One of the most significant and under-reported stories in Iran is the strength and character of its women's movement. Through politics, literature, religion and poetry, women's voices have sometimes been like roars and sometimes like whispers of dissent. Women continue to be targets of persecution and drivers of change, and for more than a decade, NPR's Davar Ardalan and Jacki Lyden have been tracking those changes. It started in 1995 when Jacki went to Iran at a time when there were not many female journalists there.
I remember thinking that no one would talk to me on the tape - that no one would be brave enough to question the 1979 revolution, which many women and Iranian students helped bring about. Few of these young students realized that while they may not have liked the Shah's autocracy, his pro-Western views included a view of women as equals. For decades, Iranian women were exposed, had the right to divorce and marry, had the right to choose their husband instead of him being chosen for them, and were very visible in public life. And then, almost overnight, it changed.
Guity Ganji, a beautiful woman in her 40s, took me hiking above Tehran's Albourz Mountains.
We hiked past the country's infamous political prison, Evin, which is incongruously set in a beautiful valley. Ganji was close to the Shah's minister for women's affairs. How out of place she feels now, she said, with this hike - her moment of freedom.
"I feel kind of alienated from these people," Ganji said. "I think a lot of people feel the way I do about what's going on. [It's] especially harder for women... because the way we're treated, the way they treat us. It's aggravating. And I look at professional people — just think of me being professional and working with men and the way they would treat you. And they don't look at you at all."
Return of the veil
It was a feeling that any Western woman can understand, especially one who tries to conduct interviews with headscarves and headphones on her ears. What was a bit more difficult to understand was how the Islamic Republic co-opted the revolution so that now women have to live in head-to-toe black headscarves and dresses.
In a real sense, the shah forced the traditionalists in Iran to modernity, causing a profound clash of cultures. By encouraging women, even his own wife, to go naked in public ceremonies, the shah presented the Shia clergy with an issue that any traditional Muslim elder could defend: women should be covered.
When the veil returned, for all these Iranian contemporary women - and there were hundreds of them in the professional classes - it was not so much about wearing a piece of cloth as it was about giving up the self. Perhaps no voice expressed it better than that of Azar Nafisi, an Iranian professor.
'Whispers Of Dissent'
I met her in 1995 in a university classroom in Tehran. Today, Nafisi is an internationally known writer and authorReading Lolita in Tehranand one of the most famous Iranian women in exile. As a teacher, she used Western writers like Nabokov as a way to challenge autocratic thinking.
Now living in Washington, D.C., Nafisi says that for her, women remain at the forefront of the cultural struggle within Iran even as her own dissent, and that of thousands like her, has been increasingly suppressed by the new regime since the revolution.
"It is very unrealistic to go back 30 years ago to the way these whispers of defense, these whispers of dissent, were articulated," said Nafisi. "I was one of the dissidents. I was very, very active in the student movement here. We demonstrated against the Shah... We sought the overthrow of the regime, and among ourselves — those who were, for example, religious, those who were Marxists, those who were nationalists - there was polarization."
Nafisi devoted most of her 20s in America to political movements dedicated to the abolition of the monarchy in Iran, which was seen as a puppet of the United States. She was typical of young students abroad, and Iran sent many young women abroad. Other young Iranian women were recruited to join communist and non-communist guerrilla groups. But a far greater number were uneducated, lower-class women who took part in street demonstrations in 1978 and 1979, responding to Ayatollah Khomeini's call to demonstrate against tyranny.
By 1979, the pro-Western shah was ill with cancer and on a plane to Egypt. Of all the groups that opposed him - women, nationalists, Marxists - no group won hearts and minds like the Islamists.
The new regime under Ayatollah Khomeini executed thousands of people. Women went from being judges and lawyers to non-entities, if they were lucky.
Repeal of the Family Protection Act
One of the women who never went home after the revolution was Mahnaz Afkhami, the Shah's former minister for women's affairs. Under the Shah, she stood up for women's rights and helped push through the Family Protection Act. This made her a post-revolutionary target. Returning to Iran meant death, but she never gave up working for women's rights in her homeland.
"People, some women, feel that they have to assert themselves as individuals," Afkhami said. "They need to have a role, they need to have a say, both in who they want to be and how they want to lead their lives, and how they want to relate to other members of their family and society. It's not necessarily the same answer for everyone."
The Family Protection Act was repealed in 1979. This meant that women, among other things, did not have the right to divorce. For a while, female voices were banned from radio and female singers from television. Family planning was abolished and the birth rate soared, straining the economy. But Iranian women have never come to terms with it. By 1997, almost 20 years after the revolution, women were demanding change.
'I will not be silent'
It was not only secular intellectuals who wanted reform. I met Azam Talehgani in 1997. The daughter of a prominent ayatollah, she was 58 years old and ran a settlement for poor women. Talehgani decided to run for president, even though she said she knew the Guardian Ruling Council would never have elected her - a woman.
