Tales of Subversion (Last)
Women Challenging Fundamentalism in the Islamic Republic of Iran
by: Dr. Azar Nafici

With many thanks to Dr. Nafisi

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Part One  -  Part Two

The Present (last segment)


The man who slashed his throat because of Tahereh's unveiling, along with the men who silenced and strangled Tahereh, are back: they are the fundamentalists attempting to lead the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The main targets of these new rulers are minorities, intellectuals, and, of course, women.  From the very start, the Islamic regime, under the guise of attacking the West's "cultural invasion," focused on cultural issues.  They found that the most obvious manifestations of "decadent Western Culture" were women - the way they looked and the public spaces they occupied.

When the Islamic revolution triumphed, women had been involved in all aspects of Iranian life.  During the first half of the seventies "the number of girls attending elementary school rose from 80, 020 to 1,508, 387; the number of girls attending vocational training schools rose tenfold; the number of women candidates for r the universities rose seven times.  By 1978, 33 percent of all university students were women and they had begun to choose fields other than traditionally female occupations.

In employment, before the Islamic Revolution, priority had been given to training women for semiskilled and skilled work.  "All laws and regulations were revised to eliminate sex discrimination, and equal pay for equal work was incorporated into the body of all government rules.  All regulations regarding housing, loans, and other job benefits were adjusted to eliminate discrimination.  Women were active in all walks of life; they worked in universities, the police force, and as judges, pilots, and engineers - in every field except religious activities.  In 1978, 333 of 1660 candidates to local councils were women.  "Twenty-two were elected to Parliament, two served in the Senate.  There were one cabinet minister, three sub-cabinet under secretaries (including the second highest position in the Ministries of Labor and Mines and Industries), one governor, an ambassador and five mayors.

These figures are important not only to judge women's losses and gains after the Islamic Revolution, but to understand why women took such an active part in Revolution.  They saw themselves as part of the society, as a force with a voice, and a choice.  They' like the majority of those who supported the Revolution, were asking for more rights, more political participation, and greater freedom of expression because they had reached a state of maturity where these rights and freedoms seemed to be inalienable.  So, women " marched and shouted their will  That it was in support of a destructive force came from political naiveté which only time and experience can correct.

Although reactionary clergy during the Constitutional Revolution tried to force Iranian women to leave the scene, it was impossible to do so because women were so much part of Iranian society.  The same was true in the Islamic Revolution.  This explains why the new rulers in the Islamic Republic picked women as their main target.  They annulled progressive laws, including the Family Protection Law, and brought back the old laws that had dominated society in Tahereh's times: polygamy; the age of consent for girls was lowered from 18 to 9; women were barred from many public offices, from 140 academic disciplines, and from many jobs in engineering, medicine, and fields deemed to be masculine territory, and women wren expelled from many secretarial jobs because their presence was regarded as a temptation to their bosses.  One by one women's rights were taken away from them.  Universities, schools, and even buses became segregated, and women had to obtain their husbands' permission to work.  In passing these laws, the new rulers not only made a statement against women, but against a century-long struggle for modernity.

The most obvious symbol of the new regime was the "veil," defined as a black, body-length garment that covered women's hair and head down to there toes.  The regime claimed that the unveiling of Iranian women had been solely the work of Imperialists and their domestic agents.  In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the reveiling of women.  Unlike what has been claimed by some in the West, the imposition of the veil was met with protest. One hundred Thousand women poured into the streets protesting Khomeini's edict.  The regime had to back down temporarily.  Its vigilantes, however, continued attaching and harassing unveiled women in public.  In 1980, the regime made the veil mandatory in government buildings and public places.  Many women resisted and protested this act, and were, as in former times, attached and beaten by vigilantes supported by the government and denounced by the "progressive" forces.  After all it was not only a "backward" Ayatollah who had claimed that women's hair had to b e covered, but the Islamic Republic's French-educated, first president, Bani Sadr.  It was Leftist intellectuals who condemned women who protested against veiling as "a handful of fashion models and painted dolls" who "are turning this insignificant issue (of veiling) into a major affair as if it is as important as democracy and the country's independence.

Three years later the veil became mandatory for all women regardless of their religion, creed, or nationality.  It took four years and use of coercion and force to impose the veil on women.  The punishment for deviating from the dress code was jail, monetary fines, and a flogging of up to 76 lashes.  In order to implement the "law," the regime created  vice squads, special courts, and jails for "moral offenses."    These courts and their guards had permission to raid public places or private homes, in search of alcoholic drinks, "decadent" music, video film, playing cards, sexually mixed parties, or unveiled women.  Bazaars and shopping malls were surrounded and raided.  Young girls were arrested for not wearing the proper clothing and /or for walking together with boys in the streets.  Lipsticks, nail polish, and Reebok shoes were treated as lethal weapons.  Young girls were subjected to virginity tests, to flogging, and jail sentences.

