From women’s rights becoming interlaced with nationalist movements that swept across the Middle East at the beginning of the 20th century, to women gaining the right to vote in countries from Kuwait to Saudi Arabia over the last 16 years, talk us through the history of women’s rights across the region.
Alanoud Alsharekh: I think a common theme across the region has been the intersection between women’s demands for more rights and the history of colonization.
These two facets have intersected as a result of the fact that most of the Arab Middle East was colonized by Western powers with notable exceptions such as Saudi Arabia.
Therefore, in a lot of places, the struggle for women leaving the domestic sphere and entering the public one has been tied to nationalist movements trying to overthrow colonial powers across the region.
Azadeh Pourzand: When it comes to Iran, in particular, women’s struggle for equality has a long history that dates back to before the Constitutional Revolution in 1906.
During this time, women were pushing for different things, including the right to education, but these women, or rather those whose work we have predominantly heard of, were mostly elite women involved with the struggle and, although these women were a key part of the revolution, once the revolution happened, they were mostly side-lined.
Then, during the Pahlavi era, there was a diverse range of women everywhere whether they were veiled or unveiled or wearing miniskirts or not. Women within the elite, in particular, campaigned to amend family law, which happened eventually in 1975, making this body of law as close as possible to gender equality for women.
But, even then, the women at the forefront of the struggle for legal equality faced resistance particularly from religious figures.
Then in 1979, women were present in masses during the Islamic Revolution, yet the Islamic Republic of Iran rapidly marginalized women as soon as it established its rule. There is a question about whether revolutionary women had specific demands regarding women’s rights, nevertheless, the principle of gender equality was completely undermined by the political apparatus that came to power as a result of this revolution.
Since then, over the last 40 years, it’s been a complex story in terms of women’s struggle for equality given that containing women is a core pillar of the Islamic Republic as well as state-sponsored repression against women’s rights campaigners.
There have been generations of Iranian women from diverse backgrounds who have fought for women’s rights over the years, but unfortunately, it hasn’t translated into substantive progress when it comes to legal reforms, although their courageous campaigning has increased the awareness of women’s rights in Iranian society. Women have done a lot to gain every little bit of freedom they have, they have fought for it, and they have paid a high price for it too.
It’s been 10 years since the death of Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, sparked protests across Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and beyond, unfolding into the Arab Spring, yet much of the grievances remain a decade on. In light of the eruption of protests across the region again in 2019, how have women been involved in the popular protests and how far have women’s rights fit in with the calls for change?
Alanoud Alsharekh: In terms of the revolutions that we have seen recently in Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan, for example, it was very interesting that a lot of them were labelled, ‘althawrah untha’, meaning the revolution is female, because of these emblematic women that we saw amid the popular protests, like the lady who kicked a security guard in Lebanon, or the lady on top of a car in Sudan. They became symbols of the movements that were unfolding.
But have these revolutions served women and women’s rights? It’s a complicated question because usually, during times of nationalist concern, the needs of women take a backseat as the issue of overthrowing an oppressor becomes more important than gender equality. We saw this happening during the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square where women protestors were harassed even though everyone who was protesting was on the same side.
There are all of these dismissive attitudes that claim that it isn’t the time for addressing women’s issues as if women’s issues are divorced from the world of men and war. So it is interesting to see the mobilization of women during times of crisis but also the lack of support that women face during these times too.
Azadeh Pourzand: In Iran, since the recent popular protests in 2019, mobilization has become impossible but I do think that because different groups of people in Iran are struggling with everything from economic fragility to the coronavirus crisis, it’s creating a foundation for common ground among all Iranians.
We have a strong female presence in Iranian civil society at the moment fighting for everything, not just women’s rights, but all human rights. In addition to the ongoing struggle for gender equality, such as against gender-based discriminatory laws, women’s presence in football stadiums, wearing the compulsory Islamic veil or the Iranian #MeToo movement, are also examples of women involved in the country’s struggle for minority rights, children’s rights and labour rights among other areas of social justice.
This makes me hopeful that there is solidarity developing among all those who have limited rights to come together in the years to come. It’s a first step but it’s a good start.