Dance on the Axis of Evil: Women Rights in Iran
Please switch off the voice recorder. I will tell you about the arrest and interrogation. It’s not for my safety, but for yours. I am afraid that they will search you when you will be leaving the country.
A woman in her late 20-ies opens the door to the hotel Firouzeh in central Tehran. She is dressed in blue jeans and a purple hijab covering her faultless shape. Headscarf which is supposed to cover her hair is struggling to stay somewhere on the back of her head.
Delicate smile on her cheerful face is assisting a firm handshake. It’s Maryam, an activist of the One Million Signatures Demanding Changes to Discriminatory Laws towards women. “Marek jaan (dear), welcome to Iran!”
Maryam Mirza in front of the Tehran University
The campaign seeks equal rights for women in marriage and divorce; an end to polygamy and temporary marriage; an increase in age of criminal responsibility to 18; the right for women to pass on their nationality; equal compensation for bodily injury or death between women and men; equal inheritance rights; reform of laws that reduce punishment for honor killings and equal rights to testimony among other changes.
We leave the hotel and go towards the main street. Maryam stops a private car and negotiates with the driver for a while. “Every car is a taxi in Iran” she explains seeing my surprised face. A moment later we are speeding through the empty streets of the middle eastern metropolis. The city is almost empty because of the two-week-long celebrations of Nou Rouz - Iranian New Year (1388). People of Tehran have left the city to visit their families and friends in the country.
We are stopping at the Bolur Hotel and going to the restaurant upstairs. I suspect that the choice of venue was not incidental as there are only us and two waiters in the restaurant. After lunch consisting of chicken kebab, rice and season salad Maryam is answering some questions.
Marek Lenarcik (ML): How do you feel as a woman living in Iran?
Maryam Mirza (MM): I am not an ordinary woman whose biggest aim is to get married and have children. I have totally different experience witnessing current situation in Iran. Maybe in 30 years time I will look back and say that it was a very important time in terms of women rights. Sometimes I am really sad and depressed when I think about our situation, but in the same time I am happy to have a chance to be a part of all of these experiences.
(ML): How many women in Iran are actually unhappy with the current situation?
(MM): Women who are participating in women movement are of course a minority, but it is a growing minority. As an active member of the One Million Signatures campaign I met so many women who are unhappy with the current situation. The campaign educates them about their rights and give them an opportunity to express their real views. There is also a silent part of society who do not participate in any campaigns. But I am not sure if they do not have any objections. We see so many other ways of objections like self-burning or the
increasing amount of husband killings. It is not a personal problem, it is a social problem which have to be addressed at that level.
(ML): How do you see women rights in Iran in comparison to the other middle eastern countries and to the world in general?
(MM): I do not have much knowledge about other countries, but I believe that women rights movement in Iran is more active. We are definitely worse than in Turkey, but definitely better than the women in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq. Laws in countries like United Arab Emirates or Qatar are discriminatory against women as well and I think the situation there is worse than in our country. Treating women as second class citizens in these countries is a part of their culture and it is blindly followed by the society.
(ML): Do you think that something has changed in women rights field in Iran in past 20 years?
(MM): Yes, of course. The awareness among women of their rights is growing every year. The police and government is softer now than in the first years after the revolution. They didn’t have any flexibility back then, there were so many executions. These days they feel more interconnected with the world, they feel like they are somehow responsible to the world, so they are softer as the result, they control themselves more.
(ML): Were there any successes of the One Million Signatures campaign except for the increased awareness?
(MM): The inheritance laws have been changed for example. Before the change women were getting much less than men. Now they receive more than before, but it’s still not equal. We managed to stop the law being passed in the parliament saying that woman’s permission for a man to get more than one wife is not necessary. Now a man who wants to have more than one wife needs a permission from his first wife.
(ML): Can you tell me about your arrest?
(MM): We were arrested for protesting in front of one of our Revolutionary Courts in Tehran. We gathered there, because some of our friends from the campaign have been there. The religious police came and ordered us to leave, but we refused. Half an hour later another group of policemen and soldiers came. They were very tall and wellbuilt. They tried to push us out to the street, but we sat down on the pavement. The first group of policemen came back and they prevented us from leaving the place. The second group screamed at us calling us “prostitutes”.
