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The other side of oppression
The reality of women's liberation movement in Iran


October 23, 2006

Speech at the international women's rights conference in Dusseldurff, interrupted many times by audience's applaud. The resolution was endorsed by heavy applaud and hundreds signed the petition during the conference.

In describing women's conditions in a particular country, one either refers to laws governing that country or statistics. In this manner, one either exposes the extent of the oppression women suffer, or admire their achievements. As it regards women living under the rule of Islam, it is pure discrimination and oppression, subjugation and state violence. If women are considered second class citizens in many countries, in Islam-ridden countries they are not even considered as citizens. They are extension of men. In fact, according to Islam, the concept of citizen is non-existent. There is a relation between God and religious hierarchy and a collective of right-less, conscious-less men, with women as their slaves. As a matter of fact this is true about any other religion. However, this is beside our today's discussion.

You have heard a great deal about women under Islam, Islam a la Taliban, in Pakistan, in Bangladesh, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran under the Islamic Republic. The downtrodden situation of women, sheer discrimination, gender apartheid, Islamic veil, forced marriages, officially recognized  pedophilia, by setting the legal age of marriage at 9 for girls, honour killing, polygamy, stoning women to death for engaging in sex outside marriage, encouraging men to hit their wives for punishment. The list is long.

If once the issue of Islam and women was an unknown topic, nowadays, thanks to the rise of political Islam, Islamic states in Iran, Afghanistan, and now in Iraq, it has become a well-known topic. I am sure that you all have heard about the non-existence of women's rights in Islam. However, some think it is not Islam's fault, they blame the patriarchy. They maintain that it is not Islam, but patriarchal interpretations of Islam that is responsible for the conditions of women in countries under the rule of Islam. In other words it is the ruling men's fault not the ruling Islam. We will not get into the debate that Islam as all other religions is the direct product of patriarchal era. It could not have escaped being permeated by patriarchic values and outlook. However, we must state one undeniable fact, that is, millions of women are violated daily by Islamic laws, customs, values and states. We must deal in an effective manner with this violation.

I am here on behalf of Organization for Women's Liberation. I am here to familiarize you with realities of Iranian society. You have heard about Iran. I do not mean the oil, or the nuclear project. I do not mean the mullahs or the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. I mean about the situation of women. Today, I want to talk to you about women's resistance, rather than women's oppression. You have heard long tales about women's oppression. I like to tell you that there is a mass resistance movement against this systematic oppression, this official misogynic ideology.

I like to break this encouraging news to you that Iran is the birthplace of a very important historic moment in international women's liberation movement, a movement more significant than the Suffragette, or as vast as the women's liberation movement in the Soviet Union during 1917-1930, or in the West during the 60s and 70s. I am here to ask for your solidarity and support. This movement has a great potential. If it materializes, it is capable of not only liberating women in Iran, but also it opens up the door to freedom to all women in the Middle East. We must recognise this fact.

The situation in Iran is different from that of Afghanistan, Iraq or Sudan. There is mass discontentment in these countries. There is resistance, but there is a lack of a mass movement in defence of women's rights. Such a movement exists in Iran.

In Iran there has never existed a secular state, the separation of religion from the state, or education. The laws have always been religious laws. There has always existed a dictatorship. The efforts to reform the family law in favour of women during the 60s, were very meager and not very effective. During the 1979 revolution a women's right movement was born. This was not a mass movement, but rather formed by left and intellectual women. I am from that generation. My struggle for women's rights and for freedom and equality goes further than that period.

Islamic Republic attacked women full-force after coming to power. The first phase of women's movement was short-lived. It put up a brave resistance but it was silenced after 2 years. Women's resistance continued in individualistic fashion, against the veil, gender apartheid and obligatory dress code. Many women have been imprisoned, tortured, or stoned to death. This brutal oppression was not able to obliterate the spirit of resistance. The new generation reignited this movement in mass scale and pushed it forward. Fighting against the Islamic veil and apartheid is one of the main battlegrounds.

When I hear the apologists of the Islamic movement or the defenders of cultural relativism (which, thanks to our relentless struggle has become a marginal tendency) say: "the Islamic veil and apartheid is their culture", I get furious and want to laugh at the same time. If this is "their culture" then it is supposed that they practice it voluntarily. Why then has this massive means of oppression become necessary? Why are all these special forces formed to deal with cultural disobedience, non-observance of the veil and gender apartheid? I like to ask, are these people bunch of masochists, who like to practice their culture by being tortured, imprisoned and stoned? What rubbish! Thousands of women who have been executed, stoned and tortured are the symbol of a vast movement against the Islamic laws, gender apartheid and the Islamic veil.   

Perhaps, you may think that this is a peculiar way to demonstrate resistance. I believe there is a straightforward equation: a complex and sophisticated oppressive system only demonstrates that there is a vast and complex resistance to be suppressed. When there are more than one hundred thousand political executions, this bitter and tragic fact exposes that the society does not accept the existing order and wants change.

In Iran there is a special police force to deal with women, those who protest, those who do not observe the veil and those who are innovative in fashion. This special force was used in the July demonstration in Tehran. It crushed the demonstration. Despite all the laws against non-observance of the veil and dress code, despite prison sentence, fine and lashing, women in Iran ridicule the veil and in their demonstrations have also burned it. The new generation cannot be silenced, cannot be forced back home. This is the resistance I am talking about.

