The Iranian women’s struggle is a depiction of events which shows a history of resistance for freedom. A resistance that in its essence, has confronted discrimination, dictatorship, and repression, and stands up to all symbols of oppression and inequality.
Iranian women, meanwhile, never lost hope and sight of freedom in any era in their history managing to pass the flag from one generation to the next. They have shown their resolve and courage in the torture chambers and the battle fields proving their steadfastness in the struggle to bring down the reactionary and misogynist rulers while leading the Iranian people’s nationwide resistance to overthrow the theocratic regime.
“The Greatest Picture in the Lost History”, by Mehdi Khodaeisefat, was first published on the PMOI website on March 8, on the occasion of International Women’s Day.
Following are excerpts of this article:
We have heard her name only in myths and described perhaps in the paleolithic fossils of the ages. In the patriarchal history, we can only see traces of women who have shined through history. In our six-thousand-year history, commanders, stateswomen, and influencers such as Pourandokht, Azarmidokht, Mandana, Atousa, Artemis, and Rostamah are only mentioned briefly.
All through our history, from all the influential female personalities, scholars, and artists only a few names like Mahasti, Rabi’a, and Tahereh Qurrat al-ʿAyn are recognized due to the reactionary patriarchal regimes. But anyone who takes a brief look at the logic of history knows well that after the spread of Islam to Iran, the confluence of Iranian progressive culture with Shi’a rebellion managed to produce, many freedom movements that opposed the ruling oppressive regimes. All through the years, many women played important role in these movements, including the Sinbad uprising in Neyshabur, Ostad Ciss in Transoxiana, Babak in Azerbaijan, and Sarbedaran in Khorasan. Despite the economic and political prosperity in Iran, the Safavid reactionary outlook enslaved women, confining them to their homes and harems.
However, following the three great revolutions in the 18th century and the beginning of the enlightenment and awareness period in the Western world and the rise of women’s movements in Europe and the United States, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the new wave also influenced Iranian society, and Iranian women quickly realized the change of the era and entered the political and social scene once more.
During Naser al-Din Shah’s boycott of tobacco against the “Reji” colonial contract, women entered the social struggle scene. “The seriousness of women in this movement was such that after the announcement of the tobacco boycott, women were at the forefront of the demonstrations moving toward Naser al-Din Shah’s palace. As they passed the market, the women closed the shops and created a nationwide strike.” (Ebrahim Teymouri- Tobacco Boycott)
Other historians added to the narrative that women chanted slogans against Naser al-Din Shah during street demonstrations towards the Shah’s Palace. They lashed out at the Friday Prayer Imam of the mosque near the palace, who was trying to disperse the demonstrators. Women forced him to flee. One of the women whose courage has been narrated mouth-to-mouth for generations, Zeinab Pasha, led popular opposition against the Reji contract in Tabriz and organized seven groups of armed women to counter the government’s efforts to quell the resistance.
On January 10, 1906, in an incident in Tehran, as the Shah’s carriage was moving towards the house of one of the Lords, a host of women marching through the streets rushed towards him, forcing the carriage to stop. One of the women recited a petition to the Shah: “Woe to the day when they will take the crown from your head and the crutches of the kingdom from your hand.” (Ahmad Kasravi – Constitutional History of Iran)
Iranian women’s struggle and role in the Constitutional Movement
In the huge political and social explosion that ignited shortly after the Constitutional Movement, the broad and powerful women’s movement sprang from the heart of society and began its nationwide activities by supporting the Constitutional Revolution. The women had an important role in collecting donations, stirring up patriotic sentiments, and participating in rallies. They gradually formed secret or semi-secret councils and associations in major cities and began organized activities to advance the revolution. When the financial need to advance the movement was raised, even “poor women took off their earrings and offered them as donations to the movement…” (Edallat newspaper No. 27)
Women, however, were not satisfied with such activities, and in support of the newly founded Constitutional Assembly, they defied conservative factions and the mullahs who had been elected as representatives.
In Azerbaijan, they took up arms in the Resistance movement of 1908 and 1909.
On December 30, 1906, when the Constitution was presented to Muzaffar al-Din Shah, women asked the parliament to address the women’s education issue and establish girls’ schools.
