Letters From Tehran

By Manijeh Nasrabadi

Originally published in Jadaliyya on June 4, 2011

[This interview was conducted in Tehran by Manijeh Nasrabadi of the Raha Iranian Feminist Collective one year after the green uprising.]

On June 12, 2010, the tense one-year anniversary of the post-election uprising that made the color green an international symbol of a people’s democratic aspirations, hundreds of special security forces stood shoulder to shoulder along Tehran’s major boulevards and squares with knives, batons, and walkie-talkies ready. Nonetheless, the evening traffic from Imam Square to Revolution Square swelled well beyond the normal numbers of commuters, as families, friends, and co-workers engaged in a moving protest without signs, slogans, or any visible scrap of green. “My purse was full of green balloons that my sister and I were going to release into the crowd,” said one stay-at-home mother who drove along slowly, honking her horn to show her opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration. “But we saw the faces of the security forces and we didn’t dare.”

The standoff described above reveals both how deeply the dissent runs in this society and how easy it would be to draw pessimistic conclusions about the possibilities for progressive change in Iran. At this crucial moment in Iran’s history, when the gap between popular discontent and the ability of the opposition to accomplish reforms threatens to swallow what remains of the green movement’s momentum, the experiences of Iranian feminists, who have long had to organize under conditions of crisis and repression, may offer a vital perspective on how to move forward from here.

Indeed, for Iranian feminists, June 12th (the 22nd of Khordad on the Iranian calendar) evokes a longer, less well-publicized history of resistance. It is also the four-year anniversary of a watershed moment in the contemporary Iranian women’s movement, when activists protested against gender discrimination in Tehran’s Haft-e Tir Square and were beaten by police. More than fifty people were arrested, but the One Million Signatures Campaign was launched in the aftermath, and it managed to develop networks of activists in cities across the country despite the toll of government repression. Through educational workshops and grassroots petitioning in public places and private gatherings, the Campaign gathered support for changing ten key laws that constitute women as second-class citizens in Iranian society, including divorce, child custody, and inheritance laws.

On the occasion of this double anniversary, I sat down with Delaram, Homa, and Nahid, veteran Campaign activists in Tehran, to solicit their reflections on the turbulent years behind them, the relationship between the feminist movement and the broader “green” movement, and the prospects for advancing the struggle for gender equality under the current security crackdown. Far from a homogenous entity, the Campaign has been a space of vigorous debate over strategy and tactics – including over what position to take during last year’s elections. Each of the women I spoke with had taken a different approach. “We had faced so much repression previously that it wasn’t easy to judge if we should participate at all in last year’s election season,” said Delaram, who spent several days in jail after the protest four years ago. She still faces a sentence of two years, ten months and ten lashes for her role in protesting gender discriminatory laws – a sentence the government could decide to carry out at any time. Campaign workshops were attacked repeatedly over the past four years, and some members lost jobs or were kicked out of school. It wasn’t until the night of the first televised presidential debates, when support for opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi manifested in large street processions of young people decked out in strips of green fabric, that Delaram realized “the mood of the country had changed.” She decided to vote for Moussavi because it seemed like he might actually win. “It felt like our revolution, like the bad memories of the past thirty years were draining away,” she said.

Most Campaign activists initially backed Mehdi Karroubi, successfully conducting their petition drive among his supporters. Homa was studying at Tehran University at the time, the center of the ongoing student movement, and cast a protest vote in favor of the relatively progressive positions Karroubi had taken, helping political prisoners and supporting minority rights. Nahid, who was a leftist during the 1979 revolution, took the most unpopular position, boycotting the election altogether. “I thought if we voted, it would only give legitimacy to this government,” she said.

No matter whether they had voted or not, or for whom, all three women experienced the shock and anger that accompanied the purported poll results, and joined the millions of people who publicly refused to accept them. But as Campaign activists were swept up by the green wave of protest, their own work ground to a halt. “People said forget about gathering signatures, let’s go into the streets,” Delaram remembered. Homa laughed and added, “People said, if you get a long prison sentence, don’t worry. This government won’t last more than a year or two.” The Campaign risked becoming irrelevant as people could point to the mass demonstrations and say, “Women are at the front of the movement, men are following them. What more do you want?” Delaram explained. “But a movement is not feminist just because there are a lot women participating in it.”

