“The Iranian women’s movement is not simply demanding equal rights alone. It is demanding a larger universal reality, which is democracy.” – Shirin Ebadi, October 9, 2009
A couple of weeks ago, I had the rare chance to sit down with Nobel Laureate Dr. Shirin Ebadi, a prominent human rights lawyer and democracy activist from Iran. She was at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, to give the keynote at a conference on Women’s and Human Rights in Islam.
Dr. Ebadi holds strong views about the vibrancy of the ongoing resistance and movement for democratic rights in her country – views that both the Islamic Republic and the larger mainstream media audience might find stunning. During our talk about the state of the pro-democracy resistance in Iran, Dr. Ebadi told me that the women-led movement in Iran is the strongest in the Middle East and that, despite the regime’s claims to the contrary, it is “invincible.” Although the participation of women in last summer’s uprising was self-evident, what was less clear was the role that the underlying women’s movement played in animating the events.
There is no consensus as to exactly when the contemporary women’s movement in Iran first emerged, but it is generally understood that demands for gender equality stretch back at least to the Constitutional Revolution of 1910. Conventional wisdom now seems to accept that the 1979 Islamic Revolution marked a turning point in the mobilization of women for equal rights in Iran. Dr. Ebadi spoke to me about how she perceived the real intent behind the revolution: “Since the revolution, discriminatory laws [have been] imposed on women. At times I wonder if this revolution was indeed for Islam or rather to rob women of their rights.” Her question is valid. On March 8 of that same year, there was a violent crackdown by the Islamic Republic that targeted nonviolent protests against the compulsory wearing of the hajib and other facets of Islamic law, such as polygamy and stoning that were widely viewed as intolerably oppressive to women. Following that experience, in the early 1980’s, martyrs’ wives began vocally demanding equal rights from the Islamic state. After relative quiet in the 1990’s, there was a rebirth of activism in the early 2000’s animated by several forces, including the return of Dr. Ebadi to the country and growing contact with the international community with the potential for the emergence of a transnational dimension to the movement.
Between 2005 and 2007, democracy activists came under brutal attack by the regime. Many women were arrested, a number were reportedly tortured, and rumors of rape by security forces were widespread. Independent media outlets were shut down for their complicity with the movement. Within the official institutions, more than one hundred defenders of women’s rights (including one male MP) were arrested and received a combined sentence of almost a decade for their role in supporting the movement. in that two-year period, more than 16,000 women were arrested by the regime for “immodest” dressing, and a new quota program was instituted to reduce the ratio of female university students to male students (women currently make up more than 65 percent of university students in Iran, a statistic which undoubtedly helps to explain the extraordinarily high degree of participation amongst women in that country).
It was in the atmosphere of this wave of repression targeted at women and women’s rights defenders that the women’s movement was roused from its silence and that the One Million Signatures campaign emerged. The campaign stands out amongst other women-led campaigns for several reasons, including the breadth of its appeal. It was started in 2006 as an effort to acquire a million signatures on a petition to the Iranian Islamic Republic, demanding that it acknowledge the equal status of women under the law. In the more than three years since its birth, numerous activists linked (or in some cases, simply rumored to be linked) to the One Million Signatures Campaign, including Esha Momeni, a graduate student at the California State University – Northridge , have been arrested, detained, jailed, lashed and otherwise persecuted for their connection to the campaign. The campaign is known to be active in a majority of Iran’s provinces. Its supporters include Iranians from all demographics, including men and, in a few cases, prominent clerics, including reformist Ayatollah Yousaf Sanei. The campaign’s overriding demand is gender equality for women. In the context of the Iranian Islamic Republic, this demand resonates across virtually all of the social demographics because Islamic law has historically struggled with internal contradictions on the status of women. Both fiqh and Shia make public claims to promote the rights and needs of women, but engage in policies and practices that diminish the equality (and quality) of life for women in Iran.
Dr. Ebadi suggests that “The most important event that has [recently] occurred in Iran is that women have been able to interpret Islam correctly in order to assert their rights.” Their effectiveness in achieving this objective by using only the tools of law and nonviolent action have emboldened women’s movements elsewhere in the Islamic world, from Afghanistan to Indonesia. The campaign is clear that its demands are not in opposition to Islam, but rather, form an attempt to force the regime to close the gap between the Islamic ideal and reality.
