Women Are Risking -- and Losing -- Their Lives On the Front Lines of the Iran Uprising
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As Iran's government lashed out today at its foreign critics, people around the world were lighting candles and laying flowers at makeshift shrines to the political opposition's first "martyr" in the battle against the hardliners of the Islamic Republic. In every way the unwitting victim, Neda Agha-Soltan, has become a powerful if tragic icon of a new Iran. She was a young woman of 26, and she died Saturday wearing tight jeans and running shoes, her head uncovered as she fell from the gunshot that killed her. Male strangers rushed to help her, ignoring draconian religious taboos.
Iran's religious leaders, who have barred public memorials for Agha-Soltan amid rumors that one was being planned for Thursday in Tehran, stepped up threats against would-be demonstrators and reiterated that the disputed election on June 12 that returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power would not be annulled and rerun. Some scattered protests continued through Monday night, according to online reports and videos from Iranians. International news agencies can no longer work freely in the country.
Britain, now the primary scapegoat of rattled Iranian authorities, ordered the expulsion today of two Iranian diplomats from London in retaliation for the expulsion on Monday of two British diplomats from Tehran. Speaking in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that Iranian allegations of British meddling in Iran's affairs were "absolutely without foundation." Iran has also formally criticized the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who this week called on the regime to "respect the will of the people."
The pervasive presence of women in street protests, and the influential political role played by Zahra Rahnavard, a political scientist and the wife of Mir Hossein Moussavi, the leading opposition candidate, have been cast into even sharper focus by the death of Agha-Soltan, though she appears to have been a mere observer to the upheaval.
In suburban Washington, Mahnaz Afkhami notices the strong presence of women and is not surprised. In no small sense, these women are the heirs of Iran's first feminist generation of the 1960s and 1970s, in which she was a leader. It was an era when Iranian women got the right to vote, were admitted to universities and professional schools and enjoyed the most liberal system of family law in the region. It was also the era of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a reviled figure who died in wandering exile in 1980 after being overthrown by the Islamic Revolution now under assault.
"Once there is a level of consciousness in the civic body, civic organizations and people, you can push back some of it, but you can't take the consciousness away from people," Afkhami said in a conversation on Monday, recalling the active role of women in public life three decades ago. "Women had gained a little of organizing skills and a little of consciousness that just wouldn't get pushed back."
Afkhami was Iran's first minister of women's affairs, but because she was appointed by the Shah, her pleas to Western feminists to stand by the women of Iran after the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979 were largely rejected. She had been permanently tarred by the blanket condemnation of the Pahlavi era, a situation that still incenses her. It hit close to home. Among those who had climbed on the Khomeini bandwagon were leftist progressives, including her sister and brother-in-law, Marxists who joined the Islamic Revolution in the hope of a role in post-Shah Iran. Her brother-in-law was killed by the Khomeini regime.
"How could you possibly not pay attention to the kind of movement that had been going on, close your eyes to it, and then look to Ayatollah Khomeini for guidance for women, or to his government, or theocracy?" she said of the wide range of Western progressives who applauded the overthrow of the Shah at any cost. "How could you as intelligent political entities think that would be the salvation for Iranian women?"