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The Women We Are / Shirin Bahramirad

Sunday 10 March 2013, by admin

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

FeministSchool: The following article is Shirin Bahramirad’s speech delivered at Amnesty International Exhibition Titled ‘Keep Iran’s Heart Beating’ on 8 March 2013, Miesbach:

I would like to tell you tonight how women issues in Iran might not be as black and white as it appears and how a kind of balance is preserved between how we manage to get part of our rights and how the government maintains its grip upon us.

But let me begin with a story.

In Iran, the right to travel abroad, work, study, divorce and keep the custody of children belong to men. Many women remain unaware of such legal restrictions until they face it and don’t know there might be legal ways for bypassing them. Through the efforts of feminist groups my husband and I had learnt we could add certain conditions to our marriage certificate to prevent this but didn’t know the exact wording. Hence, we contacted two prominent feminist activists, Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, who later became one of my dearest friends, and Shadi Sadr. They sent us some texts showing the required wording. However, this was not sufficient and the conditions were also needed to be written and officially signed at a registrar’s office to be accountable in court. This is because these rights are not considered natural and the groom has to transfer them to the bride for a specific time period (50 years in our case). The registrar and wedding official were trying to advise Bavand against it. This was the first effect of feminist activism on my very personal life and I became engaged in their activism since then.

For the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (Nov. 25th 2010) Noushin suggested we make bookmarks for which I was to take some pictures. Noushin wanted images of different types of people, young or old, male or female, religious or secular, traditional or modern who would write a sentence on their palm in protest to such violence. She wanted to show how people, despite their different backgrounds, could support the cause. And the photographs was supposed to portray ordinary people, not celebrities or prominent figures.

I have a huge family which gets together every other week in my grandmother’s house. There are about 40 of us which makes a strange crowd: we are close in spirit but so different in character. That night, as everyone were chatting I realised it was a very good opportunity to take the pictures. I explained my intentions to my cousins, aunts, uncles and my parents and asked their permission. My parents and two of my elder cousins volunteered. One of my aunties wanted her little boys’ picture taken, so he grows believing in what he was once advocating. I led them one by one to a corner of the house where my husband wrote sentences on their palm and I took their pictures showing their palm to the world. Everyone gathered around us saying, ‘Stand like this, hold your palm like that, wear your scarf, don’t wear your scarf’, etc. and the night went on. You can see some of the pictures here.

One of the images which found its way to feminists websites and a book cover, belongs to Sara, today 33. Her father is a fundamentalist and used to force her to wake up for the morning prayers. He did not allow her to go to university for one year because the university was in another city. She was eager to have her image on the bookmarks to go against her father. She is working now, I’m sure she doesn’t say her prayers anymore and reads feminist books and articles.

Another image belongs to my mum: she was always religious. Before the revolution, she was banned from school for months because she refused to remove her headscarf at school. Her father didn’t allow her and my other aunt to go to university because it was not considered appropriate for girls. By the time she was 30, she had me and both of my sisters. She went to university the same year as I did. She currently runs a children’s shelter taking care of 15 boys and has adopted two of them.

Another one of these palms belongs to Ali, 24, who just got married to his girlfriend, which could not have happened in a similar family twenty years ago. The bride joked that the bookmark will be hung on the wall for him to see for the rest of their life.

As you see, changes have happened and are still happening, but this has not been a straightforward process. Family, governmental institutions and activists have played their role. There is a history to this which I try to review.

About two years after the Iranian revolution in 1979, Iran-Iraq war began. The Islamic republic government had already made hijab compulsory for women. The Cultural Revolution was underway, ‘cleansing’ universities of westernised students and professors. The university was and still is the origin of most political oppositions. Universities were completely shut down for two years. After that, students were filtered by a selection committee set up in each and every university. Women of course were not so welcome. They could fail the committee for reasons such as ‘bad hijab’. They were also prohibited to enter many programmes considered unfit for women. Boys and girls were not allowed to talk to each other and their relationship would be restricted to exchanging class notes in the corridors. However, women’s presence in university increased highly under the new regime and they soon outnumbered men.

Sex segregation and restrictions for women were not any better at schools or in the streets. The morality police was everywhere and would arrest women who did not cover their hair properly. Mixed family parties were held with much caution so that revolutionary guards would not find out.

Feminist groups in this period were not active in the public realm. The new Islamic government had executed so many members of political parties which played a role in the revolution that nobody dared to hold a public political gathering. Women’s groups consisted mostly of private circles. Their most remarkable activity was organizing an event each year on March 8th at a member’s house. Some monthly meetings were also held, varying from film sessions to book readings or discussions on feminist ideas. Some of the most well-known speakers included Shirin Ebadi, Mansoureh Ettehadieh and Mehrangiz Kar.

