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)), and on allegations of acting against national security (for 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 on the way to attend the funeral ceremony of Ayatollah Hossein Montazeri.  Despite consistent pressure from Iranian authorities, Nazar-Ahari had denied all the charges against her and paid the price of defiance by spending most of her prison term in solitary confinement.

While Nazar-Ahari was arrested soon after the election, many women were deeply 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 an international 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 in the last year. In the wake of the 2009 protests, 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 out of fear for their safety. As a result, there has been a troubling decline in the activities and influence of the women’s movement, which some observers had 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. At the same time, President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanajani established the first governmental department devoted to women’s issues. Founded in 1992, the Bureau of Women’s Affairs was intended to improve the situation of women and to promote their abilities and talents.

The ensuing years saw increased investment in women’s education and in turn a higher level of university-enrollment, which significantly improved women’s social status. The “Islamicization” of universities, which was pursued from the earliest days of the Islamic Republic, was a major factor in increasing women’s university enrollment. 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 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, Iran’s educated women began demanding changes in attitudes and policies. Nonetheless, 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.

Beginning in 1997, the social and political reforms of President Mohammad Khatami increased the opportunities available to women in a variety of avenues. While Khatami’s policies did not significantly improve the situation of women in the all-important legal arena, his reforms did create possibilities for new kinds of political expression and mobilization. Strict codes of public behavior and dress, as well as restrictions on the media were gradually loosened, leading to a resurgence of the women’s press. The first Iranian women’s newspaper Zan (Woman) appeared in August 1998, under the editorship of Fa’ezeh Hashemi, Ayatollah Rafsanjani’s daughter and a Member of Parliament, and a significant numbers of female journalists began working in reformist newspapers.

These women were mainly between the ages of 18 to 30 and had been raised in the post-revolutionary environment. Unaffiliated with government institutions, this new generation of activists pursued an agenda focused on the improvement of the social and political status of women and the achievement of equal rights. Having come of age in the Islamic Republic, these activists held concerns that were less ideological and more practical than their predecessors. While writing on a wide range of subjects from politics to sports, young female journalists seized on Iran’s nascent freedom of the press to write on issues germane to the situation of women in the country, many of which had not previously been openly debated. Stories of honor killings, female prostitution, and girls escaping from abusive domestic situations began appearing in the newspapers, sparking serious public debate and fostering a new atmosphere in which women’s issues were more openly discussed and addressed. As such, in the minds of many, freedom of the press and the movement for women’s rights became forever connected.

Government Suppression

The opening of social and political spaces for civic engagement and the ensuing expressions of political dissent were soon met with a campaign of suppression. Reformist newspapers, a central locus for women activists, came under pressure from the conservative judiciary at the end of Khatami’s first term. In 2000, sixteen reformist newspapers were summarily shut down and many female journalists became unemployed. Consequently, women activists began looking to other mediums to disseminate news about the status of women and to serve as a means for discussing human rights and violence against women.

The first domestic Iranian women’s website, Women in Iran, was established in September 2001 by Shadi Sadr, the prominent lawyer, journalist, and women’s activist. The slogan of Women in Iran was “women’s rights is human rights,” explicitly locating women’s rights issues in the broader context of human rights and setting down a framework for the discussion of women’s issues. This new media outlet also had a number of practical advantages. Aside from being a relatively inexpensive tool, the Internet was a new phenomenon at the time and the government had few if any laws regulating its use. As such, establishing Women in Iran and other similar sites required neither government permission nor registration.

The staff of Women in Iran consisted mostly of female journalists who worked in reformist newspapers, as well as young female lawyers who were experts in women’s legal issues. Mainly from middle-class families, these women were less concerned with the Islamic ideals of the regime and more open with their criticisms of social phenomena, such as the compulsory dress code (hejab), an issue that Muslim feminists and even secular feminists of the previous generation had not properly addressed. By framing their arguments in terms of universal human rights, these women were able to articulate a strong defense of their individual rights in Iranian society.

Like most other media outlets, however, women’s websites eventually drew the notice of government censors. Following orders issued by the judiciary, most of these sites were eventually “filtered” by Internet service providers. Government pressure also led to a decrease in the number of volunteers upon whom these websites relied for much of their work.

Demonstrations and Suppression during the 2000s

Despite these difficulties, new technologies allowed the women’s movement to effectively organize its supporters and conduct demonstrations. On March 8 2002, women activists gathered in one of the major parks in Tehran to celebrate International Women’s Day in Iran for the first time since 1979. During the gathering, which was mainly planned by secular feminists, human rights activist, and Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, these women criticized Iran’s family law and demanded the abolishment of discriminatory laws against women. Though the gathering expressed the views of only a small group of women in Iranian society, it provided an opportunity for old and new generations to share and discuss their perspectives on the situation of women in Iran.

Three years later in 2005, the women’s movement staged a mass demonstration just days before a presidential election that ultimately saw the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the office. This was the first time women gathered en masse in the streets of Tehran, since demonstrations on March 8, 1979 protesting the establishment of a compulsory Islamic dress code for women.  In the run up to the 2005 demonstrations, women activists from a variety of backgrounds gathered together for several months near the University of Tehran for a series of meetings entitled “Women’s Movement Forum.” Meeting almost every week, secular and Muslim feminists shared their experiences and ideas, and discussed strategies for addressing those aspects of the legal system that enshrined women’s inequality. At the close of these meetings, prior to the demonstration, the women issued a declaration, demanding changes in the Islamic Republic’s Constitution, which they regarded as responsible for all the discriminatory laws.  On the day of the demonstration, the police prevented others from joining the women. Public buses were parked in front of the demonstration area to create a blockade and to prevent the protesting women from being seen by the public.

