Jaleh Lackner-Gohari ©Xenia Hausner

Women without Borders visits UNIFEM Switzerland/Liechtenstein

24. April 2004

UNIFEM Switzerland/Liechtenstein invited a representative of Women without Borders to their General Assembly 2004 on April 24th in Bern, in order to represent WwB through a lecture. Dr. Jaleh Lackner-Gohari (Photo) took on this honorable assignment. Read the most important passages of her speech, in which the depicts the history of the women’s movement in her homeland Iran. Dear Mrs. Presidents of UNIFEM Switzerland and Liechtenstein, dear present ladies, First I would like to sincerely thank you for the honor of being invited. I hope to be able to give you an understanding of some aspects of the moved and moving contemporary history of women in my native country, Iran. Shirin Ebadi – a surprise to the world On October 10th 2003 a piece of news circled the globe like a wildfire: Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian attorney and long-time defender of human rights, received the Nobel Peace Prize. This announcement caused two emotions in most people: Great surprise at first and then great joy! Surprise because, even for people who have made efforts for women’s human rights their top priority for years, who believed in it and fought for it, this recognition was not predictable in the least. It was surprising that the continuous efforts of a woman who never ceased to fight for goals that were difficult to reach and who managed to bring about principles that she believed in unconditionally, were appreciated and honored. A woman like many others in Iran who fought for their rights and social convictions under the most difficult of circumstances and who learned never to give up. This highest of all tributes was for a women, nonetheless from Iran and on top of all that, for a Moslem. Many reasons to be surprised! The civil eyes of the world have obviously registered the unbelievable efforts and resistance of Iranian women for years – and honored this through Shirin Ebadi. And now back to an excursive overview of the history of the Iranian women’s movement. I will try to provide a retrospective view of this development process, a comparison to the situation of Iranian women before the revolution (1979) with the different phases after the revolution up until today and then the risk of a prediction: where this path may lead. Before the revolution – Modernisation without a basis During the last years of the Pahlawi era, the distinct political intention of changing the situation of women in Iran according to international norms basically over night came about as part of modernisation endeavours throughout the country. The laws at that time were based on Islam interpretation of law and were now adapted and modernised. In civil law, women were granted more co-determination, especially in matters of divorce and child custody. A family court was established to make the implementation of these new laws possible. The new laws meant an expansion of social liberties for women, they – at least theoretically – freed women from being at the disposal of their male guardian (father, husband, etc.). These reform approaches might have been able to influence the development of women’s issues in Iran in a positive and lasting light. However, the circumstances for a lasting transformation were not given. The already existent rifts between extremely progress-addicted western-oriented women and the tradition-oriented, mostly underprivileged urban women and village residents and farmer’s wives became bigger and bigger and ultimately insurmountable. At that time, the country was dancing on a political volcano, it became increasingly unstable. The internal pressure was constantly rising and the wheels of the revolution began to turn. During this time, active women directed their attention towards political developments and took part in the changes that were happening. They still expected that the revolution would bring about the fulfilment of their political visions of freedom and independence. That is why the fight for the overthrow was given top priority, before the fight for women’s rights. Women, not only in Iran, thought that the (revolutional) change of society must be completed before one could focus on the matter of equality within the new social order. Freedom after the revolution – a fata morgana In this phase, Iranian women made a big mistake: They let themselves be used as an instrument of revolution that later – and still today – came to be their doom. The headscarf, a symbol of the „fight for freedom“even accepted by intellectual women at that time, that was supposed to lead them to a new freedom, and free them from the forced progress of western style, did neither. The opposite was the case! Today, it is still not possible to think of personal and political life of Iranian women without the headscarf. It became a protective force in their lives. It brought along unforeseeable un-liberties. And still the women in Iran, veiled, continued to reach for their goal. As a symbolic gesture of protest, urban Persian women wore their headscarf beyond the permitted line or tried to wear various colors. For this they had to deal with warnings and even punishments time and again. However, during all the years following the revolution, this clear resistance against the dress code was visible. Directly after the revolution, the aforementioned family law was suspended as one of the first actions of the new era and per personal decree of Ayatollah Khomeinis. Divorce and child custody rights, the right to choose one’s