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Persian Letters

Saturday 24 March 2018

The women are not wearing the Islamic head scarf, known as the hijab, that is mandated for women in public under Iran's clerically dominated system.

A video of three Iranian women singing a famous feminist song on Tehran's subway on March 8 to mark International Women's Day is going viral on social media and highlighted ongoing challenges to veiling and other discriminatory laws.

The women are not wearing the Islamic head scarf, known as the hijab, that is mandated for women in public under Iran's clerically dominated system.

The song, I'm A Woman, was created about a decade ago by a group of female activists who campaigned against discriminatory laws and came under state pressure for their efforts.

The song calls on women to join efforts, fight injustice, and create "another world" of "equality."

The new clip has been shared widely on popular apps Telegram and Instagram and other social-media platforms where many have praised their courage and bravery.

They hold hands while singing and show what appears to be a photo of a previous protest by a group of women's rights activists.

Once they're done, one of the three calls on other women on the subway train to clap and honor themselves for "having lived and fought all their lives against all kinds of discrimination, violence, humiliation, and insults."

"You've paid a price, yet you've been the hero of your lives," the young woman says in the video while some of the passengers clap their hands.

"Happy [Women's] Day to all of you," she adds.

The video was posted online amid reports that more than 50 people, some of them men, were detained by security forces in the Iranian capital on March 8 for attempting to gather outside the Labor Ministry to mark International Women's Day and urge greater respect for rights.

Dozens of women have risked arrest by carrying out public protests against the compulsory hijab that requires women in Iran to cover their hair and body in public.

The protesters have been standing on utility boxes without veils on the busy streets of Tehran and other cities, waving head scarves on sticks.

Some have been violently confronted by security forces and a number have been arrested.

They have fueled public debate about the hijab rule that became compulsory following the 1979 revolution, prompting rare statements on the topic from senior officials including the president and, most recently, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Those who are deemed to have violated the rule face harassment, fines, and prison terms.

Women have pushed the boundaries of the country's strict dress code in recent years by showing much of their hair and wearing short coats and tight pants. But the debate over the veil has flared up intermittently since the laws were tightened following the 1979 revolution.

Earlier this week, prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi announced that one of the protesters was sentenced to two years in prison for attempting to "encourage corruption through the removal of the hijab in public."

Khamenei, who has the final say on religious and political affairs in Iran, broke his public silence on the veil protests this week to accuse the women in question of being "deceived" by foreign "enemies" funding the effort. He went on to acknowledge that "some of the elite are now questioning the mandatory hijab," suggesting that some "journalists, intellectuals, and clerics" were being led down "the path of the enemy."

The first of the recent hijab protests emerged amid an outbreak of street protests in December and January over economic woes and grievances against Iran's leadership, sparking a crackdown in which at least 22 people died and thousands were arrested.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani delivers a speech during a rally marking the 39th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran on February 11.

A referendum proposed by President Hassan Rohani to heal Iran's divisions has been attacked by his hard-line opponents but provided an opening for establishment critics to go a step further.

More than a dozen Iranian activists and intellectuals from inside the country and abroad quickly seized on the president's tentative calls this week for the plebiscite, to ask for a UN-backed referendum in Iran that would allow for a transition to a new form of government.

The past four decades, signatories said, in an apparent allusion to the leadership since Iran's religiously fueled revolution in 1979, demonstrated that the clerically-backed establishment cannot be reformed and systematic rights violations, corruption, and religious pretexts had become the "main obstacle to the progress and liberation of the Iranian people."

Their explicit criticism of Iran's postrevolutionary constitution and government are especially notable as they come just a month or so after deadly unrest erupted in dozens of Iranian cities before a crackdown and thousands of arrests mostly restored calm in the streets.

But Rohani's second and final term has seen a sharpening of publicly aired differences between the relatively moderate president and hard-liners who hold most of the cards under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all political and religious matters in Iran.

In a speech marking 39th-anniversary celebrations of a revolution to rid the country of the Western-backed shah of Iran, Rohani on February 11 suggested that "if we disagree on some issues, we should refer to Article 59 of the constitution," which talks about a "popular vote through a referendum."

Article 59 states that "In extremely important economic, political, social, and cultural matters, the function of the legislature may be exercised through direct recourse to popular vote through a referendum."

It adds that "any request for such direct recourse to public opinion must be approved by two-thirds of the members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly."

Rohani added, "If [political] factions have differences of opinions on a couple of issues, bring the ballot box and whatever people say, act accordingly."

Hard-Line Pressure

Public responses to the December-January protests underscored cracks in the establishment, with Khamenei emphasizing the alleged role of "foreign enemies" in the unrest and Rohani suggesting that there were grounds for public grievances that Iran's leadership should not ignore.

Since then, Rohani has continued to speak out and pressure appears to have mounted from hard-liners in control of key institutions, including through the reported detention of an environmental official within Rohani's government, Kaveh Madani, according to a reformist lawmaker.

Kaveh Madani
Kaveh Madani

Madani said last year he had returned to Iran "to create hope" and pave the way for the return of other expatriates. He appeared live on Instagram on February 12, saying he was at work and expressing hope that "the issue" of the "real friends of Iran's environment" will be resolved.

The fate of Madani, who is on leave from London's Imperial College, remains unclear.

A spokesman for Iran's powerful Guardians Council, Abbas Khadkhodayi, dismissed Rohani's call for a referendum, which he suggested lacked expertise.

He said the function of Article 59 "is known to all those who know the basic law." Khadkhodayi said it referred to the authority of the parliament, adding that "perhaps the president had mistaken it with another article."

Hossein Sharitmadari, editor of the ultra-hard-line daily Kayhan, described Rohani's proposal as an "insult" to those Iranians who took part in state celebrations of the anniversary of the revolution. "If Rohani had heard the voice of the large crowd in the [February 11] rallies, then proposing a referendum would be meaningless," Shariatmadari was quoted by Iranian media as saying on February 13.

'Secular, Democratic System'

One day after Rohani's speech, 15 prominent activists and intellectuals, including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, leading Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, and dissident filmmaker Jafar Panahi, issued their own call for a referendum organized by the United Nations to clear the path for a new system of government in Iran.

Shirin Ebadi
Shirin Ebadi

Iran's current system, which they accused of systematic rights violations, corruption, and the selective use of religion, has become the "main obstacle to the progress and liberation of the Iranian people," they argued.

"A referendum that would take place under the Iranian Constitution is a consolidation of the status quo," Ebadi, who currently resides in the United States, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda. "We want a secular and democratic system; the structure of the [current] constitution does not allow such thing."

Eight of the appeal's 15 signatories live in Iran, where officials routinely jail and abuse perceived regime critics and conduct secretive trials in Revolutionary Courts with little public accountability.

The signatories include jailed human rights activist Narges Mohammadi and a number of former political prisoners, including human rights lawyer Mohammad Seifzadeh; political activist Heshmatollah Tabarzadi; Abolfazl Ghadiani, a member of the reformist Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution party; and former Tehran University chancellor Mohammad Maleki.

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About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.