I've been following the situation in Iran over that past couple weeks as I write about it for FMF's Feminist Newswire. For me one of the most intriguing aspects of the pre- and post- election politics is the incredible importance of the women's rights movement. This aspect of the situation is not readily evident in most media coverage of the turmoil, but our FMF Global Programs Coordinator, Anushay Hossain, has kept me up to date with news reports that show how women are shaping the political landscape of Iran.
First of all, women's rights were a big issue in the presidential race. Women make up about half the electorate in Iran, and Ahmadinejad's administration had good reason to fear that they would use their votes to elect a reformist candidate who would support granting women more rights. The Christian Science Monitor's Editorial Board went so far as to suggest in an excellent op-ed that this fear may have motivated the alleged election fraud: "The [women's] movement's courage to confront the patriarchal theocracy (in which 'morality police' still roam the streets looking for women with make-up) may have been a big reason why the regime rigged the vote count--and why supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was forced to make a show of ordering a probe of the fraud."
In short, women's desire for equality is a powerful force in Iran, and it's making the government extremely nervous. Journalist Diane Tucker agrees with this assessment: "The regime in Iran obviously feels threatened by peaceful female activism. They branded as illegal the One Million Signatures Campaign initiated by women's rights groups in Iran, a campaign to change discriminatory laws against women...Dozens of women involved in the effort have been harassed or jailed by the government."
Of course, the current police violence in Iran shows just how much Ahmadinejad's regime feels threatened by protesters, women and men. Annie Applebaum writes: "The Iranian clerics know that women pose a profound threat to their authority, too: As the activist Ladan Boroumand has written, the regime would not bother to brutally repress dissidents unless it feared them deeply."
These analyses emphasize just how relevant and powerful the fight for women's equality is in Iran and around the world. Here in the US many young women believe feminism is passe; our generation was born a decade after the Second Wave movement and we tend to take its hard-won victories (and those of the First Wave) for granted. Many never give a second thought to the grassroots organizing, courtroom battles, and debates in the halls of Congress that got us to where we are now.
Now, we are all witnesses to an extremely high-stakes struggle for rights in Iran. Luckily the US women's movement progressed peacefully; it seems that change in Iran might come only after a protracted and violent struggle with the government.
If you're interested in learning more about the women's movement in Iran pre-election, check out this engaging article by UK journalist Katherine Butler. I also recommend the graphic novel memoir and film Persepolis, in which Iranian ex-pat Marjane Satrapi details her childhood spent under the oppressive atmosphere of the Iranian revolution.