Her eyes, wide open, she seemed to be staring into nothingness as her body was drained of its blood.
The world watched Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old music student, die from a gunshot wound after protesting peacefully in Tehran. The video, circulated on YouTube, was something that a lot of people won’t forget very soon. I know, as an Iranian, I never will.
Even though official reporting of events has been very limited due to restrictions by the government, we were able to get a glimpse of what is going on in the streets via amateur videos and photos. What was evident in all those images is a very clear presence of women of all ages in the protests. Photos showed young, green-clad girls standing defiantly next to other, male protesters.
The images give evidence of the bravery of Iranian women. