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Non-prophet women’s organization. How protests in Iran continue a century-long struggle against patriarchal dictatorship

In December, one of Iran's most popular actresses, Taraneh Alidoosti, was arrested in Iran. She criticized the death sentences for protesters and published a photo in support of protesters burning scarves and hijabs in city squares. The ongoing protests in Iran, in which women play a leading role, are perceived by many as a sensational subversion of traditions and foundations, but in reality they are a continuation of over a century-long women's struggle for their rights and political change, first against the profligate Shah dynasty and later against the repressive theocratic regime of the Islamic republic. Along with men, they helped new movements to overthrow rulers, but in the end they did not get the equality they were promised. Today's protests are a new attempt to achieve equality, and it may prove more successful than the previous ones.

  • Not just men's protests

  • 20th Century: The Beginning of Women's Movements in Iran

  • The Islamic Revolution

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Not just men's protests

Women in the Middle East have not been as politically passive as many might think. Revolutionary and reformist women have been at the center of most historical sociopolitical movements in the Arab countries, Iran and Turkey. Women of different classes, religions and ethnicities have been a significant force in the resistance against dictators. They formed labor unions and fought for workers' rights against discriminatory laws. In the nineteenth century, urban and peasant revolts were the main political arena available to the majority population, and it was there that women played a significant, albeit poorly documented, role in the political history of their countries and communities.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Middle Eastern states developed and strengthened the structure of centralized power: the bureaucracy, taxes, the army, and the police. In Egypt, this led to dozens of uprisings of peasants and urban artisans, who were often used by the state in its attempts to create a productive labor force through violent means. For example, the decision by Mohammad Ali (Viceroy of Egypt) to confiscate the grain harvest sparked powerful protests in 1820-1821. Nearly 40,000 peasants, including women, supported the independent government in the province of Qena. During the city riots, women fought against the Mamluk soldiers: they took up positions on top of the barricades and threw stones while the men attacked.

During the city riots, women fought against the Mamluk soldiers: they took up positions on top of the barricades and threw stones while the men attacked

Officials of the period viewed the propensity for resistance and rebellion, especially among working-class women, as a separate problem. In 1863 the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire visited Cairo, then under imperial control. The authorities had taken care of the security of this trip in advance, ordering all “lower class” women to stay at home for the duration of the visit. They were worried that “Arab women are frank and straightforward and may shout their complaints and grievances.”

Throughout the nineteenth century, resistance to central authority, usually foreign or under European or Ottoman influence, continued across the modern Middle Eastern states. After the suppression of the Urabi revolt against foreign influence (1879-1882), the authorities began to consider the women who took part in it on an equal footing with the men. It meant that they were also tortured and imprisoned on charges of looting and rebellion.

It was later that the era of the formal political arena replaced mass revolts, and the protest against colonialism and the development of nationalism got relegated to the domain of educated elites, leaving women excluded from the formalized sphere of politics.

20th Century: The Beginning of Women's Movements in Iran

Early women's movements emerged in Iran during the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911. At that time the country was experiencing a sharp economic and cultural decline. The profligacy of the Shah dynasty became a particularly acute problem during the short reign of Mozaffar al-Din Shah Qajar. The Shah took large loans from the Russian Empire and Great Britain to afford his lavish lifestyle as well as to cover government expenses. Protests turned into a revolution, which led to the creation of the Majlis and the adoption of a constitution restricting the Shah's activities. The constitutional movement united people from different ethnic and religious groups in Iran, from socialists to liberals, from Shiite clergy to secularists. Women were among them. They formed semi-secret associations, anjumans, which functioned as de facto revolutionary cells. The largest of those comprised about 60 women. Their goal was to pool strength and resources, share information, involve as many women as possible in political activities, and increase support for the constitution. Over coffee and hookah, the women discussed the advantages of constitutionalism and the disadvantages of authoritarianism.

The constitutional movement advocated the need for public welfare, public general education, institutions of justice and fair courts, equality, protection of the rights to life, ownership of property and liberty through secular law, and the establishment of a democratic parliamentary government that would limit the powers of the Shah. Women's rights were an important part of those demands.

Iranian women used every method available to them to achieve their goals. In the newspapers, they used quotations from religious texts to argue for equal treatment of women. Iranian women protected fellow constitutionalists from the Shah's forces during demonstrations and even used their connections with women in the Shah's harem to get information from behind the scenes of the monarchy. Clothing gave Iranian women anonymity, and they could secretly pass messages and weapons between revolutionary cells. They also staged boycotts of foreign goods and services to achieve their goals, such as refusing to use imported fabrics. They believed that this could free Iran from its dependence on European traders and manufacturers.

