Analysis: Hell hath no fury

Iranian women take the streets in anger and dismay.

Iran protest woman shouts 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Iran protest woman shouts 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Last Friday night, an Iranian woman recorded herself crying into the darkness while surveying Teheran's fury streets from the rooftop of her apartment: "Where is this place where only with our silence, we are sending our voices to the world?" Less than 24 hours later, the horrific death of 27-year-old Neda Agha Soltan, captured on a mobile phone camera and distributed in the form of a graphic video last Saturday via the Web, shocked Net users world wide. Neda (literally "voice") died instantaneously when a bullet pierced her chest in the midst of violent confrontations between state security forces and protesters over the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Soon after the short video was released, local and international online forums, blogs and other social networking Web sites spontaneously advanced Neda as the new icon of the protest, entering its second week. Iranian Press TV quoted Teheran police chief Azizallah Rajabzadeh as saying, "My department had no role in the shootout that has become the focus of most media outlets in the West." Despite what seems to be an official refutation of the authorities' involvement in the killing, Neda's death evoked stern comments and the strong conviction that "her death will not be in vain." Some commentators already acknowledge her as martyr, while others compare her to Joan of Arc. Two days after the incident, a female Iranian blogger wrote, "While reports outside Iran portray Neda as a symbol of the recent clashes between the youth and the security forces... for me she is a symbol of the courageous and notable young women protesters... We - Neda, me, you and others - have to dictate history for ourselves." Thirty years ago, while the founding father of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, acknowledged the contribution of Iranian women to the 1979 revolution, he stated, "I take pride in all the courageous deeds accomplished by the women of Iran." However, throughout most of the 1980s his gratitude amounted to discriminatory gender policies, enforcement of a strict dress code and the stifling of political expression. In 1997, Mohammad Khatami owed a great deal of his landslide presidential election victory to women's support. Since then, women have occasionally expressed their aspirations and grievances in the streets demanding to improve their legal personal status. Recognizing the women's constituency, Ahmadinejad pledged during his first presidential campaign in 2005 not to initiate crackdowns on women's dress. His campaign promise was shattered by one of the most severe operations on women's attire in 2007, the closure of reformist publications such as the women's journal Zanan, and an orchestrated campaign against human and women's rights activists during the course of the past year. Women, who have been bearing the heaviest burden of the theocratic regime of Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors for three decades, enthusiastically joined the political celebrations of the 10th presidential election campaign. They were especially encouraged by the radical reformist couple, Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, an outspoken political adviser to former president Khatami, former chancellor of Al-Zahra University for women, and painter. Positioned at the forefront of her husband's campaign, Rahnavard emphasized the need to revive freedom of speech, freedom of the pen and freedom of thought that were lost during Ahmadinejad's presidency. Watching the campaign images that came out of Iran, one could hardly ignore the eye catching presence of elegant, cheerful young women covered in colorful blouses, ribbons, bandanas, head scarves and election pins, in support of their candidate. A mere 10 days ago, Iran witnessed the enthusiastic presence of women participating in "a great show of trust and hope on the part of the nation," as the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei summarized the enigmatic election in his sermon last Friday at Teheran University. The "exceptional and epic turnout" Khamenei mentioned, tainted by allegations of electoral fraud, was followed by deadly days of rage in the streets. Arrests of vast numbers of social activists were also reported, including short detentions of family members of Iran's ruling elite, most notably Zahra Mojaradi, wife of Mohsen Mirdamadi, head of the largest pro-reform party, and Faezeh Hashemi, a former MP, founder of the banned women's newspaper Zan and daughter of former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. United with their male fellow demonstrators and armed with mobile phones and digital cameras, women poured into the streets of Teheran protesting for their votes, which they believed were stolen; for the republic they thought they had; and for freedoms they wish to achieve. The election's result has proved to be a lot less stable and a lot more fragile than the state-controlled media is reporting. In one week Iran has been transformed from an animated "religious democracy" to a nation stricken with uncertainties and grief. The rising post-election death toll in general and Neda's death in particular cast a huge question mark over the presence of Iranian women in the ongoing protest. The recent deadly incidents can either daunt or accelerate women's participation. At this stage, women's forbearance might prove damaging for the opposition movement. As Ayatollah Khomeini said, women in the streets "double the strength of the men." Dr. Liora Hendelman-Baavur teaches at the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a research fellow at the Center for Iranian Studies of Tel Aviv University.