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Red hot pepper spray
Women's rights gathering in Tehran


June 14, 2006

As reported by the Human Rights Watch and major news organisations, Iranian women’s peaceful sit-in on June 12th 2006, was immediately broken up by the police in Tehran. Female police officers beat women’s rights campaigners with clubs and used pepper gas sprays to disperse their peaceful assembly.

This gathering occurred on the anniversary of a similar protest last year in front of Tehran University, when a group of Iranian women and men came together peacefully demanding a change in the rules and regulations specifically targeted against the civil and human rights of women in the Islamic Republic. This coalition of individuals, associations and NGOs that had attempted to put their “grievances and demands through civil disobedience” had formed “the largest independent women’s coalition to appear since the fall of the Shah”.

The sit-in on 12th June 2006 had been widely advertised online and was a peaceful plea to the Iranian government to change its unequal gender laws. The principle demands were as follows:

• Abolition of polygamy
• The right of divorce by women
• Joint custody of children for mothers and fathers
• Equal rights in family law
• Increasing the minimum legal age for girls to 18 (currently it is 15)
• Equal rights for women as witnesses in courts of law

As evident in the range of issues raised and demands specifically made, this gathering was targeting some of the specific juridical mandates definitive to Shi’i scholastic jurisprudence and constitutional to the Islamic state, some of which in fact dating back to the Pahlavi regime (e.g. women’s citizenship limitations and men’s prerogatives to polygamy). 

The protest this year was initiated by a coalition of women’s rights activists. Approximately 2000 people inside Iran and hundreds of individuals and human rights organisations (including Amnesty International and the Nobel Women’s Initiative) outside Iran, had signed the petition on behalf of this peaceful protest.

The informal coalition of various women’s rights activists in Iran have now asked for national and international support for their peaceful and rightful demands and the release of all the arrested activists.

According to some official reports (Ministry of Justice) 70 people (42 women and 28 men) have been arrested so far (June 13th 2006), while several women’s rights activists have been summoned to appear in front of the Revolutionary Court and others have been sent to the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran.

In the manner of its effective mobilisation and the language of its civil rights demands, the Iranian women’s rights movement seems to have now entered a new, more daring and organically rooted, phase. 

The Iranian women’s movement is formed by individual women and organisations, all revolved around the pursuit of equal legal rights, having an active literary, press, online and academic presence inside Iran and striving for women’s ever-more social and public presence. According to the latest statistics, Iran currently has more than 63% female university graduates, but only 11% are part of the public workforce, while it has elected more women to its Islamic parliament than have Americans in the United States. 

Such leading civil rights and literary figures as the Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi and the pre-eminent Iranian poet Simin Behbahani have actively and openly supported and/or participated in this renewed phase in Iranian women’s struggle for freedom and equality. 

It is imperative at this juncture to recognise the increased momentum that the grassroot, vocal and multifaceted feminism has now assumed inside Iran. While during the Pahlavis, there was a court-affiliated feminist project claiming to represent the cause of women at large, today, and particularly since the reformist movement of the 1990s, we witness a democratic and widespread women’s rights movement, evident and operative in a succession of landmark events, but to the limited degree possible and permissible within the draconian mandates of a theocracy.

The predicament of the Iranian women’s rights movement, however, is that it is still very much urban, middle-class, Persian-speaking, ideologically fragmented and above all heavily censored by the officials of the Islamic Republic. This movement consistently faces the solid barrier of operating within a gender apartheid system and therefore its advancements are very limited and painstakingly slow. Women of a wide range of classes and ideological dispositions were integral to the massive revolutionary mobilisation that toppled the Pahlavi regime in 1979, and yet a significant middle class component of it became the immediate victim of the success of the Islamic Republic that succeeded it.

Today, Iranian women’s movement is fragmented along class, ideological, nominally religious-secular, and internal and expatriate lines. The reformist movement did in fact allow for a somewhat freer participation of women in the political process, but the very same movement paradoxically exacerbated these fragmentations, for significant components of the movement inside and outside the country refused to join rank with it, while the reformist agenda itself lacked any feminist agenda. 

The expansive crescendo of small-scale but nevertheless persistent peaceful demonstrations we have witnessed in Iran over the last two years point to the gradual rise of a women’s rights movement that is in fact beyond the successes and failures of the reform movement and seeks its emerging agenda in a larger, cross section of the society at large. 

Opposing this movement at this particular juncture are not just its internal inconsistencies and the constitutional limitations of the theocracy but also global circumstances surrounding the Islamic Republic. The government of President Ahmadinejad appears far more intolerant of such grassroot movements, which might indeed snowball to question the very constitutional foundation of the Islamic Republic, than the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami was. The brutality and immediacy with which this year’s peaceful gathering was ruthlessly crushed speak of the increasing anxiety of the Islamic Republic about its prolonged legitimacy. 

The concern of the Islamic Republic and its intolerance of the slightest manifestation of peaceful protest take place at a time that because of its nuclear ambitions, it is under increased international scrutiny and faces a possible UN sanction and/or a US-led military attack.

* Mahsa Shekarloo (2005) “Iranian Women Take On the Constitution”. Middle East Report Online. July 21, 2005.

Golbarg Bashi is a Ph.D. student in Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Bristol, UK and a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University in New York, US >>> Visit

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