Talk of Women’s Rights Divides Saudi Arabia

by: Katherine Zoeff

JIDDA — Roughly two years ago, Rowdha Yousef began to notice a disturbing trend: Saudi women like herself were beginning to organize campaigns for greater personal freedoms. Suddenly, there were women asking for the right to drive, to choose whether to wear a veil, and to take a job without a male relative’s permission, all using the Internet to collect signatures and organize meetings and all becoming, she felt, more voluble by the month.

The final straw came last summer, when she read reports that a female activist in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, Wajeha al-Huwaider, had been to the border with Bahrain, demanding to cross using only her passport, without a male chaperon or a male guardian’s written permission.

Ms. Huwaider was not allowed to leave the country unaccompanied and, like other Saudi women campaigning for new rights, has failed — so far — to change any existing laws or customs.

But Ms. Yousef is still outraged, and since August has taken on activists at their own game. With 15 other women, she started a campaign, “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me.” Within two months, they had collected more than 5,400 signatures on a petition “rejecting the ignorant requests of those inciting liberty” and demanding “punishments for those who call for equality between men and women, mingling between men and women in mixed environments, and other unacceptable behaviors.”

Ms. Yousef’s fight against the would-be liberalizers symbolizes a larger tussle in Saudi society over women’s rights that has suddenly made the female factor a major issue for reformers and conservatives striving to shape Saudi Arabia’s future.

Public separation of the sexes is a strongly distinctive feature of Saudi Arabia, making it perhaps a logical area for fierce debate. Since women have such a limited role in Saudi public life, however, it is somewhat surprising that it is their rights that have become a matter of open contention in a society that keeps most debate hidden.

Surprising, too, are the complexities turned up by the debate, which go far beyond what some Saudis see as the simplistic Western argument that women are simply entitled to more rights.

Take Ms. Yousef. She is a 39-year-old divorced mother of three (aged 13, 12 and 9) who volunteers as a mediator in domestic abuse cases. A tall, confident woman with a warm, effusive manner and sparkling stiletto-heeled sandals, her conversation, over Starbucks lattes, ranges from racism in the kingdom (Ms. Yousef has Somali heritage and calls herself a black Saudi) to her admiration for Hillary Rodham Clinton to the abuse she says she has suffered at the hands of Saudi liberals.

She believes firmly that most Saudis share her conservative values but insists that adherence to Shariah law and family custom need not restrict a woman seeking a say. Female campaigners in the reform camp, she says, are influenced by Westerners who do not understand the needs and beliefs of Saudi women.

“These human rights groups come, and they only listen to one side, those who are demanding liberty for women,” she said.

Every Saudi woman, regardless of age or status, must have a male relative who acts as her guardian and has responsibility for and authority over her in a host of legal and personal matters.

Ms. Yousef, whose guardian is her elder brother, said that she enjoyed a great deal of freedom while respecting the rules of her society. Guardian rules are such that she could start her campaign, for instance, without seeking her guardian’s permission.

She did not wish to speak in detail about her divorce but noted that, unusually, she had retained custody of her children through their 18th birthdays. She said she had founded her guardianship campaign unassisted, without any special connections, enlisting women in her circle of contacts as fellow founding members.

Activists like Ms. Huwaider, Ms. Yousef believes, are susceptible to foreign influences because of personal problems with men. “If she is suffering because of her guardian, she can go to a Shariah court that could remove the responsibility for her from that man and transfer it to someone who is more trustworthy.”

To an outsider, Ms. Yousef’s effort — petitioning King Abdullah to disregard calls for gender equality — might seem superfluous. After all, Saudi women still may not drive or vote and are obliged by custom to wear the floor-length cloaks known as abayas, and headscarves, outside their own homes.

Women may not appear in court, and though they may be divorced via brief verbal declarations from their husbands, they frequently find it very difficult to obtain divorce themselves. Fathers may marry off 10-year-old daughters, a practice defended by the highest religious authority, Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh.

The separation of genders in Saudi public life is difficult to overstate — there are women-only stores, women-only lines in fast food restaurants, and women-only offices in private companies. Members of the hai’a, the governmental Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, patrol to ensure that ikhtilat, or “mixing” of the sexes, does not occur.

There are a few places where men and women do work together — medical colleges, some hospitals, a handful of banks and private companies. But the percentage of Saudis in such environments is minuscule.

Jidda and Riyadh host stand-up comedy shows where young people do mix — albeit summoned with only hours’ notice via cellphone in an attempt to dodge policing. At the popular Janadriyah cultural festival in Riyadh, families were allowed to visit together for the first time last year, instead of on separate men’s and women’s days.

Where conservatives like Ms. Yousef attribute the recent volubility of rights campaigners to Western meddling, liberals say that Saudi society itself is changing, and that increasing freedoms for Saudi women appear to be cautiously supported by King Abdullah himself.

Both sides of the debate tend to claim the king’s backing. Recent history suggests that the sympathies of the 85-year-old monarch — whose feelings are never explicitly outlined in public — lie with the reformers. If so, he seems out in front of most of his youthful subjects (an estimated two-thirds of the 29 million Saudis are under 25).

The king has appeared in newspaper photographs alongside Saudi women with uncovered faces, a situation that was unimaginable until very recently. Last year, he appointed a woman to deputy minister rank, a first for Saudi Arabia. Schools and colleges remain rigidly segregated by gender, but the opening last September of a coeducational post-graduate research university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, was hotly debated, even if only about 15 percent of the nearly 400 students at Kaust, as it is known, are Saudi.

A senior cleric was fired last October after criticizing gender mixing at Kaust on a television call-in show. Two months later, Sheikh Ahmad al-Ghamdi, the head of Mecca’s branch of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, caused a sensation when he told The Okaz, a newspaper, that gender mixing was “part of normal life.” In February, Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak, another prominent cleric, issued a fatwa that proponents of gender mixing should be killed.

Whether it is the king’s support, or simply the ever greater availability of digital social networks, campaigning is mushrooming on both sides of the women’s rights divide, although Ms. Yousef’s is so far thought to be the only conservative effort led by a woman.

Hatoon al-Fassi, an assistant professor of women’s history at King Saud University in Riyadh, called 2009 “the year of the campaigns” for women in Saudi Arabia. Female Saudi activists embraced causes as diverse as an effort to ban child marriage and the right to set up businesses without male sponsors.

Reem Asaad lectures in the finance department at Dar al-Hekma College in Jidda. She organized a nationwide boycott of lingerie shops that employ only men, choosing lingerie because even Saudi conservatives can agree that it may be humiliating for a woman to buy underwear from a male clerk.

Her ultimate aim is to broaden women’s job opportunities. Outside her university office, where her all-female students wait for meetings with their teacher, hangs a photocopy of the country page for Saudi Arabia from the Global Gender Gap Report for 2009 by the World Economic Forum. In “economic participation and opportunity” for women, the kingdom ranks 133 out of 134 listed countries, above only Yemen. “Many Saudis would rather see a woman in poverty than have her work,” Ms. Asaad said. “This is about opening doors for women in different sectors of the economy.”

