Iranian women have long fought for justice – but these protests are a turning point
It’s probably fair to say that we don’t tend to think of women having much political or public influence in Middle Eastern or Islamic countries.
Not so in Iran where women have been significant players in affecting change even though the history books may not have given them many pages.
Studies and archaeological excavations have revealed that women held considerable power in the political and economic instruments of prehistoric Iranian society. Purandocht, a 7th century Princess of the Sassanid Dynasty, ruled the Persian Empire for two years at a time when Iranian women fought as soldiers alongside men. Later, the Qajar era, and the early 20th century in particular, saw the start of women’s awakening in the modern era as many began contributing more in the public square.
The women of Iran are refusing to acquiesce despite the most brutal attempts to force them into submission
Famously, women participated in the 1891 Tobacco Revolt and stormed the Majlis (parliament) during the 1911 Constitutional Revolution. Under the Pahlavi dynasty and the last Shah’s regime women were granted suffrage in 1963, were elected to Majlis and appointed as judges and cabinet ministers. And a striking feature of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 was the large scale participation of women from all kinds of educational and socioeconomic backgrounds in demonstrations that led to the overthrow of the monarchy.
However, the past 43 years have proved to be a time of many paradoxes for the women of Iran. They have been encouraged to pursue educational opportunities only to find that job prospects are limited and tightly governed. After the veil became compulsory in 1981 and the wearing of cosmetics was banned, strict rules and harsh punishments were introduced for those who flouted them, though these have been eased at various times. Women have consistently pushed at the boundaries of societal norms and continued to participate at almost every level of public life whilst always needing to be mindful of strict dress and behaviour codes.
Over the past two to three years there has been a de facto relaxation in the way that laws governing the hijab and women’s appearance have been enforced and many have become used to these small freedoms. It seems now that the current president, Ebrahim Raisi, has sought once again to tighten restrictions only to discover that this time women and girls are no longer willing to comply. They have grown to enjoy what may, to many of us, seem like the minor gains they have won and are displaying an inner strength and resilience deep in the Iranian female DNA and so typical of their foremothers.
Sparked by the death of one young woman in custody, Mahsa Amini, the tide has begun to turn. As we have seen so often in history before, this one moment in time, this one particular tragedy, seems to have engendered a movement and driven a population, a nation, to say enough; no more; we will not tolerate the injustice any longer. So, the women of Iran are refusing to acquiesce despite the most brutal attempts to force them into submission and we are seeing extraordinary acts of courage and resistance.
There is some irony in the ruthless sights we are witnessing in Iran today. Less than a century ago, in 1934, the then Shah, seeking forcefully to modernise and secularise the country, unleashed an anti-hijab policy which saw police officers manhandling women in the streets, stripping them of their veils, coercing them to dress like westerners. Arguably, the seeds of the Islamic Revolution that still lay 45 years in the future were evident in the callousness of that strategy.
So, is this the beginning of the end for the Islamic Republic in Iran? In truth, it’s too early to say. The regime has a track record of quashing rebellions viciously and pitilessly, as we saw during the time of the Arab Spring and are seeing again today. And yet all human systems, including the strongest of governments, republics and monarchies, do eventually weaken and fall and, with the perspective of historical hindsight, each of these grand failings can be traced back to faltering movements that start small and fragile but grow to become an unstoppable force. Certainly, it would not surprise me if, whenever change does eventually come to Iran, Iranian women will have played a significant part.
Bishop of Chelmsford, non-affiliated peer.
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