Iranian Women and The Uprising: Culture, Rights, and Roundhouse Kicks

by Emily Rems

 There is a unique movement happening in Iran right now; some have preemptively labeled it a ‘revolution,’ while others have said it’s all U.S.A.-backed smoke and mirrors, but should anyone reject this as anything less than an uprising, they would have to be in denial. So often in traditional media outlets, we see women in Iran and throughout other Muslim-majority countries portrayed as oppressed homemakers, washing clothes by hand outdoors, pulling tightly at their hijabs (head coverings) or burkas. But now, with the help of modern-day technology and amateur video footage, you can catch them drop kicking the cops and the Revolutionary Guard, and in a center-stage tragedy, taking a bullet to the heart. The women of Iran are in the house, and they’re in the front row.

It’s unfortunate that this Iranian uprising of 1388 (2009) is being twisted, manipulated, and undermined by so many different sides of the political spectrum. One fact, however, has been coming through loud and clear: the women of Iran are nothing to mess with. And while many still associate Iranian women with films like ‘The Stoning of Soraya M ,’ these days you should be checking out Youtube for some current reality TV of Iranian women in action.

Of all the Iranian uprising footage on Youtube, one video that particularly stands out depicts a young woman jumping out at police who are harassing her group . Not only can she be seen slapping them away, but she then fights them off with what I believe is best described as a roundhouse kick. Another image that speaks a thousand words (pictured above) is that of women chasing down some Basiji vigilante militia with their hands in slap mode. What’s most interesting is that the majority of the women in the photo are wearing the most strict dress of Shi’a Islam, a ‘chador,’ which basically translates to ‘tent,’ a long black cloak that drapes over their clothes for extra modesty (or in all reality, an answer to middle age.) It’s common that as a woman settles in to that 40 and up range, she’ll bust out the chador because, according to one of my aunts, ‘lt’s so much the easiest teeng Maryam jaan, you just eh take it and trow et over deh clothes, you don’t even need iron.’

I am keen to point this out, because in Iran, where they already have a mandatory hijab policy, the chador, which is not mandatory, generally signifies to the public that the particular woman wearing it is more conservative religiously. Perhaps in other Muslim societies the hijab alone would serve this purpose because it is not required, as is the case in other countries like neighboring Iraq, Turkey, Palestine, or Egypt.
For the average Joan, who may not really know anything about Iran, these are probably shocking images. But for me, as an Iranian-American woman, I am not as surprised by these brave actions as I am by the defiance of these women to cultural expectations. Generally speaking, in Iranian cultures, women showing their anger publicly with physical fighting is considered quite unladylike and taboo (oh wait, that’s true about almost every culture.)

I recently asked Arang Keshavarzian, Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, (he was in Iran for the presidential election and its immediate aftermath),if there is something unique about the role of women in this monumental societal change in Iran. And he assured me that there is definitely a kind of ‘gender specific element that’s emerging in the uprising regarding women. An interesting example of this was pointed out by Bitta Mostofi and Bill Quagley in their article on , in which they wrote, ‘In Isfahan, Iran, an 80-year-old woman stood defiantly in her doorway. Twenty baton-wielding Basij men arrived on motorcycles and threatened to enter her house in pursuit of a group of young demonstrators. Instead of running with fear or turning her back on the demonstrators, this woman looked the pursuers straight in the eye and said, ‘You will not get past me.’ Clearly, as this article implies, the ladies aren’t just passing their brothers pieces of stones to throw at the government forces, they are taking a true role at the forefront.

Iranian women were granted the right to vote in 1963, and this is a right they have exercised fervently. This might explain their livid outrage over the alleged voter fraud. A look at some statistics relating to the place Iranian women hold within their society could also help one understand why the movement is being fiercely co-lead by them. Women make up the majority of university students, outnumbering men at 65 percent. They are also employed in the government, professional, and medical sectors, and are self-employed as business owners.

Don’t be mistaken, I’m not attempting to lure readers into buying a one-way ticket to Tehran. There are still fundamental inequalities within the structure of the Islamic Republic. A woman’s testimony in court is equal to only half that of a man, and child custody and inheritance laws strongly favor men. As I stated earlier, the traditional Islamic headdress, the hijab, is not an option, it’s law, and should a woman not wear this she can be arrested.

We can’t take these elements of Iranian society as an indication of weakness on the part of the women there, though. We must acknowledge these cultural relics from a past time for what they are, fear of progress towards anything that can be called ‘Westernization,’ which strongly signifies corruption in Iran.

