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.
In fact, some women found themselves with more opportunities after the 1979 Islamic revolution, as more traditional families began educating their daughters when the schools became segregated and Islamicized. The result has been the best-educated generation of women in Iranian history.
More than 60 percent of university students are women, and female lawyers, doctors, athletes and politicians are not uncommon. There are female taxi drivers and even women in the Basij, a pro-government militia. A woman, Shirin Ebadi, won Iran's first Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.
Many Iranians remember the participation of women in the revolution -- and afterward, when the ruling clerics sought to limit their rights.
"When Imam Khomeini first imposed edicts for veiling, women came in with such force that he had to take it back" and introduce it more slowly, Nafisi said.
At the time, the middle and working classes joined forces to oppose limitations on their rights, she said. "It created a unity between different strata of women because they realized these laws applied to all of them."
This time, many prominent women joined the opposition movement because of Rahnavard, who campaigned alongside her husband. Rahnavard, a former chancellor of Tehran's Alzahra University for women, held hands with Mousavi as the couple entered auditoriums.
"The world there looked at women here as if they are all under the Taliban rule. For the first time, they are seeing that the Muslim woman is also a leader and a partner," said Sawsan Zakzak, head of the League of Syrian Women, in Damascus.
In Iraq, which fought an eight-year war with neighboring Iran, many women say they have long admired the strong roles Iranian women played during the revolution. Once among the Arab world's most liberated, Iraqi women today are frequently targets of extremists or harsh tribal codes, with few rights or freedoms.
"We want Iraqi women to imitate Iranian women in boldly and courageously expressing their views, especially since Iraqi women do not lack courage or daring," said Samira Musawi, a lawyer and member of parliament with Iraq's ruling Shiite alliance.
Aliya Nusayef, another Iraqi member of parliament, said many female lawmakers were voting on issues, including women's rights, based on "what their political parties are telling them, not what they believe in."
"Let us hope that Iranian women would spur our women to become involved and active in securing their rights," she said.
But in ultraconservative parts of the Arab world, the Iranian uprising has underscored the immense obstacles women face in the region.
In Saudi Arabia, women cannot vote. Nor are they allowed to drive. Although the government has enacted some changes, such as appointing the kingdom's first female deputy minister, clerics control the courts and apply an austere version of Sunni Islamic law.
Fahed, the Saudi blogger, said many similarities exist between Iran and Saudi Arabia in their treatment of women.
"But women's battle in Iran is with the government. In Saudi Arabia, it is with the religious authority," Fahed said. "I really believe that the Saudi government is in favor of change. But the religious authorities here are so powerful. Religious men are resisting any change in favor of women's rights."
Diana Moukalled, a Lebanese columnist who has produced a series of documentaries about Iran, said Iran's Shiite doctrine is less strict about the concept of female participation in society than the Sunni doctrine of most of the Arab world.
Others say a mostly Sunni Arab society would not be influenced by Shiite Persian culture.
"What's going on will sure set an example, but I don't expect it to be reflected in any similar action," Moukalled said. "It is much more difficult to stir change here."
Abdula, the Egyptian activist, said younger women will probably be the most influenced by the situation in Iran. Many have followed the events through blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
In interviews outside the gates of Cairo University and in cafes last week, a dozen young Egyptian women expressed solidarity with Iran's female protesters. They had all heard about Agha Soltan's death and expressed outrage and sympathy.
Yet most doubted whether they as women could bring any meaningful reform to an authoritarian government such as Egypt's.
Some said they were willing to try.
"It encourages me, but I don't know how to translate that into action," George said. "We have to find ourselves a role to play here."
Staff writer Tara Bahrampour in Washington, correspondents Thomas Erdbrink in Tehran and Howard Schneider in Jerusalem and special correspondents Alia Ibrahim in Beirut, K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad, Samuel Sokol in Jerusalem and Sherine al-Bayoumi in Cairo contributed to this report.