Ms. Huwaider, who so incensed Ms. Yousef with her attempts to cross into Bahrain, is a veteran campaigner, famously seen driving illegally in a YouTube clip in 2008. Now she distributes small lengths of black elastic to Saudi women, asking them to wear the ribbons until Saudi laws treat them as adults.

Soon, she said in an interview, she plans a campaign for the Saudi government to put in place a law requiring men who wish to take a second wife to obtain permission from the first wife. Morocco has such a law, which Ms. Huwaider believes could serve as a useful model.

Ms. Huwaider emphatically rejects Ms. Yousef’s characterization that she attacks the guardianship system because of personal problems. Her male guardian, she said, is her ex-husband, and they have excellent relations.

She did agree, notionally, with Ms. Yousef’s claim that many if not most Saudi men try to be fair and caring guardians. “Saudi men pride themselves on their chivalry,” Ms. Huwaider said, “but it’s the same kind of feeling they have for handicapped people or for animals. The kindness comes from pity, from lack of respect.”

Ms. Huwaider lives at what she said was considerable expense — the equivalent of $16,000 a year — in the guarded compound of the Saudi Aramco oil company. She is an employee of Aramco, working in a department that runs further education and employee development, and took the rare step, for a Saudi, of moving into the compound in 2007, after her campaign for the right to drive provoked several death threats. Sometimes, she conceded, it is frightening. But she has grown so accustomed to it that “sometimes I think to myself, ‘Oh, I didn’t get any threats today.”’

Over tea and curried snack mix at her home in Riyadh, Ms. Fassi pronounced herself “very optimistic” about the women’s campaigns for more freedom. They break the censure on expression, and the list of topics that Saudi writers may address without being censored has also expanded very rapidly, Ms. Fassi said.

“The media is not that free, still, but it is much better than it was a few years ago. Nowadays we talk openly about minors’ marriages, about rape and incest, about cases brought against the religious police.”

And, of course, the activism produces backlash. “This campaign of Rowdha Yousef’s is a reaction,” she said — unaware that Ms. Yousef, when contacted by this reporter, expressed surprise that a journalist had come from New York to meet her. Ms. Yousef said more than 30 articles discussing her campaign had appeared in the Saudi press, but no Saudi reporter was willing to meet her, and coverage was mainly what she called mocking opinion columns.

Ahmad al-Omran, a pharmacist who blogs under the name Saudi Jeans, points out that, in the absence of opinion polling or free elections, it is hard to measure the popularity or representative nature of women’s campaigns. None have produced even an official response from the Saudi leadership.

“What do they achieve?” Mr. Omran asked. “Changing laws comes from higher up, not lower down.”

Even the most optimistic say that change will be slow. Ms. Fassi explained that even the hint of breaking the taboo on gender mixing had been traumatic for many Saudis. “People had lived their whole lives doing one thing and believing one thing, and suddenly the king and the major clerics were saying that mixing was O.K.,” Ms. Fassi said.

The extent of this trauma may be difficult for outsiders to understand, Ms. Fassi said. “You can’t begin to imagine the impact that the ban on mixing has on our lives and what lifting this ban would mean.”

Noura Abdulrahman, an Education Ministry employee who recently founded an after-school Islamic studies program aimed at teenage girls in Riyadh, said she tries to be generous toward the “liberaliyeen” — Saudi conservatives give the English word an Arabic plural and frequently employ it as a term of disparagement.

“The liberals’ motives might be good — they might want to make Saudi Arabia competitive with Western societies — but they’re failing to understand the uniqueness of Saudi society,” Ms. Abdulrahman said. “In Saudi culture, women have their integrity and a special life that is separate from men. As a Saudi woman, I demand to have a guardian. My work requires me to go to different regions of Saudi Arabia, and during my business trips I always bring my husband or my brother. They ask nothing in return — they only want to be with me.”

While Ms. Abdulrahman was discussing guardianship with a visitor, a neighbor, Umm Muhammad, dropped in for a morning tea. She proudly volunteered that her own guardian, her husband, was out of town but they were in constant touch by phone. In fact, she had just called him for permission to visit Ms. Abdulrahman.

“The image in the West is that we are dominated by men, but they always forget the aspect of love,” she said. “People who aren’t familiar with Shariah often have the wrong idea. If you want stability and safety in your life, if you want a husband who takes care of you, you won’t find it except in Islam.”

Eman Fahad is a 31-year-old linguistics graduate student and mother of three. In her blog, she called Ms. Yousef’s campaign an effort to “stand against women who are demanding to be treated as adults.”

Even if most Saudi men are caring guardians, Ms. Fahad said, until women have full adult rights under the law, there will be abuses. She said she resented conservatives’ portrayal of Saudi women’s rights activists as spoiled and frivolous. She spoke of women she had met who had been forced to quit work they loved because their guardianship had been transferred to a new, less understanding man, and of women with no legal recourse when estranged husbands snatched their children away.

“These are the women they are fighting for,” Ms. Fahad said of the campaigners. “They’re not campaigning because they really want to be allowed to go crazy in some nightclub.”

Yet Ms. Fahad conceded that most Saudi women cleave to tradition. “If you actually talk to ordinary people,” including in her circle, she said, “you’ll find that most people want things to stay the same.”


Tawakkul Karmant, First Female Arab Nobel Peace Laureate: A Nod for Arab Spring

(originally appeared at Democracy Now!)

In an interview, Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman said her Nobel Peace prize is a victory for Yemen and for all of the uprisings of the Arab Spring. Karman is a 32-year-old journalist and the head of the Yemeni non-profit group, Women Journalists Without Chains. She was detained for a time during the political unrest earlier this year. She is the first Arab female to win the Nobel Peace Prize and is believed to the youngest winner of the peace prize to date, slightly edging out the Irish activist Mairead Corrigan who won in 1976. We get reaction from British journalist Iona Craig, who has been closely following the uprising in Yemen. “This Nobel Peace Prize will actually in some ways go towards protecting her. Now she will become an even greater international figure and certainly if the regime sought to detain her again, I think they would create a huge problem for themselves,” Craig says.


AMY GOODMAN: This is a clip of her speaking just after her release from prison in January.

TAWAKKUL KARMAN: We will continue our struggle until this regime goes from our happy country. We will defend our country. The Jasmine Revolution continues until this regime goes.

AMY GOODMAN: Tawakkul Karman is the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and is believed to be the youngest winner of the peace prize to date, slightly edging out the Irish activist Mairead Corrigan who won in 1976. Both were 32. For Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the award comes as she wraps up her re-election campaign. Voters in Liberia head to the polls Tuesday. Leymah Gbowee’s Women for Peace movement is credited by some for bringing an end to the civil war in 2003. The movement started humbly in 2002 when Gbowee organized a group of women to sing and pray for an end to fighting in a fish market. She is a subject of an award winning documentary film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. The trio of laureates follow only a dozen other women among 85 men, as well as a number of organizations, to have won the peace prize over its 110-year history. To talk more about this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, we’re joined by two guests. In a moment we’ll be going to Emira Woods, Co-Director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She is a originally from Liberia. And with us from Britain is the British journalist, Iona Craig has been closely following the uprising in Yemen. Let us start with the Yemeni winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Tawakkul Karman. Iona Craig, tell us who she is.

