The Protest of Iranian Women
Anna Vanzan 22 May 2017

Tehran, May 6th. A number of women’s rights activists are meeting at a cultural association’s headquarters in the heart of the city. This is a special occasion involving a meeting of three generations of feminists. A representative of each generation speaks; a journalist, a publisher and a thrilled doctoral candidate who is grateful to the women who preceded her over the years for having never given up and having shown the younger ones the path of activism.

Encouraged by those present, two other speakers unexpectedly provide contributions, one is Minou Mortazi, one of the locally most active “Islamic feminists” and the other is Fatima Siddiqi. Contrary to what normally happens in Iran, Fatima does not use her maiden name, certainly because it is filled with negative connotations, not only for women but for society in general. The historian and activist is in fact the daughter of Sadeq Khalkhali, a judge belonging to the Shia “clergy”, sadly famous for having sentenced to death dozens and dozens of opponents during the period in which the Islamic Republic was founded. Fatima, of course, does not share her father’s opinions, but her presence and the confidence with which she expresses her most certainly feminist positions and the attention with which the participants listen to her, are an additional indication that in today’s Iran the feminist movement’s strategies have changed and that within it, there are women who differ greatly in their origins, persuasions and methods, but united by one shared objective. They want Iranian women to be allowed to enjoy full citizenship. It would in fact be more correct to speak of movements, considering the plurality of members, while their mobile and lustrous cooperation remains firm depending on the objective at stake.

This meeting is being held against the backdrop of the presidential elections and the main subject is women’s participation in the country’s administrative bodies. This year too, although they were in theory allowed to be candidates in the election of the president of the republic, women were then excluded from the complex mechanism that controls power and chooses political candidates. Women have been protesting so as to access the presidency at least since 1997, when another “Islamic feminist” and the daughter of an important personality, Azam Taleqani (her father was the famous reformist theologian), had reinterpreted in a progressive key the article of the constitution regulating the prestigious position, interpreting the word used to define the ideal figure to hold the position of president of the republic as a “person” and not as a “man”, thereby encouraging women to become candidates.

The only area open to women is that of municipal councils. Candidates have used all means possible these days to advertise their presence, from traditional posters on the walls to video messages broadcast on social networks. Some social networks are apparently banned, but in reality everyone uses them by installing on their computers and mobile phones an application that bypasses the censor’s filters. They are not all, however, candidates on reformists’ lists. Many have always been the pillars on which conservative power relies upon and managed to reach the point of controlling the state 38 years ago also thanks to women’s support. The most astonishing aspect in today’s Iran is precisely this coexistence of souls that are often antithetical, where it is impossible to operate that black and white game so greatly liked by the majority of Iran’s observers and commentators. There is not just civil society consisting of “women and young people who are victims and progressives”, there are women and young people who battle every day to improve their country and their living standards, but also women and young people who represent the establishment. To give just two examples, it is sufficient to remember the women who act as the controllers of their sisters’ morality – exercising censorship and reporting, for example, on the clothes they wear in public – and those who joined the basij, a paramilitary corps whose mainly young members have often intervened against the others, against their own compatriots peacefully protesting for civil and political freedom.

Iran’s almost 80 million citizens are a composite and mobile society. One part is intent on doing business and becoming wealthy, embracing the consumerism that the revolution had tried to eliminate and that has instead aggressively come back to life. It is they who push consumption, widening the gap between the rich and the poor who are often state employees and small shop owners who cannot keep up with the affluent “bourgeoisie”. To imitate them, many, for example, buy the latest mobile phone on the market, paying expensive instalments so they can show off a status symbol needed to keep up appearances in certain circles.

A significant part of the population is active in the arts, ranging from the cinema to literature, sectors in which men and women now battle for a primacy of presences as well as national and international awards. Many still have traditional jobs, ranging from calligraphy to the construction of straw and mud walls. Over these decades others have invented new professions, such as selling foreign pirated DVDs displaying their wares on the streets or selling them door to door. Then there are peddlers – men, women and children – crowding the underground and selling almost everything. There are, however, also consultants creating the images of men and women active in politics and who, in this electoral race, one of the most participated in since the Revolution, have resorted to both avant-garde visual aids and to the traditional offerings of sorbets and sweets handed to passers-by outside candidates’ headquarters.

Iran is therefore an extraordinary and an ordinary country. It is above all a country of proud people who for millennia have managed to adapt to all kinds of situations without ever surrendering.

Translated by Francesca Simmons