The overthrow of the Shah was a festival of the oppressed. Women, lesbians and gay men and national minorities participated in the revolution, believing that a new regime would bring democracy and freedom.
From the start, Khomeini’s government proved itself to be utterly opposed to liberty. Within the first month of his rule, attacks on national minorities striving for self-determination began. Local Komitehs began issuing identity papers and sharia courts were set up. In March 1979, “12 people were summarily tried and put to death for alleged sexual crimes such as prostitution and homosexuality” (Nima).
Above all it was the oppression of women and the suppression of the emerging women’s movement that indicated the reactionary nature of Khomeini’s regime.
Women in the revolution
Women were involved in the overthrow of the Shah, on demonstrations, strikes and in other protests. As Farah Azari explained: “There were large numbers [of women] who participated in the general insurrection [9-11 February 1979], either as back up forces, delivering food and medicine, or more directly behind the street barricades.” (‘The Post-Revolutionary Women’s Movement in Iran’, in Azari, Women of Iran: the conflict with fundamentalist Islam)
However one of the first acts of the provisional government was to take over radio and television stations. As a result “women broadcasters were either sacked or forced to dress in Islamic fashion. All the arts and entertainment programmes were cancelled. Women singers were removed from schedules, and music in general was very much limited” (Azari).
On 26 February, the Shah’s Family Protection Law, which gave women some rights in marriage and divorce, was suspended on the orders of Khomeini’s office. On 3 March the appointment of women judges was stopped and three days later women serving in the military were dismissed. On 7 March speaking in Qom, Khomeini said that women must wear the veil at work.
Women oppose compulsory veiling
The suspension of the Family Protection Act and Khomeini’s comments on the veil galvanised women to begin demonstrating in their thousands on international women’s day, 8 March and in the days that followed.
Azari has written the most detailed account of these protests. She wrote: “On the morning of the 8 March, around 15,000 women had gathered for the rally in the small building of the Technical Faculty of Tehran University. Numbers were much higher than had been anticipated by the organisers and even more surprising given the heavy snow that had been falling that day. Among them were housewives, workers, teachers, office workers and students, but in particular there were many high school girls whose teachers had cancelled their classes and set off with them. Obstruction by the reactionary elements began immediately when the loudspeaker system in the building was disrupted, preventing the large numbers unable to enter the assembly hall from hearing the proceedings outside. As anger and resentment heightened, those inside the hall decided to join those outside and set off on a demonstration march to the prime minister’s office.
“Once in the streets other women joined the march, swelling the numbers to almost 30,000. The march was later split when two smaller groups went on towards the ministry of justice. – where there had been a sit-in by women lawyers – and Ayatollah Talaghani’s house… The first group held a meeting outside the ministry, specifying their demands and pledging support for the women lawyers. The second group similarly demonstrated, seeking Talaghani’s support for the women’s demands.” (1983 pp.194-195)
Some of the slogans on the demonstrations were: ‘Freedom is our culture, to stay at home is our shame’, ‘Liberty and equality are our undeniable rights’, ‘In the dawn of freedom, we already lack freedom’, ‘Women’s Day of Emancipation is neither western nor eastern, it is international’ and ‘Freedom does not take rules and regulations’ (Azar Tabari, ‘Islam and the Struggle for Emancipation of Iranian Women’, in Azar Tabari and Nahid Yegaheh eds.).
Azari added that, “conferences and rallies were also organised in other cities on the 8 March. According to [one] report, 3,000 women participated in a rally in Shiraz where they declared their solidarity with women across the world”.
The women’s manifesto
On the same day women also demonstrated in front of the National Television, protesting against the news blackout of their activities.
However the authorities ignored the protests. As Azari explains, “The radio and television stations dismissed it as agitation both by promiscuous women opposed to hijab and agents of the previous regime. In angry response, many took to the streets again in three days of continuous demonstrations.”
In response, Bazargan announced that wearing the veil is not compulsory and that Khomeini’s comments had been misunderstood.
On 11 March, despite the withdrawal of some organisations, 20,000 women attended a rally at Tehran University. Marchers set off for Azadi Square and were joined by other women from offices, hospitals and schools. However they came under attack from Islamists.
Azari described it thus: “During these days the fundamentalists, Muslim zealots and some of the city poor, roaming around in bands of thugs, attacking and harassing women demonstrators by any means possible. This ranged from sexual insults and indecent exposure to beatings, stabbings and simply throwing rocks and stones at the women marchers. Vans and pick up trucks were used to obstruct the marches at various points.”
As a result, “the organisers called for a halt as casualties were mounting and it was feared that this strife would be manipulated by counter revolutionaries to destabilise the new regime”. (Azari)
The emerging women’s movement
However the demonstrations had forced the regime to retreat — and resulted in the proliferation of women’s organisations, often part of left groups.
For example the Emancipation of Women group, which published a monthly paper of the same name and part of the Organisation for Communist Unity (OCU), was “one of the first Marxist organisations to denounce the Islamic state after the revolution”. (Nahid Yeganeh, ‘Women’s Struggles in the Islamic Republic of Iran’, in Tabari and Yeganeh)
Another organisation, the National Union of Women, formed in March 1979 and part of the Fadaiyan, was less vocal against the government. It published 6 issues of its paper Equality and a monthly journal Women in Struggle. Other organisations included the pro-Chinese Society for the Awakening of Women, the Women’s Rights Defence Committee, initiated by the Trotskyist HKS and various local women’s groups among the national minorities. There were also pro-government and Islamist women’s organisations formed (Tabari and Yeganeh).
However the record of the left in general in these mobilisations was not great. As Farah Azari put it: “During the women’s demonstrations of March 1979 when the issue of the hijab was first raised, the Fadaiyan, Mujahedin and most of the small Marxist groups did not support these demonstrations. The Mujahedin and the Tudeh Party even criticised them for playing into the hands of imperialists and endangering the revolution.”
On 21 May 1979 the Ministry of Education banned co-education and ordered all classes to be segregated. On 3 June it banned married women from attending high school classes.
On 8 July 1979 several Caspian Sea resorts initiated sexual segregation – women were flogged in public for swimming in the “men’s section”. On 12 July three women were executed on charges of prostitution and corruption.
On 2 October 1979 new family legislation giving the right of divorce almost exclusively to the husband; reinstated the husband’s “right” to forbid his wife from taking a job; lowered the minimum age for women to marry from 18 to 13 and permitted men to take four permanent and an unlimited number of temporary wives (Tabari and Yeganeh).
Terror was also used. Nima cites a rape by Revolutionary Guards an example of the terror used to beat down women’s organisations: “One family recently received the news of their daughter’s execution. The Pasdaran returned her belongings and gave the parents £3, explaining that ‘she was a virgin, and since they do not execute virgins in Islam, one of the Pasdars married her temporarily the night before her execution and the money is the price for temporary marriage.”
On 3 February 1980 wearing “Islamic uniforms” was made compulsory for nurses and other women employees of the Ministry of Health. In May unveiled women in Urumieh were attacked and knifed and bazaars in Bushehr refused to serve unveiled women. On 10 June women at the ministry of Justice were told to come to work in “simply and Islamic clothes” (Tabari and Yeganeh).
On 28 June 1980 Khomeini issued a decree requiring women in all government offices to wear the veil as part of the “administrative revolution”. In July women were required to wear the veil during the month of Ramadan.
In July 1980 all co-educational schools were abolished. With teaching segregated, women teachers were assigned to girls’ schools and male teachers to boys’ schools. All female school students were ordered to wear special uniforms by the Ministry of Education – women teachers were given stipulations the following month. Also in July, the Tehran bus company announced that the first three rows of seats in buses would be allocated for women passengers.
On 21 April 1981, Fatima’s birthday celebrated as women’s day in Iran. Finally, in July 1981, the Majlis (parliament) ratified a Bill of Retribution sanctioned, among other things, stoning to death on adultery charges, flogging in public and cutting off limbs in retaliation-in-kind (Tabari and Yeganeh).
Despite these attacks, women’s groups continued to fight and organise. Azari wrote that: “Other major women’s groups were formed in Bank Melli, the major national bank in Iran, the Ministry of Labour, the Telecommunications Office, the Planning Organisation and many other ministries and public organisations and in some factories with high proportions of female employees. The demands of these groups revolved mainly around the provision of childcare facilities, equal pay, and maternity benefits. In many cases, employers were forced to provide a crèche or expand an existing one.”
On 9 June 1979, women lawyers staged a five-day sit-in after they were excluded from nomination ceremonies for new judges. In September 1979 there were protests by female students at technical training schools whose courses had been suspended following the decision to segregate classes.
On 30 October 1979 women demonstrated against the new family laws, despite attacks by Hezbollahi. On 3 November women lawyers organised a sit in at the Ministry of Justice against the new laws. The Women’s Solidarity Coalition announced itself.
On 25 November 1979, the Women’s Solidarity Coalition, which included groups such as the Emancipation of Women and the Society for the Awakening of Women organised a successful women’s conference. The conference condemned government measures against women’s rights.
According to Azari: “Encouraged by the success of the conference, well publicised in some of the press, the committee continued by preparing for the organisation of celebration for international women’s day in March 1980. A large rally was held in one of the Tehran university buildings and messages of solidarity were read from various left and progressive organisations in Iran and abroad. The committee was then renamed Women’s Solidarity Council. A number of meetings and rallies were also held in other major towns.”
After Khomeini’s decree on the veil in June 1980, several thousand women demonstrated in front of the offices of the president. Azari describes the reaction: “The demonstrators were met with club-wielding and vicious gangs of Hezbollahi who were happy to add sexual assaults, whether verbal or physical, to their customary attacks and abuses on the opposition.”