Soheila Vahdati

(WOMENSENEWS)–As the world knows by now, the announcement of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election victory on June 12 has led to massive and sustained street protests.

Women’s roles in the protests have also been widely noted, marking a continuation and also a departure from the past.

It was women who initiated street protests in 2005 during the last presidential election, demanding equal rights.

They took advantage of the relatively open atmosphere during the campaigns to ask why women could not be nominated as presidential candidates. The protests continued in the following years with further demands for equality.

This time, however, women joined the crowd without a specific agenda.

For example, one of the women’s issues for years has been the mandatory hejab.

But not a single woman took off her scarf in the middle of the massive crowds supporting Mir-Hossein Mousavi, from what I can tell of Internet searches and emails I received from Iranian activists. Mousavi announced his opposition to mandatory hejab before the election and promised to fight gender discrimination.

Chanting, Throwing Stones Together

Video images relayed by eye witnesses show women in the streets chanting next to men. In later protests, involving the riot police, women were hoarding stones and throwing them alongside the men.

Women who did not participate in street protests opened their doors to people fleeing the riot police.

Their demands have been the same as their male counterparts: a fair election.

For the Mousavi supporters, it was hard to believe that their campaign was not successful.

In hindsight–given the lack of democracy in Iran–maybe it was unrealistic to think they could have prevailed.

As President Obama has said, there is no way to verify the results of the election.

Incumbent’s Advantage

Ahmadinejad used his incumbency to his advantage. The day he became president four years ago he started to campaign. He made over 60 trips to different cities, towns and even villages across the country. He has been dispersing the oil income among the civil servants, farmers and villagers.

His populist ways of conduct, from dressing down to sending money to needy people, have won support.

Even if he did not have enough votes to be elected, he was selected by the Supreme Leader, Khamenei, and supported by the revolutionary guard, Sepah Pasdaran, to become the president in this round. The revolutionary guard and riot police followed the Leader’s ban on street demonstrations, which he verbalized at the Friday prayer on June 19. They attacked the protesters brutally, killing many and injuring many more.

At the same time, hundreds of dissident political activists, politicians and journalists were arrested.

Jila Baniyaghoob, a women’s rights activist and journalist who won the 2009 Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation, was among the protesters on June 20. Later that day, she was arrested at her home along with her husband, who is also a journalist. Their whereabouts are still unknown.

People Forced to Go Home

The communication channels, from cell phones to the Internet, were cut off or tapped, eliminating the possibility of organizing and staging protests. These tactics contained the grassroots outburst, for the most part, and many people were forced to go back to their homes. Compared with mass protests last week involving hundreds of thousands of people, according to media reports, the numbers have dwindled in light of potential punishment by security forces.

Nevertheless, this cannot be counted as a defeat.

The whole world has heard this spontaneous expression of dissent, which has been building up for decades over the Islamic regime’s oppressive policies and mismanagement of the economy.

The recent street demonstrations have brought a change that cannot be reversed: the Islamic regime is not sacred anymore.

Just as the women have joined the men in these demonstrations, it can also be said that the men have joined the women.

The demonstrators have made it clear that it’s not only women who are tired of having their civil rights curtailed and suppressed, including violations of the right to peaceful gatherings and even private gatherings.

A regime that is oppressive to women will eventually reveal its oppressive face to all the citizens, regardless of their gender.

Soheila Vahdati is an Iranian-American human rights activist and a freelancer based in California who writes about the death penalty, Iranian women’s human rights and gender issues.

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