Leading Iranian Activist and Feminist: How I Became a Women’s Rights Activist

Let me start with a quotation of Helen Sixous:

“Words are our doors to all the other worlds, at a certain moment for the person who has lost everything, whether that is acountry, language becomes the country.” 

I am apologizing for my broken English language; it is not helpful to go to a new country, but let’s hope to understand each other by overcoming the hegemony of language, through my personal narration.

Europe is cold. Netherlands is cold. The Hague is cold and I’m getting cold. The North Sea winds are turning my body. No!

Let me restate: I, an olive skinned, 61 -year-old woman, am turned by the North Sea winds. My scarf, my bag and my long skirt turns in the opposite direction of the wind. Everything turns and reverses. It even rotates my age number from 61 to 16! 

A 16-year-old girl who accompanies her brother, a leftist student, to go to cultural and political events.

She sings with her brothers’ friends the hymns against the autocracies of Shah in the top of the mountains far away from the public. When they return home, they hear their mother’s voice from the kitchen singing her favorite vocalist songs.

At night she listens to Joan Baez—but during her father’s prayers she decreases the volume! She goes to the high school where her religion teacher, that was an opponent of the Shah, later becomes her best friend.

In 1979—the time of revolution’s time—I was a leftist student. During the demonstrations, I was looking for my favorite teacher, my religion teacher, but I couldn’t find her because the revolutionists all looked the same. They were wearing similar clothes as the solders’ uniform.

The only difference between the revolutionary women and men was women’s head scarves and their hairstyle: The revolutionary Muslims women carried the scarf to the forehead. Lefties would fasten their hair with a tough cord on the back as not to have a feminine appearance.

Everybody was in one shape: a male-dominated shape! This portrait made me feel scared; I felt I was living in a military base where there was no sign of femininity. That fear became my first motivation, to think about the female position and women’s struggles. 

In 1980, I participated in one of the biggest marches against the compulsory hijab on the International Women’s Day. I was able to find the organizers later—but their main discourse was no longer the struggle against compulsory hijab. They would still go to downtown without a hijab and hang pictures on the walls of women from Latin American movements.

So, I thought by myself: What difference is there between posting pictures of armed women or posting pictures of Che Guevara with his Kalashnikov? I was scared once again, as I felt that the images of women are fading this time behind the Kalashinkov images.

The 80’s began with a big panic. War with Iraq, oppression opponents, arrests, deadly tortures and mass executions. No one was left in the streets.

Fearful of all this, I took refuge in a corner of the National Library and I redirected my attention by reading novels. At sunsets, I would practice music, which was mostly banned in that era for women. When I wanted to sing, I would go in the wardrobe, in the middle of the blankets and pillows, to sing in a hidden environment.

At the very same time, my mother would sit behind the sewing machine and start sewing. A way to camouflage my voice, to hide my singing, as women’s voices were forbidden. We were trying to overcome our fears through the female complicity. 

The beginning of the 90’s marks the beginning of a new era in the world. In Iran the war was over. The leader of Islamic revolution was dead and Iran was mourning for hundreds of thousands of the victims of war and for 4,000 political executions.

The atmosphere was slightly changing. We, the women, after that oppressive decade gradually found each other again. The mothers of the executed were secretly gathering in houses. 

We, the secular women, would gather in private circles. We would watch movies about women’s struggles in the world, we would read the feminism theories, we would organize underground women’s celebrations and women concerts: for instance, on International Women’s Day, or for the anniversary of the Constitutional Revolution on the tomb of Qamar, the first Iranian women singer in constitutional time, in the beginning of the 20th century.

In spite of the government’s prohibition, we disobeyed the government’s verdicts by demonstrating our civil opposition.  

Gradually, some Iranian women who immigrated in the past decade to the U.S. and Europe traveled back to Iran to visit their relatives.  Their souvenir for us were research findings and books written by the Iranian feminists in the Western universities. 

On the other hand, in 1995 the women that were contributing to state vision and missions offered to participate in the Women’s World Conference in Beijing 1995.

We, independent secular feminists, were not allowed to participate in the conference—but we accepted that as we were hopeful that the women who participated would be influenced by the world women’s movements, from Muslim or non-Muslim countries. 

The Reform era gave women more space to become visible in the society. We were able to publish women’s magazines and books. It was 2000 that we decided to hold a public event on International Women’s Day. There was a large number of participants, men and women with different perspectives. It was astonishing for all of us to witness this. In that event, I realized my responsibility as a woman activist. 

We founded the first independent women’s association the same year,  The Women’s Cultural Center. It was the start of my professional career as a women activist.

In 2002, we stablished The Women’s Library and many followed by organizing other groups and organizations.

In 2003, one of our co-activists and lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It became a reason for us to form the first pluralist coalition of Iranian women including Muslim, Non-Muslim, secular, left and liberal approaches: “Hamadishi!”

Parallel, there were other struggles that the ordinary groups pf women in the society were working against, such as resisting against forced hijab in the streets. 

In 2004, by the end of the Reform era, the oppression of the women’s movement intensified. We took advantage of virtual world and launched several women websites. The Internet was accessible, and we tried to use this tool to amplify the different voices of women.

In the non-virtual reality, we launched the One Million Signatures Campaign for changing the discriminative laws. The aim was to use this tool to collect signatures, speak to people and work towards changing the discriminative laws. 

Many members of the campaign were detained; many lost their jobs. And the signatures we collected were taken by intelligence officers. This is an image of women’s movement efforts that has been stolen, and we will one day take it back from the State!

In 2009, during the election time we formed another pluralist coalition of   women: “Hamgaraii Zanan.”

We had a motto: We vote for women’s demands. We had one demand: ratifying the international Convention of the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The result of that election was government fraud, the oppression of the people, and a widespread immigration of women activists and journalists during 2010 and 2011. 

At the same time, the Arab spring was happening that was motivated by the Iranian Green movement. 

In the 2013 elections, the women’s movement came out of its ashes, like Phoenix. To follow their goals, they started making new coalitions for citizen rights discourse in Iran. The activists in diaspora used cyberspace and made various campaigns particularly against the compulsory hijab. They supported each other’s voices inside and outside of Iran. Very soon, the civil declaration of new government lead to the new wave of oppressions. 

Nevertheless, it was just four years ago, that a campaign had been formed in Iran to change the male dominated face of the parliament; it was just two years ago that the campaign “Girls of the Revolution Street” was formed to protest against forced Hijab—in which young women climbed up a stand, took off their obligatory hijab and waved it in the air to illustrate women’s liberation. The courageous lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was defending their cases voluntarily, ended up in jail. 

In the last four months, the pulse of the women’s movement is being heard again.  Women are again in the frontline protest against rising fuel prices, poverty, corruption, sanctions and the catastrophe of Ukrainian airline’s passenger crash.

Iranian women movement, with nearly 150 years of history is going from home to the streets, from streets to prisons and from prisons to diaspora.

Now, in the corner of this all, here I am as an olive-skinned, middle-aged activist in diaspora trying to inspire the transnational feminism to have more solidarity and to prevent together women from being turned and wrapped in the storming winds of violence, autocracy and militarism—in the Eastern and the Western states.

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Mansoureh Shojaee is a leading Iranian women's rights activist and writer. She is one of the founding members of the One Million Signatures Campaign, attempting to collect a million signatures for women's equal rights. As a part of the campaign she has taken part in protests that have been violently silenced.