After a period of reconstruction under Rafsanjani, Khatami took the office in 1997. He was the candidate of the reformist party and although a cleric, he opened the country to activism. Women’s right activists finally got the chance to advocate their demands more explicitly. Public spaces needed for debating regulations emerged. The number of women’s societies, journals and publishers increased drastically. Women and Gender Studies were introduced to universities and the very first public and legal ceremony for International Women’s day was organised on 8 March 2000 resulting in the establishment of Women’s Cultural Centre. The centre became known for its new approach i.e. protesting and education at the same time, which later served as a model for One Million Signatures Campaign.

One of the centre’s first public demands was to ask the government to unconditionally ratify the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women) expressed in their first newsletter called Woman’s Letter. This was the first open letter signed by women’s right activists. The Women’s Cultural Centre started collecting signatures from activists and non-activists and organized educational workshops.

Khatami’s government sent, to no avail, the CEDAW bill to a parliament dominated by conservatives members. There were several demonstrations organised by conservative forces and young clerics in Qom, the Vatican of Iran, in opposition to the bill.

Women right activists continued to use every opportunity for joining CEDAW. On March 8th, 2003 in a demonstration at Laleh Park in Tehran organised by the centre, speakers including Shirin Ebadi, Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani and Shadi Sadr protested to the parliament’s rejection of the bill. When Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize later that year, the support for the bill gained even more momentum.

Despite all the efforts, Khatami did not succeed in getting the bill pass the parliament. The issue, however, was raised again in 2009 when the Convergence of Women’s Forces was formed. This was just before the 2009 Presidential Election when the strict cultural control temporarily loosened. The women’s rights activists used the opportunity to enforce their agenda. Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani initiated the Convergence Movement asking various feminist groups to support candidates who agreed to incorporate women’s demands in their political agenda. Joining CEDAW was among the major demands. With the house arrest of the pro-movement candidates, the open space was closed once again.

Ahmadinejad’s period was one of the darkest eras for women’s rights activists after the revolution. The sex segregation in universities re-emerged and accelerated under governmental pressure. In some universities, different days were assigned to male and female students and many secular professors were forced to retire.

In a pretentious progressive gesture, Ahmadinejad appointed, for the first time after the revolution, a woman, namely Dr. Vahid Dastjerdi as the head of the Ministry of Health and Medical Education. Ironically enough, she took a sexist approach to women’s health and well-being which was unheard before. She proposed sexual segregation of hospitals, opposed to the CEDAW and finally reversed the birth control policies developed after the war.

Another bill which Ahmadinejad’s government tried to pass was the Family Protection Law. This so-called ‘reform’ particularly the section on polygamy, stirred much opposition amongst women’s rights activists,. The bill suggested that the husband did not require the first wife’s permission to remarry. It was sufficient if he could prove to the court that he is financially capable of doing so. This section of the bill was removed under heavy criticism from activists, lawyers and journalists.

Another bill dealt with the issue of passports for women. Until then, single women above 18 could receive a passport and travel abroad while married women of any age needed their husband’s legal consent to apply for it. The initial draft of the bill tried to prevent single women below 40 from getting a passport without an official permission from their guardian, being the father, a paternal grandfather, or uncle or a Sharia judge. The women’s right and civil activists were quick to object. The bill was then revised and the age limit was waived. Now, no woman above 18 was allowed to leave the country without a guardian’s permission. This was also challenged and the bill was finally rejected by the parliament.

I would go back to the familial gathering at my grandma’s to conclude. It is now clear, I hope, that girls such as Sara are not exceptional examples. The most traditional fathers might today allow their daughters to study in remote university because education is culturally very important to parents. This takes the daughter out of the reach of familial control. Opportunities available in big cities allow girls such as Sara, who finally continued her studies, to see other women benefiting from their rights. This helps them to escape the life their fathers have planned! These changes are made possible by a combination of factors. Feminists struggle for changing the laws, educating others and raising the demands over and over again plays an important role in this.

My mum still believes in her hijab. For her it is not a governmental law. It is her religion and her own decision. By definition, she is not a feminist. But she taught us to do what we feel is right. We were never forced to wear the hijab or to be religious. She always encouraged us to become independent; study and work so that we wouldn’t need to be looked after by our husbands. Higher education was not an option but a must. By entering university at an age when all of us were already teenagers, she proved to us that it was possible to have a house full of children and continue your studies. She is now taking care of 15 boys, still wears the veil and says all her prayers.

All I want to say, is that my mum and Sara were not the only ones who could break the barriers and achieve their goals in a country where suppression of women is supported by law. There are millions of women who, despite all the restrictions imposed on them, follow their dreams without having to completely reject a traditional life-style or betraying their religion. There are others who might be as secular as some of you. This has been made possible by the efforts of women’s rights activists such as those whose posters you will see today.

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