Woman as Reason: Iranian women embody revolt

March 8, 2018

From the March-April 2018 issue of News & Letters

by Terry Moon

On Dec. 28, 2017, demonstrations broke out in the city of Mashhad, the first of many that swept across Iran for weeks. Women were a vital part of the protests.

The day before, not directly related to the demonstrations and strikes, Vida Movahed, now known as “The girl from Revolution Street,” climbed up on a five-foot-high utility box, took off her hijab and waved it in defiance of compulsory veiling.

Together these actions show, once again, Iranian women’s consistent militant struggle for freedom.


Women Marching on International Women’s Day in Iran, 1979, the day before Ayatollah Khomeini ordered that Iranian women must wear the veil. Photo by Hengameh Golestan.

The strikes and protest that called for ending Iran’s Islamic regime involved people in more than 80 cities; over 25 people were killed and up to 5,000 arrested. Yet demonstrations continue to break out throughout the country. Women workers are protesting the same conditions as men, only those conditions affect women more. Layoffs, pay, unemployment, all are worse for women. Employers don’t hire them because, on the books, they have rights to 90 days maternity leave, time out for breastfeeding, weight-lifting restrictions, etc. While they struck and agitated for the same rights as the men, they have never enjoyed even those paltry “rights.”

As the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was being hijacked by Ayatollah Khomeini, women saw the counter-revolution from within the revolution. They came out by the thousands on International Women’s Day 1979 when Khomeini ordered that women wear the chador. They chanted: “At the dawn of freedom, we have no freedom!” and “We didn’t make the Revolution to be relegated back to dog status!” Their demonstration established that the fight against mandatory veiling is not about clothing, it is about freedom.


From that time, women’s struggle has been unrelenting, radical, and creative.

That creativity included literature: Azar Nafisi’s 2003 work, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, became a phenomenon, and Persepolis, a 2004 graphic autobiography by Marjane Satrapi, was must reading for any who wanted to understand life in Iran for the next generation and why the struggle was going to continue.

In 2005 White Scarves was formed in defense of women’s right to enter soccer stadiums; in 2006 the Million Signature Campaign was founded. Women collected signatures from women of all classes and sects on petitions to reform the family, workplace and discriminatory laws. Around 2010, Iranian women founded the Committee of Mourning Mothers, whose children had been killed, injured or imprisoned by the government.

As of Feb. 4, 2018, almost 30 people, mostly women, have been arrested over the unveiling protests in Iran. On one day alone, six women took off their veils in public shows of defiance. As one 28-year-old woman said: “I took my scarf off because I’m tired of our government telling me what to do with my body.” She remarked that the three-year-old report recently released by Iran’s president showing that close to half of Iranians opposed the forced veiling laws, “was helpful, but that it did not go far enough. Women are demanding full freedom.”[1]

Drawn by Zahra Rahnavard, wife of Mousavi, both of whom are under house arrest. Rahnavard is a thinker and activist and a leader of the Green Movement. This drawing was smuggled out by her daughter. Rahnavard signed her name and said: “I am opposed to compulsory Hijab. Just thought you may like to see that.”

Another brave woman who took off her scarf in public put it this way: “My argument is not just about removing my scarf. A government that intervenes in the most obvious and fundamental issues of life, like what one wears, is definitely a dictatorial state in other social and political issues as well. The worst kind of dictatorship is that they interfere in the most obvious things in life. Many have opposed the veil, a campaign has been launched, and opposition has been made. But none has been as widespread. This is the most civic and beautiful form of protest.”

These demonstrations have sparked a worldwide reaction as women from Canada to France to several Middle Eastern countries have joined in burning their hijabs, filming the act and posting it online as part of #NoHijabDay, a reaction to #WorldHijabDay and in solidarity with Iranian women.

Raya Dunayevskaya saw that 1979 International Women’s Day demonstration where women railed against forced veiling as that “which may very well have opened Chapter 2 of the Iranian Revolution.” (See “Iran: Unfoldment of, and contradictions in, revolution,” Jan.-Feb. 2018, N&L.) Women’s actions since have proved her right. The struggle continues.

[1] “Compulsory Veils? Half of Iranians Say ‘No’ to Pillar of Revolution,” by Thomas Erdbrink, The New York Times, Feb. 4., 2018.

One thought on “Woman as Reason: Iranian women embody revolt

    Dear Terry,
    As expected, the security forces, in and out of uniform, prevented a March 8 assembly in front of the Labor Ministry in Tehran. Many, however, did show up as you can see from this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5lrGkN8BC3A

    Women were chanting: “This is the voice of freedom,” “No to sexual discrimination,” “Freedom, equality, sexual justice,” “Just and equal pay for women.” Dozens, including a woman journalist, were roughed up and arrested and taken by security vans to unknown places.

    Also, a group calling itself “The Call for March 8 Assembly” has posted a statement on Telegram calling for a rally.
    I do not know who they are. But I translated their statement for you.

    “March 8 is near, the day women throughout the world fight against inequality and to achieve more human conditions. A struggle that has borne many fruits over the years, but still has a long way to go.

    “In recent years, when the capitalist system in crisis has been putting more and more of the burden on women, we are witnessing a worsening of the lives of women around the world. The owners of power and wealth are trying to overcome this crisis by intensifying the global exploitation of women; but our sisters have risen up in every corner of the globe with all their power and have used every opportunity to voice their opposition.

    “Iranian women too have been struggling for many years against all kinds of discrimination and inequality: unequal laws on marriage, divorce, inheritance … the making of women into second-class citizens. There is no legal protection against domestic violence and street harassment. Every pretext is used to deny us ownership of our bodies; sometimes with the compulsory veil, sometimes by imposing restrictions and prohibitions on free access to contraceptives…

    “To all these discriminations we must add the economic turmoil. Women have suffered a lot from neoliberal economic policies, including privatization. Among the results of these policies has been the increasing removal of women from the formal sector of the labor market as they have been pushed into the informal sector. More than half of working women are employed without contracts or with temporary contracts that have very low wages and deprive women of their minimum legal rights. A large proportion of these informal workers are immigrants who are more vulnerable to exploitative labor relations. Women in the formal sector face job insecurity with inadequate occupational security, obsessive surveillance over their behavior and how they cover their bodies, limited public services–such as daycare after pregnancy–and stubborn barriers to career progress. Women’s unemployment rate is twice as high as men’s, the wave of unemployment among educated women is far higher, and in many cases facts such as marital status, age, and appearance are added barriers to career choices. Passing through this dam is not the end of women’s difficulty; after employment, they also face other barriers such as job insecurity and sexual harassment in the workplace.

    “The road of women’s struggles in Iran shows they have never been silent recipients of inequality and injustice. Women not only worked individually to improve their personal lives, but have used every opportunity to organize collective struggles. The road to women’s liberation from the domination of patriarchy, capitalism, and all kinds of other domination is very long. Therefore, we, a group of women’s liberation activists in Iran, once again insist on our right to gather on the streets of the city and raise our voice in protest against inequality, injustice and unfavorable conditions of women, especially in the Iranian labor market.

    “We, women and men who seek equality, ask all those who strive to achieve a more just world, we ask all workers, teachers, nurses, pre-school educators, retirees, students, housewives and all social activists to join us on March 8, 2018, from 11:00 to 12:00 in front of Ministry of Labor.”

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