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Struggles and Brutality in Iran:
the fundamentalist backlash against women's progress

by Lynette J. Dumble

Maryam Ayoobi, an Iranian woman in her twenties and mother of three young children, was convicted of adultery in March, and is sentenced to death by stoning — a sentence that could be carried out any day now unless Iran's President Mohammed Khatami grants clemency.

Shockingly, Ayoobi's plight is not unusual. The resurgence of barbaric state law in Iran since the 1979 overthrow of the Shah has meant tragic consequences for the targets of fundamentalist terror, and an escalating number of Iranians have been forced to seek asylum elsewhere. In keeping with several other militant Islamic regimes intent on Talibanizing their constitutions, Iran's religious fundamentalists impose brutal restrictions and punishments on women most of all.

Iran's revolution in the late 1970s has by and large turned back more than one hundred years of progress by the women's liberation movement in Iran. Women's historical struggle for their rights has been a harrowing one, and their gains came slowly and at the highest cost.

Born in the 1850s on a background of structural and ideological transformations, the women's movement saw the arrest of many prominent leaders. Some, along with their children, were executed. Others were sentenced to live the remainder of their lives in exile. New leaders filled their shoes, often organizing secret meetings and publications, but at the time of the writing of the country's 1906 constitution, neither equal opportunity nor gender rights were granted. To the contrary, the electoral law of 1906 barred women from the political process, and laws relating to marriage and divorce remained to women's detriment. The state ruled that "women's education and training should be restricted to raising children, home economics and preserving the honor of the family."

Undaunted, members of the Secret Union of Women published literature demanding their emancipation, and recommending that men should move aside and let women run the country. They and others rallied to boycott foreign imports and raise funds for Iran's first National Bank. Wearing native fabrics, they sold their jewelry, and their dowries, to finance their activities.

By 1907, the movement called for girls' education and an end to dowries. Despite objections from religious authorities, women began to open their own schools for girls. By 1913, there were nine women's societies and 63 girls' schools for 2,500 pupils in Tehran alone. In addition, flourishing women's groups played an active part in politics, and raised funds for schools, hospitals and orphanages. Prominent feminist writers and speakers faced accusations of heresy and treason, but within the space of a few years there were girls' schools in all major cities. Most of the schools were constantly threatened, some were burnt down, others closed, but ultimately female education had arrived.

In the 1930s, the women's movement made significant headway in numerous directions: A new civil code in 1931 gave women the right to ask for divorce under certain conditions, and the marriage age was raised to 15 years for girls and 18 years for boys. In 1936, consequent to women appearing without their veils at a graduation ceremony at the Girls' College in Tehran, women were barred from wearing the chador and scarf in public. In the same year, women entered Tehran University for the first time.

In 1951, Mehrangiz Dawlatshahi became Iran's first woman ambassador, co-founding the country's first human rights organization, and demanding electoral rights for women. Eleven years later, Iran's women were granted both the right to vote and to stand for public office. By 1968, the Family Protection Law was ratified, divorce was referred to family courts, polygamy was limited and required the first wife's written consent. The marriage age for girls was increased by a further three years to 18.

At the time of Iran's 1978 revolution, one third of the country's university students were women, two million women were in paid employment, and the number of professional women holding university degrees exceeded 190,000. A year later, as the victory of the Islamic revolution was celebrated, religious extremists stepped forward to reformulate government policy. Hard won women's rights were the first to go as the segregation of the sexes became the focal point of the new state regulations. Within months of the establishment of the Islamic Republic, a declaration from Ayatollah Khomeini's office abolished the Family Protection Law. Shortly after, women lost their right to sit as judges, those working at government offices were ordered to observe the Islamic dress code, the marriage age girls was reduced back to 13 years, and married women were barred from attending regular schools. Women's protests on International Women's Day 1979 went unheard as their microphones were sabotaged and wrecked.

Twenty years further on, Iranian women rallied to vote Mohammed Khatami in as the country's liberation-promising president. Mr. Khatami's landslide victory in 1997 is likely to be repeated in mid-2001, but to date his efforts have been constantly undermined by the country's religious zealots. As a result, under the pretext of preserving the revolutionary values, girls and women continue to suffer immensely from institutional violence and discrimination: Iran's future, her girls, are considered adults from the age of nine, and are subjected to the same punishments as adults. Early marriage is a common fate, with nine-year-old girls married off to men as old as ninety. On a daily basis, there are newspaper reports of girls and women being burnt alive, tortured by male relatives, sexually abused by government officials, and left mutilated on the streets to die.

Speaking at a recent UN Conference on Women's Rights, Fariba Hachtroudi from the International Association of Democratic Lawyers explained that violence against women and girls went hand in hand with the surge in social scourges in Iran. Consequently, females fall prey to drug traffickers, organ traffickers, and prostitution. Punishments handed down by Iran's Islamic fundamentalist courts also discriminate against women. As an example, when sentenced to death by "stoning," men are wrapped in sheets, and buried in a ditch up to their waist before the stoning begins. Women are buried to their neck, precluding any escape.

Iran's torture, cruelty, inhumanity and degrading treatment and punishment of women bears testimony to the country's scant respect for the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. A terrorized Maryam Ayoobi is presently in prison awaiting her death by stoning, but as Maryam Kousha, International Coordinator of the International Campaign for the Defense of Women's Rights in Iran points out, "The lives of two women sentenced to death in this way have been saved by international pressure — though many more have not been so lucky." While Maryam Ayoobi remains alive there is still hope, but it requires an email tidal wave to the Iranian President pleading for clemency.

Iranian women have entered the third millennium minus their gains of the past century. They are not alone, particularly in regions where religious extremists hold sway, and in the face of today's feminized poverty, and feminized migration, their courageous efforts to win back their liberation are an inspiration to the international movement demanding gender justice.

 

To add your ripple, Mr. Mohammed Khatami can be contacted via: "The President" , and cc to Maryam Kousha

 

Dr. Lynette J. Dumble is a medical and environmental scientist, and the International Coordinator for the Global Sisterhood Network.




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