Although the Iranian women’s movement is operating in conditions of extreme repression and lack of political space, their advantages – namely, their sophisticated understanding of how nonviolent movements succeed against violent opponents and their ability and willingness to use their skills tactically – outweigh the obvious disadvantages.
For example, while there is a tenacious conventional wisdom that the use of repression by a regime opponent signals the end of a nonviolent people’s resistance, in fact, when placed in its larger context, violence is more accurately understood as a sign of weakness on the part of the government. As the number of threats and arrests against the women of Iran goes up, the more the Islamic Republic confirms what many in Iran and the Middle East already know: the Iranian women’s movement is effectively chipping away at the last vestiges of political legitimacy and moral authority of that regime. When martyrs are created (e.g. “Neda,” whose death transformed her into the face of the Green Revolution and highlighted the significance of women to the resistance), internal or external parties who were previously on the sidelines can be galvanized to action. Each time the regime represses, it actually helps to recruit new members to the resistance. This includes men, whom Dr. Ebadi says have become persuaded that the movement for women’s rights in Iran is not just about equality, but a “lager universal reality, which is democracy.”
Another explanation for the relative success of the Iranian women is tactical. The movement has been extraordinarily clever about using “dilemma actions” as part of its strategy. A dilemma action puts the opponent in the unwelcome position of having to choose between two bad options, either of which the movement can claim as a victory. For example, during a 2006 World Cup qualifying match at Tehran University, a large group of women staged a sit-in at the soccer stadium (women are forbidden from attending public events). A few of the women actually managed to break through the stadium barricades and get into the bleachers, where they were captured on film by BBC and other international media. This forced the government to choose between forcibly removing the women on camera (which would diminish the regime’s political legitimacy in the eyes of the international audience) or allowing them to stay (which would diminish the regime’s moral authority in the eyes of its own more conservative citizens).
The movement has also demonstrated skill and tactical innovation in its use of techniques such as internet blogging, the emphasis on international coalition-building and the ability to come up with low-risk but high-impact actions such as pushing the hajib a few inches back on the head. This kind of tactic is effective because it comes with a high degree of plausible deniability, but when applied en masse, has a powerful symbolic effect. Furthermore, the Iranian women’s movement generally, and the One Million Signatures Campaign specifically, seem to be doing a skilled job of meeting the three primary requirements of a successful nonviolent movement: cultivation of unity across both membership and message, emphasis on long-term strategic planning, and adherence to nonviolent discipline in implementing their tactics.
The successes demonstrate that even under conditions of very little political space, victory is still an option. Dr. Ebadi has an explanation as to why it’s so difficult for the regime’s repression to crush the movement: “The more the women are repressed, the stronger this movement becomes. And more importantly, this movement does not have a leader. It does not have a central office, nor [does it have] branches. It rests in the hearts and minds of every Iranian household. And that is why it is invincible.” Although some Western commentators prone to conspiracy thinking and Iranian government sympathizers have endeavored to paint the Iranian resistance as US-commandeered, only a truly indigenous movement could generate unity of such notable breadth and depth.
I asked Dr. Ebadi how the world generally, and Americans in particular, could support the democracy movement in Iran without appearing to appropriate it. She replied, “We are all passengers on the same boat. Our fates our intertwined. What we ask is that you cover news from Iran correctly. And say exactly what it is that women in Iran are opposing and fighting. When the world hears our voice, we know that they will reach out to us. We need the support of world public opinion. Because we are – at the end of the day – dealing with people, not governments.” In other words, the now nearly-defunct neoconservative agenda of democracy promotion in Iran and elsewhere should not be confused with – nor more importantly, interfere with – genuine support for what is a true people’s movement.
Note: The author acknowledges Greenwood/Praeger, publisher of the forthcoming anthology, “Peace Movements Worldwide: History, Psychology and Practices,” in which some of the material on the history and dynamics of the Iranian women’s movement will appear.