Iran’s women: listen now!

Roja Bandari
26 November 2007

The courageous voices of the women of Iran's One Million Signatures campaign demand to be heard. Roja Bandari tells their story.

I could write about gender violence in Iran; about stoning, wife-killings, or a wife's legal responsibility in marriage through the law of Obligatory Sexual Obedience, or Tamkin. But apart from offering our solidarity, you and I might not be able to do much about these problems from far away. So instead, I would like to write about the people who can and are doing something about it; about my sisters in Iran who can tell you about what is happening to Iranian women, why it's happening, and what should be done to fix it.

These women are part of a movement called the One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality, which aims to change discriminatory laws in Iran many of which facilitate and condone gender violence. So far several of these activists have been arrested and released on absurdly high bail, many have received prison sentences, and some are currently in custody and unable to speak to their families.

Ronak's story

"If anything happens to my daughter, I'll stop the world and I will dedicate my whole life to Ronak and her goals." This is what Ronak Saffarzadeh's mother said in an interview with the Campaign for Equality website. She was recently assaulted by court security when she tried to inquire about Ronak's situation and the location where she is being held.

Ronak is only 21. She is an activist in the One Million Signatures Campaign and part of the Azarmehr Kurdish Women's Group. She lives in Kurdistan, a province that has long suffered ethnic and religious discrimination by various Iranian governments. It is where tradition rules the lives of women, and gender violence is abundant. Social or even cultural activism in this region often carries a risk of deadly accusations of treason by the government. Despite all of this, there are many enlightened Kurdish men and women who work to make their society better.

Ronak's monthly salary as a secretary and a graphic designer was about $60 and her friends say that she spent much of it on buying books for village libraries. She worked mainly in villages near her hometown of Sanandaj, helping to teach reading and writing classes. She helped set up a mobile library for the villages and held discussion sessions at the local mosques where women could speak out about their everyday issues. Ronak also worked to educate women about female circumcision, and woman-killings.

On 9th October 2007, nine men raided Ronak's house, took her computer and some of her educational pamphlets and arrested her with no official charges. Ronak's mother went to the court almost every day to ask to see her daughter, but no contact with Ronak was allowed and instead her mother was called names and beaten by the court security. Eighteen days after her arrest, without any news of her condition, the court told her family that they will keep her for another month. Ronak is still in jail and her family has not been able to speak to her.

Delaram, Hana, and Maryam

Delaram Ali is 24, and was one of the first members of the One Million Signatures Campaign. Delaram is a social worker and has mainly worked with women and children in abusive conditions. Since her first year in college in 2002, she has worked for organisations like the Society for Protection of Children's Rights, the International Blue Crescent, and the Cultural Centre for Child Labor. When a catastrophic earthquake hit the city of Bam in December 2003, Delaram, then only 20, traveled over 600 miles to provide relief to the children of Bam and worked with them for over a year.

Due to a lack of access to public media, Iranian women's rights activists use many different legal methods to raise awareness about women's rights. Public gatherings are one of these methods and are explicitly permitted in the Iranian constitution. On 12th June 2006, Delaram along with hundreds of other activists participated in a peaceful gathering in the Hafte-Tir Square in Tehran in order to express Iranian women's demand for legal equality. They were sitting on the ground and singing songs. Unfortunately the government does not respect the demands of women and tries to suppress them even at the expense of undermining the constitution. The female police reacted violently, kicking and punching the participants and beating them with nightsticks.

Delaram Ali with child (top), and on the ground (above), being dragged by female police officers. *Photos by Arash Ashoorinia, reproduced with kind permission

Delaram was pushed by one of the security forces and broke her arm. She was then dragged to the police car and kept at the station overnight with no medical care but an ice-pack. Delaram and her lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, filed a claim against the police. The court exonerated the police and instead sentenced Delaram to 10 lashes and 34 months in prison on charges of "actions against national security" and "advertising against the government". Last month, the appeals court ordered that Delaram must report to the court to start her sentence by 10th November 2007. Through relentless campaigning by her friends and pleas to legal authorities, Delaram's sentence was postponed for two weeks. At the time of writing, Delaram and her husband of four months, Payam, are still waiting for news.

These pressures on the activists are on the rise and will not simply go away on their own. The latest arrests are those of Hana Abdi, one of Ronak's friends, and Maryam Hosseinkhah, a young journalist who wrote about women's issues including the condition of female inmates in Evin prison.

Breaking the silence

This article is the third in a series on openDemocracy marking the "16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence" from 25 November - 10 December, an annual mobilisation aimed at heightening global awareness of violence against women

Also in openDemocracy on the 16 Days theme, part of our overall 50.50 coverage, a multi-voiced blog where women around the world contributeDespite the charges of "actions against national security" and "advertising against the government", the harsh retaliation against the activists has nothing to do with national security. These women are not trying to overthrow or oppose the government of Iran or break the law in any form. This is not about political activities or challenging religion. This is about challenging patriarchy; about women gaining knowledge and confidence, talking to each other, and sharing their stories. Patriarchy demands silence in the face of violence and discrimination and the objective here is to force women's rights defenders to be silent by intimidation, arrests, heavy sentences, probation, and lashing.

In a recent article, another campaign member, Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, writes,

"The unpleasant stench of war is everywhere. Once again the powerful in the world, the governments, have decided to ruin the lives of their people so one can stay in power a while longer and the other can expand its current power. [...] They tell us to stop our independent, peaceful, equality-seeking and real work and instead pick a side between the two abstract and artificial fronts made up by the powers. [...] Once again, we are being sacrificed in the violent game between the governments, without having any role in starting this deadly game." (Translation of article published in the online magazine Zanestan, recently taken down by the government.)

Noushin's words tell us that the looming threat of war with the US is marginalising activists in Iran as wars so often do to peaceful movements. In the international community, the media landscape is dominated by discussions about the Iranian nuclear program and war, thus further marginalising the voices of these women. There is simply not a lot of interest by the foreign media in reflecting human rights issues or women's rights conditions in Iran.

Sitting at my desk, I try to think about these events from different angles, but no matter how I look at it I come to the same conclusion; these are my sisters and my friends, and I have no choice; I cannot let this happen. I have to amplify their voices and tell their stories for all to hear. Forget your war and nuclear talks; this is our priority, this is what we are talking about! Listen!

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