Women are no longer allowed to wear make-up on Iranian television. “It’s illegal and against Shari’a law,” the head of Iranian state television, Ezatollah Zarghami, was quoted in the Iranian media last week. Although the issue of make-up is surely trivial, it does reveal how the Iranian establishment treats a woman’s right to make her own decisions. In fact, the legal rights of women in Iran have been eroded since the Islamic Revolution there 30 years ago.
However, Iranian women are fighting back against what they see as unjust laws that make them second-class citizens.
Journalist Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani is one of many activists trying to eliminate discrimination against women in Iran. She is under threat of imprisonment in Iran for her role as a founding member of the One Million Signatures Campaign – which not only wants to change those laws, but also seeks to increase awareness of the needs and priorities of women in Iranian society.
Khorasani has written a book in which she details the “inside story” of the campaign and its strategies. An English translation of the book has just been published. But because Khorasani cannot herself promote the book, Mahnaz Afkhami, the former Minister of State for Women’s Affairs in Iran, has been authorized to speak in her behalf. She appeared this week on VOA’s Press Conference USA.
Family Laws after 1979
“The family laws in Iran address every aspect of women’s lives – the right to marriage, to divorce, to work, or to choose a residence,” Afkami said.
She cites a number of laws instituted since the Iranian Revolution:
• The minimum age for marriage has been reduced to nine.
• Divorce has become the exclusive right of the male.
• Polygamy has been sanctioned.
• The right to work has been made subject to the approval of a male guardian.
Afkhami says Khorasani and other activists have committed themselves to change these laws through peaceful and non-violent resistance. “A major barrier Iranian women face is that the laws since 1979 are detrimental to organized movement building and to networking,” Afkhami noted.
One way the One Million Signatures Campaign has overcome those barriers is by reaching out to women through “one-on-one” contact. Afkhami said women in the campaign, who go into private homes as well as to places where women gather, try to get other women to sign on to the petition for change. “But if they don’t, they leave the information with them because the aim is to get one million activists, not so much one million signatures,” she said.
Political Aspects of Legal Reform
Another goal of the campaign is to involve people in other social justice movements. “I believe that at the heart of the recent democracy protests to the botched elections was the women’s involvement,” Afkhami said.
Afkhami said she believes the power generated by the number of people supporting women’s rights was seen in the recent election. The two reform candidates – Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi – initially supported a complementary role for women, a position barely indistinguishable from their conservative opponents. “But because of the extraordinary mobilizing of the One Million Signatures Campaign and other related groups,” said Afkhami, “both Karroubi and Moussavi had to respond to these women – like candidates everywhere.” The two reform candidates, she noted, ultimately signed onto the ratification of CEDAW, the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
Obstacles to the Campaign for Equality
“The biggest challenge facing the campaign is the pressure that comes from the government,” Afkhami said. Almost every member of the campaign that has had a leading role has been arrested, harassed, or tried. The campaign cannot legally register or hold meetings, or do workshops. “It makes it very difficult for sustained effort,” Afkhami said.
Afkhami says the activists and their followers are extremely resilient, courageous, and inventive. “The reason the world heard so much about what was happening in Iran during the election is because of the sophisticated use of text-messaging, cell phones, Facebook, and other technologies, which are largely the domain of the young and are so helpful in bypassing government limitations,” Afkhami said.