IONA CRAIG: Well, I first met Tawakkul last year when she was, then, a thorn in the side of the government, working as a human rights activist and the President of Women Journalists Without Chains. She has always been a very outspoken character, fighting for the rights of [Inaudible] freedom and for political prisoners in Yemen. So, this prize is an acknowledgment of that as well as her leading role in Yemen’s unrest since January.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about her history. Talk about her significance, and the significance of a woman in Yemen winning.

IONA CRAIG: As you say, it’s particularly significant as a woman. She’s very outspoken. She’s led demonstrations, even in years gone by, leading up to the time of Yemen’s unrest which began in January, and she has inspired a lot of women as a result. She has fought very hard for press freedom and Yemen and she is also fought for political prisoners and for journalism in general in the country. She is a very forceful female, and many women have followed in her footsteps as a result now over the last 7 months and have really found their voice and will now want to be part of a new Yemen, part of this new democratic process. They don’t want to be forgotten as this, hopefully, transition happens in the months ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about her organization, Women Journalists Breaking the Chains.

IONA CRAIG: This was an NGO that she set up, not just to fight for the rights of women, but also for press freedom in Yemen. The press in Yemen have a huge amount of restrictions imposed in them, particularly Yemen journalists. I met her, initially, at the trial of a Yemeni journalist, Abdul-Elah Haidar Shaye, who was then sentenced to five years in prison, supposedly for connections to Al Qaeda. He had at the time, pinpointed U.S. involvement in drone strikes in Yemen, and it appeared at the time that he was, perhaps, being punished for that. He has since, as I say, been sentenced to 5 years and she was fighting very hard for him and on his behalf to try to get him released. There are many prisoners in Yemen who were often are taken from their houses without any representation from lawyers or without any contact with their family, and these political prisoners she has sought to fight for since 2005, when she founded this organization, to try and get representation for them and for them to receive a fair trial in Yemen. So, she has been organizing demonstrations outside of the Parliament of Sana’a on a weekly basis for many years now.

AMY GOODMAN: How much of a threat does Saleh consider here and what will this mean? How much of a boost will this give the opposition movement in Yemen for both Yemen and the Saudi regime that is supporting Saleh’s return and the Saleh regime in Yemen?

IONA CRAIG: I think will be a huge boost for them. As she said in her interview today, this is an award that she dedicates to the Yemeni youth movement and to all Yemenis and to all youth across the Arab world. Yemenis, particularly the activists in Sana’a and in Ta’izz, feel they haven’t received recognition for their peaceful demonstrations that have now been going on now for the better part of nine months. So, I’ve spoken to many of them in Sana’a, today and they are certainly celebrating this award, and they see it as a recognition for their peaceful efforts as activists, as a group, as well as for recognizing Tawakkul herself. Certainly the regime dose her as a threat, which is why she was arrested in January. But, her arrests sparked further protests, and I think that they quickly realized that it was better for them to release her than to detain her, which would have caused further problems. I think, if anything, this Nobel Peace Prize will actually, in some ways, may go toward protecting her. Now she will become even greater international figure. And certainly if the regime sought to detain her again, I think it would create huge problem for themselves. But, certainly, it’s a great day for the movement in Yemen as they see it.

AMY GOODMAN: and what does this say for the men of Yemen? What does that mean in a very much a male-dominated culture?

IONA CRAIG: They have largely, although there have been some divisions in the movement about her role, accepted her as this leading figure and a lot of women as well. As I mentioned before, a lot of women have now come forward and are speaking out, have been speaking to a large crowds of male demonstrators. But, it’s also encouraged the women to come out on the street at the same time. There have been thousands of women that have come out to demonstrate on a regular basis now on the street as a result of her presence. So, yes the men are equally inspired by her activity, and largely have been largely willing to accept her role.

AMY GOODMAN: Iona, I want to thank you very much for being with us. I think the demonstration that will be taking place in New York at 4 o’clock at 47th and 1st outside the United Nations of Yemenis will be taking on a new significance. Yemenis against the Saleh regime right now. Iona Craig, speaking to us from London, usually based in Sana’a, Yemen. She was last there in August. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report.

Feminist Association of Tunisian Women

There women from all over the world at the Commission on the Status of Women, which is presently taking place in New York. Both governmental and non-governmental delegations are present at this UN sponsored event. We used this opportunity to find out a little more about the situation of women’s rights and women’s rights activists in other countries. The following is an interview with two women’s rights activists from Tunisia, Dr. Khadija Arfaoui and Usra Farwes, who are working with the Feminist Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development.

Q: What is the legal situation of women in your country?

Well Tunisia has one of the most progressive laws when it comes to women, as compared with the rest of the Arab world. Our laws are both secular and also some are based on Sharia law. We have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). But, of course that ratification is with reservations on 3 issues, which include articles 8, 9 and 15. For the most part women have equal rights with men. There are a few issues which are problematic. One is the right to pass on nationality. Women are allowed to pass on their nationality to their children, but only with the stated permission of their husbands. And women are not allowed to marry non-Muslims, but marriages that occur outside of Tunisia are recognized in Tunisia, so women who want to marry non-Muslim men do so outside the country. The other issue of concern is one of inheritance, where women inherit less than men and this is problematic.

Q: In Iran too women inherit at half the amount of their brothers (when they are inheriting from their parents) and wives inherit 1/8 of the assets of their husbands, excluding land. Though new legislation has recently been passed in the parliament to allow for women to inherit land from their husbands and we are hoping that this legislation will be approved. Is it the same in Tunisia?

In Tunisia, women inherit land and there are no restrictions in this respect. But our law on inheritance is based on Sharia law and like Iran, when inheriting from their parents, female children inherit half of male children (or 1/3 to the female and 2/3 to male). Women inheriting from their husbands women inherit 1/8th of his assets. Our organization is involved in addressing this inequality and we are seeking equal rights for women to inheritance.

Q: In Iran women are working to change laws that discriminate against women, including equal rights in marriage, right to divorce and right for child custody and guardianship. One of the demands of women’s rights activists is an end to polygamy. How prevalent is the practice of Polygamy in your country? Is it legal?

Polygamy was abolished in 1956, at the same time that Tunisia gained independence. Currently polygamy and temporary marriage are not allowed under the law, and in fact if a man marries a second wife, he faces jail. Women and men have equal rights in marriage as well. In 1993 the law was changed to ensure that both men and women have equal rights in marriage. Before that the law required that women obey their husbands, but with its change in 1993, both men and women are obliged to obey each other. Women also have the right to divorce and custody and guardianship of their children. Also the legal age of marriage is 18 for both boys and girls.

Q: Tell us about what you are planning for International Women’s Day Celebrations in your country?