Then the beating started. Some of the women were beaten badly and needed a medical treatment later on in the arrest. I was hit in the shoulder, but it was not very bad. My friend lost one of her tooth. When they were beating us I started to sing women movement song. It allowed me to empty myself of all of the anger I had in my heart. They arrested 33 of us placing 18 women in one mini-bus. Some women had difficulty with breathing. Young soldier who was the driver was very aggressive and disrespectful even to the elder women. They took us to one prison, but they did not have enough space for all of us. So they took us to another one for prostitutes and drug-addicted people. They forced us to clean the toilets there. You can’t imagine how the toilets looked like in this place! It was very dirty. Excrement and vomits were everywhere. I feel sick on a memory of this. I feel they intended to humiliate us, to show who has the power. Few hours later they told us that we are free to go. They packed us all to the cars again. I thought they are driving us back home, but they took us to the Evin Prison instead. Our families were waiting there. I left the car and I ... (Maryam is starting to cry) ... I saw my father in the crowd ... I am sorry ... I can’t ... He ... He was looking for me, but he could not see me... I waived at him, but he did not see me ... I felt so sad!
(ML): How the interrogation looked like?
(MM): I will tell you, but please switch off the recording. It’s not for me, but for you. I am afraid you will get into troubles when you will be leaving the country. They questioned us in the prison. The interrogator covered my eyes and made me sit facing the wall. Then he screamed at me. I told him that I am not going to answer any questions, because I am blindfolded, facing the wall and I don’t like to be screamed at. He changed his attitude completely, allowed me to sit at the table with my eyes free. I demanded a phone call to my family and
he let me make it. “So...you are a feminist?” – he asked making it sound like a “feminist” was a bad word. “Yes. And I am proud of it” – I replied. They let me go after four days without bringing up any charges.
(ML): What does freedom mean to you?
(MM): One day I was talking to my friend who is a journalist living in Belgium. The conclusion of this conversation was that we are so busy with our problems in Iran that we do not really have time to think about what freedom is. She said that people in Europe are so free to say and write what they want, that she does not know what to write about now. Sometimes I wonder what will we do after we achieve our goals in terms of women rights! (smiling)
(ML): How popular a polygyny is in modern Iran?
(MM): It’s not very popular in big cities, but it’s still an issue in small villages. I believe that our laws should reflect the modern times more. The laws should be more forward to the culture. And our laws are backwards! The problem is much wider than just a man having more than one wife. The problem is about our culture where a woman is treated as a second class citizen.
(ML): What do you think about the sharia law?
(MM): We have an Islamic laws in Iran, but I don’t think it’s a real problem. And the reason for this is that we are Shi’a and the Shia Islam says that all the laws except for the main religious ones can be changed. We’ve observed that laws have been changed in many Sunni countries as well like Morocco or Malaysia. They changed the laws and they are not discriminatory anymore.
(ML): How about the penalties under the sharia law like stoning for example?
(MM): Well, we do have a stoning in Iran, even though the government is trying to do all they can to hide it. It’s probably no more than 10 executions a year, but it is increasingly public. It applies to men and women, but even here we have a problem with equality. The stoning has its rules. If you can escape when the stones are being thrown at you than you are free and not guilty. The problem is that women are buried in the soil up to their necks making it impossible to escape, while men are buried only to their waists with their arms
outside. They are not only physically stronger, but they can escape much easier!
After the interview we leave the restaurant and go to the academic bookstore on the opposite side of the road. Maryam is looking through the books about women rights for few minutes. “You know, when Mahmoud Ahmedinejad came to power he closed a lot of cafes adjacent to the bookstores in fear of bright, young people intriguing against him. The elections are around the corner (June 12th). I hope the cafes will be opened again...” - she says.
Special carriage only for women in Tehran metro
Man and two women in the traditional restaurant in the city of Yazd