Works extensively with Iranian women outside the country and maintains a permanent contact with women inside Iran. The Women’s Committee is actively involved with many women's rights organizations and NGO's and the Iranian diaspora. The committee is a major source of much of the information received from inside Iran with regards to women. Attending UN Human Rights Commission meetings and other international or regional conferences on women’s issues, and engaging in a relentless battle against the Iranian regime's misogyny are part of the activities of members and associates of the committee.

As remarkable as Iranian women's participation in the struggle for social change and equality has been both in ancient and post-Islam Iran, its consistent and growing trend should be explored in the post-Constitutional Movement era at the start of the twentieth century.

For Iranian women's century-long struggle has developed parallel and in the same stride with the global equality movement.

As remarkable as Iranian women's participation in the struggle for social change and equality has been both in ancient and post-Islam Iran, its consistent and growing trend should be explored in the post-Constitutional Movement era at the start of the twentieth century.

For Iranian women's century-long struggle has developed parallel and in the same stride with the global equality movement.


Constitutional movement: A new chapter

The first rebellion by women occurred some one hundred years ago, prior to the Constitutional Movement, and a time when the enlightenment of Iranian society was setting the stage for that Movement. 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 in Tabriz, capital of East Azerbaijan Province. 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 in so far as women's participation in social movements is concerned.


Morgan Shuster, an American advisor who sided with the Iranian people during the Constitutional Movement, wrote in his book, "The Strangling of Persia:"


The Persian women since 1907 had become almost the most progressive, not to say radical, in the world. That this statement upsets the ideas of centuries makes no difference. It is the fact. It is not too much to say that without the powerful moral force of these women... the ill-starred and short-lived revolutionary movement... would have paled into a more disorganized protest. The women did much to keep the spirit of liberty alive. Having themselves suffered from a double form of oppression, political and social,... in their struggle for liberty and its modern expressions, they broke through some of the most sacred customs which for centuries past have bound the sex in the land of Iran.


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 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.


When the Qajar King, Mohammad-Ali shah, shelled the parliament and constitutionalists were being gunned down, women in Azerbaijan province were active on several fronts. During the 11-month siege of Tabriz, women handled logistics, raising money, getting food from one bunker to the next, getting medicine to the wounded, preparing ammunition, etc.


One group of women also fought in the front lines, and other girls and women wore men's clothing and fought alongside the men. A historian, living in Tabriz at the time, wrote that one of the bunkers was run by women wearing the chador and that he had seen a photograph of 60 Mojahedin women. At the end of one battle, the bodies of 20 women, all wearing men's clothes, were found.


Women took the initiative in setting up girls' schools and women's hospitals. By 1910, some 50 girls' schools had been established in Tehran. Dozens of women journalists joined the press and published independent women dailies. Women also set up many associations. Shuster writes: "In Tehran alone, 12 women's associations were involved in different social and political activities."


One of the most important demands made during the Constitutional Movement was women's participation and the realization of their rights. Owing to the Feudalist set of relationships in the social and economic domains and the lack of qualified leadership, however, many of the Movements ideals and demands, including women's rights, were not realized. Indeed, the wording of the electoral law adopted in 1906 unequivocally denies women the right to vote.


Women under Pahlavi dictatorships


Reza Khan assumed power through a coup d'état supported by the British in 1920. Originally the Minister of War, he became the Prime Minister and five years later removed the Qajar King from power and throned himself as the Shah of Iran.


During his reign, Reza embarked upon a bloody repression that was justified as being necessary to end the tribal system and establish a "modern" society. To achieve these goals, Reza Khan ordered "compulsory unveiling" of women, which created a tremendous popular backlash. Contrary to state-orchestrated propaganda, this move had an adverse impact on women's participation in social affairs. There were 3,467 female students in Iran when Reza Khan took over in 1920. That number had dropped to 1,710 ten years later.


In his memoirs, the leader of Iran's national movement Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq, who nationalized the oil and established the only nationalist and democratic government in post-Constitutional Movement Iran, wrote that although "prior to Iranian women shedding their veils, I and my family had set aside the veil in Europe, I was opposed to forced unveiling." Mossadeq explained: "I believed that the removal of veil needed to take place through an evolutionary process involving the people of the country, and not by the orders of a person who had attained power and through the use force was imposing his own will on the people. I do not believe in such practices whatsoever and I opposed them." (Mossadeq and Issues of Law and Politics, pp. 123-24, compiled by Iraj Afshar, 1st Edition, Tehran: 1979).


During the Second World War and the occupation of Iran by the Allies in 1941, Reza Khan was forced to abdicate and his son, Mohammad Reza succeeded him. Ten years later, the movement to nationalize the oil took shape and targeted British dominance in Iranian affairs. As the leader of the movement, Mossadeq became the Prime Minister.


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 though married. Women actively supported Dr. Mossadeq and overwhelmingly backed his plan to offer government-issued bonds during the movement to nationalize the oil industry.


After the coup, the Shah engaged in some reforms at the behest of the U.S. administration in a bid to make up for his lack of legitimacy among Iranians and secure the regime's survival. Through a number of superficial and purely formalistic reforms, including the land reform and voting rights for women, the Shah tried to champion the women's cause. In truth however, these measures sought to pave the way for women to enter the work force as cheap laborers. To expedite their entry, the first Family Protection Law modified the absolute right of men to divorce in 1967. In 1975, the second Family Protection Law gave women equal rights in divorce, custody of children and marriage settlements, and granted limited rights of guardianship and raised the age of marriage for girls to 18.


Taken as a whole, however, these reforms did little to make women equal partners in society, given that the measures were initiated in the context of consolidating the Shah's dictatorship. While the Shah claimed that Iran was at the gateway to the "great civilization," for the vast majority of Iranians, particularly the deprived strata of society and women in the rural areas, little had changed. In 1976, only 26% of women living in urban areas and 3.4% of women in rural areas were literate, as opposed to 49.1% and 13.7% for men. In the same year, 23% of men were unemployed. This compared to 87.5% of women. In the cities, where there was one doctor for every 2,000 men, there was one doctor for every 8,000 women. In rural areas, this became one doctor for every 20,000 men and every 55,000 women.


The Shah maintained his grip on power through sheer repression of its notorious secret police, the SAVAK. On the political front, bonafide opposition parties were banned and all avenues for peaceful political activity and dissent were eliminated. This situation 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.

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