In Iran there is a vast secular movement and for a free and egalitarian society. The women's liberation movement is one of the main components of this general movement. The de facto status of women is much higher than their official and legal status. In the eyes of the dominant ideology and legislation, women's status is half of that of men. A woman is the man's slave. She cannot travel or work without his "master's" permission, does not have divorce or custody rights, cannot become a judge or a president. But women in Iran have not been subdued to accept this status and image. They want to be a whole person, independent and equal.

I like to mention a statistical figure: around 66% of university entrances are female. This is in a country that you need to pass difficult entry exams. There is a very high competition. You also have to take into consideration the state's efforts to push women home. Is this statistic accidental? No. This is a trend. Every year this figure has risen, from 30% to 66%. The parliament tried to pass laws to reverse this trend, to prevent women to get into university in this high number. They argued that this is very detrimental to Islam and the institution of family. The Islamic parliament becomes alarmed by this statistics, I become overjoyed. This shows a resilient resistance on the part of new generation of women in Iran. This brings hope that women's liberation in Iran is live and kicking.

8 March has become an established tradition in Iran. In the past few years, 8 March has been celebrated in different cities and in different ways. I recall in 1979, we organised several 8 March celebrations in Tehran. The society was free from monarchist dictatorship, and we, the women's rights activists, were celebrating 8 March for the first time. On the same day Khomeini ordered women to wear the veil. A large demonstration took the streets in protest to this reactionary order and demanded women's equality. This was the birth of a women's right movement which was silenced after 2 years.

Islamic Republic tried a propaganda tactic, it named the birthday of Mohammad's daughter the women's day. The specialty of this regime has been to suppress a movement not only by brutal force but by means of demagogic propaganda. It crushed the 1979 revolution by calling its state a revolutionary state, its brutal forces the revolutionary guards, and the revolution itself, an Islamic revolution. It disarmed the left by taking over the so-called anti-imperialist movement by manipulating the anti American sentiments and taking Americans hostage at American Embassy.

Naming the Prophet's daughter's birthday "women's day" was a similar tactic. However, this tactic worked only for a few years. Then it was forced to assign a women's week. This did not work either. Last year it was forced to admit defeat and a faction of the regime recognized 8 March as women's day. 8 March now is an established tradition in Iran. Last year there were many different rallies and meetings organised to commemorate 8 March. Some of them, including one in Tehran, were suppressed. 3 months later there was a large protest organised in Tehran, several thousand took part. This was crushed. Couple of months later a movement was initiated to collect 1 million signatures for changing the laws in women's favour. Women's liberation movement is not going to resign nor silence. They try to crush it, it rises again even stronger. It seems that all efforts to suppress it, only makes it more resilient and stronger.

These are the positive aspects of women's resistance. Unfortunately, there is a dark and sad dimension to it, as well. The number of suicides and putting fire to oneself has raised considerably among women, specially among young women. Women in Iran have always lived under discrimination. Forced marriages, extensive restrictions on their life, being in a servitude status vis a vis the men has always been the fact of life for the majority of women in Iran. It seems that they used to accept this as a divine and natural law, and resigned to it. However, in the past decade we are witnessing a significant rise in suicide. This is a protest. The new generation has different expectations and aspirations. It does not resign to its "fate". It wants to take it into its own hands. When it cannot protest collectively, when it cannot direct its anger and disapproval against the state, it directs it against herself. These self-inflicting harms are a means of protest. 

It is our duty, it is the responsibility of women's right activists to transform this method of self-inflicting hurt into a positive resistance. We must change this desperation into hope for change.

Another negative fact is the high number of girls who escape the restrictions and violence in the home in search of freedom and end up in streets, homeless, unprotected, and become victims of prostitution. They are abused and exploited. Many of these girls wear male clothing, hoping to be freer and less harassed. However, there is no escape. The life of these girls is a telling story of brutality, exploitation and cruelty. 

To my opinion, the last two factors are new sociological phenomena in a society undergoing profound social, cultural, political and economic changes. Analysis of this situation takes us to a massive and deep rooted social resistance against the ruling order, dominant ideology and culture, against the ancient and antiquated values of Islam.

And last but not least, we should mention the diverse cultural and NGO organizations which fight for women's rights. These organizations must adapt themselves to the suppressive state and laws. We are witnessing the coming to birth of many different organizations, festivals, and solidarity camps. These are the bright and hopeful aspects of women's resistance.

My friends,

There is a mass resistance movement in Iran against sexual discrimination and for gender equality. This movement needs your solidarity and support. If we succeed to free women from oppression and misogynic laws and values, this would open up a door to all women in the Middle East and countries under the rule of Islam. We must lunch a vast international movement against discrimination, violence and systematic oppression, against gender apartheid and Islamic veil. The Organisation for Women's Liberation calls upon you to join this movement. We have drawn a resolution against gender apartheid, I ask you to support it. Show your support by applauding and sign our petition. Thank you. Comment

Azar Majedi ( is Chairperson of the Organisation of Women's Liberation. and producer-presenter of "No to Political Islam" an NCTV programme.

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