Several months ago, a senior-level Bangladeshi official was asked why democracy seemed to be working in a country with the fourth largest Muslim population in the world. The official credited democracy’s success to the role women in his country played in their push for equal rights and the stabilizing influence of their service in government.
With a population of 110 million Muslims, Bangladesh, with a relatively short lifespan as a nation state and contrary to most Muslim countries where women are barred from leadership roles, has had a female head-of-state, not once, but twice.
Contrast this with Iran.
In 1979, when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power, one of his first acts was to undercut the role played by women in government as well as society in general. This included the removal of all female judges from the judiciary due to the belief they lacked the mental capacity to render legal decisions based on Shariah law. (The hypocrisy of such reasoning by this supposedly-learned religious leader is evidenced by a belief given equal weight by Khomeini that females did possess the mental capacity to consent to marriage, and thus sexual relations, at the tender age of eight years.)
Ironically, women had played an important role in ousting the Shah, thus opening the door for Khomeini’s arrival — only to have Khomeini slam it in their face as he stripped from them of equality. The extent to which Khomeini succeeded in going on to impose his Islamic extremist interpretation on a woman’s role in society was best reflected a few years later in a statement to a husband made by the country’s Judiciary Chief Mohammad Yazdi, "Your wife, who is your possession, is in fact, your slave."
Khomeini’s Islamic fundamentalist regime represented a major set back for women’s rights. The road to female equality under Iran’s theocracy ever since then has been a road less traveled. But traffic picked up significantly during the weeks following the June 12 sham presidential election by which Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei effectively “gifted” the office to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ignoring the people’s vote for new leadership.
It is appropriate the date the recent presidential election took place was June 12. For the past three years, that date has also been observed by Iranian women’s rights activists as a national day of unity. That day is celebrated due to a peaceful demonstration in 2006 protesting discriminatory laws against women which resulted in dozens of women being arrested and sentenced for their activities. In 2009, it would be the events of June 12 that would release the floodgates of anger and frustration that had been building up among Iranian women’s rights activists.
Women voters in 2009 were very supportive of presidential opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. For the first time during a presidential campaign, a wife campaigned alongside her candidate husband.
Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, is a respected educator. As such, a Mousavi victory was perceived as an opportunity to re-open the door Khomeini had slammed shut on women 30 years earlier. But, when the Ayatollah Khamenei stole the election from the people, thus insuring that this door remained shut, Iranian women flocked to the streets to protest this mockery of the voting process.
Despite the fact that many of these women have participated in silent protests, they have still been targeted by the police, Basij militia and other regime forces. Many have been arrested. In acts hypocritical of Islamic fundamentalism prohibiting the “touching” of Muslim women by Muslim men not their husbands, male security personnel have been observed grabbing, shoving and beating female demonstrators. Such treatment is condoned by religious leaders who have set aside these fundamentalist beliefs about the touching of women fearing the impact their peaceful protests may have on their ruthless authority.
Iranian women immediately became active in the post-presidential election protests, leading to an unfortunate first. The tragic shooting death by security forces of 27-year old student Neda Agha Soltan has now given rise, for the first time, to a female martyr.
As women continue their activist role, they courageously confront security personnel, questioning their brutal conduct. One such confrontation resulted as older women met in a park to hold a silent vigil for their children who had disappeared as a result of their own activism against the government. Police stopped the mothers from sitting on the benches and began expelling them from the park. Outnumbered by police, the women continued to stand their ground as one of their members was harangued with insults. The women were then herded to a place in the park where their faces were photographed. They were then abused and beaten. An observer who later wrote about this incident entitled her article with a question posed to authorities echoing the sentiment of these peaceful protest victims — “Why are you afraid of us?”
The question is rhetorical. The mullahs, whose authority and station in life is preserved by their brutal application to the masses of their extremist religious views, want to make sure the road to women’s equality in Iran remains one less traveled.