1 MARCH 2018

Among the incidental virtues of tyrannies is the way in which the small stuff of life simply falls away in their shadow, to intensify the value of the big—love, art, pleasure, relationships. Oppression, like magic mushrooms, has been heightening the senses of urban Iranians for years. Inside the homes, in the safety of “drawing rooms,” the clock is always set to that Austenian hour, when art is as sacred as religion and life is largely defined by the symbiotic relationship with it, each informing the other. Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, for instance, was all the rage in the days following the 1979 revolution, a piece which perfectly mirrored the national turbulence. Now it seems that Iran’s last three decades have ended with the very same notes they had begun with, just like Orff’s masterpiece.

It was in March 1979, when Iranian women took to the streets for a historic demonstration. Days after the victory of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the Islamic Dress Code, the hijab, to be reinstituted in government offices. The news drew thousands of women to the streets on International Women’s Day to protest the decision. At the time, it was unfathomable to disobey the glorified leader who had returned from exile less than a month earlier and delivered the nation from 2,500 years of monarchy. Yet, the women fathomed it, organized, and staged a dazzling protest.

Iranians love poetry and the metaphors in them. But on March 8, 1979, those demonstrating women created a metaphor far more apt and enduring than our poets ever had. In their protest, everything that was already wrong, or would be, was manifested. One didn’t only need legs to walk beside those women. Backbone was much more essential. Even the most progressive intellectuals were too intoxicated by the revolution’s victory to stomach any criticism of the new order. If anything, the women were subject to the wrath of those who should have been their most natural allies—secular and leftist activists. Still, they dared say it like it was: “We haven’t made a revolution, to go back in time,” was one of the day’s slogans. And they dared call it by its real name, as did the American feminist, Kate Millett, who was in Tehran for the occasion and told stunned reporters: “Ayatollah Khomeini is a male chauvinist!”

Despite all the blows the demonstrators suffered from the thugs who attacked them that day, the protest did subsequently force the quintessentially intractable leader to retract his order; albeit in the end, the retraction proved to have only been a delay and the hijab eventually did become mandatory.

Nearly forty years since, the world marvels at what it finds in the new generation of Iranian demonstrators. Women have been on the forefronts of the post-2009 election protests—the phenomenon that has come to be known as the Green Movement, as well as the current protests.

Today, the most iconic image from Iran is that of a woman raising her fist amid tear gas.

Seven years ago, the most iconic image of Iran was that of the dying young woman, Neda Agha-Soltan. Everything about those few seconds when Neda falls to her knees, then lays on her back, arms to either side as if crucified on the asphalt beneath, seems nearly venerable and utterly halting. But there’s also a metaphor, no less great than its predecessor, in the icon.

As Neda’s gaze freezes into the distance, as if she is seeing the promised land, her scarf slips off to reveal her dark hair, moments before narrow streams of blood tarnish her pristine face.

In her image, Iran’s democracy movement comes full circle, ending the 40-year oratorio on the notes of the same plight.

About author

Writer and journalist, Roya Hakakian, works in film and print. Her reportage has been featured on network television, including CBS 60 minutes. Her opinions and essays appear in the New York Times and NPR’s weekend Edition among others. She serves on the editorial board of World Affairs: A Journal of Ideas. Her poetry in Persian has been included in many anthologies, including the PEN anthology of contemporary Iranian literature. Her acclaimed memoir, Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran was one of Publisher Weekly's Best Books and Elle Magazine's Best Nonfiction in 2004. She’s the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in nonfiction for her recent book, Assassins of the Turquoise Palace. It was a 2011 Kirkus Review’s Best and New York Times Notable Book. She’s a founding member of Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, and is a fellow at Yale University’s Davenport College. Visit www.RoyaHakakian.com and follow her @RoyaTheWrite

Read more: Women's rights in Iran

Gender equality is not an ideal limited to the West. This March, we're highlighting how women around the world have fought for their rights. Today we look at #Iran, where women and men have continued to fight bravely against deeply discriminatory laws. 

Women are banned from leaving the country without first receiving permission from their husbands, and single Iranian women (up to age 40) may need their father’s permission to travel abroad. A husband can also end his marriage without any grounds in accordance with the law. 

By 1979, Iranian women fought for and secured many rights, including the right to custody of their children and an increase to the minimum age at which girls could be married to 18. They also gained the right to divorce and to have abortions, while limitations were placed on men's right to polygamy. Soon after Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown in February 1979, many of Iran's progressive laws on women were repealed.

Read more about the complex history of women's rights in Iran here.

Women in Iran comprise over 50% of university graduates, but their participation in the labour force is only 17%. Discrimination against women and laws to marginalise them from public life must end. Read more in this report by Human Rights Watch.

Remember her name

Bibi Khanoom Astarabadi was a staunch advocate for women's rights. She opened the 1st school for girls in #Iran in 1906. The school was attacked, forcing her to close. Undeterred, she opened a new school the following year. Read about her life.

Forough Farrokhzad was an influential Iranian poet and film director who died at 32. For many, her work powerfully reasserts the often marginalised or totally erased voices of Iranian women. Read about her life here.

Shirin Ebadi, the first female judge in Iran, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. She used the prize money to establish the Center for Defense of Human Rights, which was closed by security officials in 2010. Read her views on women's rights in Iran.