We are planning a conference on women. We are also holding a workshop to commemorate the 20th anniversary of our organization. And we will be launching our website.

Q: Do you plan to hold any public events, like a protest or a march?

No street protests need authorization and even if we request a permit we will not be issued one. The government fears public protests and so they do not allow for it. If we go out in the street without a permit, our protest will end in police violence. We recently held one protest in support of Gaza and to object to the killings that were taking place there. There was a lot of public outcry about the situation of Gaza in our country, so the authorities had no choice but to issue a permit for our protest, but the whole time, the protesters were surrounded by police. At the same time the government sent organizations that are affiliated with the government to our protest and instead of chant our slogan in support of Gaza, they began chanting slogans in support of the president and his bid for re-election. Our President has been in office for 20 years and now he wants to run for office again, despite the fact that when he was elected, he claimed that there should be term limits for Presidents. Anyhow, these government protesters chanted slogans like: “We want to elect our president to office again.”

Q: It sounds like you are working in a difficult security environment. What is the situation in your country with NGOs?

The situation of NGOs in our country is very difficult. There is a lot of pressure on activists and on NGOs and the police can storm the offices of NGOs at any given time. But we believe that our work is important and we continue. Interesting for you may be the fact that we had a meeting with Shirin Ebadi in our NGO when she was in Tunisia.

Q. I told you that women in Iran are fighting for their legal rights. I work with a national campaign that seeks to change all laws that discriminate against women. It’s called the One Million Signatures Campaign. Have you heard of the Campaign?

Yes we have heard of the Campaign. We get all the news related to the Campaign through different international email lists on women. In fact, when your colleague Khadijeh Moghaddam was arrested and we read the news, we took the initiative to translate the news into French and share it with our colleagues in French speaking countries and in Tunisia. We are shocked that women in Iran go to prison for simply asking for their basic rights.

Q. Have you ever had any women’s rights activists imprisoned in your country?

Not for the demand of equal rights, certainly not. But we have had some women in the south of Tunisia who have been engaged in demonstrations for several months. These mothers have protested lack of employment opportunities for their children. One woman’s rights activist who was a supporter of this group was placed in detention for 4 months. Her name is Zakia Dhifaoui. She is free now. We really commend all of you working with the Campaign and for women’s equal rights in Iran and we hope that you know that we will support you in whatever way possible.

Thanks for your time and your support.

Supporting Our Sisters in Afghanistan

Farah Mokhtareizadeh

In a neighborhood of northern Kabul once called little Paris after its famous patisseries and tree-lined avenues, a taxi driver drops me off in front of a 15-foot-high metal gate. The gate surrounds a large old house barely visible from the street. The street is really nothing more than an ominous dirt path marked by potholes, and a trench where sewage wafts up from an opening where pipes were never laid. Across the street is a makeshift refugee camp, homes built from dirt and materials gathered from nearby garbage heaps. The man who works security at the gate instructs me the refugees are from Pakistan, families fleeing the ongoing fighting and US air raids.

I am here to have a meeting with the director of the Afghan Women’s Skills and Development Center (AWSDC), a non-government organization working to enhance the basic skills and capacities of women and girls through education and training courses. The AWSDC is a member organization of the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), “an umbrella association of over seventy women focused NGO’s,” according to its director Afif Azim.

I am here because both organizations have signed a report submitted by 29 NGO’s working in Afghanistan to the NATO Heads of Government called Nowhere to Turn. The report documents the NGO’s serious concerns over growing insecurity for ordinary Afghans, and cites a recent UNAMA briefing claiming a 21% increase in civilian deaths in the first six months of 2010 compared to the same period in 2009. Careful to outline that a majority of deaths are at the hands of armed opposition groups, like the Taliban, the report emphasizes that the current US/NATO military strategy including arbitrary detention, night-raids, drone bombing and financing and arming of militia groups are the most significant factors creating instability for civilians.

The Afghan Women’s Network and its partner organizations have been working since the fall of the Taliban to advocate for the implementation of international conventions and national legislation that would protect, and maybe in the future even benefit the status and rights of women across Afghanistan. All are starkly aware of the realities ‘on the ground’ for women, and this is why they speak passionately about the need to create security before any substantive work towards human rights can be accomplished.

Still, the issue of security in Afghanistan is as pressing as it is contested. The narrative of guaranteeing women’s rights in Afghanistan has served as the highly politicized accessory to the US’s 2001 invasion. And this objective remains a potent piece of the political puzzle in Afghanistan. Thus, while these two organizations were clear in their condemnation of US military strategy, they also advocated for the necessity of the troop presence due to the reality of violence women would face if there were a civil war.

However, other women stress that the US/NATO presence are contributing so significantly to insecurity in the country that there is no choice but to demand from the UN an alternative international force that would not act as occupiers. Zohra, a photographer and self-described feminist with a local arts collective Third Eye reasons that while cosmetic changes for women have occurred in Kabul and Heart cities since the fall of the Taliban, for the vast majority of women in the provinces this event held no significant political meaning. Zohra, like her colleagues from AWN, assert that whist many people in the West focus on the ‘need’ to challenge the gender norms of a cultural conservative society, it is the insecurities accented by war and occupation that remain the principle obstacle to securing women’s human rights.

As Zohra explains, “Your [US] leaders say they are here to secure Afghanistan, especially for the women. The reporters happily wrote stories about how the Taliban did not let women to go to school. And this is true; many of our women cannot even to read. But now girls cannot go to school, and where is the Taliban? It is not the Taliban who are stopping the girls. What mother would let her child to go to school if they think a bomb will drop on them? For the girls does it matter from which hand the bomb drops?”

I leave the AWSDC offices humbled by the work these women accomplish despite overwhelming challenges. Yet, I am most immediately struck by the faces that greet me across the way in the refugee camp. Whilst my colleagues and I discussed largely theoretical scenarios for possible solutions to the ‘women question’ in Afghanistan, the inhabitants of this camp have been scavenging a nearby trash heap, looking for materials to burn a fire and keep warm enough to survive the night. Their day-to-day existence depends largely on the generosity of what is discarded from the NGO offices that line this street. I tremble under this most cruel reality, and remind myself that across Afghanistan women weep for children who cannot survive the cold; women whose anger must grow as they send children to bed with pains of hunger, or who fear the terrorizing bombs that mutilate and murder loved ones without recourse to justice. These are the very women we seek to ‘help’, and I come to the conclusion that many in Afghanistan have stated over and over to us in our all too brief time here, “you cannot bomb people and then expect them to accept your aid.”

Interview with “Leila” on Torture in Iran

Web Exclusive: Extended interview with “Leila” on torture in Iran

PBS NEWSHOUR and the Center for Investigative Reporting mark the two-year anniversary of Iran’s “Green Movement” with an exclusive report about the government crackdown that followed. The report features the courageous work of an Iranian journalist and the first, heart-wrenching accounts of women demonstrators who say once arrested, they were raped, beaten and tortured by the Iranian government. Watch the full report on PBS NewsHour.

