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Despite Odds, Women's Movement Persists In Iran

Women's rights activist Shirin Ebadi has urged Iran for years to stop executing people convicted of crimes they committed under the age of 18.
Atta Kenare / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Women's rights activist Shirin Ebadi has urged Iran for years to stop executing people convicted of crimes they committed under the age of 18.
Author Azar Nafisi used her classroom as a place of resistance — teaching Nabakov and other Western authors to challenge autocratic thinking. Later, she wrote <em>Reading Lolita in Tehran</em>, about a women's reading group at her home.
Amy Sussman / Getty Images
Getty Images
Author Azar Nafisi used her classroom as a place of resistance — teaching Nabakov and other Western authors to challenge autocratic thinking. Later, she wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran, about a women's reading group at her home.

One of the most remarkable and under-reported stories in Iran is the strength and character of its women's movement. Through politics, literature, religion and poetry, women's voices have at times been like roars, and at others, like whispers of dissent. Women continue to be both targets of persecution and agents of change, and for more than a decade, NPR's Davar Ardalan and Jacki Lyden have been tracking those changes. It began in 1995 when Jacki went to Iran at a time when not many female reporters had been there.

I remember thinking that no one would talk to me on tape — that no one would be brave enough to question the revolution of 1979, which so many women and Iranian students had helped bring about. Few of those young women students realized that while they may have disliked the autocracy of the Shah, his pro-Western ways included a view of women as equals. For decades, Iranian women had been unveiled, had divorce and marriage rights, had the right to choose a husband, rather than have one chosen for them, and were very visible in public life. And then, almost overnight, it changed.

A Pro-Western Shah

Guity Ganji, a beautiful woman in her 40s, took me for a hike just above Tehran's Albourz Mountains.

We were hiking just past the country's infamous political prison, Evin, which is set incongruously in a beautiful valley. Ganji had been close to the Shah's female minister for women's affairs. How out of place she felt now, she said, with this hike — her moment of freedom.

"I feel sort of alienated from these people," said Ganji. "I think a lot of people feel like I do because of what's happening. [It's] especially harder for women ... because the way we are treated, the way they behave toward us. It's aggravating. And I look at professional persons — just think if I were professional and working with men and the way they would behave toward you. And they don't look at you at all."

Return Of The Veil

That was a feeling any Western woman could understand, especially one trying to conduct interviews in headscarves with earphones on. What was somewhat harder to understand was how the Islamic Republic had co-opted the revolution so that now women had to live in black scarves and head-to-toe gowns.

In a real sense, the Shah had been forcing traditionalists in Iran into modernity, causing a deep clash of culture. By encouraging women, even his own wife to go about unveiled at public functions, the Shah was handing the Shia clergy an issue every traditional Muslim elder could defend: Women should be veiled.

When the veil came back, for all those Iranian modern women — and there were legions of them in the professional classes — it wasn't so much about wearing a piece of cloth as it was about the abnegation of self. Perhaps no voice expressed it better than that of Azar Nafisi, an Iranian professor.

'Whispers Of Dissent'

I met her in 1995 in a university classroom in Tehran. Today, Nafisi is an internationally renowned writer, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and one of Iran's best known women in exile. As a professor, she used Western writers such as Nabokov as a way to challenge autocratic thinking.

Now living in Washington, D.C., Nafisi says women remain for her at the forefront of the cultural struggle within Iran even though her own dissent, and that of thousands like her, was increasingly repressed by the new regime after the revolution.

"It is very unreal, going back 30 years ago to the way these whispers of defense, these whispers of dissent were articulated," said Nafisi. "I was one of the dissenters. I was very, very active in the student movement here. We were demonstrating against the Shah. ... We were asking for the overthrow of the regime, and among ourselves — those, for example, who were religious, those who were Marxist, those who were nationalists — there was a polarization."

Nafisi devoted much of her 20s in America to political movements dedicated to abolishing the monarchy in Iran, which was seen as a puppet of the United States. She was typical of the young student abroad, and Iran sent many young women abroad. Other young Iranian women were recruited into joining communist and non-communist guerrilla groups. But a far greater number were uneducated, lower class women who participated in street demonstrations in 1978 and 1979, answering the call of the Ayatollah Khomeini to demonstrate against tyranny.

By 1979, the pro-Western Shah was sick with cancer and on a plane to Egypt. Of all the groups that had opposed him — women, nationalists, Marxists — no group won hearts and minds like the Islamists.

The new regime under the Ayatollah Khomeini executed thousands of people. Women went from being judges and lawyers to being non-entities, if they were lucky.

Repeal Of The Family Protection Law

One of the women who never went home again after the Revolution is Mahnaz Afkhami, the Shah's former minister for women's affairs. Under the Shah, she'd worked for women's rights and helped push through the Family Protection Law. That made her a post-revolutionary target. To go back to Iran meant death, yet she never gave up working for women's rights in her homeland.

"People, individual women, are feeling that they need to assert themselves as individuals," said Afkhami. "They need to have a role, they need to have a say, both in what they want to be and how they want to lead their lives, and how they want to relate to other members of their family and their society. It's not necessarily the same answer for everyone."

The Family Protection Law was repealed in 1979. That meant women, among other things, had no right to divorce. For a time, women's voices were banned from the radio and female singers were barred from television. Family planning was abolished and the birthrate soared, straining the economy. But Iranian women never really resigned to this. By 1997, almost 20 years after the revolution, women were demanding change.

