Thursday, April 05, 2007

"When Women are the Real Men in Iran" (Majid Mohammadi)

I continue to be optimistic that in the long run Iran has good prospects of moving toward its own distinctive version of 1989 and eventually.developing into one of the most open and democratic societies in the Middle East, though in the meantime Iranians--and the rest of us--will probably have to live with their unpleasant, unpopular, and dangerous current regime for a while. One of the reasons for my long-term optimism is captured in this recent piece by Majid Mohammadi from the Beirut Daily Star--the continuing resilience of democratic and reformist political currents, including women's rights activism, in the face of repressive and apparently unpromising conditions.

A slightly revised version of this piece also appeared in the Washington Post's on-line "PostGlobal" website with the title "Iranian Women Activists: In It To Win It". Majid Mohammadi, a writer whom I have not encountered before, is identified there as follows:
Majid Mohammadi is an International Policy Fellow at the Open Society Institute, as well as an adjunct professor of Near Eastern studies at Binghamton University and a correspondent for Radio France Internationale. He is the author of several books in Persian.
--Jeff Weintraub
The Daily Star
March 27, 2007
When Women are the Real Men in Iran
by Majid Mohammadi

Iran's government has been sending strong and persistent signals to its people that autonomous political activism will not be tolerated. As a result, any political action in the public sphere, especially in the streets, has become highly risky, and those venturing to participate in events unwelcome by the government have been asking for trouble. The only groups that have recently dared to violate restrictions on assembly are women's groups. It is ironic that in a male-dominated culture it is the women who are mainly gathering to express political dissidence, and who are motivating reformist men to follow them in their demonstrations.

Earlier this month, several dozen women defied a government ban and gathered in front of a courthouse in Tehran to protest the trial of five women activists who had participated in a rally in June 2006. The authorities had broken up that previous demonstration, called by women to demand more legal rights, and arrested 70 people. Activists who protest against the Iranian government's discriminatory and oppressive policies are usually charged with endangering national security, agitating against the government, and taking part in illegal activities.

Those attending the rally earlier this month faced repression similar to that of their predecessors last year. [JW: For some details, see here.] Many were beaten by police and 33 people were detained. Once again, by arresting peaceful advocates of women's rights, the government demonstrated its intolerance for any type of civil action. The authorities commonly deny dissident groups permission to stage street events. On the other hand, militias loyal to the supreme guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, do not need to gain any permission to hold rallies, whenever and wherever they desire.

Other means of expressing dissent are also blocked. Individuals can exercise some levels of verbal dissent and some blogs and news Web sites strive to remain independent. However, these have been increasingly filtered, their hosts prosecuted, and legislation has been amended to broaden the government's authority to ban political media outlets.

The relative permissiveness regarding verbal expression does not mean that criticism of the supreme guide, the Council of Guardians, the president, and other appointed bodies of government is allowed. The leadership has ensured that most media outlets that are not state-owned are controlled by owners who are loyal to Khamenei. If the regime decides that certain outlets are dangerously influencing public opinion, it has the means to reshape their editorial line or, simply, to close them down. According to a report published on March 12 by the Association for Defending Press Freedom, 20 newspapers and magazines were closed in 2006.

Due to the brutalities of the government in the 1980s and 1990s, the Iranian public remains largely apathetic to infringement of its political rights and freedoms. When all democratic channels of public participation or opposition have been blocked off and political parties are pushed to obey instructions issued in Khamenei's name, only small groups of dissidents tend to emerge. These happen to include mostly women and university students. These groups are not popular and are unlikely to generate a mass following. But even then, the regime is taking no chances. Autonomous political activism and direct challenges to authoritarian rule, no matter how marginal the challenger, are prohibited.

There has been no television coverage of the women's protests in the state-controlled media. Repressive behavior - prosecuting protest leaders and imprisoning participants - has moved Iran closer toward being a full-fledged police state. Given the current thinking in the security-based leadership of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the threat of foreign military attacks against Iran, especially from the United States, has provided more than enough justification for the regime to suppress any form of dissidence and oppose independent voices.

Iranian women are playing a central role in a movement whose goal is to liberate their society from the monolithic thinking that the ruling clerics have imposed on it. Women in this protest movement, as opposed to women who participated in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, are playing their role as women, not as a part of an unshaped mass that can be manipulated by charismatic or traditional leaders. They know what they want and have begun to think about how they can achieve their goals.