Part IV: We Want Equal Rights - this is the fourth in a series of articles that looks at how the Iranian Revolution came to be in 1979, and where it has led Iran over the course of four decades.
Only three weeks into victory, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 faced one of its most challenging moments when tens of thousands of Iranian women left their jobs and took to the streets of Teheran on March 8 International Women’s Day to protest the imposition of Hijab laws by the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Demonstrations went on for five days creating confrontations as well as intense debates and discussions about the role of women in the Islamic political structure.
“Women should not go to their places of work naked,” said the ayatollah ordering women to wear a headscarf.
It enraged the more modern westernised women, who had not worn a scarf for generations. The call came at the end of what appeared like a relentless campaign by Ayatollah Khomeini against women.
Only 15 days after the revolution he ordered the abolition of the family protection law. He called it “contrary to Sharia”. He then barred women from becoming judges or presidents saying in Islam women cannot rule over men.
On March 1 he banned women's participation in sports, on March 7 he barred women singers from appearing in public. Later mixed schools were closed, and then the Committee for the Prevention of Vice was formed to implement his orders.
I joined the call for the demonstrations. We began in high spirits, gathered outside Teheran University and planned to march towards the Prime Minister’s office to hand in an eight-point petition.
“We want equal rights” we chanted. “We want the freedom to choose”.
We had hardly moved 200 meters down the road when I felt a large stone hitting my shoulder. I looked back and saw a shower of rocks being thrown at us by Hezbollah zealots.
“Either a headscarf or a head injury,” shouted the thugs, many carrying knives.
Male supporters formed human chains around us to shield us from the attacks. But the chain was broken several times, and some marchers were roughed up.
I saw several women with blood pouring down their faces. But we stood our ground, confused and shocked as we reached the Prime Minister’s office to demand action.
Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, however, had gone to the holy city of Qom to see Ayatollah Khomeini. It was rumoured that Bazargan might hand in his resignation objecting to continued interference by the leader in the affairs of the government.
Khomeini saw women’s demands as driven by western culture and called Bazargan “weak”.
“Islamic women are not dolls,” Khomeini said. “They must wear the hijab.”
Far from being “dolls”, women, many of them highly educated, have always formed an essential part of political life in Iran. Iranian women have been active in liberation movements since the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 and were indeed a defining voice in the political narrative of the 1979 revolution.
Women were disappointed with Khomeini after all their sacrifices for the revolution. Demonstrations grew during the week. Women stayed on strike refusing to wear the scarf, confronting guards in public offices.
At the largest demonstration, 15,000 protesters took over the Palace of Justice for a three‐hour sit‐in on March 10.
The tension was high, and Khomeini was forced to clarify his remarks: It was a “duty” for Muslim women not an “order”, he said.
Five days and a dozen demonstrations brought conciliatory gestures and hasty clarifications, but the Ayatollah did not change his edict.
That pattern has continued over the past forty years.
Women have held annual processions on March 8 and organised many campaigns for equal rights and against forced hijab. These have all been brutally suppressed — just like other demands for human rights in the Islamic Republic.
Policies have discriminated against women and resulted in the retirement of large segments of defiant women from the labour force, the arrest and imprisonment of several female lawyers, and migration of large numbers of women.
Although women comprise over 60 percent of university graduates, official statistics show 40 percent of women aged 15-29 are unemployed.
According to the latest polls, conducted by President Hassan Rouhani’s office, over 49.2 percent of the population regards hijab as a private matter. Another poll by the Iran Unity Party found 53 percent of Iranians are pro-choice.
While ordinary people respect that right for women, inside the establishment, the view is predominantly traditionalist.
Even the secular, liberal and reformist politicians view women’s rights as having secondary importance. They continue to pay lip service to the issue and lecture women to be patient, as they did forty years ago:
“Imam [reference to Khomeini] has asked for cooperation,” said a leftist activist pointing to the guns and trying to dislodge us.
“What a letdown,” I thought at the end of that cold March day in 1979.
Guards fired their weapons into the air.
“Guns and dictatorships will never deter us,” we chanted.
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