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Iran Feature: The Activism of the Women's Movement (Mouri)

EA contacts have notified us of a new electronic journal on the Middle East and Iran, Muftah. One of its first articles is by Leila Mouri, an Iranian women's rights activist who works as a journalist with the first Iranian website on women’s rights, Women In Iran and blogs in Persian and in English.

Shiva Nazar-Ahari, a journalist and human rights defender who had already spent 9 months in Evin prison, was scheduled to appear in court on May 23, 2010 on charges of propagation against the regime for her work with the Committee of Human Rights Reporters (CHRR), as well as allegations of acting against national security because of her participation in gatherings on November 4th and December 7th, 2009. A member of the “One Million Signature” campaign for women’s rights, Nazar-Ahari was arrested at her home shortly after Iran’s June 2009 presidential election. She was released for a short time in September on $200,000 bail, but her freedom did not last long. In December 2009 she was again arrested, this time as she was on the way to attend the funeral ceremony of Ayatollah Hossein Montazeri.  Despite consistent pressure from Iranian authorities, she had denied all charges brought against her and had paid the price of defiance by spending most of her prison term in solitary confinement.

While Nazar-Ahari was arrested too soon after the election to participate in the June demonstrations, many women were involved in the uprising  and played a central role in the mobilization of the Green Movement.

A more recognizable symbol of women’s participation in the protests was the young university student Neda Agha-Soltan, whose shooting and gruesome death on the streets of Tehran on June 20, 2009 became aninternational rallying cry against the heavy-handed tactics of the Iranian government. Agha-Soltan became a symbol not only of the Green Movement, but also of all Iranians who were killed for opposing the regime.  In a heavily patriarchal society, her ordeal was a reminder of the crucial status of women in the social and political life of Iran.

Agha-Soltan and Nazar-Ahari are members of a new generation of politically active Iranian women, born and raised after the 1979 Revolution. Their struggle against the oppressive policies of the Islamic Republic has been well documented, but their situation has become especially harrowing over the last year. In the wake of the 2009 protests, and under the pretext of maintaining order and protecting national security, the Iranian regime has escalated its suppression of the women’s movement. Many women activists have been arrested, imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to long prison terms, while others have left the country in fear of their safety. As a result, there has been a troubling decline in the activities and influence of the women’s movement, which some observers have considered to be the most potent agent for change in the country.

The Re-Emergence of Women in the Islamic Republic

The death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, coinciding with the end of the Iran-Iraq war, marked the beginning of a new phase in the Islamic Republic. After eight years of war, Iran’s decimated economy was suffering from a lack of foreign investment and buckling under the pressure of Western sanctions. The regime responded by instituting a series of programs aimed at “reconstruction,” through economic growth, rational distribution of benefits and essential changes in human resource development. It was at this time that President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanajani established the first governmental department devoted to women’s issues. Dubbed the Bureau of Women’s Affairs, it was founded in 1992 to improve the situation of women and to promote their abilities and talents, in service to the future development of the country.

The ensuing years saw increased investment in women’s education, and in turn a higher level of university-enrollment, a development that had a significant impact on the status women in society. One major factor in this regard was the “Islamicization” of universities, a series of policies aimed at the transformation of the university environment and pursued from the early days of the Islamic Republic. With traditional families feeling more confident in the piety of Iran’s universities, women began attending classes at a higher rate than in previous generation, causing a dramatic increase in the number of female students. According to the 1994 census, 40 percent of university students were female. This proportion reached 60 percent in the 2003-2004 academic year and 64 percent in 2008.

Following graduation, many of these female students entered the job market only to be bitterly disappointed with their prospects. Faced with an ailing economy and a patriarchal culture unwilling to grant them equal rights, this educated group of women began demanding changes in attitudes and policies. At the same time, the influx of educated female candidates had a perceptible effect on the percentage of women employed in different economic sectors, such as industry and agriculture, with their numbers increasing substantially. The growing presence of women in the work force gradually led to the establishment of women’s trade unions in the late 1990s.

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