'Courageous' Women Front Iran's Resistance
The brutal death of the young Tehran woman Neda Agha-Soltani continued to prompt revulsion inside and outside Iran yesterday, but it also drew more attention to the role the women's movement has played in the current uprising.
"We have seen courageous women stand up to brutality and threats, and we have experienced the searing image of a woman bleeding to death in the streets," U.S. President Barack Obama said at a White House news conference yesterday, noting the recent events in Iran.
"While the loss is raw and painful, we also know this: those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history."
The 26-year-old woman, who is widely known simply as Neda, was shot dead Saturday near the scene of clashes between pro-government militias and demonstrators who allege rampant vote-count fraud in the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Her final seconds of life were captured in a widely distributed Internet video.
"It's heartbreaking," Obama said of the video. "I think that anybody who sees it knows that there's something fundamentally unjust about it."
Since the first embers of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Iran flared 10 days ago, women have been at the front of the battle line. Photographs show them confronting security forces and urging others in the crowd - many of them men - to press forward.
"There is an unfortunate distorted image of Iranian women. Everybody (in the West) is surprised at what's happening in Iran because they have this image of women victimized by their state, by their husbands," said Farzeneh Milani, a University of Virginia professor who has studied the Iranian women's movement for three decades.
"The truth of the matter is that the women's movement in Iran goes back to the middle of the 19th century."
Women have played a role in each one of Iran's cultural spasms. Many of the pro-Islamic activists during the 1979 Islamic Revolution were women. But the current reformist movement is a reaction to government measures aimed at pushing women to the sidelines of public life.
In 2005, the regime began a modesty campaign, the goal being a stricter enforcement of veiling.
"I call it gender apartheid, the separation of men and women in all spheres," said Shahrzad Mojab, an activist who fled Iran in 1983 and now teaches at the University of Toronto. "It really has been building up over the last 30 years."
As it followed a period of relative liberalization under former president Mohammad Khatami, the modesty campaign provoked a backlash. In 2006, a demonstration of women in Tehran was attacked by security forces. That spawned the so-called "one million signature" campaign aimed at reversing the new laws. Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi is one of the leaders of that movement.
Another key figure has been Zahra Rahnavard, wife of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.
"(Rahnavard) has been a major force, sometimes much more important than her husband," said Gholam Reza Afkhami, of Washington's Foundation for Iranian Studies.
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Much of the current network has blossomed inside educational institutions in large cities. Despite efforts to marginalize them, Iranian women still make up 65 per cent of all students at universities.
"Iran must be the only country in the world that's thinking of affirmative action for men," Milani said.
After giving the resistance reason to organize, the regime went further last year. It attempted to ease restrictions on polygamy and reduce the tax traditionally paid by husbands to new wives. That drew many conservative Iranian women, those who had supported the regime's strict moral measures, toward the reformist movement.
In the past days, we've begun to learn how potent a force the government has unwittingly created.
"(Women) didn't set the agenda in 1979," said Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, a professor at the University of Toronto.
"Today we are seeing what is historically the first national movement with a leadership that is predominantly female. Women are running this resistance."
While the movement is vast, Neda has become its public face.
In an apparent effort to deflect attention drawn by the killing, state-sponsored Iranian TV yesterday said that Neda had not been shot by a bullet fired by security forces. It also said that the filming and swift spread of the video of her death suggested the incident had been staged.