Iran: The Unfolding Gender Revolution

Also on this Christmas, Ziba Mir-Hosseini in MERIP Online:

Iranians of today, from both genders, all classes and all parts of the country, have rejected or at least questioned many of the gender codes and sexual taboos firmly enforced by the Islamic Republic over the past 30 years. So, at least, the current government appears to believe; hence the countrywide Social Morality Plan (tarh-e amniyat ejtema’i) instated by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2006 in an attempt to reimpose the rigid codes of dress and comportment that prevailed in the earliest days of the revolution. Further evidence is provided by several novel elements in the 2009 election campaign and its aftermath.

The first element was the nature of women’s political participation. For a long time, a division, if not an antipathy, between “secular” and “religious” women has marked the politics of gender. The distinction refers to political attitudes, and not personal piety. “Religious” women, in the main, believed that the country’s laws and social norms should be based upon Islam, while “secular” women might be anti-clerical or supportive of complete separation of mosque and state. Many women of all persuasions backed the reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), because he promised concrete improvements in women’s lives, but the divide lingered nonetheless. On the eve of the 2005 presidential election, at the end of Khatami’s second term, when secular women’s groups organized a rally in front of Tehran University to ask for equality, framing their demands in constitutional terms, women from the official reformist parties did not join them. They did not want to break all ties with the establishment and to be seen as siding with the newly emerging secular feminists, who for their part were keen to keep their distance from religious reformists.

But in April 2009, 42 women’s groups and 700 individuals, including both secular feminists and religious women from the reformist parties, came together to form a coalition called the Women’s Convergence. Without supporting any individual candidate, the coalition posed pointed questions to the field. They raised two specific demands: first, the ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and second, the revision of Articles 19, 20, 21 and 115 of the Iranian constitution that enshrine gender discrimination. Using the press and new media, they put the candidates on the spot to respond. Women’s demand for legal equality became a central issue in the campaign season. Distinguished filmmaker Rakhshan Bani-Etemad made a documentary, available on the Internet, which registers the voices and demands of these women and the replies of the candidates. Ahmadinejad was, of course, the only candidate not to appear.

The second novelty was the appearance of Zahra Rahnavard at the side of — and even holding hands with — her husband, the candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Though many women politicians have served in the Islamic Republic’s legislature, they had been absent from high-level politics, and the 2009 campaign was the first time that a woman appeared as an equal partner and intellectual match for her man.