Clothing gave Iranian women anonymity, and they could secretly pass messages and weapons between revolutionary cells

In addition to the adoption of the constitution, one of the first necessary reforms discussed by the Majlis was the reform of the banking sector. It consisted in the creation of a national bank to solve the country's acute capital shortage. The deputies feared foreign intervention and believed that Iran's foreign debt might become a pretext for intervention by the colonial powers. Raising funds for a national bank became the task around which Iranian women formed their first anjumans and associations. Women spent their dowries and inheritances and sold jewelry to raise money to establish the first independent national bank. For many of them, these donations were the only capital that really belonged to them. Those actions were praised in the newspapers. They also condemned the wealthy men who continued to keep their savings in European banks.

The Constitutionalists attached particular importance to the education of girls. Their male allies agreed with them, arguing that the development of the nation required educated and self-sufficient mothers who could raise a new generation of citizens. Before the constitutional period, the only schools for girls were opened by Christian missionaries from the United States. The Iranian government forbade Muslim women to attend those schools. The 1907 constitution affirmed the right of Iranian women to general education, but the first comprehensive schools did not appear until 1918. And even though there was a serious religious component to the education programs, they were constantly criticized and attacked by religious authorities.

The most dramatic event of the Constitutional Revolution was the women's response to Russia's ultimatum. The Russian Empire promised to invade Iran if the authorities did not comply with the Russian conditions. Russia took advantage of the constitutional crisis to ramp up its influence in the country through its support of the monarchy. To discredit the Majlis, the Russian Empire made demands that violated Iran's sovereignty. In response to the brutal interference and threats, the women's movements organized a demonstration in Tehran on December 1, 1911. Several thousand women participated in the protest. Many took to the podium, made speeches in defense of the revolution, and demanded that the Majlis resist the ultimatum of the foreign powers. International observers later wrote about the demonstration:

“Out from their walled courtyards and harems marched three hundred of that weak sex, with the flush of undying determination in their cheeks. They were clad in their plain black robes with the white nets of their veils dropped over their faces. Many held pistols under their skirts or in the folds of their sleeves. Straight to the Mejlis they went, and, gathered there, demanded of the President that he admit them all. What the grave deputies of the Land of the Lion and the Sun may have thought at this strange visitation is not recorded. The President consented to receive a delegation of them. In his reception-hall they confronted him, and lest he and his colleagues should doubt their meaning, these cloistered Persian mothers, wives and daughters exhibited threateningly their revolvers, tore aside their veils, and confessed their decision to kill their own husbands and sons, and leave behind their own dead bodies, if the deputies wavered in their duty to uphold the liberty and dignity of the Persian people and nation.”

The Islamic Revolution

After the Middle Eastern states achieved independence in the mid-20th century, women in most of these countries found themselves in a difficult position: their political activities had to take place under the auspices of state initiatives and within the framework of what the authorities considered permissible – that is, not being overly oppositional. The political spectrum of the Middle East and North Africa in the second half of the 20th century can be simplistically described as a confrontation between Islamists, Communists and secular nationalists. But for all political constraints, women in the Middle East, thanks to the gains earned by the previous generation, were educated and exposed to the ideas of the Western women's rights movement. Iran was no exception here. But much changed in 1979.

Iranian female students of the 1960s
Iranian female students of the 1960s

It may come as a surprise to many, but the 1979 Islamic Revolution drew in not only Islamists, but also communists, nationalists, liberals, and even feminists. All of them opposed the authoritarian rule of the Shah dynasty, though of course they had radically different ideas about how to organize the new state and political life.

During the protests of that era, women participated in both peaceful and violent mass demonstrations: digging trenches and fighting, joining strikes and boycotts, taking part in the activities of self-organized popular militias and guerrilla attacks on government facilities. Women sometimes made up more than a third of the demonstrators, and many were killed in the street clashes. Women donated blood and kept hospitals running, for example by bringing clean bedding. Doctors and nurses worked around the clock treating the wounded lying in hospitals and hiding in homes. In their homes women hid protesters and gathered with friends and relatives during curfew to plan their actions for the next day.

On March 8, 1979, tens of thousands of women gathered outside government buildings and even seized the Palace of Justice, protesting against Ayatollah Khomeini's now obvious intentions to make the hijab mandatory. One of their slogans that day was “We will not let the revolution turn back.”

Protest marches against the mandatory hijab law
Protest marches against the mandatory hijab law

In 1979, as many times before, the elites who came to power, in part with the help of women, did not fulfill their promises and not only failed to bring more equality to the country, but also deprived women of many of the achievements of the previous revolutions. However, the long historical experience of women's struggle for their rights has not disappeared without a trace as the recent events have clearly demonstrated.

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