how feminism is flourishing against the odds in iran

From interrogation for Instagramming to arrests for activism, the Iranian women’s rights movement is under threat.

by Edward Siddons
25 August 2016, 7:27pm

"Being oppressed means the absence of choices," wrote bell hooks in 1984, something Iranian feminists understand all too well in 2016. In Iran, the hijab is mandatory, marital rape is legal, and marriage and divorce law remain heavily skewed in favor of male interests. Morality police patrol the streets ensuring women's modesty; reports of interrogation for "sitting improperly" and failing to cover even girls under the age of ten remain common.

In the last six months, intelligence services and the Revolutionary Guard, an armed domestic force committed to the crushing of "deviant movements" from military coups to social justice campaigns, have ratcheted up the pressure on feminist movements. Countless activists have been detained, subjected to gender-based slurs, interrogation and imprisonment, an Amnesty report revealed last week. Women's rights magazine Zanan-e Emrooz was forced to close for a feature that was deemed to "[encourage] the anti-social and religiously unsanctioned phenomenon known as white marriage," that is, living with someone without tying the knot first. The Feminist School, a website dedicated to circulating feminist thought and theory within Iran has been ominously silent since February. Jail time for Instagramming without headscarves and the solidarity movement of men donning hijabs might have caught the attention of the young generation worldwide, but the programmatic repression of women's movements goes far deeper than many imagine.

Activists from The Campaign to Change the Male-Dominated Face of Parliament have been targeted in particular. The movement fights for greater representation for women in parliament by naming and shaming politicians with poor records on women's rights, and seeking the five-fold increase of women politicians. Lawyers, campaigners, academics and human rights activists, many of whom were involved in the campaign, remain imprisoned in jails such as Evin prison, an institution known to operate in breach of international human rights law.

The wave of arrests constitutes the effective criminalization of feminism, argues Raha Bahreini, Iran Researcher of Amnesty International. "The last several years have seen the women's movement violently crushed. The authorities are accusing women's rights activists of espionage, collusion with foreign governments, and wanting to disrupt public order and overthrow the political system," she explains. In short, "They are equating feminism and women's rights activism with national security offenses."

The situation is a bleak deterioration from the optimism many feminists felt in 2013 upon the election of President Hassan Rouhani, a self-proclaimed moderate and supposed reformist. His election offered hope to activists, many of whom had lived under the iron fist of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an ultra-conservative populist who brutally crushed protests in 2009 following his contested election. The protests, known as the Green Movement, were an intersectional uprising against Ahmadinejad's repressive rule and the electoral fraud many suspected had won him the presidency. Activists were beaten, arrested, even killed. In that context, Rouhani seemed to offer new paths for social justice movements.

Exiled activists dreamed of returning with the new President. Mansoureh Shojaee, an Iranian feminist activist and journalist now residing in Europe, was jailed three times by the Iranian authorities for her involvement in feminist movements. In 2010, she left for a "rest period" visiting her sister in Germany. One week into her trip, a court summons was sent to her home in Tehran. The choice was clear, she says: "Stay in Europe, or go to prison in Iran." Since Rouhani's election, she remains unable to return.

Part of the reason for the crackdown is undoubtedly the growing strength of the women's movement. Organized across class divisions and intergenerational in a way that very few western movements are, its current repression is testament to its strength. Social media has been a vital tool in galvanizing new movements; it forged new collectives in the 2009 Green Movement, and continues to do so today. Instagram offers a space for feminist self-fashioning, including but not limited to subversion of mandatory veiling laws; Twitter has afforded a voice to many the intelligence services seek to silence and steadily fed international news agencies with vital and unheard stories; and Telegram, the encrypted messaging service, has allowed women to escape the eagle eye of the security services. Social media has globalized the struggle as never before.

It also offers the possibility of global solidarity. In adding Western voices to Iranian movements, however, the danger of reproducing tired white feminist clichés looms large. "Sometimes western feminists don't consider any idea of cultural relativism and they attack us as uneducated people," Shojaee explains, echoing the arguments of countless Muslim feminist scholars. The enemy here is the vice-grip of the Revolutionary Guards, the inertia of President Rouhani, and the conservatism of Iran's Council of Guardians, the state's supreme authority, not religion itself, many argue. However, she warns against a kind of naïve cultural relativism too, one that would paint repressive practices (from FGM to mandatory veiling laws) as simply aspects of a different culture that we should leave untouched. Global support and enforcement of international human rights law remains imperative and support is urgently required, just more nuanced support than is often seen. Social media engagement should be born of solidarity and amplify local voices, not project fantasies of liberation on to women more than capable of leading their own movement.

Awareness is the first step, and whether lobbying your local politician, donating to Amnesty International or grassroots women's movements, or amplifying the voices of Iranian women across social media. Both Shojaee and Bahreini are determined that collective international action will change women's lives for the better.

Shojaee in particular remains optimistic, despite the pressures of a life in exile. Decades of involvement at the forefront the women's movement have left her steeled against each new crackdown, and this one is no different. She is determined that women's rights activists will one day triumph. When I ask if the feminist movement is being placed on hold, or whether certain lines of action have been temporarily foreclosed, she laughs knowingly and reproaches me: "My dear, nothing is finished, nothing is ended, until we reach equality."


Text Edward Siddons
Photography Khashayar Elyassi

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