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Reform and Women's Rights Movements Intertwined in Iran

Interviewee: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 24, 2009

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There has been widespread participation of women in the demonstrations protesting the announced reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. CFR Senior Fellow Isobel Coleman, a leading expert on women's issues, says that "the reform movement and the women's movement in Iran are definitely and clearly interrelated" and have been for years. She says that if Ahmadinejad's victory stands, "you'll see a much more restricted Iran--more than what we've seen in the past few years. To squash what has happened in the last couple of weeks will take force and a very heavy hand. This will ultimately fall heavily on women, but it won't stop them."

In the demonstrations following the disputed election in Iran, there were many women on the streets. There were reports that the women were, in fact, goading the men to be more bold. We know there's been a women's reform movement. Was this election seen by women as a key election to further women's rights?

The reform movement and the women's movement in Iran are definitely and clearly interrelated. The women have been a key component of the reform movement since its very beginning. There have been women who have focused their reform effort specifically on improving legal rights for women and day-to-day livability for women. But they have worked alongside reformers who are focused on big-picture issues of democracy and human rights. Over time the two have merged. You've seen leading reformers going back to the 1990s taking on women's issues as part of their discourse, just as women have taken on human rights and democracy as part of their discourse. The two have really been intermingled over the past twenty years.

Are Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seen by the women's groups as anti-reform and anti-women's improvement?

Yes, I would say so definitely. Over the last four years, Ahmadinejad has overseen a crackdown on women, particularly with a much stricter enforcement of the dress code for women. There were various "spring cleaning" waves that ran through Tehran over the last few years where authorities rounded up literally thousands of women for dress code violations, such as too much hair showing and the wrong outer garment. The regime has arrested many women and used force on women who have peacefully demonstrated in city squares around Iran for more rights. Last fall, the conservative parliament that was encouraged by Ahmadinejad put forth an even more aggressive family code that would have taken women backwards, such as loosening up restrictions on polygamy and making it harder for women to get a divorce. They called it the Family Protection Act, but women could clearly see it was to their detriment. Women's groups organized multiple campaigns last summer to make women aware of what was going on and to show them that this wasn't even consistent with Islamic law. The bill was not passed. Ayatollah Yousef Sanei came out from Qom very much against this Family Protection Act, calling it anti-women, against the ideals of the revolution, and anti-Islamic.

Is Mir-Hossein Mousavi much stronger on women's rights?

We don't know exactly where he stands on some of these issues, but what we do know is that he has a very prominent wife, Zahra Rahnavard, whose independence and prominence preceded his. She was a very well-known academic who played a very active role in the campaign. It was unprecedented to see a power couple campaigning in the way that they have. Over the last several months, she's held rallies and spoken out very much in the way that we're used to in the American context of a first lady playing an active role. She made statements on the need to respect women's rights, so we could anticipate that women would have a better hearing under a Mousavi presidency than an Ahmadinejad presidency. In fact, in the last several days, as the crackdown on the reformers has become more intense, we have heard little from Moussavi himself, but Zahra continues to be out in front, publicly rallying protesters and defying the regime.

Another woman who's featured prominently is Faezeh Rafsanjani, the daughter of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is a strong supporter of Mousavi. She was briefly arrested. Is she well-known in Iranian society?

She is very well-known. The bigger question is where would Rafsanjani be himself on women and women's rights? When he was president of Iran, he was no liberal. In fact, he himself oversaw a pretty strict interpretation of women's dress code and several restrictive policies on women. However, he took some steps to begin to normalize a role for women within the regime. One of the most prominent things he did was to promote his daughter, Faezeh Rafsanjani, to be the head of the Iranian Sports Council and launched a whole bid to allow women to participate in athletic activities in public. This had been disallowed after the revolution. She really rose to prominence on this issue. She was then elected to parliament in the fifth Majlis [1996-2000] but disappointed some women reformers at that time who were looking for women in parliament to take on an active role for women and reform issues. She was not reelected to the sixth Majlis, but since then we've seen her become an increasingly outspoken reformer, particularly on women's issues. She herself has been leading protests and was arrested over the weekend. From this, you can infer that she's come a long way in her own thinking on the connection between women's rights and reform in Iran.

Talk a bit about this phenomenon that occurred on Saturday when this young woman, Neda Agha Soltan, was killed. Is her death likely to become a part of Iranian hagiography?

It already has. Neda is already known by her first name. Her name is known around the world. She's become an iconic symbol of the struggle for greater freedom and justice. From what I understand, she was an innocent bystander who was just standing there and shot dead. She's really become an image that people will cling to for a long time in Iran.

It seems to me an interesting paradox: Women in Iran traditionally have the law against them yet there are more women in the universities and more women graduates. They seem to be outpacing the men. Clearly, in education at least, there really isn't that much discrimination. Am I wrong?

There's blatant legal discrimination in Iran against women, but the reality of women's lives is very advanced. Iran is not like other countries. Women are highly educated and most have jobs. It's not uncommon to see women as taxi drivers in Iran, while that would certainly turn heads in America. Women are pilots. There's a prominent woman who is a race car driver. There are women on television, women who are artists and who play a large role in the film industry in Iran. There are women members of parliament and two women have been vice presidents. Despite all of this, there [are] still pretty significant legal restrictions against women. That contradiction reflects the inherent contradictions of the regime itself. Ayatollah Ali Khomeini called women out from their homes--women who had never left their homes before--to come demonstrate in the streets in support of the revolution in 1978-79. And they did. They played a very important role in mobilizing popular support in the revolution. When the laws were changed to restrict many of their rights, a lot of the women started to think that "this isn't what we expected." I'm talking about conservative women, not the liberal, educated elite. They began to question what the revolution really meant for them. They, along with their daughters, have formed the backbone of the reform movement and protests you see across Iran today.

Have you been in touch with any Iranian women throughout all of this?

Yes. There's been a real shift in the past couple of days. People are scared. There's been a crackdown and they're all reluctant to go out on the streets. They see themselves as vulnerable when they see and hear about arrests and violence. It's a very frightening and unknown time right now.

If the status quo remains and Ahmadinejad remains president, does this have a direct impact on women?

It will have a direct impact in that you'll see a much more restricted Iran--more than what we've seen in the past few years. To squash what has happened in the last couple of weeks will take force and a very heavy hand. This will ultimately fall heavily on women, but it won't stop them. They've been through this before. What has changed now, so dramatically, is that the regime has no moral authority anymore. In the past, when women demonstrated, they were labeled as Zionist spies, American stooges, and enthralled to Western secular liberalism and feminism. Those sneers no longer work. These are traditional, conservative women who are saying this is enough. They will not be stopped, and their demands won't be silenced for more justice. This is why the regime fears them so much.

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