'I Won't Be Silent'

It wasn't just secular female intellectuals who wanted reform. I met Azam Talehgani in 1997. The daughter of a prominent ayatollah, she was 58 and ran a settlement house for poor women. Talehgani had decided to run for president, even though she said she knew the Ruling Council of Guardians would never choose her — a woman.

"Let them be silent. I won't be silent," said Talehgani. "And even if I remain silent, the women won't be silent. I can't tell you how many phone calls I've received in the past few days of people thanking me for speaking out and demanding that woman be considered as presidential candidates. And I tell them that our government officials have been put on notice and our movement will continue."

Another woman who would not be silent was Shahla Lahiji, a publisher who would eventually go to prison for peacefully pushing back. She wrote stories in which she demanded equal rights for women. By the 1990s, the Iranian state had reversed itself — family planning clinics distributed contraception.

"Ten years ago, we couldn't talk about women rights as well as we can talk about this," said Lahiji. "Maybe it is the result of our struggle, which was not with any violence, but it was daily, like bees, like ants."

Women once again rose to become lawyers and investigating judges — women like Mehrangiz Kar. But she, too, would spend time in prison.

"Before, it used to be said the laws on the books were like revelations from God and therefore not subject to change," said Kar. "But in the last year, there has been more dialogue in every aspect of the society about a need for change. We are hopeful that this will be a good sign toward more moderation."

'Those Who Wish Them Cloistered'

But of those who tried to bring awareness to the plight of women trying to create a civil space for themselves in a theocracy, no one attracted as much attention as Shirin Ebadi.

Ebadi, a human rights lawyer, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. At the ceremony in Oslo, Norway, she talked not just about women's rights, but Iran's ancient tradition of human rights.

"I am an Iranian, a descendant of Cyrus the Great, the very emperor who proclaimed at the pinnacle of power 2,500 years ago that he would not reign over the people if they did not wish it," said Ebadi, "and promised not to force any person to change his religion or faith and guaranteed freedom for all."

In 2006, she published a book in English called Iran Awakening.

"It is not religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered," she wrote. "That belief, along with the belief that change in Iran must come peacefully and from within, has underpinned my work."

Ebadi, whom I had met during my 1995 trip to Iran, advocates moderation and the use of Islamic law to reform Iran's system. She believes in peaceful, nonviolent change from within. She had an increasingly educated class of young people to draw on — by the time her book came out, more than half of all university students in Iran were women. In applied physics at Azad University, 70 percent were female. The post-revolutionary young woman was an educated young woman.

This belief in peaceful resistance was underscored by the "One Million Signatures Campaign." The idea was that women and men from all walks of life would collect a million signatures to educate women about their rights, and to demand changes to laws that discriminated against them. When they demonstrated in Iran in June 2006, some 70 were arrested.

Perhaps because Ebadi had become such a powerful symbol, it was almost inevitable the government would crack down on her. Ebadi has experienced intensified harassment. In December, her office dedicated to the defense of human rights was shut down and her computers seized.

Human Rights Watch says it fears for her life. With the ascendancy of the conservatives, especially since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, where is the Iranian women's movement today? To Azar Nafisi, it is simply a force that cannot be defeated, no matter who is in power in Iran.

"You see what no regime can do is take away from their people the past, the memory of what they had achieved," said Nafisi. "What the Iranian women had achieved became a weapon to fight for the rights that were taken away from them. And that is why so many women go back to the past.

"They talk about the women's organization that was created. They talk about writing books. These new women who are now participating in these regressive laws in Iran are also writing about women senators at that time. They are talking about the minister for women's affairs at that time. They're interviewing her on their Web sites. You know, I think the past is creating the way to the future, and that is why the women are so much at the forefront.

The 'Lioness Of Iran'

In 1983, five years after the revolution, the great Iranian poet Simin Behbehani, known as the "Lioness of Iran," wrote Homage to Being. The poem advocates and celebrates the transcendence of three cultural fears: women's visibility, women's mobility and women's voices. Translated by Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safa in A Cup Of Sin, Behbehani's poem reads:

Sing, Gypsy, sing.

In homage to being you must sing.

Let ears register your presence.

Eyes and throats burn from the smoke

that trails the monsters as they soar in the sky.

Scream if you can of the terrors of this night.

Every monster has the secret of his life

hidden in a bottle in the stomach of a red fish

swimming in waters you cannot reach.

In her lap every maid holds a monster's head

like a piece of firewood set in silver.

In their frenzy to plunder, the monsters

have plundered the beautiful maidens

of the silk and rubies of their lips and cheeks.

Gypsy, stamp your feet.

For your freedom stamp your feet.

To get an answer,

send a message with their beat.

To your existence there must be a purpose under heaven.

To draw a spark from these stones,

stamp your feet.

Ages dark and ancient

have pressed their weight against your body.

Break out of their embrace,

lest you stay a mere trace in a fossil.

Gypsy, to stay alive, you must slay silence.

I mean, to pay homage to being, you must sing

From then, until now, I have no doubt that Iranian women will keep singing, keep shaping the future, simply staying alive and resisting. Always resisting.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Longtime listeners recognize Jacki Lyden's voice from her frequent work as a substitute host on NPR. As a journalist who has been with NPR since 1979, Lyden regards herself first and foremost as a storyteller and looks for the distinctive human voice in a huge range of national and international stories.