Role of Women In Iran Protest Kindles Hope

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 28, 2009

CAIRO, June 27 -- Over the past two weeks, Marcelle George has watched with amazement as legions of Iranian women, most wearing black, full-length Islamic garments, defiantly protested Iran's leadership.

Even in her native Egypt, where some opposition to the government is permitted, most women would never dare cross that line.

"To actually see Iranian women fight for their rights is inspiring," said George, a college student in jeans and a long-sleeve blouse. "I never imagined that it could happen there."

As Iran's theocracy appears on the verge of silencing the biggest challenge to its authority since it was established in 1979, female activists in the region say they are inspired by the prominent role women are playing in the country's opposition movement. Many hope it will have a crossover effect on the struggle for women's rights in their own countries and help shatter Western perceptions of Middle Eastern women as subjugated in a male-dominated culture.

In a region that reveres men who die in battle, some of the major icons to emerge from the Iranian demonstrations have been women. Neda Agha Soltan, the music student whose bloody death on June 20 was videotaped and broadcast around the world, became an instant symbol of the opposition movement and sparked widespread outrage. Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi 's wife, Zahra Rahnavard, has also taken on a prominent role as she accompanied her husband on the campaign trail and more recently spoke out against an election result that the opposition says was fraudulent.

"This is our time, women's time," said Khoulod Al Fahed, a Saudi businesswoman and blogger. "It is the time for women to speak up and demand the rights that have been stolen from us in the name of religion and culture."

Middle Eastern women have long played active roles in the struggle for democracy and human rights. In recent months, women have won small yet unprecedented victories. In Kuwait, four female lawmakers were elected to parliament last month, the first time women have won seats in the nation's legislature. In Egypt, election law was recently changed to give women a quota of 64 parliamentary seats. Palestinian women have launched protests to free prisoners held by Israel, while Egyptian women have organized labor and pro-democracy strikes in recent years.

But few events in recent memory have drawn as much attention as the sight of thousands of Iranian women taking to the streets, defiantly challenging their leaders and the election results. Grainy cellphone video and photos of the female protesters have flooded the Internet and the blogosphere, especially the haunting images of Agha Soltan as she died.

"Everyone is so shocked to see that beautiful young girl dying and looking so modern and secular," said Azar Nafisi, author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and a professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

"What's happening in Iran is much more on a larger scale, with huge repercussions and risks," said Baho Abdula, 31, an Egyptian activist. "It does break the stereotype of the Middle East women. And it shows the contradictions inside Iran.

"People trusted themselves, believed in something. And that feeling will live on long, especially with women. It was a huge empowerment to lead the protests," she added. "They didn't fear the state. Images like that live on."

In Iran, such a prominent role is less surprising. Although women face discrimination in legal realms such as inheritance, custody and court testimony, they have a more visible, and more vocal, role in society and politics than in many countries in the region.

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