By Hamid Yazdan Panah
March 8th is International Women’s Day, an occasion to reflect on the situation of women throughout the world. There are many stories worthy of attention in this context, however I would like to take time to focus on one in particular; namely the courageous struggle being waged by women in Iran. Despite consistent media coverage on Iran little attention has been paid to Iranian women and their struggle for freedom. For more than a century Iranian women have been on the front lines of dynamic change in Iranian politics and society. Despite this reality, both the Iranian regime and the Western media have marginalized Iranian women and ignored this major force for real change.
Iranian women have a long history of galvanizing change within Iran. The movement for equality and empowerment by women goes as far back as the constitutional revolution in 1906. By 1963 women had won the right to vote and hold public office, and played a pivotal role in the revolution of 1979 which overthrew the Shah. Despite these achievements, the regime in Tehran has sought to disenfranchise and relegate women to a passive role in Iranian society.
Under the current regime, women have faced institutional discrimination brought on by misogynistic and discriminatory laws. This includes compulsory veiling, restrictions on travel and movement without male companions, and actually being viewed as being worth less than a man under Iranian law. Prior to the most recent elections, women made up three percent of the entire parliament, holding just 9 out of 295 seats.
The administration of Hassan Rouhani has continued to crackdown against women, despite claims of moderation. In October 2014, despite global outcry, the regime executed Rayhaneh Jabbari, a 26-year-old woman whose crime was defending herself against an intelligence agent who had attempted to rape her. Amnesty International called the execution “another bloody stain on Iran’s human rights record.”
The regime has also targeted female activists, and recognized them as a threat to the survival of the regime. Under Rouhani a number of Iranian artists and journalists have been arrested and sentenced to long prison terms. A case in point is Atena Farghadani, a 28- year-old artist, who was arrested in 2015 for drawing a cartoon lampooning government officials. She was put on trial on charges including ‘spreading propaganda against the system’ and ‘insulting members of parliament through paintings’. She was sentenced to 12 years and nine months in prison.
These women are on the front lines of change and conflict in Iran against a repressive regime. Yet this struggle is too often ignored by outlets which are eager to focus on the economic and political benefits of the deal with Iran. Absent from this narrative is the actual and ongoing push for democratic change and equality in Iran, by women and for women.
In fact, Iranian women have led the struggle against this regime for more than 30 years. Tens of thousands of women were executed for their opposition to Khomeini’s brand of Islam and theocratic rule. Despite facing brutal repression at home and marginalization by the West, Iranian women remain defiant and determined in their struggle for real and fundamental change in Iran. This change is not about reform, or obtaining marginal rights, but actual fundamental changes, beginning with restoring actual democratic change and civil rights in Iran.
Many of the women who were executed by this regime were in fact affiliated with the People’s Mojahedin Organization Of Iran, the principal Iranian opposition movement, which advocates for a tolerant, democratic Islam and a secular democratic republic in Iran. In point of fact the organized Iranian opposition is led by a Muslim woman, Maryam Rajavi, who heads the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
It is high time the West recognized that the real partner for peace in Iran is not the ruling theocracy, but the women who are fighting for the same ideals that we value here in the West, democracy, equality and freedom. We should take the time to recognize their bravery in the face of brutality, and support their struggle for freedom and empowerment.
Hamid Yazdan Panah is an Iranian-American human rights activist and attorney focused on immigration and asylum in the San Francisco Bay Area.