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GLOBAL | winter 2007

Iran’s Quiet Revolution
A feminist magazine, a Nobelist, and a rising generation try to promote women’s equality

Stand with our sisters in Iran

Please join our virtual march around the world, in solidarity with our sisters in Iran, and send a message to the United Nations and Iranian officials demanding the immediate release of the remaining three women's rights activists.

It takes an hour of wandering Tehran's alleyways to locate the discreetly marked premises of Zanan (women), Iran’s leading feminist magazine. In an atmosphere where journalists can find themselves jailed or worse, editoral director Shahla Sherkat explores such topics as honor killings, the sex trade and spousal abuse. A poster on her office wall features the face of a woman, her mouth a door that is opening.

Sherkat has endured arrest and the ransacking of her office—hence the secrecy. But she’s been steadily nudging that door open since founding Zanan in 1991, after being fired from a government-run women’s magazine for protesting its conservative line.

“It takes artfulness to address taboo issues,” says Sherkat, a vivacious woman in her 40s. “Doing journalism in countries like ours—where...the system thinks if you say anything it’s going to fall apart—it’s like being a trapeze artist.”

Sherkat talks openly about the obstacles Iranian women face. A woman is legally worth half a man (Sharia law requires two women’s testimonies to equal one man’s), but she also cites loosening divorce laws (she is divorced) and legal abortions for married women suffering health problems. Her magazine has helped foster a climate that allows her to address previously taboo subjects: sex, women’s autonomy, even criticism of government officials.

Many foreigners, she says, “get stuck on the scarf”—which she lets slide back on her head during our meeting—when there are “juicier” issues. What hampers Iranian women more than the mandatory headscarf, she says, is an ingrained culture of conservatism—supported, ironically, by some women (like their equivalents on the U.S. Christian right). The real problems, she argues, are discriminatory laws regarding divorce, inheritance and custody. Despite state emphasis on the sanctity of motherhood, for instance, custody reverts to the father when a child of divorce turns 7.

Sherkat is part of a network of women activists who’ve launched a petition demanding equal rights. This year they hope to collect 1 million signatures, demonstrating that their demands are not just those of privileged, secular urbanites, as opponents charge. The Iranian women’s movement seems to have been energized by the Nobel Peace Prize awarded in 2003 to Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human-rights lawyer and author of Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope, who declared in her acceptance speech (which she delivered sans veil) that the prize would inspire women across the Muslim world to fight for equality. Last September, for example, activists won passage of a law permitting children of Iranian mothers and foreign fathers to receive Iranian citizenship on reaching age 18; women continue to push for the children of such unions to be citizens at birth.

A new generation of activists also seems emboldened by a decade of gradual social liberalization. One is 32-year-old lawyer Shadi Sadr, who in 2004 founded the nation’s first women’s legal counseling clinic, in Tehran. Sadr takes on, pro bono, Iran’s most controversial cases, from teenage runaways to women sentenced to death for prostitution or for murdering abusive husbands. Sadr’s passport was revoked in 2005; she lives in constant danger. Even so, she marches into the worst prisons, bringing to world attention controversial cases that no one else will touch.

In one such case, a judge personally placed the noose around the neck of Sadr’s 16-year-old client, Atefeh Sahaleh Rajabi. The mentally disturbed daughter of a heroin addict, she was hanged for an “extramarital affair” with the 51-year-old man who had abused her; he received 95 lashes and was freed. Recently, Sadr spear-headed a successful campaign to save a mother of four sentenced to stoning for extramarital sex. Armed with international petitions, she persuaded Iran’s judiciary chief to remit the sentence, and is now campaigning to end stoning altogether.

“The biggest problem isn’t the law, it’s the culture of patriarchy,” says Sadr, whose office features a photograph of a traditionally garbed woman next to a mountain bike, a metaphor for the clash between tradition and modernity that defines Iranian women’s lives. “But I think the law can change the culture.”

Conservatives like Shahla Habibi, a chador-wearing magazine editor who heads the Iranian Network of Women NGOs, disagree. Habibi supports honor killings of women suspected of adultery. Adultery is like a “home invasion,” she argues, citing U.S. action movies where men are depicted as justified in killing to protect their homes.

Still, Sherkat and Sadr better reflect the values of the emerging generation in a nation where approximately 70 percent of the population is under age 30. Iranian women can vote, drive, earn graduate degrees, run businesses and hold elected office. Iran’s foremost race-car driver is female (though she was recently banned from racing, a decision that reflects the new conservatism of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), as are many filmmakers and artists. Although women’s-rights consciousness has yet to reach critical mass, this underground revolution is gaining momentum as increasingly educated young women (comprising almost two-thirds of all Iranian university students) redefine themselves.

Many changes are visible: Unmarried couples openly hold hands in public; in urban areas, scarves now display more hair than they cover. The birth rate, once among the world’s highest, has plummeted due to a national family-planning program that licenses a state-endorsed condom factory and makes birth control pills available without prescription. University students and couples seeking a marriage license are required to complete a sex-education course, making small families—even in rural villages—increasingly the norm. However, last October, President Ahmadinejad called on women to have larger families, adding that his government would be willing to reduce the number of hours women work outside the home to help them perform “their most important duty: raising the next generation.”

Nevertheless, technology is giving women a platform: Many of the 70,000-plus Persian-language blogs are run by women, some by home-makers who find themselves, for the first time, with a public voice.

The main obstacle to change, says Shirin Ebadi, is “an incorrect interpretation of Islam” related to the paternalistic culture in Iran. She believes Islam, interpreted differently in different nations, can and must adapt to modern realities, but such changes must be internally generated.

Ebadi argues that threats of war only empower conservative forces to crack down on dissenting voices. “I never believe in foreign pressure,” she says. “I believe in public opinion in Iran.” Like the vast majority of Iran’s pro-democracy activists, she seeks social transformation from within.