However, the Parliament not only ignored this request but also stated that women only had the right to receive an education that would prepare them for raising children and doing home chores and advised women not to engage in political and governmental affairs. Women, however, did not accept the parliament’s view and started forming a network of associations establishing girls’ schools and hospitals.
By 1910, 50 girls’ schools were established in Tehran. With their unwavering will and decisive performance, they acted as a serious factor in pressuring the authoritarian and conciliatory governments, fully monitoring the country’s political developments.
In Tabriz, especially when Mohammad Ali Shah attacked the parliament using cannons hunting the constitutionalists, women rose to the occasion and, according to the famous historian Ahmad Kasravi, “women in Azerbaijan province were the honor of patriotism more than all other.”
They wrote telegrams to other countries to mobilize public opinion and asked for help. During the 11 months of the siege of Tabriz, all the issues behind the front, from fundraising to delivering food to the trenches and treating the injured, and preparing for the fight on the frontlines was controlled and organized by women. There were women and girls who dressed as men and fought alongside men. “In one of these battles with the Shah’s forces, the bodies of 20 women in men’s clothing were found.” (Ahmad Kasravi- Constitutional History of Iran)
Then, a more serious test came for the newly founded government. On November 29, 1911, in front of a 48-hour Russian ultimatum to impose its own conditions on the Iranian government, women inspired and supported the government as they roared and announced their readiness for martyrdom by mass participation in the march. Then Morgan Shuster, amazed at the incident that these brave women created at the entrance to parliament on December 1, 1911, recorded this event in history. “Of the thousands of demonstrators in front of parliament, a group of women numbering 300 entered the parliament. As a sign of threat, these mothers, wives and daughters pulled out their pistols and took off their burqas so that there was no doubt for the Speaker of the Parliament and his colleagues that if the parliamentarians would show weakness in their duty to preserve the freedom and dignity of the people and the country, the women were determined in their decision to kill their husbands and sons, then kill themselves and leave their bodies,” wrote Morgan Shuster.
The Isfahan Women’s Union called on state associations to arm women and expressed readiness to resist Russian forces. “One can tell seriously that it was because of the activities of these brave women that the Constitutional Assembly resisted the ultimatum of aggressors for more than a year,” Shuster said.
This brilliant historical image makes us more and more able to understand the roots of the stubborn and enduring resistance of Iranian women to the most misogynistic inhuman government in history. The extent to which the mullahs are repressing women is vital to the continuation of their rule and creating a sexual apartheid regime illustrates their nightmare of this most explosive force in the society.
The force that has greatly influenced various popular movements in Iran over the past century, even after the uprisings of the past years from December 2017 to January 2020, is the pioneering and the heroism of brave and fearless women and girls. The leaders of the Revolutionary Guards at the same time said that women were at the center initiating and inciting the protests. The regime’s interior minister also said that in Tehran, teams, or cells “of four- to five or six persons” were headed and directed by a woman.
The Constitutional Assembly, despite such an instrumental role by women, ended up betraying them. The explicit provisions of the Electoral Code of 1906 deprived women of the right to vote. The constitutional period, which was marked by compromise and treachery, quickly passed, and through a coup d’état gave way to the dark era of dictatorship by Reza Pahlavi.
He “unveiled the hijab” and to create a strong central government backed by colonial government, made gradual changes in Iran’s economic structure, expanding the consumer populations and cheap labor. He abolished all women’s associations and assemblies and founded a women’s council in 1935 under the supervision of her daughter, Shams. In reaction to these barbaric acts, many women who had been active in social and political scenes during the Constitutional Revolution rejected the compulsory “unveiling of the hijab” and were forced to return to their homes, and the flames of the women’s movement was once again turned down.
Iranian women’s struggle during Dr. Mosaddegh’s term
The government of Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh was the only national and democratic government in Iran’s contemporary history, that didn’t last long and at the same time was under the pressure from the Monarchy and the reactionary mullahs. Despite Mossadegh’s government’s short life span, the women in Iran gained serious achievements. For the first time, they gained the right to vote and got elected in urban councils.
Mohammad Reza Shah, who overthrew Dr. Mossadegh’s popular government through a coup backed by a foreign power, dissolved various women’s organizations and founded the Women’s Organization of Iran under the presidency of his sister Ashraf, whose corruption was not hidden to anyone.