CIR editors had the full interview with “Leila” translated. What follows is an excerpt. For reasons of safety CIR has decided to not reveal the identities of the interviewer and person interviewed.

I was an ordinary person and a student who was detained for no reason.

That day I wasn’t part of any protest. I was returning home from the university. They harassed me, abused me, tortured me.

They constantly deny any act of torture on TV, but that’s exactly what they did to me. I want to tell the whole world, it wasn’t just me, but many people.

They arrested me and put me in a van. Along the way they hit us with batons, harassed us, and cursed us. They were policemen wearing uniforms with large builds, wearing hoods disguising their faces, you could only see their eyes and mouths. They had ripped off their name tags from their uniforms. Their uniforms, batons, shields and equipment were all similar. It was inside a van like those of morality police, they hit us and insulted us.

Among them was a young boy, his mustache hadn’t even grown yet, he wasn’t a man. He touched us all over with lust, on my breasts, other women’s breasts, wherever he wanted. No one dared to challenge him. A woman who protested, he turned and slapped her on the face. We all fell silent.

There was a guy filming us constantly with a handycam from all directions. They transferred us to a place that was like a warehouse. I didn’t see much of it, just that it had tall walls and a high ceiling like a warehouse. They wouldn’t exchange a word with each other, nothing whatsoever. They are such fearful people that [they wouldn’t speak] in front of someone like me, who is a nobody. I have the strength only now. Why didn’t I speak out before? I didn’t have the ability to speak out.

I am an ordinary person who decided to speak out more than a year after what happened to me. Go try find someone like me who would be willing to give an interview. They don’t exist, they don’t have the strength because they fear another round of torture and trouble. No one would come forward and say these things.

If our captors weren’t scared they wouldn’t have heaped this misfortune on us. I am not a very religious person but I do believe in something. They shattered my soul such that I say “Damn God!” Because what had I done? What had I done to deserve this? All I had done was to give one vote and that was to Mousavi. A vote that was never counted, never!

The dragged us on the floor, not even asking us to stand and walk. They dragged us like potato sacks into hallways made of curtains.

They gave us typed up pages, with the standard bureaucratic font. And what was written on those pages? It said that I had committed acts I had absolutely never done. I was to copy from those pages that I am a rioter, I have endangered national security, I did this and that, and I am a terrorist! I didn’t even have nail clippers in my purse, for them to say I had anything remotely sharp or dangerous. I only had my books and pens coming from the university.

They separated us into groups of five here, five there. It was the same boy who was groping us in the van, he separated us. For example, he said I was one of the pretty ones and should go to one side.

They shaved all our heads. I used to have log hair. He grabbed my hair in his hand like this. A man! It was a man shaving my hair, a man giving me a body search, a man touching me all over. There were no women there.

He would purposely hurt me while shaving me, to give me marks on my head.

While he was shaving me, he was touching me all over. I wasn’t sitting on a chair. He held me like this and grabbed my head while his legs were feeling me.

Five of us were taken to a cell. A tiny cell. Some earlier detainees were also there. I was really tired, bruised, my face all cut up, totally devastated. They held us there until they supposedly clarified our status.

We were in that tiny room for 18 hours. I desperately needed to go to the bathroom. The pressure was really hurting me. I felt my bladder would burst. I was nauseous, thirsty. I had read in human rights books that detainees have certain rights. But I didn’t have the most basic rights like going to the bathroom or drinking water. I didn’t the right to a lawyer, or to call my parents to say where I was and not to worry.

I didn’t have any appetite for food but I wished I could call my father. That was much more important to me. To say “Father dear, I am here and need someone to come help me.”

It wasn’t like they would tell us confess to this or that and then go free. They wanted to keep us in such limbo, to reach a point where you say enough. You would say I would do anything to get out of this.

With our hands tied, our eyes covered and hoods over our heads, they transferred us to a detention center. I couldn’t tell where it was. Not just me, no one had any idea where we were.

What haunted me the most was the groping, more than the insults. Their groping was torture.

As they groped us they would invoke Saint Zahra. Could you imagine that? Could Saint Zahra believe such things?

In the name of Saint Fatima, Saint Zahra they touched us and they even said “In the name of God” as they did it. They would say “Oh God accept us!” As if it was our wedding and he was performing his rituals preparing for the marital bed.

I detest the phrase vigilante forces that the government uses. How could they be vigilante if they have serious backing and protection? No! they were no vigilantes. All the papers and forms had seals of the Judiciary and Intelligence Ministry. You think I am a little kid to believe these people could be vigilantes? I am no kid! I have seen it all … killing people and claiming it was vigilantes!

They took us to a detention center. This was more like a proper detention center, not a warehouse. This time they took me into a solitary cell. I figured out that before and after interrogations they throw you in solitary confinement, so when you are done you don’t share your experience with others.

After a short time, about 20 minutes, they took me to the interrogation room. My hands were tied behind my back, I was blindfolded and gagged. The room was dark and the door opened. I heard steps. Someone sat in front of me.

“So you are a rioter! So you are undermining the State! Who you think you are? Who are you with?” I was gagged. He said “Why are you not talking?” I teared up.

I said “I am not with anyone.” He said “Shut up, speak when I tell you.” I was trembling all over. I felt my body tense up. I was so defenseless. He went on and on saying “Who are you with? You want to overthrow the State?” I said “How can I? I am not capable.” He said “Oh, yeah? You putting on a show? You think I am going to listen to you like others?” I kept silent. Next question: “What do you do?” I said “I am a student.” He said “No you are not. From now on don’t say you are a student.”

Suddenly I felt he was sitting on my legs. I couldn’t breathe from his weight. I was scared silent. I could feel his breathing on my face.

The first thing he did was lick my face. I felt my life drained. I felt my whole being escaping out of my mouth. He started to pull my clothes off. My hands bound, my eyes covered, I started crying. He shouted “Shut up whore!” Then he opened my bra and took my clothes off. He was stroking and hitting me at the same time. Saying “I will do something to you that you’ll never forget. I’ll make it so you never leave your house again. Anytime hear my name you’ll tremble, I’ll drive you insane”… and he did. He raped me.

Me, who never had a boyfriend. He raped me. Not with a baton … it was his filthy thing … his ugly male instrument. He raped me. Afterwards he urinated on me. The smell nauseated me. After a while he walked away and I was left with my sorrows. What happened? I was told from childhood to protect [my virginity] and now it was gone. What happened? I was in shock. After a while someone else came and meanwhile I had wet myself.

When he came he smacked me in my face and said, “You filthy scum you have stunk up the place!” Then he called some guy to come over and mop the floor. Then he went out and dragged something into the room, and sat in front of me. I could hear crinkling. He started unwrapping something. I didn’t know what, but when he flicked his lighter I realized he wanted to smoke. Until then he hadn’t said anything. I sat there with my hands tied. I sensed, I mean I heard, he put the cigarette to his mouth, and lit it. He said, “You are not talking? Are you mute? I’ll make you talk, who do you think you are?”

