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The future of Iranian feminism

Haideh Daragahi on Shadi Sadr's "doctrine of reciprocal influx".

Shadi Sadr, an Iranian feminist and human rights activist working as a lawyer and journalist, was released from prison on bail last Tuesday for the equivalent of more than 36,000 Euros. That she and 140 others, who were arrested recently, have now been released has been interpreted as a response to growing criticism, voiced even among the clergy, of the violent methods employed by the regime. According to a conservative estimate, ten times this number or protesters are still in jail.

Shadi Sadr was kidnapped on a street in Tehran on July 17. Two men in civilian clothes, who refused to identify themselves, forced her into their car. Since no detention order was presented she resisted with the help of her companions. She was beaten repeatedly with a baton and her overall and headscarf were torn off her before she was taken away. There followed unofficial reports that she was being kept in an isolation ward of Evin prison. One possible reason for her arrest is recent article titled "What Is to Be Done", which she posted on her web site, In it she presents what amounts to a blueprint for how the women's movement should relate to the overall political movement for change. For anyone interested in what is happening below the surface in Iran at the moment it makes essential reading. It distinguishes Shadi as a formidable adversary to the patriarchal system that forms the backbone of the religious dictatorship in Iran.

I met Shadi this June in Hanover at an international conference of Iranian women's studies, where she gave a fascinating lecture on the intricacies of the question of compulsory veil-wearing in Iran. Among her numerous activities and writings that have brought her international recognition - including the Ida B. Wells award for bravery in journalism - is her work as the head of the campaign to stop stoning. Most victims of this punishment are women accused of adultery.

In the Western media's interpretation of the presidential election and its aftermath, Iran is caught up in the rivalry between political factions within the religious power elite. But irrespective of differences of interest and opinion, none of the factions have openly questioned the Islamic dictatorship as a system. Two weeks ago, when Rafsanjani, the heavyweight political figure and super capitalist, chose to take an openly oppositional stance towards the supreme leader Khamenei in his Friday sermon in Tehran, the gist of his message was that the religious social structure was in crisis and should be saved.

Shadi Sadr articulates a third voice which, despite the barbarism of the security forces, was heard loud and clear in the demonstrations and discussions throughout the country in the weeks following the elections. Her horizon lies far above the bickering about the number of votes cast in favour of this or that candidate of this or that faction of the power elite. In her article she outlines a direction - for the opposition struggle in general and the women's movement in particular - that corresponds to the new political reality.

One of her arguments addresses the very real threat that the women's struggle will be bypassed if the new social movement succeeds. Here she is bearing in mind the bitter lessons of the history of women's struggle as well as the fate of Iranian women's rights after the 1979 revolution. In the current protests two factors have been conspicuous: the age and the sex of the participants. Women and the youth have been at the forefront of the protests on the streets. Shadi Sadr regards these two social groups as the forces of the future.

Over the past decade the women's movement has managed to build an independent structure that the regime has not been able to crack. But now, Shadi Sadr says, it needs to coordinate with the forces of change without sacrificing its independence. It will have to rethink the content of its discussions, its strategy, and working methods because a new form of opposition is taking shape. The growing social movement is the beginning of a fundamental political change: "I believe that this mass movement is a secular, political movement, with the pivotal demand for freedom and democracy, involving a multitude of diversified minutiae and sub-demands. Any connection between the women’s movement and the mass movement should accommodate the discourse of this movement.”

Shadi then asks if and how the women's movement should connect to the political mass movement. She weighs five possible courses of action, already being debated within the Iranian women's movement, ranging from total dissolution into the overall political movement, to maintaining the independence of the women's movement by abstaining from any relation to the mass movement. She argues for a third way, one she calls the "doctrine of reciprocal influx." Shadi believes that the women's movement has endured by building social networks that have refused to be silenced or intimidated. But if it remains indifferent to the new, energetic mass movement, its achievements and sacrifices as well as the discourse it has shaped, the women's movement is doomed to extinction.

Shadi Sadr then looks back over the proud history of the Iranian women's movement. It has succeeded in raising consciousness of women's issues and has succeeded in pushing through minor legislative changes. But for various reasons, the most important of these being the minimisation of human cost for the activists and groups engaged in the movement, it has avoided pursuing more ambitious democratic demands: "we had, for instance, strategies and campaigns for the right to divorce, the abolition of polygamy, etc. without having a clear strategy for action on the question of freedom of speech and organisation. Thus the relationship between the movement and the more general demands remained vague and did not go beyond slogans, and this was not necessarily negative… But now, in the wake of recent events, it is unthinkable that we continue sitting on the fence. In fact, the popular potential and political necessity make it imperative that the struggle for women’s rights is grafted to the general demands. Just as we work adamantly for the right to divorce, or the veil to be voluntary, our strategy must reflect our understanding that without the freedom of expression, the freedom of organisation and assembly, the rights of women cannot not be achieved.

The resilience of the women's movement, its methods and its experiences, are its contribution to the mass movement. The independence of the women's movement in theory and practice, Shadi argues, should be maintained to forestall the sidelining of women's rights in similar political movements elsewhere in the world. But incorporating the demands and the slogans of the mass movement and active participation in it does not mean dissolving into it and forsaking the independence of the women's movement. A dissolution would mean that: …the women who broke down the sexual segregation of the public arena by mixed participation in the gatherings last month, the women who were present in all the clashes wearing clothes other than official and political clothes, would turn into a mass without identity or gender demands. That is, while women have challenged all patriarchal gender clichés through their presence and role playing, there would be no social force left to emphasise and institutionalise this presence and role play. Without recognising the gender characteristics of the popular movement, that, maybe instinctively, emanates from the gender demands of the women participants, we would have a patriarchal or gender-blind freedom and democracy that once more, while thanking the women who were present on the frontlines, would, at the end of the day, ask them to return to their base, that is the home.”
One of the factors that may have contributed to the
release of Shadi Sadr was a letter of protest to the Iranian government by the German Foreign minister. In case she is made to stand trial or arrested again, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his EU counterparts should take joint action to see that she is realeased.

Haideh Daragahi


Haideh Daragahi was a professor of English Literature at Teheran University when Khomeini took power. She has lived in Sweden since 1984 as a scholar and women's activist.

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