What is striking about the Iranians protesting fraud in the June 10 “election” is the number of women on the front lines. Among all those cheated at the polls, they may feel the most denied.
For the first time in one of the Islamic Republic’s controlled presidential campaigns, the women’s movement was able to raise its demands clearly and independently – even though the unelected, 12-member, all-male Guardian Council did not allow any female candidates to run.
The movement’s courage to confront the patriarchal theocracy (in which “morality police” still roam the streets looking for women with make-up) may have been a big reason why the regime rigged the vote count – and why supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was forced to make a show of ordering a probe of the fraud.
Iranian women do enjoy privileges that women in many Arab countries do not. But Iran’s powerful clerics know that democracy’s advance and the liberation of women go hand in hand. They’ve seen women recently elected in Kuwait and in Iraq’s new democracy, while their proxy group in Lebanon, Hezbollah, lost an election. So they are trying to stop both the women’s movement and open democracy in Iran in order to maintain their Shiite “revolution” and their own rule.
Yet the ballot fraud was done with such audacity and clumsiness that the “landslide winner,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will likely find it difficult to rule. And the West should hesitate before cozying up to a regime with fading legitimacy and which so openly suppresses half its population and sees women as a security threat. What country would have faith in signing a deal with a regime that cheats its own people, especially women, at the ballot box?
During the campaign, Iran’s feminists found a voice in the popular opposition candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister. He promised to disband the morality police, reform the many laws that treat women unequally, and appoint women to high posts. He campaigned with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a prominent academic and author of 15 books. The two appear to be a loving couple, displaying a modern equality to Iranian women. But he “lost” the vote – even in his hometown, which was yet another sign that the fix was in.
Mr. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, has a strong record against women. He changed the name of the government’s “Center for Women’s Participation” to the “Center for Women and Family Affairs.” He limited women’s access to higher education and proposed laws that would allow men to divorce their wives without informing them and not to pay alimony.
Most of all, the regime has jailed dozens of women involved in the One Million Signatures Campaign, a grass-roots movement that began in 2006 to reform the legal system and to end gender discrimination. The group has been harassed in their homes and branded as illegal.
It is of little surprise, then, to see images of women, only slightly veiled, confronting the regime in postelection protests. While Ahmadinejad’s false victory may have toughened the clerics’ foreign posture with the West, they’ve only exposed their weakness at home.
Eventually, Iran’s women will not be denied.