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We Won’t Be Silenced: Women’s Demands in Three Episodes

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By: Parvaneh Vahidmanesh

What does March 8 mean for Iranian women? What is their share of the decades of struggle by women’s rights activists for equality? What are the problems and demands of those who live in large and small cities, in villages and more closed communities?

From the rights of child custody, divorce and marriage to social and civil rights, Iranian women have a long way to go to reach complete equality. Connecting with every one of them and hearing their voices is not so easy; however, Zamaneh, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, brings you the voices of three women who offer three perspectives on some of the demands of Iranian women.

EPISODE ONE: Kerman, February 17, 2015

“For some, the priority is what to wear, for some it is respect and human dignity. For me, it is the right to have lived with my son during the years that I should have been there to see him grow every day. The fact that the law had no place for me as a mother and a woman and had not seen me is very painful. While there have been some changes in custody laws, I feel we have a long way to go before discriminatory laws change.”

Soheila is stepping into the fifth decade of her life. She lost her husband in the eight-year war with Iraq. The loss of her husband coincided with her separation from her three-year-old son Hossein. “His grandfather came and took Hossein away; without a word or any explanation, without hearing my cries. No one was there to support me, neither the family nor the law. The boy was theirs.”

Soheila studies medicine in Shiraz and goes to see her son in Kerman once every two weeks, even though she is sometimes thwarted. “I would cry the whole way in the bus. Sometimes the grandfather would refuse to let me see my son; he’d say I unsettled the child. There was no law to support me. That is why I later decided to become active in the elimination of discriminatory laws in Kerman.”

In the clinics where she works in Kerman and Zarand, in addition to medical practice, she holds counseling sessions for young women. She believes ignorance dealt her the biggest blow in her youth: “When the law is not looking out for your interests, you have to put conditions on your life. You have to learn how to take your rights. Before marriage, you need to make a prenuptial agreement that you will have child custody, that you want to continue your education and that your want to work outside the house. If you do not do that, your life becomes that of Soheila, who was separated from her son until he was 15 years old.”

Soheila tries to bring the families of the young women she counsels into the loop: “Unfortunately, legislators have not considered a place for women in society. Families are not provided with much training especially in smaller towns far from large cities. Women get married under old customs but live and breathe in a modern society, the age of the internet and speed! Life has seriously changed; young women are not like they were before. But laws have not changed. I fight and struggle to bring awareness to women because I believe that even if the average middle-class woman does not know what her demands are, when she comes face-to-face with discriminatory laws, she is certain to realize that there is no consideration for her under the law.”

Still, in some parts of Iran, the families of young women are against any prenuptial agreement proposed by their daughters. They believe such demands will get in the way of marriage or become the cause of divorce. “Members of the clergy in mosques or cultural centres keep telling families that prenuptial conditions aimed at giving women more freedom are against Islamic principles. Their insistence convinces families not to allow their daughters to use this very basic right to protect themselves, and in this way the vicious cycle of discrimination against women is perpetuated.”

EPISODE TWO: Isfahan, February 24, 2015

“Ever since throwing acid on women became a trend in my city, I only want one thing: a little security.” Maryam is in her last year of sociology and hopes to continue with her masters next year. She has also applied to universities outside the country. She says she wants to run away — to a place that is not here. She says her only demand is security. Until she loses the feeling that as a woman, she cannot rely on even the minimal protection offered by society, she cannot think of anything else. “When just going for lunch at a restaurant means you have to fear whether you would lose an eye or not, you prefer to leave.”

Maryam believes that many of her generation are not seeking to change laws or make them fair anymore. There is no room to engage in activity or affect any reform. Women want to have an ordinary and simple life in this small space that is left for them: “For many of us, trying to change things has become just an illusion. The last government and Parliament did everything they could to restrict and limit women. Labour legislation and working from home, reforming family laws, etc. All of this was aimed at restricting women. This open demeaning of women and the propaganda of the religious system against women make some people believe that they have the right to throw acid on women’s faces.”

The wave of fear that swept Isfahan and other Iranian cities was an effort to silence women and make them afraid of not complying with the government-accepted hijab. “I know that my friends in Isfahan do not care about what to wear or whether they can go into a stadium any more. They just want to get home in one piece.”

Maryam believes that the government supports extremists in a covert manner in order to impose control on women. In past years, women have used the way they dress in public as the loudest voice of protest in society. When all newspapers and political parties were outlawed, women continued to express their demands with the way they dressed. “Although I’d love to dress freely, my priority is safety.”


EPISODE THREE: Tehran, March 2, 2015

When the My Stealthy Freedoms campaign began on Facebook, many women started to post their pictures on this page. From Tehran, Shiraz, Tabriz, Bandar Abbas and other places, photos of women dressing according to their own desires were published. The pictures started a wave of news coverage in Iran and even internationally. Many clergy members and religious activists protested against it. Iranian actress Elham Charkhandeh began a campaign to put the Chador on women’s heads to show that Iranian women love their hijab, despite pages such as My Stealthy Freedoms. However, the amount of attention drawn by the Stealthy Freedoms page was unpredictable.

Shadi is a homemaker. She studied nursing, but her husband does not want her to work. She works at home as a private tutor once a week. Taking off the hijab and wearing whatever she likes is her foremost demand. “If you have control over your own body and others do not decide what you have to wear, you can begin taking other steps and begin working against discriminatory laws and achieving justice. As long as a man forces us to wear the hijab, we cannot take any other steps.” Shadi has two children, and despite serious tension with her husband, she stays with him because she has no right to child custody. “When I sent my photo to My Stealthy Freedoms page, I showed it to my husband and said our freedom is close by. He slapped me for putting my photo without hijab for thousands to see. But I did not surrender.”

In 2014, many newspapers and websites spoke of compulsory hijab and the demands of Iranian women. “Through these images and by bringing this simple but important issue to the foreground, we can begin to speak about our other demands. It’s clear that many do not care to read articles and report on women’s rights in Iran. But when a photo is published with a subtitle saying, ‘I am an Iranian woman and want to dress freely,’ the world stares at it and I think this is a unique movement.”

Iranian women have been concerned with the right to wear what they choose since the beginning of the 1979 Revolution. When hijab became compulsory by the Order of Ayatollah Khomeini, women’s presence in society began to fade. However, Iranian women did not withdraw into their homes. Today there is a continuous wave of pressure to force women back into the house by further forcing the issue of hijab. “One day they target the shape of our boots, another day the colour of our scarves. But each day we will find a new way to say that although our voices are muffled, we will never become silent.”