Washington – Haleh Sahabi is the latest Iranian woman to die in political violence.
On Wednesday, security forces attempting to cut short the Tehran funeral of her father scuffled with Sahabi, 55, who died of an apparent heart attack.
Sahabi had been let out of prison, where she was serving a two-year term for human rights activism, to attend the funeral. A photo of her holding a picture of her father – Ezatollah Sahabi, a prominent dissident in his own right – just before her death has now joined other iconic images of Iran's simmering discontent.
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Across the Middle East, the role of women in political protests is striking and expanding. From Cairo's Tahrir Square to Tehran's Azadi Square, they have marched side by side or even in front of men, chanting slogans demanding democracy and greater personal freedom.
In Iran, since protests erupted following disputed presidential elections two years ago, 10 percent of those jailed for political reasons have been female, said Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. That amounts to 100 of the 500 Iranians prosecuted and serving sentences and an additional 500 in pre-trial detention, he said.
Several of those who have died in street clashes or been executed by the regime over the past two years have been women. The best known is Neda Agha-Soltan, a 27-year-old philosophy student who was fatally shot Jun. 20, 2009 on the streets of Tehran. Footage of her death went viral on social networking sites.
Among the most prominent political prisoners in Iran is Nasrin Sotoudeh, 48, a civil rights lawyer sentenced in January to 11 years in prison for defending others. Sotoudeh wrote in a letter last week to her husband Reza that was posted on opposition websites that far from being lonely in prison, she was experiencing “a new environment” created by her fellow female inmates.
“This existence is at times happy and upbeat, at times calm and demure, at times watchful and analytical, but always tolerant and willing to compromise; a tolerance that will eventually lead us to achieve our goals,” she wrote.
Women have participated and died in all of Iran's major political upheavals, from the 1905-11 Constitutional Revolution to the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution.
However, in the past they tended to walk behind or separate from men, said Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. In 2009, they were together if not in front, egging on the men.
Esfandiari, herself jailed for four months in 2007 on nebulous allegations of promoting a “velvet revolution” in Iran, noted in a 1997 book called “Reconstructed Lives” that women had to reinvent themselves after the 1979 revolution.
Despite the fact that they lacked legal equality, they often become breadwinners and household decision-makers when their husbands lost jobs, became too demoralised to function or were sent off to fight during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
Encouraged, even obliged to take part in pro-government demonstrations, women developed a habit of political activism. They figured prominently in the successful 1997 and 2001 presidential campaigns of Mohammad Khatami, a reformist cleric, and in the 2009 campaign of Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister who ran against incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Mousavi promised to end inequality of women in inheritance, court testimony and child custody – restrictions placed on women by the Islamic regime. The fact that his accomplished wife – former university president Zahra Rahnavard – campaigned alongside him was also a major factor in attracting women's support.
Other Iranian women, such as human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who in 2003 became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, have led efforts to regain equal rights. An online petition campaign – the Million Signatures Campaign – was started in 2006 by women seeking legal equality.
The expanding profile of women in Iran is the culmination of a number of factors, said Farzaneh Milani, a professor of Persian Literature and Studies in Women and Gender at the University of Virginia. While Iranian women have seen their rights constricted since 1979, they have also experienced “collateral benefit”, she said.
Women from traditional religious families who had shied away from higher education under the Shah began attending in greater numbers once all women were forced to wear the veil and many public spaces became segregated by sex. Now 64 percent of those attending higher education in Iran are female, Milani said Wednesday during a lecture at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “This was not the intention [of the authorities] but the outcome,” she said.
The paradoxes and contradictions of Iranian society in regard to women are a spur to activism.
Milani notes in a new book on Iranian women writers, “Words, not Swords”, “Women can vote and run for some of the highest offices in the country but they must observe an obligatory dress code. They can drive personal vehicles, even taxis and trucks and fire engines, but they cannot ride bicycles…
“They have entered the world stage as Nobel Peace laureates, human rights activists, best-selling authors, prize-winning film directors and Oscar nominees, but they cannot enter governmental offices through the same doors as men.”
The fact that so many women are incarcerated in Iran demonstrates that they are a growing threat to the regime, Milani said. “No one can stop this movement. The genie is out of the bottle.”