The three-word slogan-“woman, life, freedom”- launched by Iranian protesters in the past two months seems to have found a global resonance that few expected. You see it on giant posters in Tokyo, on a wall in the central railway station in Amsterdam, in neon-light messages in Rio de Janeiro, and scribbled on walls from Indonesia to Argentina.
Hundreds of thousands of women from all walks of life across the globe have cut their hair in solidarity with the Iranian protesters. Suddenly, the global limelight is on womanhood as both a reality and a concept.
The word “life” is also getting fresh attention as a concept, reminding us that the true task of politics is to strive for a more humane and fulfilled life for everyone.
The Persian word for freedom (azadi) has done even better.
It has become the war cry of protesters against religious discrimination in India and repressive measures by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Indian writer Arundhati Roy has even published a book with “Azadi” as its title.
Where did the slogan come from?
It was first launched in 1977 at a seminar at Isfahan University, in Central Iran, marking the 25th anniversary of the granting of the right to vote to Iranian women. Opening the seminar, Hushang Ansary, then Minister of Finance and Economy, asserted that the next century would see women “conquering one summit after another” while freedom would become “ the core value of humanity.”
That prediction has proved right faster than anyone expected.
By 1977 the world had seen only three women as heads of governments- Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Sir Lanka, Golda Meir in Israel, and Indira Gandhi in India. Half a century later more than 60 nations have had woman prime ministers or presidents. In 1977 women were noticed by their absence in high places even in well-established Western democracies, and didn’t even have the right to vote in Switzerland.
The past decades have witnessed the accelerating feminization of politics across the world. This has happened in the political personnel at all levels, even in traditional patriarchal societies. More importantly, it has also happened in the context of political debates. Traditional macho-male issues like the quest for national glory, the flexing of military muscles, and emphasis on law-and-order have been nudged aside to open a space for “female” issues such as health, education and socio-economic solidarity.
Feminization has put the focus on this-worldly “life” as the ultimate concern of politics. This poses a threat to autocratic regimes, such as the Khomeinist one in Iran that, obsessed with the ideology, fail to deal with “bread-and-butter” issues, thus condemning their societies for deepening poverty. In terms of constant purchasing power, the average Iranian today is 40 percent poorer than in 1977.
Paradoxically, however, the average Iranian woman today is better educated than her male counterparts compared to 1977.
Women’s share of the 20 million Iranians with university degrees is estimated at around 60 percent while women’s unemployment rate is twice that of men. In 1977, women had a token presence in noticeable positions.
Iran had a women Supreme Court judge before the United States and there were women Cabinet ministers before some Western democracies. By then Iran had also appointed its first woman ambassadors and celebrated its first woman brigadier-general. Iran had woman police officers and even pilots of fighter jets. Women also made a spectacular entry into the world of arts, cinema, theatre, literature and the media.
Although women were used as tokens of the regime’s progressive ambitions and cherries on the national cake, the common expectation was that they were starting a journey towards full and equal citizenship. That journey was interrupted by the mullahs who seized power in 1979.
The Khomeinist regime signaled its intention to create a gender Apartheid by passing two laws that imposed a strict dress code on women. This included a new political “hijab”, inspired by the head-gear of Christian nuns, first designed by the followers of Imam Musa Sadr in Lebanon.
Before the Khomeinist take-over, many Iranian women voluntarily wore a variety of head coverings of which at least 14 can be seen in the Museum of Ethnology in Tehran. The Khomeinist “hijab” was part of a political uniform just as Lenin and Mao Zedong had imposed their versions of the cloth cap on Russian and Chinese peoples.
The mullahs tried but failed to cancel many of the rights, including the right to vote and get elected, granted to women by the Shah. But they implemented a policy of marginalizing the women in public life. The Islamic Republic has seen a single woman Cabinet minister, half a dozen “assistants to the president”, two woman ambassadors in remote and, to Iran, insignificant capitals, and, as far as I know, four mayors of small towns. Women are no longer allowed to sit as judges.
Over the past 40 years, economic mismanagement has destroyed many industries that offered job opportunities to women, notably carpet weaving which had been the jewel in the crown of traditional industries for over 1000 years.
The regime’s thinly disguised ideological female phobia was illustrated by the creation, under President Muhammad Khatami, a “reformist” mullah, of a morality police, known as Gasht-e-Ershad (Islamic Guidance Patrol) which deploys armed units of both male and female “guides” to make sure women do not contravene the Khomeinist dress code.
At the time the Minister for Islamic Guidance Ata-Allah Mohajerani claimed that the force was designed to “educate” women in proper Islamic behavior and not meant as a repressive instrument. Yet, the “guides”, who receive combat training, have the authority to sermon, fine, beat up, or arrest women they believe to be infringing the dress code. It was the death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, in detention by the morality police that triggered the current national uprising.
Mahmud Ahmadinejad who succeeded Hojat al-Islam Khatami as the president promised to disband the morality police but, apparently, failed to convince
“Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The current uprising, however, has forced the morality police to adopt a low profile as more and more women discard the official hijab with at least the tacit support of many, if not most, men.
The triple theme of “women, life and freedom” expresses the aspirations of contemporary humanity beyond Iran’s official frontiers.