The fact that the Islamic Republic had to use so much energy and violence to insist on segregation and veiling to such an extent demonstrates that the issue of veiling belied its claim that it was merely acting in accordance with time-honored traditions of the society.  Could the Islamic regime literally turn the clock back?  Could it regain the ground that was lost at the turn of the century?  This was a test both for the regime and for the forces that believed in a modern Iran.


The Challenged to the present

In the first year after the Islamic Revolution's victory there wren many sit-ins, demonstrations, and protest against the reactionary measures taken by the regime against women.  As a result, the new regime learned to impose its laws gradually as it consolidated its power and repressed the democratic forces in the country.  The Revolutionary Guards and "Islamic" vigilantes aided repression by attaching women in the streets, beating them up, and throwing acid in their faces if they were not veiled or dressed according to the "Islamic" dress code.

Despite Ayatollah Khomeini's earlier opposition to women's enfranchisement, he decided that women's voting power was politically necessary - even if religiously unacceptable.  rather than denying women the right to vote, he made the passage of new restrictive laws possible by crating new rifts or exploring old ones among the ranks of women.

Women were divided into the good and the bad; the good were "women of Islam" and the bad were "agents of Satan."  It was in the interest of the good to destroy the bad.  This created a rift between women who were characterized as either agents of the West or emissaries of the regime.  This rift was further encouraged by Leftist organizations that, in the name of fighting Western decadence, resisted women's attempts to defend their freedoms.  An authoritarian attitude became the norm not only for the more reactionary elements of the regime, but for "progressive" groups as well.  The main struggle now, as in the past, was not against an outside enemy, but against the enemy within.

The regime's approach was to replace modern women with "Islamic" ones.  Many of the "good " women were placed in high positions not because of their merit but because they were related to the men in power.  As such they became mouthpieces for their fathers, husbands, or male relatives.  Some of these women used their position to attach the rights of women, and to advocate what the religious leaders prescribed.

But gradually some women in public office became more sensitized to the plight of women in general, and they began working for change.  Secular women had the most important role in crating this change in the political and social climate.  The majority of secular women could not be easily dispensed with because they had information and skills that were needed in various fields.  This situation in itself put women from different caps side by side.  As time went by, both sides realized that they had more in common with each other than they had differences.  Many of the women who were in power gradually took on the same role as those whom they had previously criticized as Westernized.

One area that solidified the bond between women was that of the law.  The Islamic Republic had changed the laws, claiming that they were unjust and products of alien rule and exploitation.  Once the "alien rulers" were gone and the new laws were implemented, the truth or falsity of these claims were tested in actuality.  The Islamic laws inevitably led to women making a critical reappraisal of the basic tenets that had created them.  For example, the imposition of the veil raised discussion concerning the right to freedom of choice.  Some Islamic women considered that they had the right to practice their religion according to their own interpretations.  If some chose to wear the veil, that was also their privilege.  In imposing the veil, the Iranian government not only infringed the rights of Muslim women, but of secular women, and of women from other religions and denominations.  With this realization, it became clear to many that the law did not protect women, but violated their basic right of freedom of choice and expression.  Iranian women from all walks of life discovered that the hardest obstacle to their lives was the rule of law itself.

And women's protest continues.  Of-course, once the veil was made mandatory, conventional form of protest became impossible.  Yet, Iranian women, especially young girls, have turned the veil into an instrument of protest they wear it in attractive and provoking ways; they leave part of their hair showing from under their scarves; they allow their colorful clothing to show from underneath their uniforms; and they walk in a provoking manner.  Their defiant way of searing the veil is a constant reminder to the ruling elite that this is one battle that will never be won.

It is not surprising therefore that, in 1997, after the victory of the Iranian football team in Australia, millions of Iranians - against the government's repeated warnings - poured into the streets celebrating with dancing and loud music.  This was called the "Football Revolution."  The most striking feature of this "revolution" was the thousands of women who, by breaking the p9olice barricades, entered the football stadium banned to women by the government.  Some celebrated by taking their veils off.

The Iranian regime's efforts at "Islamization" has taken a heavy toll on society, especially on women, who were its main targets.  But it did not l3ave the regime unscathed. The government has claimed that only a handful of "Westernized" women have opposed its laws, but now years after the Revolution its most  outspoken and daring opponents are the youth, the children of Revolution.  In July 1993, vice squads detained 802 men and women in Tehran for violating the dress code.  The officials reported that 80 percent of the detainees were under the age of 20.

Those who were, and are, not part of Iranian society should not be deceived by its portrayal of Iranian women ad docile and satisfied with the regime.  The fact of the matter is that for the past 20 years both the public and private arena has been the scene of a protracted struggle about women's rights and freedoms.

As in Tahereh's times, women in today's Iran have become an essential part of the larger movement for the creation of democracy and civil society.  The women's movement continues its century-and-a-half struggle for rights and freedoms with the aid of secular women.  Muslim women, and women from other religions, and a large portion of society who have now come to question the very laws they had taken for granted for so long.  It is in this way that Tahereh has come back.  Her murderers were the ones to resurrect her and give her a special place in the hearts and minds of her great granddaughters, and their daughters' daughters.  Those men have come back, but again they will have to slash their own throats.