Fired at, beaten with clubs, bloodied and screaming –the shocking footage of protesters in Iran is not remarkable just for its brutality and sheer scale, but also because so many of the frontline victims are women. And now a woman has become the symbol of the rebellion: one of the most disturbing images to emerge is that of Neda Soltan, a teenage student shot by a sniper, blood pouring from her mouth and her eyes rolling back into her head as she dies in the arms of her wailing father.
For those who have been following the complex and twisted world of Iranian politics, the massive presence of women comes as no surprise, as for several years women’s groups have been the major voice of dissent and a thorn in the Islamic regime’s side.
Their rise began in the reformist era, when former president Mohammad Khatami loosened social strictures and gave more leeway to charities and non-governmental organisations, which had been heavily restricted. At the same time the student movement began to crumble, its collapse triggered by the 1999 riots that ended in police and right-wing vigilantes storming Tehran University dormitories.
With labour unions impotent and no real opposition, the women’s movement began to gain momentum — especially after the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who sought to roll back rights won under Khatami. Universities capped the number of female students and Ahmadinejad proposed laws to ease restrictions on polygamy.
He changed the name and function of the government’s “Centre for Women’s Participation”, calling it the “Centre for Women and Family Affairs”, shred all research literature published under its previous incarnation and halted funding to women’s groups.
It was then that the One Million Signature Campaign was conceived. What began as a grassroots movement to mark the anniversary of a violent police raid snowballed into one of the most formidable civil society forces to hit the Islamic regime. The network of activists collecting signatures to petition for a revision of discriminatory laws has spread to more than half of Iran’s provinces.
The government has made concessions in a bid to pacify it — allowing women to register as presidential candidates for the first time (although the Guardian Council barred all those who put their names down). But peaceful sit-ins by women, old and young, holding placards demanding equal divorce rights, have ended in bloody beatings by the police and the Basij militia. Scores of members have spent the past few years in and out of prison. They have become accustomed to violent raids, sporadic arrests and detention, interrogation and intimidation.
The group formed a pre-election coalition with other women’s organisations to back the reformist candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi. He had promised to appoint women to high posts, break up the morality police and enact legal reform. But the coalition was forced to disband amid fears of a crackdown.
Although the unrest has been a spontaneous outpouring of rage and frustration, these established networks of women mean that people who would not usually play a role in politics have also taken to the streets. During the past week many members have been seen with their old placards in hand.
These bloody street scenes mirror the 1979 revolution when women played a crucial role in bringing down the monarchy. Paradoxically, it was one of the pillars of the revolution’s socialist values — education of the masses — that created a wave of women more aware of their rights than ever. The revolution sowed the seed of its own problem: for many of these women, there is no turning back. —