Sunday, July 12, 2009

A silent revolution

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 12, 2009

The Other Half

For many weeks in June, Iran dominated the news. Now it has slipped into the background. One of the remarkable aspects of the huge demonstrations challenging the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the presence of women. Iranian women had been largel y invisible to the world. Suddenly, there they were, old and young, barely covered and fully shrouded.

And then young Neda, a music student, was shot dead as she stood on the sidelines of a demonstration. Her dying gasps were captured on camera for the world to see. That tragic moment spoke not just of the mindless assault on ordinary people following the election, but also of the existence of a movement for change that the women of Iran have been conducting for decades now. That story is largely untold. People focus on a country like Iran when there is an event. They rarely know what goes on the rest of the time.

Active participants in 1979

The story of Iranian women’s the struggle for justice and equality began soon after the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran. Women were active participants in that movement. They expected that they would get their rights as equal citizens as a result of the end of the Shah’s repressive regime.

Instead, the Islamic Republic took away even the rights that women had won in the previous decades. Except for their right to vote, that was only granted as late as 1963, the Islamic government under Ayatollah Khomeini reversed many laws relating to women. Within a month of the new regime taking power, women’s legal status was reduced to half of that of men — two women witnesses were equal to one male. No woman could be a judge. Furthermore, the Family Protection Law introduced in 1967 that gave women the right to divorce, custody of children and laid down that polygamous marriages required the court’s permission and that of the wife/wives, was reversed. Worse still, the minimum age of marriage for girls was reduced to nine years (14 years for boys) and the veil was made mandatory. Public areas, like beaches, were segregated as was public transit and women were not allowed to participate in sporting events.

A fascinating paper on the women’s movement in Iran, written by Homa Hoodfar for a study on women’s movements, coordinated by the Association for Women in Development ( ) reveals, for instance, that many of the veiled women who actively participated in the movement against the Shah were in fact middle class women who had discarded the veil. They chose to wear it at that time to demonstrate their opposition to the Shah’s regime and believed that its end would lead to equal rights for women.

In the early days after the revolution, many of these women protested. But they got little support from political parties, including the Left, and were attacked by religious zealots and the police. The start of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) put an end to any effort on their part to challenge the anti-women laws.

Different paths

But the churning continued. Secular women believed only a secular regime could restore their rights while the more conservative and religious women held that these rights could not be denied in an Islamic regime. It is fascinating to read how women with different perspectives eventually found a way of working towards the same goal.

For instance, a group of religious women began to publish stories in women’s magazines of how women divorced after 20, 30 and even 40 years of marriage had been left without any alimony because the law favoured men. Stories of young widows of men killed during the Iran-Iraq war began appearing, of how they faced long custody battles for their children. Women’s religious gatherings in mosques discussed these issues. Large-scale letter-writing campaigns to the leaders and to women’s magazines were organised about these injustices. Little of this was known to the outside world.

The first indication that their voices were being heard came in 1985 when Ayatollah Khomeini announced that the widows of martyrs could retain custody of their children even if they remarried. This was followed by a new marriage contract that gave women the right to divorce.

(To read the rest, click on the link above)

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