The XX Factor

From the Ground Up: Democracy and Women’s Rights in Iran


TV images of street protests following Iran’s disputed election offer perhaps the strongest argument against U.S. interference as a tool for democratization. The footage shows vibrant, vigorous dissent of a kind not seen in Iran since the revolution: protesters moving through the streets like a human wave, ignoring the batons of riot police and shouting their support for opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, the loser according to official tallies that give Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 63 percent of the vote. Whether the election was rigged, whether the protesters succeed in reversing the results, they have already won a huge victory by disrupting on their own the political status quo in a nation that Anne Applebaum rightly calls “a classic example of managed democracy.” This is the kind of organic democratic movement that is both more satisfying and more lasting than elections imposed at the point of a gun.

For women, too, Iran seems a model of how change that comes with frustrating slowness, yet with a clear understanding of local realities and historical context, can be particularly rewarding and durable. This is evident in the life story of Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi’s wife, who Hanna notes has stirred great excitement during the campaign, appearing in posters holding her husband’s hand, a revolutionary event in Iranian politics. Yet Rahnavard’s route to feminist activism has been neither direct nor short. Born Zohre Kasemi, her religious zeal drove her to rename herself Zahra after the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter, and Rahnavard, which means “she who is on the (Islamic) path.” A painter and art history student at Tehran University, she opposed the authoritarianism of the shah, but later supported Ayatollah Khomeini. She founded several Islamic women’s groups and edited a women’s magazine, where she used her influence “to propagate Islamist values in Iran and abroad, working in particular against Iran’s feminists,” writes Janet Afary, author of Sexual Politics in Modern Iran . It wasn’t until the 1990s, Afary writes, that Rahnavard began working to lift restrictions on women’s employment and noting that they were treated as a second sex in Iran. Since Muhammad Khatami appointed her head of al-Zahra Women’s University in 1997, she has fought unsuccessfully for tougher laws restricting violence against women by male relatives. During the campaign, Rahnavard traveled around the country, sometimes alone, advocating for expanded rights for women in custody battles, as well as better education and job opportunities. At a recent press conference, she wore a denim shirt beneath her black chador and heavy makeup, a violation in Iran. Asked if she saw herself as Iran’s Michelle Obama, Rahnavard said no. “I am a follower of Zahra (the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad),” she said in English, adding that she respects “all women who are active.” The answer captures her particular brand of feminism, which is no less authentic for being authentically Iranian.

In the west, we like dramatic change and we like it fast. Shock and awe and then, right away, the toppling of the dictator’s statue and the mission accomplished banner that becomes a glossy advertisement for triumphant democracy (Get yours here!). But real, thoroughgoing democracy, especially in places as radically different from America as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, takes a long time. It isn’t important that Iranian women throw off their head scarves in unison tomorrow; in fact, as others have noted in response to Obama’s Cairo speech, head scarves should probably rank near the bottom of the list of things we think about changing. Women like Rahnavard prove that wearing a chador doesn’t make you a wilting violet, and being a feminist doesn’t make you secular or western. By expanding our definitions of what a feminist is, what an Iranian is and-after this weekend-what a democracy is, we may have a better chance of achieving the freedom we seek in the rest of the world. And if Rahnavard’s popularity during the campaign is any indication of the pulse of the Iranian street, we haven’t heard the last of her, or the rights and freedoms she advocates.

Photograph of Iranian protesters by Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images.