Nahid was particularly wary of the possibility that the feminist movement might dissolve into the green movement. “I protested in front of the Interior Ministry. I visited the families of people who were arrested. I joined all of it,” she said, referring to the mass post-election demonstrations. “But I didn’t wear green. I’m part of the women’s movement and I didn’t see any of the candidates do more than pay lip service to women’s rights.” Delaram pointed out that, “before the election, some people in Karroubi’s campaign raised the slogan that the hijab should be voluntary. But after the election, this slogan disappeared.”

The tension between large mobilizations for empowering universal ideals – popular chants in Iran last summer called for freedom and an end to dictatorship – and the struggle for women’s liberation is especially pointed here given the hard lessons feminists have drawn from the last time there was such widespread resistance: the 1979 revolution. In the spring of that year, marches for women’s rights were labeled pro-Western and met with violence. As the green movement gained strength and shook the nation, “it started to feel just like thirty years ago,” Homa said. “No one focused on women’s issues.” In an attempt to better understand how women ended up betrayed by a revolution they helped to start, Homa asked her mother why she ever agreed to wear the hijab. “She said she and her friends didn’t even think of questioning it at the time.”

“I can tell you from personal experience,” Nahid offered. “At the time of the revolution, I thought we were fighting for a classless society, for full equality, and that when we achieved this, women’s problems would be solved as well.” Nahid spent seven months in jail in 1981 for her left-wing activism but it wasn’t until twenty years later that she heard the word “feminism” and joined the women’s movement (eventually landing her back in jail for five days after the June 12th protest in 2006). “Now my criteria for political struggle has changed,” she said. “It’s less important to me if you call yourself ‘left’ or ‘right’ then if you ask, for example, where the discrimination lies in the divorce laws.”

With the weight of history hanging over them, and the regime launching a full-scale attack against the popular movement – 5,000 people were arrested in the eight months following the elections, including 138 female civic activists – Campaign members struggled to figure out how to continue their work. Two months into the uprising, about fifty of them gathered to discuss what to do. “Every moment we thought security might burst in and, if fifty activists in Tehran were all arrested together, we would have lost everything we’d worked for,” she said. It was a disorienting meeting in which Campaign members raised doubts about petitioning against the ten laws – their organizational raison d’être. “We debated whether petitions had any meaning anymore,” Delaram said. “Activists who had collected signatures before didn’t feel confident to go into the streets to talk about changing laws. People were out in the millions; some people were getting killed and we’re going to say, ‘Sign this paper?’ A paper demanding change from this parliament? This administration?” More than even the threat of arrest, the idea of trying to convince people protesting their stolen votes that signing a piece of paper could change anything was paralyzing.

Last September on Jerusalem Day – one of a series of official government holidays seized by the opposition as another opportunity to protest – Delaram and others showed up with placards and slogans condemning discrimination against women. The results were disappointing. “You could talk to individuals and they might be interested or even agree, but we couldn’t make these issues a priority on the streets,” Delaram said. This was the only time it was safe enough to attempt such an open approach, as the ratio of government supporters to protestors was small enough to make a violent police crackdown impractical.

In the meantime, Campaign activists were being arrested and questioned about women’s rights organizing, especially those who also participated in the student movement and the Kurdish struggle for minority rights. At least three Campaign members are still in jail. “We were and are in a crisis situation,” Delaram said. “But we have to remember that the Campaign actually began in a moment of crisis in 2006, when America was seriously threatening to attack Iran, and we didn’t know what we would do if that happened.”

I asked all three women what they thought of current US foreign policy towards Iran, including the latest round of sanctions passed by the UN Security Council. “The sanctions won’t overturn the government,” Homa said, “but they will make our lives harder.” She paused and added, “I don’t want to say all American organizations are bad; certainly the government has had a negative effect, but even many progressives have had a negative effect on Iranian civil society.”

All three women voiced their concerns about the international attention the Campaign has received over the last year and a half. In particular, they were uncomfortable with what they called a distorted image of Iranian women that was taken for granted by Western feminist groups and others – an image they felt was perpetuated in part by Iranians who live abroad and publish overly negative generalizations about the situation of women in Iran. “It seems there is a fantasy in America about helping Iranian women,” Delaram said. “They say they want to help free us,” Homa said, “as if they are liberated and, if we’re lucky, we’ll someday catch up.” The Campaign has been selected for prizes it did not seek out, including, in 2009, the Feminist Majority’s Global Women’s Rights award and the Simone de Beauvoir Prize in France. Activists in Iran decided to return all of the prize money. As Nahid explained, “We are a grassroots movement on a shoe-string budget and we are independent. If you take money from here and there, it undermines your work.”