Although the Shah made reforms to change his socioeconomic base from feudalism to the comprador bourgeoisie, and made few concessions to women, including in civil rights, the Iranian women did not tolerate the puppet dictatorship and repressive monarchy.
Despite the taboos and difficult conditions of a clandestine struggle for women, especially for Muslim women in the traditional society of the day, Iranian women chose the revolutionary struggle alongside men to overthrow the Shah and try to establish a national democratic government. Surprisingly, from the very beginning, with choosing revolutionary armed struggle against the Shah’s dictatorship, women through their honesty, sacrifice, and steadfastness constructed a high ceiling of feminine determination.
A few names of female pioneers
Fatemeh Amini was the first female legendary hero of the resistance who died under torture. She was a 31-year-old teacher who had graduated from Mashhad University prior to joining the Mojahedin in 1970. When she was arrested, despite savage tortures, managed to humiliate the torturers and did not reveal any of the information they were after.
Amongst the freedom fighters who believed in Marxism ideology, Mehrnoosh Ebrahimi became the first heroic woman to give her life through the armed struggle with SAVAK agents in December 1971.
Marzieh Ahmadi Oskouei was another member of the same organization. However, Behjat Tiftakchi and Zahra Goudarzi, two other members of the Mojahedin, were among the first women to open the way for others in this struggle.
The way that had begun with these pioneers added commanders such as Ashraf Rajavi to its historical honors. The great woman who tied Iranian women’s struggle in the Shah’s era to their heroic struggle against Khomeini’s regime and elevated it to a whole new level.
Describing the heroic struggles of this brave commander needs a separate discussion and will not be addressed here. Ashraf, who was sentenced to life imprisonment during Shah’s rule, was released on January 20, 1979, along with the last group of political prisoners, to carry the burden of a great mission and, along with Mousa Khiabani, created the biggest epic battle of the Mojahedin.
Women’s Role in the 1979 Revolution – Resisting Khomeini’s repression
Finally, the continuation of the struggle of those pioneers, led to the 1979 Revolution. A revolution in which millions of women participated in. In fact, the shear number of women who participated in the revolution was the revolution’s highest achievement.
Khomeini and the clergies betrayed the people’s trust and sacrifice by hijacking the revolution and started the brutal repression of these devoted women from the day after the revolution using the slogans of either wear a headscarf or get slapped on the head. With the first demonstrations against the Ayatollahs, Iranian women firmly stood their ground.
When we look at the photos and pictures taken at the rally against forced veiling, we can see that there are numerous hijab-wearing girls forming a chain around women without headscarves to protect them from the harm of Khomeini’s mob.
Have we seen this protecting ring anywhere else? Yes we have, but let’s get back to it a little later, and here, we just mention the name Militia, the Angel of Freedom, a mixture of love and courage with the highest valor while absolutely disciplined and organized carried the burden of 2.5 years of political struggle against the reactionary regime.
The militia through bringing the reality of everyday policies of the reactionary regime managed to drag Khomeini from its peak of popularity to being despised by the masses. But let’s go back to that protecting ring we talked about earlier. 30 years after forming a protecting ring to defend the Iranian women in Tehran, the same Mojahedin girls used the same protecting ring to shield their brothers in Camp Ashraf when they were attacked by Maliki goons using arrows, axes, and the clubs.
Looking back we see the same image that appeared on April 27, 1981, during the massive demonstration of mothers and then on June 20, 1981, when women were in front lines of millions of demonstrators in Tehran.
The day after June 20th demonstration, the photographs of a group of teenage girls were published in Ettela’at newspaper. The Khomeini’s executioners were asking the public if anyone recognized these teenage girls who were executed, to come forth and claim their bodies. They had executed these girls without even knowing their names.
The role of the Militia and their epic bravery continues to rise even higher. On September 27, Tehran was witness to unimaginable courage when these rebellious girls on the streets of Tehran came face to face with Khomeini’s so-called revolutionary guards, they were chanting: “Khomeini the King and absolute monarch, your death has come.”
But the image of the Militia soars even higher. This time, Ashraf Rajavi is the woman, who along with Commander Khiabani and 18 of their brave companions, take part to create the blood-drenched epic of the Mojahedin in Tehran. They fought the regime’s so called revolutionary guards to the last bullet.