One Million Signatures Campaign

In 2006, a group of women’s activists staged another demonstration in Haft-e Tir Square to repeat the demands of the earlier year.  While police and security forces responded severely, many of the prominent activists involved in the demonstration, such as Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, Parvin Ardalan, Sussan Tahmasbi, and Jelveh Javaheree, continued their struggle by launching the One Million Signatures Campaign. The campaign aimed to collect one million signatures in support of changing discriminatory laws and of raising consciousness among men and women regarding the unjust nature of Iranian laws pertaining to women. The success of this initiative, both domestically and abroad, caused the government to increase its attacks on the women’s movement. Some members of the campaign were arrested several times, while others were put under close surveillance and faced harassment.

In March 2007, 33 women activists appeared in front of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court to peacefully protest the trials of five colleagues who had been arrested in the crackdown following the 2006 Haft-e Tir demonstration. These 33 women activists were, in turn,  arrested and detained at the notorious Evin prison. While most of the detainees were released shortly thereafter, the organizers, such as Shadi Sadr and the well-known women’s rights activist Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, were held for nearly one month in Section 209 of Evin prison. These women and many others like them would be targeted once more following the 2009 election.

2009 Demonstrations

During Ahmadinejad’s first term, the Iranian women’s movement faced severe pressure and suppression. In the month before the 2009 elections, the movement formed a coalition with activists of varying ideologies, from secular to religious, and presented two major demands to the presidential candidates. The first urged the government to join the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), while the second called for a revision of the Constitution to establish women’s legal equality. In support of these demands, women activists published pamphlets and carried placards declaring their demands. These activists lobbied candidates and wrote articles on their respective websites to ensure that the general public heard their demands. Having gathered support inside and outside Iran, these women activists played a major role in the post-election demonstrations.

Not surprisingly, the wave of mass arrests carried out by securities forces following the 2009 election resulted in the detention of many women. Among the female detainees sent to Evin Prison were those who were active in the women’s rights movement, as well as many with no political profile. Some of these “non-political” women, such as Parvin Javadzadeh and Maryam Akbari Monfared, the mother of three children, were charged with mohareba (enmity with God) because of their participation in the December 2009 Ashura demonstrations.

The government used the unrest as a pretext for arresting a number of women activists who were already on the security forces’ radar because of their prior political activities. Shadi Sadr was violently arrested by plainclothes police on July 17, 2009 and imprisoned for 12 days for attending Ayatollah Rafsanjani’s Friday prayer sermon. Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh was also arrested for her participation in Ayatollah Montazeri’s funeral ceremony in December 2009. In 2010, the Revolutionary Court sentenced Sadr to six years in prison and 74 lashes for “acting against national security and harming public order,” and Abbasgholizadeh to a term of two and half years and 30 lashes for similar crimes. For the last five months, Badrosadat Mofidi, secretary of the Iranian Journalists Association, has been imprisoned without any specific charges. Her husband has been told that his wife has been under intense interrogations, which have resulted in heart disease and serious neurological disorders. Mahboubeh Karami, a member of the One Million Signatures Campaign, who had previously been arrested several times because of her human rights and women’s rights activism, was arrested in March 2010. After three months in prison, the last 20 days of which were spent in solidarity confinement, she was finally allowed to visit her family in May. Meanwhile Bahareh Hedayat, a student activist and another member of the One Million Signatures Campaign, was recently sentenced to 9 and a half years in prison after appeal.

Conclusion

Over the last year, the government’s persistent attacks against feminists and the women’s movement were mostly aimed at reinforcing the Islamic Republic’s grip on public behavior. Much more so than in previous years, the Islamic Republic strove to characterize feminism and feminist activists as agents of Western countries. The government has produced numerous articles, reports, speeches, and TV programs targeting women’s “un-Islamic attire and behaviors” and discussing ways in which they should be punished, diminished, and disciplined.

As a result of these attacks, criticisms, and arrests, a considerable number of women activists have fled the country during the last year. Despite the difficulties of life in exile, they have continued their advocacy on women’s issues in collaboration with international human rights organizations. Activists in Iran are also trying to move their work forward, albeit on a limited scale, and are forming new alliances with other activist groups within the country. One cannot ignore, however, the damaging impact of government suppression, exemplified by the meticulous surveillance of activists and heavy prison sentences issued against them. These measures have effectively sidelined some of the women’s movement’s most prominent members.

Considering all these developments, the future of the movement heavily depends on the relationship between members inside Iran and those who have left the country. While Shirin Ebadi has recently argued that the government crackdown will only make it stronger, the women’s movement cannot hope to continue its mission and reach its goals without unity among its various branches. One positive development in this regard was the emergence of Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and her ability to bridge the gap between generations of women activists in the run-up to the 2009 election. Widely recognized as a conservative and with no particular interest in feminism, Rahnavard has become a vociferous critic of the regime and an advocate for reform. Maintaining and strengthening the connection between secular, younger Iranian women and the religious older generation may be crucial to the future success of the women’s movement in Iran and the key to realizing legal and social equality for the country’s women and girls.

* Leila Mouri is a PhD student in Middle Eastern Studies at Columbia University. Her main field of interest is gender and sexuality in post -revolutionary Iran. Prior to coming to the United States she was an activist in the women’s movement in Iran. She continues to work as a journalist with the first Iranian website on women’s rights, Women In Iran (http://www.womeniniran.com/). She also publishes blogs in Farsi and English at http://www.femirani.com/ and http://www.femirani.com/english/