“If they want to help spread news of our activities in the foreign press, that’s great,” Delaram said, when I asked what kind of support would be useful. “But people need to have relationships with activists in Iran, to understand where we are coming from. We have a movement. It’s true that we are working in very difficult conditions, but, my question is, what are you doing to organize for women’s rights in America?” She then offered an example of what she considered to be productive solidarity – the response to Iranian feminists’ call for support on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2010. Using Facebook, Twitter, and the web site irangenderequality.com, they asked that articles, demonstrations, and other events being organized around the world on that day focus on the slogan “Freedom and Gender Equality in Iran.” Individuals and groups from India, Pakistan, Malaysia, the US, and a host of European countries signed on. “To me this said, ‘Let’s struggle together, protest together for women’s rights everywhere,’” Delaram said. “It was not about pity for women in Iran or Afghanistan.”

Not long after March 8th, the Campaign held another meeting and adapted its organizing strategy to the new realities of increased security. “No longer can we go into parks and collect signatures,” Homa said. With public petitioning out of the question, and large membership meetings too risky, they decided to divide up into smaller, more agile groups – each one focused on a particular discriminatory law – that could operate with less probability of arrest. New volunteers can join whichever group they choose and most communication happens over email, still a safer bet than using the phone. Every few months, members will try to bring the smaller groups together for an overall assessment of their progress.

Campaign activists have been encouraged by some important, if relatively minor, successes. Signatures are coming in again, workshops are happening for the first time in months, and interest in the Campaign is growing again. Recently, Delaram led a workshop of eighteen people who wanted to learn about gender discrimination. This was an improvement in numbers over the last few months, and many of those who showed up were family members of protesters who had been killed or jailed over the last year. “The people who are coming to these workshops now are much more serious than those who would come two or three years ago,” Delaram said. “You get the sense they will stay committed until the end.”

While these efforts may seem small compared to the overwhelming nature of the Ahmadinejad administration’s crackdown, they occur within the context of persistent political dissent that continues to broaden and deepen. “Now people don’t feel like they’re in a country where no one cares or tries or wants to change anything,” Delaram said. “People feel they are in a society on edge.” The question for the Campaign is how to tap in to this widespread sentiment and introduce the subject of gender equality into the discussion. In their efforts to rise to this challenge, members are engaged in an intense period of intellectual work, producing articles for their web site, Change4Equality.com, which take stock of the history of the women’s movement in Iran, assess their own four years of work, and explore strategies for coping with increased repression. “I’m writing an article about how the center of our movement has to be maintained in Iran,” Homa said, after listing the names of Campaign members who have had to go abroad due to safety concerns. “I talk about how this is not the first time the shape of our activities has had to change,” she said. “This may be the biggest change, but we’ve had hard times before.”

Reflecting on what she and the others have accomplished in the four years since the Campaign was launched, Delaram said, “It’s true that we don’t have a million signatures; we have far fewer. But we’ve spoken with millions of people. They may not all agree with us, but more people understand that these laws [that discriminate against women] are not in their interests.” All three women took pride in the fact that the Campaign had survived a series of crucial tests – from the imprisonment and exile of leading members, to the offers of money from Western feminist groups, to internal debates and disorientation – and was still functioning. Losing the ability to operate in public spaces has forced them to rely once again on the word-of-mouth, person-to-person organizing strategy with which they began. “I first heard about the Campaign from Homa,” Nahid remembered. “After that, I never missed a meeting.”

As the tension of the June 12 anniversary recedes, the perspective advocated by Delaram, Homa and Nahid – that of slow, patient educational work and signature collection combined with a long-term view of political and social change – may enable the women’s movement to survive and even deepen its impact, despite the odds. “The Campaign started from zero and now, if we got to five, this is progress,” Homa said. “We want to continue to bring women’s issues to the forefront of popular consciousness,” she added. “I am thinking about the future generations.”

Special thanks to Delaram, Nahid, and Homa for their generosity and trust, and to Nasrin for help with transcription.