He untied my hands and started caressing me as if he wanted to make love. I had no feelings, I was numb from the beatings. Then something burned me. I screamed. He extinguished his cigarette on my left hand. I screamed. It hurt. It hurt a lot. I felt it penetrate to my bone. A hole in my hand. It burned, as if my hand was seared against a hot kettle… He still wasn’t done. He extinguished another cigarette on my knee. I was still consumed in the pain, when he put out another on my breast. I sensed it. I didn’t see it.

I keep using the verb “see” but I didn’t see anything, I was feeling everything. He put one cigarette after another on my body. I was burning. I felt my life drain from my veins. Why me? How much can I endure? How much should I suffer? I got quiet. I was crying. Someone else came into the room. I could hear the steps. He said something that I could not process. I was just raped an hour ago, and he said, “I’ve heard you are not a virgin. Did you do it with your boyfriend? How many guys have you been with?” In my heart I screamed, “You just raped me, you took my innocence, and now you are asking me how many guys I have been with? Before, I was a girl! You did this to me!”

I couldn’t comprehend that they were saying this. Me, who was a girl, living in this rotten society. I was someone who would tell off a guy who got too comfortable in the taxi cab next to me! Now he was telling me, “You had fun with your boyfriend? When they brought you here your hymen was broken Which whorehouse do you come from? Are you a prostitute?” I couldn’t talk. I wanted to say, “It was your friends who raped me, it was you! You all! Before this I was a girl!”

I didn’t know how long I was there. I fell asleep. A kick to the stomach suddenly woke me up. I felt like my stomach filled with blood. I tasted blood in my mouth. They cursed and pulled me out of the cell. I could not breathe. I didn’t know how long had passed. I felt drowsy, I couldn’t walk, I fell unconscious and when I woke up I thought I was in a clinic, but I wasn’t. The walls were dirty. They wanted to give me an IV, but I didn’t let them. I was scared it was infected with AIDs. They just dressed my cigarette burns.

I could smell blood, I was still drowsy. I didn’t feel well. They took my back to the cell. I don’t know how much time passed. One week, two weeks. Every other day it was the same routine. They would take me into the room, they would beat me, rape me, they would pour their sperm and excrement on me, and they would supposedly wash me with a bucket of water.

They didn’t extinguish cigarettes on me anymore, maybe they thought it would leave marks. They mostly beat me. I got an infection because of the repeated rapes. My uterus got infected, it smelled, I had little ugly bumps, I thought it was syphilis. I got treated, but I was never sent to the hospital. When I got back, my parents just took care of me at home.

I suffered many things during those days, and then later I was still tortured by the remaining pain. My uterus was polluted and sick. My spirit was crushed. Me, who was an active person, I was scared of crowds. I don’t know how many times they raped me. I didn’t have a watch to calculate. May be it was ten minutes, but for someone under such stress ten minutes is like a lifetime. I just know the number of rapes was very high, and it wasn’t always the same person.

They had handed my belongings to my father. They called him from my mobile and told him that we have arrested her. They told him she was one of the demonstrators. They showed him the file that I had handwritten and my father pursued my case. They kept us in limbo for so long that we no longer asked them when they would release me. This whole time I told myself to be strong. Be calm. In one instance, it will all be over. Death was my wish. I wanted to die. I wanted it all be over. I wanted to die in my sleep. I wanted peace. I prayed that I no longer existedI wanted to die.

In my dreams my only wish was death. In my dreams I was running in a field in a white dress. That field was so beautiful. It reminded me of a trip with my family, it was a beautiful memory. Those days I never thought one day I would be able to sit here and say what happened. To say what happened to me, to others. We are not Nasrin Sotoudeh, so that someone would come to our rescue. We are not Nasrin Sotoudeh, so that our voice would be heard. No one knows my name, no one knows where I am, no one, no one came to look for me.

When Neda died, all of Iran, the whole world, heard about it. But no one knew when they were raping me, when they were torturing me, when they were burning me with cigarettes.

I told myself one day I would speak so the whole world could hear. I would speak, I had promised myself. I signed in blood, a promise stronger than the bond of marriage. Unbreakable. I told myself that I would do it and I did it.

There are many of us, people that, because of their reputation and because of their life, they don’t speak up. People who are out there, people like me. Believe me, they are out there. They need you. All of you. Don’t let people like me suffer. It already happened to me, I’m only 22, but I feel old and I feel like dying. Please stop them. Please stop them. How did you help others? Please do it for us too. Us, who fear our reputation. If they see this video, what they will do to me? But I’m here. I’m speaking because I have to. Those who hear this, those who are like me, you have to speak. They have to understand. The whole world has to understand that there are those of us who are invisible.

The Riskiest Job in Iran

By Shirin Ebadi
Not so long ago, my colleague Nasrin Sotoudeh was the lawyer so many of us human rights defenders in Iran would call when our government harassed us or put one of us, or one of our family members, in jail. Sadly it is now Nasrin who is in jail. The government’s accusations against her include acting contrary to “national security”, “propaganda against the state”, and “membership” of the Defenders of Human Rights Centre, an organisation I founded in 2001. The government has also accused her of failing to wear hijab, the traditional Islamic covering for women. On some of these trumped-up charges she has been sentenced to 11 years in jail, and is now banned from practising law for 20 years.

This courageous 45-year-old mother of two young children is one of many in Iran who are targeted – and punished – for speaking up for the rights of others. Women are all too frequently on the receiving end of the Iranian regime’s wrath – as we know from the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, sentenced to be stoned to death for allegedly coNasrin-Sotoudeh-frei-02mmitting adultery. But what makes Nasrin’s case especially poignant is that it raises a fundamental question about Iran’s future. If the people who come to the defence of people whose human rights are violated cannot do their jobs, who will ensure that such values as equality and justice are upheld in Iran?

Iranian authorities arrested Nasrin at Tehran’s notorious Evin prison last September, during a visit to a client who is a political prisoner. Since then Nasrin has spent most of her time in solitary confinement. To protest against her illegal arrest, Nasrin has gone on several hunger strikes. Iranian officials have denied her access to a lawyer, and for the first month she was not allowed to talk to her family, even on the phone. At one point authorities detained her husband for speaking publicly about his wife’s case.

Why is the Iranian government so afraid of Nasrin Sotoudeh? It is clearly frustrated that an Iranian woman’s work is shining a light on the deplorable human rights situation in Iran. Nasrin is fearless in taking on cases that other lawyers carefully avoid, and for that she has earned respect around the globe. She took on the case of Zahra Bahrami, a Dutch-Iranian who was arrested for participating in post-election demonstrations in 2009. Zahra was denied her right to an appeal and, despite the intervention of Dutch authorities and a call by the European Union not to go ahead, she was executed without warning on 29 January.

Nasrin was my lawyer in a complaint I filed against Kayhan, a conservative newspaper, and she also defended me when Iranian authorities seized my assets in 2009. Nasrin has also taken on cases involving juvenile executions – Iran is one of the few countries in the world that still puts children to death. Nasrin’s case, among others, is making Iran’s failure to uphold basic human rights increasingly obvious. This is why some countries are pushing for a United Nations human rights council resolution on Iran, with a special rapporteur to carry out investigations into human rights abuses there. Such a push is encouraging, but it will still take a few more countries to reach a majority within the council.

