The Woodrow Wilson Center
Vanguard: Women in the Iranian Election Campaign and Protest
July 13th, 2009
On Monday July 13th, the Woodrow Wilson Center brought together a distinguished panel of female scholars to discuss the role of Iranian women in recent political turmoil. The panelists included founder and president of Eclectic Woman, Pari Esfandiari; former member of Iranian parliament and visiting scholar at Umass Boston, Fatemeh Haghighatjoo; vice president of innerChange associates, Jaleh Lackner-Gohari; University of Chicago professor Norma Moruzzi; and CSU Northridge professor Nayereh Tohidi. The discussion was moderated by the Wilson Center’s own Dr. Haleh Esfandiari.
Nayereh Tohidi began by arguing that women’s space in Iranian society has been growing for sometime. A decline in fertility rates, a growing female press, and incredibly strong female participation in higher education all reveal that women in Iran are extremely active in all realms of society. Tohidi asserted that women have always played an important role in Iranian history, but particularly in the past ten years, women have been reasserting their strength and influence. Tohidi also noted that many of the strict social restrictions imposed by the Ahmadinejad regime targeted women specifically, and this is part of why the reform movement has enjoyed such widespread female support. Tohidi further illustrated that reform candidates have been extremely cognizant of the female voting block, and as a result, many candidates involved their own wives more actively in their campaigns. This inclusion of Iranian “first wives” began in the 2005 elections, but was used by all four candidates in the most recent election to woo female voters. Even before the protests, the campaign itself represented progress by specifically highlighting women’s issues, a subject that had been marginalized in the past.
Jaleh Lackner-Gohari had a slightly different take. Gohari did not dispute the important role of women in Iranian history, but she did refer to their current political activism as, “unprecedented.” Gohari asserted that many women felt let down by the Khatami administration’s inability to implement positive changes for women. As a result, women began to believe they could not rely on politicians to institute social change, and they took on this responsibility themselves. This may have been the driving force behind large amounts of female-oriented press and much broader participation in the campaigns and protests. Gohari also pointed out that social and legal restrictions on Iranian women effect every class. Because of this, the women who are participating in the protests are from all different economic backgrounds. They are united by a collective dissatisfaction with their status as women.
Fatemeh Haghighatjoo discussed her time in the Iranian parliament and how she sees the role of Iranian women. Haghighatjoo referred to women as the, “agent of change in Iran.” Social restrictions on women relaxed slightly during the reform movement of the nineties. However, since Ahmadinejad became president these social restrictions have returned, and united women against the regime. In Haghighatjoo’s view, this is why the pictures of Iranian campaign rallies, and also the protests are dominated by images of women of all ages and classes. Haghighatjoo also explained that women have an incredibly powerful role in Iranian family life, and many women have been responsible for spurring their husbands, brothers, or sons to become politically active.
Norma Moruzzi has been traveling back and forth between the US and Iran since 1997. In her travels she has met activists from all walks of life, and believes that the current opposition movement in Iran has the broadest base of any movement since the revolution. In Moruzzi’s opinion, the current clashes in Iran are not reflective of battling elements of society, but rather a very “narrow” portion of the government vs. “everyone else.” Moruzzi agreed with the other panelists about the role of women, but wanted to stress the “universality” of the protesters. Moruzzi also felt it was important to note that the West’s image of Iran has completely transformed as a result of the election fallout. Images of women in full burkas and crowds chanting, “death to America” have been replaced with images of peaceful crowds asking that their votes be counted. Regardless of how the political situation within Iran shakes out, the Iranian people have been humanized in the eyes of the world.
Pari Esfandiari echoed Moruzzi’s point about the images coming out of Iran. Recently, a movie entitled, “The Stoning of Soraya M” depicted an Iran that was backwards and fundamentalist through the story of a young woman being stoned to death for adultery. Esfandiari pointed out the “irony” that this film should come out at the same time as pictures of young, modern women in Tehran leading protests, and throwing stones at militia troops. Esfandiari also noted that women were crucial in the nature of the recent political campaigns. Because so many young Iranian women are in college, they are at the forefront of technological and international fluency. As a result, women were central in developing a tech-savvy campaign, and contributing some of the art and creativity that gave the green movement such a potent and resonant identity.
The panelists were all asked how the Obama administration should handle relations with Iran going forward. The speakers all seemed in agreement that the Obama administration must not recognize the new regime. Right now, the Iranian population may be one of the most pro-American in the Middle East. However, the panelists all felt that if the Obama administration sat down with Ahmadinejad and gave his election more legitimacy, it would represent a massive betrayal in the eyes of the Iranian people. The United States has gained back some esteem only by staying out of Iranian political affairs, and must remain on this course.