Let’s face it, walking around with your tits popping out can be threatening in other cultures too, not just Muslim ones. And on the flip side, who’s to say that it’s ‘liberating’ to let it all hang out? To each her own, I say. Judging sisters with a different cultural identity separates us and puts a dent in the feminist movement, especially globally. It’s inspiring to see women from the more religious sector of Iranian society banding together with more secular women and working to fight whomever threatens them and their families.

The vast majority of women who are taking to the streets are doing so for their presidential candidate, Mir Hossein-Mousavi, whom they feel was robbed out of his win; their win. The gravitation of women towards him is quite clear. Mousavi is the first presidential candidate in Iran to ever address the issues of single women, single-mother households, and violence against women. Mr. Mousavi said once in a speech, ‘We should reform laws that are unfair to women.’ It’s also been reported that he voiced support to reform laws on hijab requirements, an issue of great importance to younger women and girls in Iran. Another part of Mousavi’s dynamic sway over women voters, is his inclusive campaigning with his wife Zahra. She holds a master’s degree in art and a PhD in political science, not to mention the fact that if you want to Wiki her, you’ll have to use her maiden name, Rahnavard. The AFP news agency reported her as saying, ‘We should prepare the ground for an Iran where women are treated without discrimination…We should reform laws that treat women unequally. We should empower women financially, women should be able to choose their professions according to their merits, and Iranian women should be able to reach the highest level of decision making bodies.’
It’s very possible that Ms. Rahnavard could be the genius behind the campaign’s charisma, as she was political adviser to former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, who is regarded as one of the most popular presidents in the history of the Islamic Republic. Many Iranians have equated her presence to that of Michelle Obama, and find her relationship with Mousavi appealing. Let me be clear, though, neither Mousavi nor Ahmedinejad (Mousavi’s opponent and the incumbent) can just roll on into office and say, ‘Hey ladies, grab your swimsuits!’ The president can put forth a bill that would be subject to a vote in Parliament, and it ultimately must gain the approval of the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council. There is always a chance that a candidate could propose reforms that would lure women on board, knowing that the bill they vowed to put forth would not pass. But the great power of Iranian women can be seen in the fact that Mousavi’s popularity can be attributed to his being the only candidate (of the two favored) to bring this dialogue into their campaign. Perhaps the presence and command of Zahra Rahnavard gives fellow Iranian women a sense of assurance.

In one of the most disturbing cases of the uprising, the world was witness to-via shaky cellphone camera-the death of Neda Agha-Soltan . She was brutally murdered while standing on the side of a street. Merely watching the protesters, not even as a participant, a sniper bullet from a Basij (vigilante) on a rooftop found its way straight into Neda’s heart, claiming her 27-year-old life almost instantly. In Iranian society, a culture which essentially gave birth to the Shi’a sect of Islam, martyrdom plays a great role. In fact, the religion itself was founded on principles of the prophet Hussein, who was viewed as the great battler of oppression and whose head was chopped off in battle. Hussein is regarded as the dear martyr to Shi’a as well as his father, Ali, who was also killed in what is described as a righteous battle. With Neda’s murder, it seems that for the first time in Iran, the nation’s most provocative image of martyrdom is no longer just Hussein, or the posters of young men killed in battle during the Iran-Iraq war (or even the current opposition), but the beautiful, blood-covered face of Neda. Pictures of her face both at the time of her death and from earlier in her life flood the Internet, memorializing not only her, but all the fallen from this uprising that she now represents. It is quite ironic that Neda herself is described by family as a non-political person. She was not on the street that day to protest or to yell. Perhaps this is what makes her such a symbolic figure. Neda was curious enough to exit her car and go over to see the protesters. She was young, beautiful, educated, and frustrated about her lack of civil liberties, but not quite sure what to do about it as a child of the Iranian revolution who had thus-far never taken major actions against the system. All of these qualities embody the characteristics of the Iranian majority. On the night of her murder, as the people in Tehran retreated to their apartment buildings and homes for their nightly calls out of their windows that shake the city, it was not just ‘Allhau Akbar’ (God is great) and ‘Marg barg Dictatur!’ (death to the dictator) that they belted out; but ‘Yaw Neda!’ a derivative of the most dear sentiment to Ali’s martyrdom, ‘Yaw Ali.’

One can make her own labels for how she may perceive the Iranian uprising. I don’t call this a revolution. Nor do I call this C.I.A.-backed interference. I call this a civil-rights movement, and there is no civil-rights movement in the history of humankind that excludes the power of women. Women in Iran are giving birth to something historic, and it’s not just with their wombs. [Mariam Aryai Rivera]

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