Before her arrest the authorities summoned Nasrin to the tax office and froze her assets. While she was there she realised that the government was carrying out similar “investigations” of at least 30 other lawyers. If Iran is jailing its human rights defenders we need to step up efforts to ensure that justice is upheld there. Such concrete international action would be, in my mind, the best way to honour my colleague Nasrin.

Please visit Amnesty International’s urgent action page to find out how you can help:

Essential Readings: Iran

by: Raha Iranian Feminist Collective

[Image by Farhad Rajabali] [Image by Farhad Rajabali. Originally published at Jadaliyya]

In recent years, there has been a deluge of popular English-language writings by Iranians in exile, as well as hand-wringing public policy books by U.S.-based think tank pundits, all insisting on the same basic message: Iran represents a geo-political problem of unparalleled importance. While the stated goal of these books and organizations is to educate the English-reading global public about Iran, very often the message comes laced with support for militarily enforced regime change and full-scale neo-liberalization. Case in point: the mission statement of the Iran Democracy Project, a well-established California-based think tank, claims that its “central goal is to help the West understand the complexities of the Muslim world, and to map out possible trajectories for transitions to democracy and free markets in the Middle East, beginning with Iran.”

From problematic bestsellers to superficial fare treating Iranian politics as an impossible paradox needing U.S. expertise to be solved, what so much of this literature lacks is a historical understanding of Iranian political modernity and social movements. Without this understanding, the daily news coming out of Iran, not to mention U.S. and European state responses to that news, seems inscrutable at best and terrifying at worst.

Thirty years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution catapulted Iranian affairs to the forefront of global politics, the world witnessed an explosion of popular domestic opposition to the apparent electoral fraud of the Ahmadinejad regime and his clerical backers in 2009. Despite some mainstream coverage of these unprecedented events, not enough context was provided by a global media quick to denounce the regime’s violence but less eager (or able) to give credit to the ongoing peoples’ movements — most importantly women’s, students’, and labor organizations — that provided the strategic and moral backbone of these (as well as earlier) anti-regime protests. Frighteningly, the Iranian citizenry’s outpouring of deserved frustration and anger was painted by many in the U.S. government as a valid excuse to import the same kind of “democracy” that had been militarily delivered to the Iraqi and Afghan people. To add to the confusion, some factions of the U.S.- and Europe-based left rushed to support the Iranian state against the protesters’ accusations of systematic violence, brutal repression, and economic malfeasance, ostensibly because of the regime’s illusory anti-imperialist credentials. (For Raha’s response to this messy discourse see our recent statement.)

Despite the above, the situation is not so grim. We in Raha know that — much like in neighboring countries experiencing the Arab Spring — people’s aspirations and movements in Iran flourish despite both domestic and international pressure. Below we have put together a list of historical texts, artistic works, and links to political statements and videos that offer a richer and more nuanced understanding of Iran and Iranians.

Historical Context:

Ervand Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton University Press, 1982) and A History of Modern Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Iran’stwentieth century history is bookended by two major revolutionary movements: the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911, and what came to be known as the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The first revolution was an attempt to implement constitutional law and to curtail the Qajar regime’s dealings with then imperial powers Russia and Britain. The second revolution was an attempt to wrest power away from the repressive, U.S.-backed Pahlavi regime, which held the dubious distinction of maintaining one of the largest military and prison apparatuses alongside one of the poorest populations in the world. That is to say, in their formative stages, both revolutionary surges were attempts to fight what many Iranians have long considered their twin oppressors: este’maar and estebdaad, or external colonialism and internal despotism. Contemporary Iranian politics cannot be understood without this important historical framing. Abrahamian, one of the most prolific and thorough historians of modern Iran, provides just this context. Importantly, he also provides a detailed analysis of the Iranian left in this formative era. The first book listed here is the longer text; there really is no better introduction to twentieth century Iranian political history in English. For a shorter version of the same narrative, see the second book. (For other excellent works that cover the same era see also Iran: A People Interrupted by Hamid Dabashi and Modern Iran by Nikki Keddie.)

Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men (Wiley Publishers, 2008)

Kinzer is an American journalist who has written the most accessible analysis of the CIA-engineered coup against democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, which returned the American puppet Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the Peacock Throne. Though Kinzer’s diplomatic history doesn’t delve into Iranian sources, he adequately reveals the secret machinations that led to the overthrow of the popular Mossadegh, whose apparent crime was attempting to nationalize Iran’s oil resources. The coup remains a formative event in the historical memory of Iranians, though most in the country today are too young to have lived through it. This incident casts a long shadow that continues to lend emotive weight to the current regime’s anti-U.S. rhetoric, and fuels the necessary skepticism toward U.S. motives from those who nonetheless oppose the current Iranian regime.

Said Amir Arjomand, After Khomeini: Iran After His Successors (Oxford University Press, 2009)

For those interested in the major players of the post-Khomeini era and the changes at the level of the state, as well as those who don’t necessarily understand the important differences (and struggles for control) among powerful individuals such as Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, Rafsanjani, etc., this is the book.

The Modern State:

Afshin Marashi, Nationalizing Iran (University of Washington Press, 2008)

Despite the often-racialist rhetoric of many stringent Iranian nationalists — who boast of an ancient greatness often pitted against Iran’s Arab, Central, and South Asian neighbors — Iran is a multi-ethnic society whose history is intimately bound up with that of its neighbors. Iran, as a national entity, is as modern a political construction as any other nation. In this text, Marashi masterfully reveals the twentieth century colonial origins of the myth of “Aryan-ness” shared by some Iranian and Indian nationalists alike, a mythology that has unfortunately colored the analysis of too many Iranian nationalists and members of the Iranian left. We in Raha believe that for Iranian politics to move forward, Iranians must abandon their insistence that they are a people apart from their region.

Darius Rejali, Torture and Modernity (Westview Press, 1994)

One of the popular tropes in U.S. and European mainstream discourses is that the Islamic Republic is nothing but a giant prison. Rejali, on the other hand, reminds us that the contemporary situation in Iran has its roots in the Pahlavi era, when prisons were modernized along American lines and the Shah’s secret police (SAVAK) was trained by the CIA. Rather than seeing the prison system (and its employment of torture) in the Islamic Republic as a barbaric throwback imposed by “Islam,” Rejali argues that Iran’s security apparatus is a direct outgrowth of its establishment as a modern state. (For an interesting interview with Rejali, see “Six Questions with Darius Rejali” by Scott Horton. Here, Rejali reminds us that, “the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979 was the revolution against torture. When the Shah criticized Khomayni as a blackrobed Islamic medieval throwback, Khomayni replied, look who is talking, the man who tortures . . . People joined the revolutionary opposition because of the Shah’s brutality, and they remembered who installed him. If anyone wants to know why Iranians hated the U.S. so, all they have to do is ask what America’s role was in promoting torture in Iran.”)

Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, Conceiving Citizens: Women and the Politics of Motherhood in Iran (Oxford University Press, 2011)

In her most recent work, Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet reveals the degree to which women’s sexuality and health has become a near-obsession of the modern Iranian state. Rather than re-hashing those gendered questions that obsess the U.S. media (such as veiling), Kashani-Sabet shows the extent to which the modern state (both in its secular and religious forms) has shaped debates on gender, sexuality, and health in Iran through a discourse on “nationalist” motherhood. That is to say, Iran – much like its Arab and South Asian neighbors – has seen a gendered nationalist rhetoric claiming that the role of women is the raising of “strong/good” (male) citizens. Gender is an undeniably critical component to understanding Iran, though probably not in the ways we have been led to believe.

Arzoo Osanloo, The Politics of Women’s Rights in Iran (Princeton University Press, 2009)

This book — which spans a later era than Kashani-Sabet’s work — examines the means through which gender has been reconfigured as part of the new state-building project of the Islamic Republic. Osanloo looks at the government’s use of human rights and women’s rights discourses, as well as how that language trickled down into the lives of women in unpredictable ways.

Social Movements:

March 1979 Women’s Protests

This documentary — made by French documentary filmmakers — offers a vivid depiction of the Iranian women’s movement amidst the revolutionary fervor of March 1979. This short film is mandatory viewing for those interested in the events of the 1979 revolution, insofar as it captures a moment when women vied for an alternative vision for post-revolutionary Iran.

Nima Naghibi, Rethinking Global Sisterhood (University of Minnesota Press, 2007)

This book offers a historical perspective on the relationship between Western women/feminism and women in Iran, with a chapter specifically about the March 1979 events featured in the documentary listed above. A must read for anyone interested in transnational solidarity and feminism that doesn’t reproduce imperial hierarchies.

One Million Signatures Campaign

This brief video gives an overview of the major grassroots women’s rights movement that began in 2006. The One Million Signatures Campaign has gained prominence as an organization that insists on non-hierarchical organizational structures and on face-to-face encounters in their daily work. They are an inspiration.

Manijeh Nasrabadi, “Letter from Tehran” (June 2010)

On the anniversary of the Green uprising, Raha-member Manijeh Nasrabadi interviewed Iranian feminist activists in Tehran about their year(s) of upheaval.

“Three Decades of Labor Struggles in Iran”

This video outlines the work of the Iranian labor movement, as well as the difficult conditions facing working people in Iran today. Also see Iran Labor Report and especially the most recent May Day statement issued by several workers’ organizations.

Asef Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran (Zed Books, 1987) and Street Politics: Poor People’s Movements in Iran (Columbia University Press, 1997)

Bayat is the pre-eminent scholar of the remarkable democratic people’s councils (shuras) that emerged in the wake of the 1979 revolution, as well as other working class struggles in the Islamic Republic. Again, these books give a sense of the revolution as a contested struggle over the future, rather than a homogenous movement under Khomeini’s thumb.

Nader Hashemi and Danny Postal, eds, The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (Melville House, 2011)

Featuring important pieces by some of the most vocal commentators on the Green Movement that began in 2009 (among them Hamid Dabashi, Mohsen Kadivar, Juan Cole, and a number of green activists based in Iran), this anthology includes essays that were circulating during the most active months of the protests, and thus serves as both primary and secondary documentation of this democratic protest wave.

Manijeh Nasrabadi, “Gender, Class and Security Politics in Iran”

This talk from a February 2011 NYU teach in sponsored by Social Text considers the impact of the Arab Spring on the volatile situation of repression and dissent in Iran.

Fiction and Poetry:

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, Missing Soluch, translated by Kamran Rastegar (Melville House Press, 2007)

Written just a few years before the 1979 revolution, Missing Soluch is among the masterpieces by Iranian novelist Mahmoud Dowlatabadi. Focusing on life in a small village in Khorasan, Iran, this novel beautifully reveals the limitations and failures of the Pahlavi development project as well as the dynamics of a working class family. Dowlatabadi was himself a sympathizer of a major revolutionary Marxist guerrilla organization in the late 1970s; though this novel doesn’t deal explicitly with those politics, it is nonetheless mandatory reading for those interested in pre-revolutionary life in Iran.

Forugh Farrkhzhad, Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzhad, translated by Sholeh Wolpé (University of Arkansas Press, 2007)

Forugh Farrokhzhad is one of the most beloved modern Iranian poets. Her work explores sensuality and femininity unlike that of any other writer; her poetry features both lyricism and a sense of the ironic that few have matched. Her short film, The House is Black, is also a masterpiece. She is for many of us a feminist and anti-authoritarian hero.


The Prison Papers of Bozorg Alavi, edited and translated by Donne Raffat (Syracuse University Press, 1985)

Bozorg Alavi was a well-known novelist and among the founders of the Marxist Tudeh party in the 1940s. This book includes his Scrap Papers From Prison, the first Iranian prison memoir as well as a classic of Iran’s modern literature. Alavi’s brilliant, Kafka-esque narrative serves as a damning reminder of the first Pahlavi monarch’s authoritarian policies and reveals the degree to which political repression had been entrenched in Iran before the filling of the prisons of the Islamic Republic.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Shah of Shahs (Vintage Press, 1982)

This is a movingly written and politically astute account of the conditions that led to the 1979 revolution. Kapuscinski, a journalist who wrote about many anti-colonial revolutions, travelled to Iran in the final years of the Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign. His account chillingly portrays the paranoia among ordinary Iranians due to the ubiquitous presence of the Shah’s notorious secret police force (SAVAK), as well as the poverty and despair created by the Shah’s “modernization” policies.

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (Pantheon, 2003)

This bestselling graphic memoir (also an animated film) chronicles the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath through the eyes of a young girl whose parents are leftists. Satrapi gives a nuanced account of Iranians’ twin struggle against foreign intervention and internal despotism while also telling a moving coming of age story that challenges many Western assumptions about Iranian women and society.

Shahla Talebi, Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran (Stanford University Press, 2011)

This newly published book is arguably the best memoir written in English by an Iranian about Iran, though it will almost certainly not receive the praise that more sensational fare has received. Talebi is an activist who spent over a decade in Iranian prisons, first under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s reign, and then again for many years in the Islamic Republic. Unlike texts such as Prisoner of Tehran and My Life as a Traitor, which seem to believe that the Islamic Republic created repression out of thin air, Ghosts of Revolution is an explicitly political book that recounts the important historical events that have shaped both the pre- and post- revolutionary years. Talebi is a sensitive storyteller and politically savvy narrator who reminds us that notorious Iranian prisons Evin and Ghazal Hesar are part of the same political universe as the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay; unfortunately, the Islamic Republic doesn’t have a monopoly on repression or torture, despite what some of its detractors may think. On the other hand, this book should serve as an eye-opener for those who naively want to believe that the Islamic Republic represents a successful revolutionary/people’s movement. If you read only one book off of this list, this should be the one.