"Let them be silent. I will not be silent," said Talehgani. "Even if I remain silent, women will not remain silent. I can't tell you how many phone calls I've received in the past few days from people thanking me for speaking up and demanding that this woman be considered a presidential candidate. And I tell them that our government officials have been notified and that our movement will continue."
Another woman who would not remain silent was Shahla Lahiji, a publisher who would eventually go to jail for her peaceful refusal. She wrote stories in which she sought equal rights for women. By the 1990s, the Iranian state had reversed itself - family planning clinics distributed contraception.
Ten years ago, we couldn't talk about women's rights as well as we can about this, Lahiji said. "Perhaps this is the result of our struggle, which was not violent, but everyday, like bees, like ants.
Women again became lawyers and investigating judges - women like Mehrangiz Kar. But she would also spend some time in prison.
"It used to be said that the laws in the books are like revelations from God and therefore not subject to change," Kar said. "But in the last year there has been more dialogue in every aspect of society about the need for change. We hope this will be a good sign towards greater moderation."
'Those who want to close them'
But of those who have tried to raise awareness of the plight of women trying to carve out a civic space for themselves in a theocracy, none has garnered as much attention as Shirin Ebadi.
Ebadi, a human rights lawyer, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. At the ceremony in Oslo, Norway, she spoke not only about women's rights, but also about Iran's ancient human rights tradition.
"I am Iranian, a descendant of Cyrus the Great, the same emperor who, at the height of his power 2,500 years ago, declared that he would not rule the people if they did not want it," Ebadi said, "and promised that he would not force any person to change his religion or belief and guaranteed freedom for all."
In 2006, she published a book in English calledIranian Awakening.
"It is not religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who want to imprison them," she wrote. "That belief, along with the conviction that change in Iran must come peacefully and from within, underpinned my work."
Ebadi, whom I met during my trip to Iran in 1995, advocates moderation and the use of Islamic law to reform the Iranian system. She believes in peaceful, non-violent change from within. She had an increasingly educated class of young people to rely on - at the time her book came out, more than half of all students in Iran were women. In applied physics at Azad University, 70 percent were women. The post-revolutionary young woman was an educated young woman.
This belief in peaceful resistance was emphasized by the "One Million Signatures Campaign". The idea was for women and men from all walks of life to collect a million signatures to educate women about their rights and demand changes to laws that discriminate against them. When they demonstrated in Iran in June 2006, about 70 of them were arrested.
Perhaps because Ebadi had become such a powerful symbol, it was almost inevitable that the government would crack down on her. Ebadi experienced increased harassment. In December, her office dedicated to the defense of human rights was closed and her computers were confiscated.
Human Rights Watch says it fears for her life. With the rise of conservatives, especially after the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, where is the Iranian women's movement today? For Azar Nafisi, it is simply a force that cannot be defeated, no matter who is in power in Iran.
"You see what no regime can do is take away from its people the past, the memory of what they have achieved," Nafisi said. "What Iranian women have achieved has become a weapon in the fight for rights that have been taken away from them. And that's why so many women go back in time.
"They talk about a women's organization that was created. They talk about writing books. These new women who are now participating in these regressive laws in Iran also write about women senators at the time. They talk about the minister of women's affairs at the time. They interview her on their website You know, I think the past makes the way for the future, and that's why women are so much in the foreground.
In 1983, five years after the revolution, the great Iranian poet Simin Behbehani, known as the "Iranian lioness", wroteTribute to the Being. The song advocates and celebrates the transcendence of three cultural fears: female visibility, female mobility and female voices. Translated by Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safa inThe cup of sin, Behbehani's poem reads:
Sing, Gypsy, sing.
In honor of existence you must sing.
Let the ears register your presence.
The eyes and throat burn from the smoke
which follows the monsters as they float in the sky.
Scream if you can from the terror of this night.
Every monster has a secret to its life
hidden in a bottle in the stomach of a red fish
swimming in waters you can't reach.
Each maid holds a monster's head in her lap
like a piece of firewood in silver.
In their rage for plunder, the monsters
they robbed beautiful girls
of silk and rubies of their lips and cheeks.
Gypsy, lupi legs.
Stamp your feet for your freedom.
To get the answer,
send a message at your own pace.
Your existence must have a purpose under heaven.
To draw a spark from these stones,
stomp your feet.
Ages dark and old
they pressed their weight on your body.
Break away from their embrace,
so that you don't remain just a trace in the fossil.
Gypsy, to stay alive, you have to kill the silence.
I mean, to pay tribute to existence, you have to sing
From then until now, I have no doubt that Iranian women will continue to sing, continue to shape the future, simply stay alive and resist. Always resisting.
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