences with women in other Muslim societies. The internet dialogue among regional and international activists has elicited new support, giving dynamism and confidence to the movement.
In the winter of 2008, the Iranian women’s coalition grew alarmed at a bill by Ahmadinejad’s government that would have codified polygamy, men’s unilateral right to divorce, and a minimum marriage age of nine for women. Women activists mobilized a resistance, reaching out beyond their community to get support from large groups of men, religious and non-religious organizations, academics and many high-level clerics such as senior cleric, Ayatollah Yousef Sanei. This new and stronger coalition forced the government to shelve the bill.
When the 2009 election campaign began, the coalition women had built was ready. It agreed on a platform that was moderate in its language but radical in content. It demanded changes to the constitution, including a woman’s right to hold the office of president. Quietly, the very idea of constitutional change was daring: it could open the door to more substantial, structural reform later. The coalition also called for ratification of CEDAW, the International Treaty for the Rights of Women. The platform attracted support from daughters and wives of prominent revolutionary leaders, such as Faezeh Rafsanjani, daughter of the influential cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; the granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini, Zahra Eshraghi; and Moussavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard. Ms. Rahnavard was instrumental in bringing women’s power to her husband’s presidential campaign. Both reformist presidential candidates, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Houssein Moussavi, endorsed the platform, reversing their long-held agreement with the regime’s ideology of a separate “complementary” role for women, an important pillar of the regime’s claim to Islamic authenticity.
The Iranian government may have for now forced street protestors into retreat, but it will find it difficult to vanquish the formidable infrastructure of resistance and social and political activism that Iranian women have put together. They can no longer lord over women’s power with impunity. Women, for their part, know the road ahead will be long. But they also know that history is on their side.