© 2022 KENW
background_fid.jpg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Struggle for gender equality in Iran began generations before the latest protests

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

For nearly two months, Iranians have been protesting following the death of a woman in the custody of Iran's morality police. She was detained for allegedly wearing her hijab inappropriately. And her name was Mahsa Amini. She's also known by her Kurdish name, Jina Amini. She's from Iran's Kurdish minority, which has historically faced state repression. Now, the symbol of the protests following her death has often been the hijab, but the story goes much deeper than that. Today Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei from NPR's history podcast Throughline explore how women's long history of political activism in Iran is also part of the Iranian people's fight for self-determination.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: Women have been at the center of politics in Iran for more than a hundred years. By the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, they'd won freedoms, including the right to vote and initiate divorce.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The end of Iran's monarchy came early today when Khomeini's followers took control of the palace of the shah.

ABDELFATAH: But within weeks of toppling the shah, Iran's new leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, began restricting women's activities and dress, starting with an order that they cover their heads in government offices. This kicked off years of battles between the clerics and leaders running the country and women who were pushing back, looking for ways to gain autonomy, even under restrictive laws.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: In 1997, nearly 20 years after the revolution, there was a historic presidential election in Iran, where nearly 80% of eligible voters turned out. And the winner was a cleric named Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami. Western media portrayed him as a moderate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The smiling face of moderation, or at least what's considered moderate in Iran.

ARZOO OSANLOO: Some social freedoms with Khatami were starting to emerge. Young people could walk together, you know, boyfriends and girlfriends hold hands in public.

ARABLOUEI: This is Arzoo Osanloo, an Iranian American legal anthropologist who's studied Iran's legal system for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: He has promised more rights, more freedom and a better life within the Islamic system.

ABDELFATAH: During the Khatami presidency, women began pushing more and more against the dress code, too, and more women were elected to Parliament than any time since the revolution, proposing laws that would further strengthen the rights of women. Many of Iran's conservatives didn't like it.

OSANLOO: This is around when we started to see a lot of pushback to women's ability to employ and make use of the actual existing Iranian constitution and the set of civil codes, enhance them and get rights and concessions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

ARABLOUEI: In 2005, Mohammad Khatami left office after serving two terms as president. So Iranian voters went to the polls and elected a new president, a man who'd never held national office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

OSANLOO: When Ahmadinejad becomes president, he actually campaigns on this platform that really speaks to a greater emphasis on so-called traditional roles, what some people might call conservative roles of women as nurturers, raising the children and guiding the family.

ARABLOUEI: Ahmadinejad took a much more conservative line than Khatami.

OSANLOO: There is an uptake, again, of women's bodily comportment, their clothing, how they express themselves in public and a kind of surveillance of women.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: To be clear, this surveillance also included violence. Iran's morality police force was established in the 1990s to enforce social rules, like proper hijab for women. Under the Ahmadinejad administration, they became more aggressive in their enforcement, which included arrests, alleged beatings and sometimes lashings. So in 2009, when Ahmadinejad won his second term, protests erupted in what became known as the Green Movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: The incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was announced as the overwhelming winner. But many Iranians refuse to believe it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

ARABLOUEI: Government forces cracked down hard, killing people in the street and arresting thousands. The regime was willing to go to great lengths to scale back the reforms many people, including women, had fought hard to win.

OSANLOO: Iran is a country that is still in a revolution. If you look at the constitution, it's the constitution of the Revolutionary Islamic Republic. And so the way that the women are dressed comes to stand in for this timelessness of the revolutionary struggle. And so the idea of women sort of not wearing this, what does that mean for our incomplete revolutionary struggle that we're fighting?

ABDELFATAH: And so after the Green Movement was squashed by government repression, the work of the morality police went on, including the surveillance.

OSANLOO: The better term for this is guidance police. And I think we can also see how this is an echo of the (non-English language spoken), the guardianship of the jurisprudence, because one of the big debates was - what does it mean to be a guide, a moral guide or a guardian of jurisprudence? Are you just somebody who's there to, like, suggest I change my practices? Or are you there with veto power? And I think we know the answer to the (non-English language spoken) today. We know very well.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Say her name.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Mahsa.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Say her name.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Mahsa.

ABDELFATAH: It is a brutal cycle. Iranian women carve out more space and more rights, and the regime tightens its grip in response.

OSANLOO: It's not just about Islam. It's not just about the state. It's about something greater. And it's about what women - not men - what women signify for the state beyond Iran, not just in Iran. It's a message about the revolutionary values that have guided and led Iran's Islamic Republic since 1979.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: That was Arzoo Osanloo speaking with Throughline hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei. You can hear the whole episode by finding Throughline wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.
Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.