Celebrating Iranian Feminism and Feminists: Nevertheless, They Persist

Last week, in honor of International Women’s Day, Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian women’s rights activist and lawyer, published a letter in Time. Sotoudeh sent the letter from Evin Prison in Tehran, where she is currently serving out her 33-year sentence for her work to promote women’s rights in Iran.

While initially she was told that she would be serving a five year sentence, seven additional counts were leveled against her—landing her 27 more years in Evin, as well as 148 lashes for the crime of “promoting immorality and indecency.” This is a charge that has been used to target numerous feminists in the years following the revolution.

But Sotoudeh, like many other Iranian feminist activists, has not given up hope, nor has she given up the fight. Writing from her jail cell, she talks about spending her days educating her fellow prisoners about women’s rights, human rights, and truth and reconciliation. 

I have spent the past twenty years researching youth movements, resistance, and feminism in post-revolutionary Iran. During this time, I have met and interviewed hundreds of Iranian feminists who refuse to back down from their activism despite paying a heavy price—from authorities, from their families and, often, careers.  

Despite threats of arrest, interrogation, and exile, feminists in Iran bravely continue to resist. And their work has transformed the country.

Today, Iranian women make up 65 percent of university graduates, and there are more women in Parliament in Iran than in any neighboring Muslim majority countries. Women have been at the forefront of all of the major protest movements spilling into the streets of Iran in the past two decades.

From their loud support of moderate and reformist Presidential candidates such as Khatami, Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Rouhani, to their strong presence on the frontlines of the Green movement in 2009, women protest overtly even in the face of increasing crackdowns, arrests and disappearances. 

While the women’s wing of Evin prison continues to fill up with feminist activists such as Saba Kord Afshari, journalists like Nazanin Zaghari-Ratfliffe and lawyers like Sotoudeh, feminists refuse to back down. They fight overtly, refusing to be silenced.

In December of 2017, a young woman removed her white headscarf and tied it to a stick as she stood atop a utility box on a busy section of Engelab Street. The street—which would translate to Revolutionary Road here in the U.S.—was significant for its name and central location. 

She stood fearlessly as hundreds of cars and pedestrians passed her by, waving while cameras and the world looked on. She set a movement in motion. Before long, women were emulating her brave activism. Because of the initial protest, these women earned the name the Girls of Enghelab Street, while the feminists themselves formalized their activism in a weekly ritual entitled “White Wednesdays.” 

Many of the feminists I have interviewed in Iran talk about experiencing a “triple bind.” These women are simultaneously fighting the state, their religions and themselves—all as informed by patriarchy.

Feminists I have spoken with note that they struggle with expectations of womanhood as couched within these battles. But there is much to be learned from the way that Iranian women engage feminism. Notably, they ground their feminism in solidarity at all costs.

Feminist activists in Iran stand behind one another in ways that strengthen their movements, and when push comes to shove, they always choose the cause over themselves. The One Million Signatures campaign as well as the #MyStealtyFreedom movement are both noteworthy examples of feminist movements grounded in solidarity. Neither movement has one singled out leader, and both movements rely on the power of the collective.

#MyStealthyFreedom, which began in 2014, involves thousands of women posting pictures of themselves in public without hejab on social media.

The One Million Signatures campaign, as the name suggests, involves solicitying one million signatures in support of women’s rights in Iran. And while certain activists have at times been singled out and arrested by the government, the collective continues to push the important work. 

While feminists around the world are celebrating International Women’s Day in public, Iranians are technically forbidden from doing so.

As part of the government platform to fight Westoxication in Iran, the Islamists in power decided that both Women’s Day and Mother’s Day would be celebrated in early April in order to coincide with the birthday of Fatima, the daughter of the prophet Muhammad, and wife of the first Shia Imam, Imam Ali. The government did this in part to as a response to the large scale protests that took over the streets of Tehran on March 8 of 1979. Feminists came together in force to protest the compulsory veiling decrees that had been handed down in the wake of the Iranian revolution. While feminists had been at the forefront of calling for the removal of the Shah, the installment of Ayatollah Khomeini and his Islamic regime left many feeling disappointed and angry. This public clash was enough to inspire the Islamists to forbid any celebration of International Women’s Day in the future.

Nevertheless, they persist.  Despite threats of arrest and imprisonment, feminists have in recent years continued to organize their own celebrations on March 8. Underground film screenings by feminist film makers, readings of the poems of Fourough Farrakhzad, and celebrations of the courage of the many feminists, like Nasrin Sotoudeh, Mehrangiz Kar or Masih Alinejad who have been arrested or exiled continue today in Iran even in the face of extreme hardship or punishment.

So, as we celebrate International Women’s Day around the world, let us take a few moments to reflect on those whose celebrations shine light through the attempted darkness of oppression, patriarchy and intolerance.

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About

Pardis Mahdavi, PhD, is director of Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation. She is the former Acting Dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and previously served as professor and chair of anthropology, director of the Pacific Basin Institute and Dean of Women at Pomona College. She has authored five books, one edited volume and numerous journal and news articles and been a fellow at the Social Sciences Research Council, the American Council on Learned Societies, Google Ideas and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.