07/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Can Women Change The Course Of History In Iran?

Writing my doctoral dissertation on "The Future of Feminism: Where Do We Go From Here?" in 1995, I never imagined the answer to that question would be found in the streets of Tehran. Iranian women have hit the streets in protest, no longer willing to stifle their demands for reform of Iran's constitution and laws affecting women's rights.

According to Dana Goldstein, writing in The Daily Beast, "an under reported part of the Iranian protests is that women are leading the way." Women have clashed with police, been tear gassed, beaten and killed alongside the men.

Goldstein quotes Sanam Anderlini, a Washington-based consultant on international women's issues:
"I wouldn't say the election was a turning point for women," "But I would say women were the turning point for the election."

The world was jarred by the video of a young Iranian woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, allegedly gunned down by pro-government militia while exiting her car during a traffic jam on Saturday.
A 40-second video of her death was instantly tweeted around the world, and by Sunday had become the fifth most commented topic on Twitter.

A report in Salon quotes some of the following tweets coming from Tehran:

"It took only one bullet to kill Neda,. It will take only one Neda to stop Iranian tyranny."
"Neda died with open eyes. Shame on us who live with closed eyes."
"They killed Neda but not her voice."

According to the Salon article, thousands of Iranians replaced their Twitter profile pictures with tributes to the young woman, such as "I am Neda" or "Neda forever". Others posted images of a broken heart in green, the color of the opposition movement.

The footage of Neda's death has fueled anger and heartbreak around the world and put a face on the people's struggle for reform with Neda as its martyr. Her death and the world-wide reaction to it, has helped to focus attention on the larger issues underlying the protest movement.

Iranian women have been at the forefront of agitating for political change for over 100 years. They participated in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, carrying guns under their veils to help the revolution and were key supporters of the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Prior to 1979, women made considerable strides in gaining equal opportunity in various fields of work and at the highest levels of government. Those gains were virtually erased when the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers ushered in a police state in 1979, removing women from the work place and making mandatory veiling the law.

Women's rights have suffered dramatic set backs under the regime of Mahmoud Ahmandinejad. The government spent millions on a propaganda campaign instructing women that their proper place was in the home. It put a lid on the number of females admitted to universities and instituted a "culture of modesty" effort to enforce stricter veiling.

Last summer, Ahmandinejad and his supporters attempted to push through a "family protection law", easing restrictions on polygamy, allowing men to take on multiple marriages while continuing to severely limit women's right to divorce, child custody and inheritance. The law also proposed putting a ceiling on dowry rates paid to a woman upon entering a marriage, putting a tax anything beyond the ceiling amount. It changed the age of marriage from 18 to 9, and returned the practice of stoning.

Women were outraged at this attempt to further deny them equal rights. In response to the regime's proposed legislation, leading Iranian feminists launched A Campaign For One Million Signatures, with thousands of women distributing pamphlets across the country detailing how Iran's legal code is being used to discriminate against them. Many of the campaign's leaders were arrested or jailed, its web sites shut down and newspapers threatened with closure for reporting on its activities.

In a June 8, 2009, NPR interview Sussan Tahmasebi, one of Iran's leading feminists, and a founding member of A Campaign For One Million Signatures, stressed the influence women have had in the lead up to the recent election. As a result of female activism, political candidates were forced to engage with women and address their demands for reform. Tahmesebi was jailed and sentenced to two years in prison for her organizing activities. The sentence was later reduced to six months.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, who emerged as the main opposition to the current regime, has not always been supportive to women's issues, but his outspoken feminist wife, Zahra Rahnavard, called the "Michelle Obama" of Iran, made the status of women a core theme of her husband's campaign.

During the campaign, Mouavi issued a statement outlining his thinking and programs for women, "calling for the re-examination of laws that discriminate against women, signing on to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and working to include women in decision making roles as ministers and high level managers."

Already subject to intense surveillance, imprisonment and enormous bail fines and restrictions on their right to travel abroad, Iranian women will suffer dramatically if Ahmandinejad prevails in the uprising. He is expected be sworn in for a second term as president sometime between July 26 and August 19.

With developments in Iran so dynamic, what will happen next is unpredictable. People continue to protest at great risk to themselves. In a report on Breaking Tweets, Shirin Ebadi, Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, speaking at a UN news conference from Geneva, has come out in strong support for the freedom movement, calling for new elections and threatening to prosecute those responsible for the murders of protesters.

Some tweets have speculated Ebadi may lead the protest movement from abroad, much the same way the Ayatollah Khomeini directed the revolution from exile 30 years ago.

Are we witnessing the first female led revolution in modern history? The genie is out of the bottle in Iran and those close to the scene doubt it can ever return to the status quo, even if the current regime manages to crush the rebellion. Perhaps in the short term, women's voices will be silenced and the patriarchy may prevail.

But as for the long term? Women have learned to operate under the radar for thousands of years, since the demise of the unarmed matriarchal cultures in ancient Greece at the hands of heavily armed invaders from the north. Patriarchal domination has ruled the earth ever since.

Fareed Zakaria, Iranian journalist and editor of Newsweek International, told Campbell Brown on CNN Monday night, "This is the Islamic Republic's moment of truth. Will they deal with the issues in an orderly fashion and work with the reform movement to resolve the problems or are we going to witness some kind of Stalinist purge, in which the rebellion is crushed. This would be interpreted as a sign of weakness and the regime will eventually collapse ."

If the protest movement is crushed, the fight will go underground, but it will not die. Women's subversive tactics will continue and the fingers of the world will be poised to tweet every development.

Please watch this CNN interview with Azar Nafisi, author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran" discussing her pride in women's involvements there and the impact of Zahra Rahnavard's influence on the election.

Nafisi's comment on CNN last night: "Iranian women are the canaries in the coal mine. If you want to know what direction Iran will go, watch what happens with the women."

I'd love to hear your thoughts about this aspect of the happenings in Iran. Do you think the Iranian women will eventually prevail? What do you think will happen if they're rebellion is crushed? What role should the US have, if any, in these developments?

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