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Iran's real women

Rebecca Barlow
7 March 2008

Rebecca Barlow is inspired by the Iranian women she met on a trip to Tehran. Please note, all names have been changed in order to protect privacies.

This International Women's Day I would like to express my support and deepest respects to the amazing members of the Iranian Women's Movement, some of whom I met whilst on a trip to Tehran in July 2007. During my short stay in that fascinating city, one particular traveller's cliché came true: so many women implored me to tell people in my own community what Iranian women ‘are really like' - beyond the popular western imagination and the images of submission and servitude conjured up in the speeches of western leaders such as President Bush. Perhaps here I can make a brief contribution to that end.

Iranian women have developed a creative and bold campaign to bring local laws into line with universal standards on women's rights and gender equality (see the One Million Signatures campaign here). The state's response? The campaign is both ‘un-Islamic,' ‘un-Iranian,' and indeed, a ‘threat to national security.' Many of the women that I spoke to in Tehran reported their phone lines being tapped, email accounts hacked, and that they were frequently followed and watched. Yet despite these intimidation tactics, Iranian women continue their struggle unabated and undeterred. Behind this ability to ‘keep going' against great odds is the dynamism, bravery, hope, and good humour that characterises the approach of both individual human rights activists, and women in broader civil society.

I met Nikoo on my second morning in Tehran. An independent young woman who was also an official translator for the Japanese, British, and French embassies, she was to be my tour guide around the city for the next four days. Not only did Nikoo take me to museums, mosques, palaces, and bazaars, but responding to my inclinations for seeing people rather than things, we diverted the official tour plan to visit an uncle's bakery, a cousin's shop of collectables, and a Zoroastrian temple where she often visited friends, despite herself being Muslim. There, I was also welcomed with smiles, questions, and an endless bowl of deliciously spicy soup. In between our more educational moments, Nikoo revealed herself to be a woman of fantastic humour, and displayed a candidness in her thoughts and expressions that is bred out of most people sometime during late childhood.

I also spent some leisure time with Nooshin, a secretary at a small business just around the corner from the hotel where I was staying in Tehran. Nooshin was one of the more serious women I met, and she enjoyed talking about her faith in Islam. Nevertheless, she shattered many stereotypes in the brief time we spent together. The first day I met her, she was at work, and wearing the mandatory tight black hijab and large black manteau. But later, when she picked me up from my hotel for a day-trip to Ray, she emerged from her car wearing a fashionable pair of white capris, and a matching white hijab made of sheer cheesecloth. Later, with her extended family, we talked about different religions and belief systems with an open-ness that most westerners would assume off-limits in Iranian society. Nooshin also described in great detail how she had refused to enter into marriage negotiations with her now-husband - for whom she confessed a deep love - without first writing up a formal contract that stipulated her equal rights in the arrangement.

As I began to speak with women who were more formally engaged in the One Million Signatures Campaign, the openness and good humour of both Nikoo and Nooshin continued. When I asked Giti if she would like to begin our talk someplace more private than the hotel lobby, she replied ‘no, this will do just fine' - as long as I didn't mind if she smoked. Relaxed, honest, and just as intrigued with the kinds of questions I wanted to ask as I was with her answers, Giti described how she had become heavily involved in the activities of the women's campaign and deeply committed to its cause. Just before I arrived in Tehran, Giti had been summonsed to the court and was waiting to hear the length of an impending jail sentence for taking part in ‘illegal gatherings' - that is, women's rights rallies. ‘I could do six months, a year, two years,' she said. When I asked her about the option of returning to the states, where she lived for many years, she replied, ‘If I go back now, I could never return to Iran. If it is a choice between a two-year jail term, or leaving and never returning to my country, the choice is actually easy. Iran is too much a part of who I am, and I could never leave it forever.' What a profound irony that the state has labelled Giti and her colleagues ‘un-Iranian.' Giti embodies the spirit and determinism with which countless other Iranian women are implementing the campaign for change.

Simin, another member of the campaign, left some of the strongest imprints on my memories of my entire time in Tehran. As we sipped tea, at a meeting that I anticipated would last for one hour turned into two, and then three, Simin was astutely intelligent and beautifully spoken. We discovered a shared passion for poetry, and travel, and Simin told me of her soirees with friends in Paris, Berlin, and Dubai - the latter two cities to which I have never been. Yet Simin also described to me her frustration of always having to ‘explain herself' on her travels abroad, as people outside Iran assumed that unequal laws correlated directly with Iranian women's realities. In truth, Iranian laws are far behind women's everyday lives. Simin believes firmly in one of the working premises of the One Million Signatures Campaign, namely, that laws should be ahead of people's social realities, so as to ensure continual progress. This is the mindset of the women behind one of the most dynamic and innovative initiatives that the global women's movement has seen in many years.

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