The History of International Women’s Day in Iran /Mansoureh Shojaee
Monday 9 March 2009, by
Feminist School:The history of the active presence of women in the social, political, and cultural arena in Iran is a fairly recent one that has evolved only in the last century. However, this movement, its progress and its impact embraces much of Iran’s contemporary history.
Despite the efforts of those historians who try to diminish the role of women, the pivotal role of women in support of the constitutionalists, in preserving and promoting modernism cannot be denied. The efforts of Iranian women, took shape as a movement for women’s right to education and to visibility in social life. This took on a more social and political character after the victory of the constitutionalist movement which, in spite of women’s involvement, still denied them the vote.
The first celebration of 8th March in Iran, in 1922, took place in Rasht [North of Iran] organised by "the Society of Women’s Prosperity Herald" [Jamiyat Peyk-e Sa`adat-e Nessvaan]. However, there is no other record of further events being held by this society. A few years later records show that celebrations took place publicly in 1928 organised by the "Organisation for Women’s Awakening" [sazeman-e bidariy-e zanan]. With the rise to power of Reza Khan after a coup in 1926, despite a few events taking place that on the surface seemed to be in favour of women, the genuine women’s movement slowly faded and independent organisations gradually gave way to those controlled by the government. Since then, there are no records of public events commemorating 8th March. However, this event was celebrated secretly and in private in the homes of some of the elite women.
In 1979, having fought against the Shah and his despotism shoulder to shoulder with men, enduring prison and torture for years under that regime, women were faced with the orders of the new revolutionary government. On 26th February 1979, the office of Ayatollah Khomeini announced the annulment of the law of Family Support to the courts. For the first time, on 2nd March, it was announced that according to Islamic laws, women could not become judges. On 6th March, the office of Ayatollah Khomeini announced that women could work outside their houses, but they must observe full religious dress code (hijab). As a result of the declaration of these orders the celebration of this International Women’s Day turned into widespread demonstrations in Tehran and a few other cities. This protest was met with violent reprisal from the supporters of compulsory Islamic hijab.
During the 1980’s, International Women’s Day was commemorated privately and secretly in the homes of secular and intellectual women. This situation continued during the first half of the 90’s. Since June 1997 and the election of the reformist government, celebrating 8th March became more widespread, although it was still being held in private.
The year 2000 was a turning point in the celebration of International Women’s Day and the open activities of women. In this year, Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani invited a group of women to openly and publicly celebrate 8th March. This group was selected from the members of non-governmental organisations working on the environment, children, women publishers, and also women’s domestic groups. To the surprise of the organisers, more than a 1000 people attended, and the widespread news of the event grabbed the attention of society.
In the spring of that same year, the events of the Berlin Conference resulted in the incarceration of Shahla Lahiji and Mehrangiz Kar, resulting in the 8th March organising group collecting signatures for the release of these two activists. This was the first time ever that a group of independent women had risen up to collect signatures and to demand the release of two jailed women. This clearly was not to the liking of the men in the society, whether in the ruling circle or not. This in itself was a lesson for women on the necessity of the independent of activity of women.
The Women’s Cultural Centre is the offspring of this and other experiences of those years. In 2001 the centre staged the biggest and most creative event of 8th March at the "Khaneh Honarmandan" [Artist’s House]. The Women’s Cultural Centre’s action in publicly and openly celebrating 8th March in the capital city of Tehran, resulted in the word spreading and members of the centre began raising awareness about 8th March in towns and cities like Tabriz, Zanjan, Isfahan and Ahwaz.
By 2002, various women’s groups that had learned from the experiences of the Cultural Centre, started to establish independent women’s organisations. In 2002 the Centre focused its efforts on the rights of women as citizens in using city space and the right to free participation in civic gatherings, selecting Laleh Park as the location for the event. The gathering in Laleh Park was conducted under heavy control by the police. This was the first time that an International Women’s Day event had been held in an open space and outside the halls and houses in an atmosphere of defiance and protest.
From 2004 onwards the 8th March has become a focus for women’s resistance to injustice as well as an occasion for increased intimidation by the Islamic state, desperate to suppress the voices of women. Celebrations planned for Laleh Park in that year where met by police violence when permits for the gathering where revoked one hour before it was scheduled to take place In 2006, Simin Behbahani, the aging and freedom-fighting Iranian poet, was assaulted by police.
In 2007, one week before 8th March, 33 women activists were arrested in front of the revolution court. This group had gathered in support of 5 of their friends who were on trial at the revolution court for participating in the 12th June protests of the previous year. The security and police forces, using the excuses of disrupting public order and acting against national security, arrested the activists. During the week that these activists spent in jail, security forces escalated the atmosphere of repression and intimidation by raiding the homes of a number of activists. On 8th March, a protest by female teachers and other freedom-loving women in front of the Islamic Majlis (parliament) quickly turned to violence and a large number of participants were arrested.
For 8th March, 2008 women returned to their homes again. Yet this time they were not small and private groups. This time their houses had become public places but unfortunately even homes were not spared from the attack of the security forces. One of the many events that were held on this day was organised by the Iranian Women’s Centre and The Feminist School. Prior to the event, police were trying to enter the house. Eventually they arrested two of the School organisers along with the homeowner and took them to the police station. Despite that, the police were not able to break up the programme. The event was held under the pressure and control of security forces.
This year, 8th March is a day when the gaze of the world and the international community is fixed on Iranian women. These women have obtained the international Simone de Beauvoir prize thanks to their tireless efforts in the One-Million Signatures Campaign. This prize does not belong to one or two people or even a few organisations. This award belongs to all women who gave meaning and purpose to the campaign by their membership, activities, articles, interviews, holding seminars and workshops, and even signing the Campaign’s petition.
The 8th March 2009 is when Iranian women - encouraged and appreciated by the International community on one hand and under internal threats and pressures on the other hand - celebrate this great day. Happy International Women’s Day to these passionate hard working women and their international sisters!
Mansoureh Shojaee is one of the key activists of the One-Million Signatures Campaign.
Source : Codir