On June 19th, Taraneh Mousavi was arrested at a post-election protest. Several weeks later she had disappeared. The last record of her life was a medical document stating that she had been briefly hospitalized for an ‘unfortunate accident’ in which her womb and anus had been ruptured.
Sexual violations have long stained Iranian prisons (and detention centres around the world). In 1986 Ayatollah Montazeri, now renowned in the West for his fiery criticism of Ahmadinejad’s regime, penned an outraged letter to then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini asking “Did you know that young women are raped in some of the prisons of the Islamic Republic?” And though gender-based violence is generally associated with the abuse of women, the recent accusations of opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi highlight the use of rape against detained women and men alike. One young Iranian man writes of his incarceration in July, “They put a flash light into our faces and said if you make a noise we will put these batons into your a**. I could not believe that. I was thinking that this is just a nightmare.”
The post-election crackdown in Iran has thus highlighted that way in which tools of gender-based violence traditionally associated with women are being wielded against both sexes. This reality is reflected on by 1 Million Signatures, an Iranian women’s rights organization that is now campaigning against the arbitrary arrest of men and women in the wake of Ahmadinejad’s ‘re-election’. It features ‘I Am Atefeh’ campaign to free Atefeh Nabavi - the first woman to receive a prison sentence for her political activities in the wake of the contested election - but also draws attention to the detention of men like Farzad Islami, a student activist, and the journalist Sassan Aghayee.
Of course, as the Iranian-Swedish feminist scholar Golbarg Bashi notes ‘[Iranian women] have paid the highest price for living in a patriarchal theocracy (and before that in a autocratic monarchy)’. The way that women and men have historically experienced inequality and violence in Iran is indeed qualitatively different. But with the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy being questioned more forcefully than ever before, it is indiscriminately lashing out at anyone - male or female - who strays outside the government sanctioned code of conduct. Thus, the campaigns of civil society and opposition groups in Iran call for a broader view of post-election violence that does not look at the abuse of women in isolation, but focuses on the way that difference – whether it be political opinion, religion, sexuality, or gender – is being persecuted.
Women do wield a great deal of symbolic power in Iran, which perhaps makes their activism particularly resonant. The work of individuals like Shirin Ebadi highlights the way in which Middle Eastern women are successfully fusing together Islamic, democratic, and human rights discourses together - and explains why Ahmadinejad’s government (which has failed on all of the above accounts) felt it necessary to seize Ebadi’s Nobel Peace Prize. Moreover, the Iranian state in all its incarnations over the past century has sought to use women’s bodies as canvases for its nation-building projects. It has been especially pre-occupied with women’s role as mothers and importance in shaping future ‘model citizens’. The Pahlavi dynasty praised ‘enlightened mothers’ who would infuse young Iranians with ostensibly modern/western values, whilst under Khomeini mothers were lauded as ‘the pillars of family’ who would help Islamicize society.
Not only have Iranian women challenged this discourse at the political and cultural levels, but they have subverted their government-sanctioned role as mothers in the wake of the post-election violence to lobby on behalf of its victims. The Mourning Mothers of Laleh, for example, vowed after the June demonstrations to assemble at Laleh Park every week “from now until the release of all detained demonstrators, the cessation of violence and until our children’s killers receive their punishment”. On December 6th, in anticipation of Student Day protests taking place around Iran today, the government responded by arresting 21 of the Mourning Mothers' members. But it’s measure that will undoubtedly merely to galvanize women like Parvin Fahimi, whose son Sohrab Aarabi is thought to have died whilst in detention after participating in pro-opposition protests. She was recently interviewed by women’s rights activist Mahboobe Abbasgholizadeh, where she forcefully proclaimed “each mother is responsible, all Iranian people are responsible, not to let the blood of our children be ignored”.
For mothers’ organizations in Iran, that responsibility extends to a range of interconnected problems including the country’s nuclear portfolio and the frightening possibility of yet more sanctions. Similarly, the opposition movement as a whole is welded together by numerous problems that have been churning in the belly of the Islamic Republic for the past 30 years. It is important then, to place government-led violence in the context of the broad complaints that it is facing and its frenzied efforts to quell them rather than focusing exclusively on misogynistic policies directed at women. Women’s rights in Iran are intimately connected to the broader struggle for a country where difference is tolerated - and where ‘unfortunate accidents’ are not met with impunity.
*Author's name supplied but withheld upon request
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