work, place of residence and other civil rights for women were set back to the way they were before the revolution and strictly monitored. The marriage age for girls was reduced to nine years! Activists and intellectual women have denounced the unacceptable second-rateness of women time and time again. Shrouded politically active women discovered the importance of women’s employment. Over time, they worked for the change of laws. They consulted experts like Ebadi. The draft of a 12-point supplementary agreement seemed to be a realistic solution. When both spouses agree to this, the wife is guaranteed extended input concerning child custody and financial matters in case of a divorce. However, this right is unfortunately not taken advantage of very often. The traditionally oriented family usually opts for the guarantee that their daughter will marry instead of possibly missing this chance by insisting on the „12-point agreement. “ Traditional structures – in the name of Islam The aspect of tradition may not be disregarded in a discourse on the situation of women in Iran and other countries with strong patriarchal structures. The tendency to blame everything on Islam in Islamic countries must be kept within objective borders and, for the sake of fairness, it should be replaced by a multi-dimensional approach. A small exemplary detour to the diversity of countries with Islamic culture: The roles and rights of women in Indonesia differ from those in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia or Bosnia. While women in Saudi Arabia are not permitted to drive cars in the name of Islam, the Iranian Member of Parliament Elaheh Koulaei is holding an interview with three young students while driving a car, an interview that has been circulating the globe via the internet. Nobody, and I am including the conservative rulers in Iran, believes that this is inappropriate or objectionable – not to mention unislamic - for a member of parliament in an Islamic republic! Before the revolution, Iran had 20 female members of parliament and two female ministers. In the current Majlis (parliament), 13 members are women who are part of the reform movement. Their eligibility to run for the next term of parliament was contested by the Guardian Council. Eight women will move into parliament, almost all of them come from conservative backgrounds. These designated members have already announced their program and confirmed that they will commit themselves to returning the social status of women to the time before the reform period. Many Shirin Ebadis are not giving up At the same time, there are many other vital currents in Iran, represented by the voice of the young journalist Shadi Sadr. She believes that one should not halt the attempt of reforming a state ruled by religion. The separation of civil and religious values is being demanded. Sadr recently received a foreign award and was simultaneously cited in court for publicly speaking out for the ratification of the UN Convention on Eliminating all Types of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). There are several brilliant female directors in today’s Iran, who scrutinize gaps in a contradictory society with great ability and unbelievable sensibility. They do this in an outspoken manner. Female artists and authors flourish in Iran like never before, they travel abroad in order to report the intellectual happenings in Iran at international conferences. Then they return home to continue their work. Sometimes they receive citations and from time to time they end up in prison. They have to deal with a lot, risk even more and continue to do their thing, all of these many Shirin Ebadis. Despite the fact that women present the majority of students in many areas of study, women in Iran are still not given social room for participation. Just like in several other Islamic countries, Islam is being used to sustain the existing, old patriarchal structure and keep it alive. However, in Arabic countries the authentic interpretation of religious texts by female scholars has been recognized. Traditional laws, interpreted solely by scholars of the patriarchy, will have to face the norms of Arabic-educated female experts in the near future. This trend can also be observed in Iran, which has Persian as its national language, but where the studying of the Arabic language has become common among women out of religious motives after the revolution of 1979. In this power struggle, not only of politicised Islam, but also the tradition-burdened patriarchal society, the last word for the unstoppable women’s movement has not yet been spoken – too many factors will be decisive in its continuation. Even if its course does not linearly point forward, backwards movement is hardly imaginable. The hands of time can only be turned back conditionally and temporarily. It is important to mention that further international recognition of the events in Iran help the Iranian women’s movement move on. The acknowledgement of developments and also the objecting to human rights violations will abet the magnificent achievements of the women in Iran. We women can take this difficult journey together. The women’s movement in Iran is a human rights movement, Shirin Ebadi is their prominent representation. Her development is unconditionally linked to the democratization of Iran. The role and impact of the international community, especially their public opinion, is indisputable for the course of this process – one has to acknowledge it and take it very seriously.


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