Ashraf Rajavi’s epic resistance set the tone for every man and woman of the Mojahedin, as we witnessed many other episodes in the battles of May 2 and 9, and August 1, 1982, immortalized that lesson in the north, east and west of Tehran.
The other unwritten chapter of this generation’s epic was in the torture chambers and genocides, which is itself a separate book which we will tend to later.
Women in Epics of Combat
But the lost image will soon reach new heights in the Iranian Liberation Army. When female fighters break the barrier of disbelief, far from their own beliefs and the beliefs of the men and commanders of the Liberation Army, they assign their places in artillery and armored units. Yes, armored, driving and gunner-tanking, and commanding the tank unit and its application on the battlefield, these women take over and conquer the entire scene.
The next immediate step is to be on the front lines of the battle against the enemy in the Shining Sun Operation (Aftab), conquering the headquarters of the enemy’s army in the Forty Stars Operation (Chelcheragh) which resulted in the conquer of the city of Mehran. In the next days, we see the picture is getting even greater when the Mojahedin female pilots flew helicopters over maneuvering corridors on a wide front. This is thought to be the highest climax of the image of women in battle. But we soon acknowledge that the higher peak is when these warrior women chose to send their beloved children outside Iraq War zone when the most extensive bombing in history was taking place. An image that we witnessed in another circumstance in the Eternal Light Operation, the warrior mothers saying goodbye to their children. The image then raises even higher in this epic battle in Charzebar strait when you see these warriors, while the enemy plows the ground under their feet with all kinds of weapons, defiantly cracking the wall of fire and carrying heavy weapons to conquer the summit.
What is the mystery of these women, the enemy is wondering? Has anyone witnessed such a high ceiling in the fight for freedom through history? Honestly, during the glorious 14 years of imprisonment in Ashraf and Liberty Camp, the Mojahedin women showed such leadership that is hard to even portray or describe.
A few thousand Mojahedin members stood their ground under 30 separate attacks, even though the enemy used axes, bombs, and missiles, the Mojahedin stood firm and did not surrender. They were not only being attacked by the inhumane regime and its Iraqi mercenaries but were also blacklisted by the western countries while being bombed by a coalition of 12 countries to appease the mullahs.
For 14 gruesome years, the management and leadership of the resistance, composed of several thousand men and women, under such horrific circumstances was an epic above and beyond any other which ultimately managed to lead the organization out of harm’s way into safety and security.
Mojgan Parsaii was the top commander of Ashraf through the 14 years. The same commander who told General Odierno, who had hundreds of bombers, helicopters and tanks under his command and was there to sign a surrender deal with the Mojahedin, that “you can kill us, but the Mojahedin will never surrender and give up their struggle.” After the two-day meeting with Mojgan Parsaii, General Odierno and his commanding team walked away from the meeting with a totally new understanding of the Mojahedin and the Iranian resistance in Ashraf. In his interview after the two-day meeting, Gen. Odierno said that the Mojahedin should be removed from the terrorist list, they are not terrorists but warriors of freedom for their homeland.
Meanwhile, at the same time, on the other side of the world in the disgraceful and failed attempt to crush the Mojahedin on June 17 in France, they arrested Maryam Rajavi and all the Mojahedin members confiscating their belongings. The commander of the Mojahedin who carried the organization through the turbulent times of the June 17 attack that the reactionary-colonial conspiracy was determined to crush was Zahra Merikhi.
Now, if we want to describe the greatest image of the Iranian woman in her evolutionary rise, we must point to the women of the PMOI/MEK. In short, the Mojahedin women symbolize strength to confront ups and downs, steadfast against attacks and plots, resilient in defeats and humble in victories.
This strength originates in the unwavering faith in Maryam’s slogan “we can and we must” which has been proven through fifty years of revolutionary struggle. This is the pure gem from which emits the power and competence of the leadership by recreating itself in all circumstances.
Therefore today, the People’s Mojahedin Organization (PMOI/MEK), the Iranian Resistance, and the heroic people of Iran enjoy the enormous potential of leadership in thousands of Mojahedin women in the PMOI’s Central Council. The PMOI women is the core of hope and inspiration for the women and the resistance units throughout the country.
At the end what remains is only a hypothetical question. At a time that all the forces have joined in trying to extinguish the flames of freedom in Iran, what is the secret to longevity and growth of the resistance in Iran?
The answer and judgement are yours.