Iranian women’s protest

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The Australian

At vanguard of protest, women drive a chink in mullahs’ armour

by Dr.Ida Lichter

15 January 2018

Iranian women have lost the “egg revolution” but they have demonstrated an ongoing appetite to protest against second-class citizenship in a sexist police state.
The image of a woman removing her hijab on the reformist website My Stealthy Freedom became a symbol of the unrest and could eventually emerge as its icon.
Despite absent freedom of speech, assembly or association, women have fought back since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which not only failed to deliver the political participation they expected but reversed most of the rights won. Ayatollah Khomeini repealed the 1967 Family Protection Law, thereby facilitating polygyny, easy divorce for men and custody of children, unequal inheritance, and the marriage age for girls reduced to nine. Islamic laws of retribution were introduced to permit flogging and stoning for adultery, personal injury and violation of Islamic dress codes. Women managed to retain the right to vote and certain educational opportunities.
In 1997, women played an important part in the election of ‘‘reformist’’ president Mohammad Khatami, who promised democratic and gender reforms, although he failed to deliver. After Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, women were energised, and starting in 2005, organised peaceful demonstrations and the one million signatures campaign against discriminatory laws. Although protesters insisted they were not opposed to the regime or Islam, they were attacked by police, including female squads, cynically trained by the regimen. Many were arrested.
The daring commitment of the women’s movement arguably formed the vanguard of the demonstrations after the disputed presidential election of 2009, and the Arab Spring.
Considering the vast organs of repression at the call of the Islamic republic, dissidents have displayed remarkable courage. Like the old Soviet Union, Iran depends on coercion through a web of police, informants and paramilitaries to defend itself against insurrection. Apart from more than 200,000 general police and affiliates, the Basij civil militia forms the backbone. Consisting of five million mostly volunteer members spread over 50,000 locations, the Basij monitors state and private institutions, its rapid-reaction battalions on alert to crush unrest. A sister Basij arm claims more than five million members. Patrolling the streets, they act as morality police, arresting women for Islamic dress violations, and have impounded over 40,000 cars driven by women in “bad hijab”.
Without international pressure, extending an uprising is destined to fail. The US response in 2009 was muted, a reaction Barack Obama adviser Dennis Ross regrets. The support of Donald Trump undoubtedly encouraged the latest protesters.
Despite their military successes in proxy wars abroad and widespread police control internally, the regimen is weak.
The economy is beset with inflation and youth unemployment, estimated at 40 per cent. A cut in subsidies for low-income families and increases in food prices while allocating $US8 billion to the Revolutionary Guards generated the protests last month, especially in working-class areas.
Iranians were promised a better future by President Hasan Rowhani, who offered the 2015 nuclear deal as the key to future prosperity. Instead, the regime channelled the dividends to the Guards to expand Iran’s reach in Syria, Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
To placate rebellious, unemployed youth, the mullahs have turned a blind eye to underground Westoxification. Illegal rock music, dancing, drinking, drugs and mixed gender parties proliferate. Increasing numbers of unmarried couples are cohabiting in a society that criminalises men and women shaking hands. Private expressions of rebellion might be tolerated but public defiance is penalised. When six young people made a video of themselves dancing to Pharrell Williams’ Happy in 2014, it was seen by over a million people on YouTube, but the dancers were sentenced to prison and lashes.
With over 60 per cent of the population under 30, Iran has one of the largest number of bloggers in the world. A demographic bulge of internet-savvy and politically active youth is a growing threat to the regime.
Moreover, the moral and social base of the Islamist government is eroding. The regime depends on the depiction of Westernisation as an existential threat. Many mosques are empty and a career as a cleric has little appeal. Low fertility is another problem for the regime, prompting the discontinuation of family planning.
Women are the battleground for the mullahs. The radical Shia bubble could be seriously punctured if many women were to rise in defiance. Judging by the subdued response in the West, Iranian women can expect little support from the countries that backed the nuclear deal, or do business with Iran following the lifting of sanctions. Women have the most to gain from protest movements but the regime is prepared to dispatch its police forces to incarcerate them in jails known for torture and rape. It is inexcusable for the feminist movement and defenders of human rights to stay silent.
The recent uprising offered the Iranian women’s movement a chink in the regime’s theocratic armour. Centralised in Tehran, they were probably caught unaware by the spontaneous provincial unrest and had insufficient time to organise and consolidate their strategies.
The next rebellion might offer a better opportunity for the end of a tyrannical regime masquerading imperialism and paranoia as virtue and piety.
・Dr.Ida Lichter is the author of Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression