Iranian women warn Egyptian women not to make same mistakes

Posted on 1 February 2012


01 February 2012
Julie Tomlin
WVoN co-editor

The message of the Youtube video from Iranian women to Egyptian and Tunisian women is clear: don’t let what happened to us happen to you.

From the days of jeans-wearing working women and the first female group of officers in the navy in 1963, the video depicts how women’s rights were reversed once Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came into power into 1979.

It shows how after the revolution that ousted the Shah, the implementation of Islamic rule brought greater restrictions on women’s clothing – despite massive protests against the compulsory wearing of the hijab.

One year on from the uprisings that shook the Arab world, a lot of people have been gauging the temperature of women’s rights, particularly in Egypt.

Of greatest concern is the question of whether the election of Islamic groups will usher in increased restrictions on women’s lives.

Women haven’t done well in the elections – they won only 11 seats in the parliament out of a total of 508, meaning they represent only two per cent of all members. The parliament will also be dominated by Islamist parties which have won close to 70 per cent of all the seats.

In light of this, some women are reported to already be dressing more conservatively and recent attempts by so-called morality police to restrict women’s behaviour are also a cause for concern (see WVoN story).

During the recent 25 January celebrations marking one year since the uprisings, women reported that they were sexually assaulted and harassed by men who encircled them in Tahrir Square.

Incidents like this, and a similar one on International Women’s Day on 8 March last year, have been seized upon to illustrate that women’s rights have not progressed since president Hosni Mubarak stepped down (see WVoN story).

But is this a fair assessment? The writer and activist Nawal El Saadawi for instance, is convinced that the harassment that went on in Tahrir was carried out by the same pro-government thugs who attacked the people in Tahrir Square in February last year and who threw rocks from the roof during recent protests against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces shortly in November.

If that’s the case, then it means the attacks against women and the harassment they experienced are part of the counter revolution that those Egyptians at the heart of the revolution claim began on 12 February.

In this context even the relaunch of the Egyptian Feminist Union can be a complex issue: some women in Egypt are concerned that its re-emergence is a sign that the military regime is up to the same tricks as Mubarak, trying to co-opt women’s activists and give legitimacy to elections (see WVoN story).

Even if the harassment in Tahrir Square was not carried out at the instigation of the regime, is it realistic to expect that all sexual discrimination would come to an end after 11 February when Mubarak stepped down?

The western media, with its thirst for quick fixes perhaps isn’t best-placed to make sense of the long game of revolution.

What went on in Tahrir Square between 25 Jan and 11 February showed the world the “best of humanity” according to the writer Ahdaf Soueif. Another writer, Sahar Elmougy, described the events during those 18 days as “to a great extent feminine” revealing “the bracing, joyful feminine soul”.

But although something extraordinary happened, it is also clear that those 18 days didn’t fix everything – the ongoing fighting with SCAF shows that there is more work to be done to create a just and equal society.

But if Egypt’s revolutionaries understand they are involved in a process that will have setbacks and challenges, are women doing enough to ensure that their rights are safeguarded during the days ahead?

Iranian-born Sussan Tahmasebi says she has not only urged women’s rights activists to maintain links with Islamic women on issues that they can agree on, but also to resist pressures to “park” their demands until after the revolution.

This is one of most important lessons women could learn from Iran, says Tahmasebi, who is working with the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) to encourage discussions between women in the Arab region.

“We’ve seen this happen in Iran, we’ve seen it happen everywhere people are fighting for reform,” she says. “Women are told they should be using their energies to fight for reform and democracy and when we’ve achieved democracy, then we can achieve women’s rights.

“But women’s groups in Iran became more effective during the 2005 elections when they decided to express their own agenda no matter who was in power.

“It’s critical that the women’s movement has its own political agenda that is not tied to other political groups,” said Tahmasebi, who argues that women’s rights are at the centre of the transition to modernity and the transition from dictatorship to democracy.

“Unless women realise that women’s issues are a really big part of what defines the collective identity and that much of this transition is really fought on women’s bodies, they are going to lose a lot.”