Iranian Women's Key Role in the Iran Election Protests

Human rights expert Mariam Memarsadeghi talks about the role of women in Iran.

By + More

By Bonnie Erbe, Thomas Jefferson Street blog.

Mariam Memarsadeghi is a democracy and human rights program specialist whom (my producers and) I invited to appear on my PBS program this past weekend to discuss the role of women in the Iranian election protests. Her views shed light for me not only on the role of Iranian women in these protests, but also on the thinking of Islamic women who emigrate to the United States. It has always been a mystery to me why all but the most recent of these immigrants would go through the trouble to uproot and leave their home countries only to cling to the repressive customs of their home countries once they arrive in the U.S.

NB: I have interviewed a half-dozen experts on Islamic women over the years, including one who wrote a book on why U.S.-born women convert to Islam and choose to wear hijabs and chadors, when they were raised not wearing head coverings. I have heard experts holding this opinion say over and over that these were acts of liberation, not subjugation. I have also listened to the voices of other, equally religious Islamic women say just the opposite. It is in this spirit that I asked Mariam Memarsadeghi to answer the following two questions for me.

Bonnie Erb é : What is the role of women in the Iranian election dispute, and have they lost more or less than the male voters who voted for Mousavi?

Ms. Mariam Memarsadeghi: Iranian women, and their long stifled demands for legal equality, greater individual rights and democratic development for the country, have been at the core of the "green movement" behind the candidacy of Mir Hossein Mousavi. A Campaign for One Million Signatures was launched by leading Iranian feminists under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Though the leaders behind this grassroots civic campaign were subject to intense surveillance, intimidation, imprisonment, exorbitant bail fines and restrictions on their right to travel abroad, they managed to make their struggle a broad based one that penetrated the intensely male dominated political sphere by calling on presidential candidates to engage with them and address their demands for reform of the constitution and laws affecting women's rights. They also demanded that Iran sign on to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women as a means to force the Islamist regime to bring its laws and practices affecting women in line with international norms. Women themselves have never been permitted by the theocracy to run for president as their judgment is deemed inferior.

It is important to note that before the 1979 Revolution, Iranian women were making great strides toward equal opportunity in education and the world of work. Women could be seen in positions of leadership in various fields of work and at the highest levels of government. Islamist ideology and the totalitarian state changed that reality virtually overnight as Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers ushered in a constitution and new laws which reversed the gains women had made and virtually expelled them from the work force. Mandatory veiling and a fiercely repressive police state, not to mention the eight year war with Iraq and Iran's international isolation, caused deep setbacks for women. Under Mohammad Khatami's presidency, women managed to create some space for greater civic organizing and personal liberties, though at the legal level, little progress was tolerated by the ruling clerical establishment.

The current crisis in Iran profoundly affects women as the differences between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi are stark when it comes to women's rights and women's role in society. Mousavi's outspoken wife, Zahra Rahnavard, has made the status of women a core theme of her president's campaign, while Ahmadinejad, with his barely visible spouse and radical Islamist outlook, has ruled with a certain contempt for women's leadership in the public sphere. If Ahmadinejad's coup succeeds, Iranian women will suffer tremendously.

Bonnie Erb é : Before taping the show last week, I expressed to you that it's very upsetting to me when I see Islamic female immigrants in the U.S. wearing hijabs or chadors, because I wish they could shed what are widely viewed in the West as the symbols of oppression that they could have cast off by coming here. I know most of those women would say they wear the head (and sometimes face) covers by choice and out of respect to their religion. But you said it is also sometimes a political or anti-American statement. Could you please elaborate on that for me?

Ms. Mariam Memarsadeghi: It is important to remember that the political and cultural context of hijab varies from place to place. In Iran, for example, women—even Jewish, Baha'i, Zoroastrian and Christian women—are forced by the regime to veil. They have absolutely no choice in the matter. If they do not, they are subject to imprisonment, flogging and even death. It's just that simple. In Egypt, however, we have a fundamentally different political reality. There, women are free to dress as they choose, and given the biggest challenge to Mubarak's rule comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, hijab has taken on political undertones of resistance and purity from corruption. So when young women choose hijab in Egypt, even while their mothers reject it as a symbol of women's repression, this signifies a commitment to a politics that is against the government's repression, but is also Islamist and often vehemently anti-West and anti-liberal.

Immigrants in the U.S. come from diverse cultural and political contexts. I imagine that American Muslims who do choose to veil have a plurality of opinions about their choice. Nevertheless, I must say that I view hijab as fundamentally a limitation, and one imposed by men on women. Even some leading clerics and religious thinkers argue against hijab, and certainly against mandatory hijab, as not necessarily "Islamic."

In the case of immigrant women, I also see it as an expression of cultural alienation. How well a society accepts immigrants and affords them opportunity and freedom has much to do with how well they in turn accept their new home and its culture. In Europe, the percentages of Muslim women who choose to veil are significantly more than here in the U.S. I believe this is a reflection of the U.S. being a more open and welcoming country for immigrants.


Corrected on 06/23/09: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Mariam Memarsadeghi.