Iranian women look at us on this International Women’s Day

By Elham Zanjani

The theme for International Women’s Day 2019 is “Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change.” In Iran, the path to gender equality, innovations, peace and prosperity, where women and youth could play their rightful roles in building the nation and eradicating the grip of the mullahs’ fundamentalist ideologies, institutions, and laws — is a democratic change by the Iranian People and the Resistance that will be achieved by the active participation and leadership of Iranian women for “without women in leadership, the fight for freedom will not advance.”

In the 21st century, it is appalling that the fundamentalist mullahs are still trying to belittle women and allowing their rights to be half of those of men’s. Under regime’s laws, the testimonies of two women are equal to the testimony of one man before the court and a woman inherits half of the amount a man inherits. Women have limited economic and political participation. The way they should dress is controlled, institutionalizing child marriages are institutionalized, numerous temporary marriages do not obligate men to provide financial support for an ex-wife or the child born during a temporary engagement.

Tomorrow we will be celebrating the achievements of women around the world for International Women’s Day 2019. Let’s start the day by talking about and honoring the Iranian women and their 150-year history of struggle for social change, equality, and resistance against injustice.

The first rebellion by Iranian women occurred some one hundred years ago. The rebellion, known as the “Tobacco Movement,” began in 1895, when the Qajar monarch, Nasser od-Din Shah, gave the exclusive rights for tobacco production and sale to the British firm, Rejie.

The populace vehemently objected and boycotted the use of tobacco, forcing the King to annul the agreement. Iranian women were at the forefront of this resistance. At the peak of the protests, when, in a nearby mosque, the Friday prayer leader called on the marchers to disperse, angry women charged in and forced him to flee.

One woman, Zeinab Pasha, also known as Bibi Shah Zeinab, led the popular opposition to the Rejie agreement. Zeinab Pasha organized seven groups of armed women to parry government efforts to put down the rebellion. The seven groups under her command themselves led other groups of women. When government forces intimidated the bazaar merchants into opening their shops, Zeinab Pasha and a group of armed women, wearing the chador, re-closed the shops.

The Constitutional Movement in 1906, which gave impetus to the Iranian people’s struggles for democracy and freedom, is a watershed for women’s participation in social movements.

One of the most brilliant moments of women’s presence in the Constitutional Movement occurred on November 29, 1911, when Czarist Russia, with the approval of the British government, sent an ultimatum to the Iranian parliament: Shuster, the financial advisor to the government, must be expelled within 48 hours, or the capital would be occupied.

A wave of protests erupted throughout the country. In Tehran, 50,000 marched and declared a general strike. Shuster wrote that a group of some 300 women entered the parliament clad in their plain black robes with the white nets of their veil dropped over their faces. Many held pistol under their skirts or in the folds of their sleeves. Straight to the Majlis (Parliament) they went, and, gathered there, demanded of the President that he admit them all. These cloistered Persian mothers, wives, and daughters exhibited threateningly their revolvers, tore aside their veils, and confessed their decision to kill their own husbands and sons, and leave them behind their own dead bodies if the deputies wavered in their duty to uphold the liberty and dignity of the Persian people and nation.

Women supported the newly-established parliament and actively challenged the conservative factions and the clerics who had been elected as deputies. When the parliament decided to establish Iran’s national bank without seeking financial help from foreign countries, women enthusiastically raised money and donated their jewelry.

The Oil Nationalization Movement of Dr. Mossadeq (1953)

During Mossadeq’s short term in office from 1952 until his overthrow by a US-British backed coup in August 1953, women had major accomplishments. In 1952, women finally won the right to vote in the Municipal Councils. A new Social Insurance Code was ratified in 1953, which gave women equal rights with men and introduced maternity benefits and leave, and disability allowances for women, even married. Women actively supported Dr. Mossadeq and overwhelmingly backed his plan to offer government-issued bonds during the movement to nationalize the oil industry.


Struggle against the Shah’s dictatorship. The Shah maintained his grip on power through sheer repression of its notorious secret police, the SAVAK. On the political front, genuine opposition parties were banned and all avenues for peaceful political activity and dissent were eliminated. This led Iranian intellectuals to espouse a more militant approach to political struggle. Women actively joined this movement and a number of them were killed or incarcerated and brutally tortured in Shah’s dreaded prisons. They included Ashraf Rajavi, Fatemeh Amini, Mehrnoush Ebrahimi, and Marzieh Oskoui. When the popular movement gained momentum in the final phase of the Shah’s rule, women’s participation was truly extensive and decisive. On February 11, 1979, the Shah’s regime was overthrown and women entered the new era with great hopes and expectations.


Struggle against religious tyranny. Iranian women during the 1979 revolution were demanding more freedom and democracy yet the political power, assumed by Khomeini and his super reactionary mullahs, were not only curbing the existing freedoms but gradually introduced new policies to further constrain, contain, and restrict women. Khomeini enforced the new policies by enacting very repressive measures.

One month into the 1979 revolution, the daily Kayhan reported a “large crowd of thousands of women protesting against forced hijab.” But the peaceful protest was violently dispersed by Khomeini’s fundamentalist supporters.

It comes as no surprise that women play and have played significant roles in protests against the injustice in Iran. Iranian women have paid a heavy price for freedom as thirty percent of the 120,000 political executions were women. As in the past 150 years, women’s involvement in different revolutions in Iran has been fundamental, proving why today, after forty years of religious dictatorship, targeting women at the core, they have become more daring and courageous than ever.

Iranian women are intent on toppling the religious dictatorship ruling Iran.

In December 2017 the wave of discontent took on a sharp turn and erupted into radical anti-government protests, which shook the foundations of the clerical regime. The Iranian people’s protests began over skyrocketing prices as the general public’s purchasing power was and still is next to nothing. In only a matter of days, slogans rapidly turned to “death to Rouhani”- “death to the dictator” and “death to Khamenei.” Interestingly, it was a woman who took the lead.

Today, fifteen months later, discontent is visible everywhere and in all forms and women are engaged, actively in every protest and rally, demonstrating tremendous courage and are the driving force. Simultaneous with International Women’s Day, Iranian women need our effective support. A moment in history is looming when despite darkness and despair, the world will rise from the nightmare of fundamentalism.

The international community should support the struggle against the religious dictatorship and reject and speak out against the international propaganda by the mullahs luring it to accept the regime’s fundamentalist ideologies as “Iranian culture” and their leaders as “moderate,” while they continue to arrest, torture, imprison, and execute Iranians for demanding their freedoms, rights, and justice.

Helping Iranian women supports the movement for freedom and greatly contributes to the resistance against the export of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. The solution lies in supporting the National Council of Resistance of Iran and its ten-point plan for the future of Iran. The NCRI enjoys a high profile not only within Iran but also with the international community. The NCRI advocates a pluralist and secular republic.

Recognize the Iranian women’s right to democratic change so that equality and smart innovations for societal change can succeed, and replace the mullahs’ fundamentalist ideologies, institutions, and laws that are harming and stunting the development of the Iranian nation. This is what our Iranian sisters expect from us.


This article appeared on March 7, 2019, on the International Policy Digest.

Elham Zanjani is a Public Relations Officer with the Women’s Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).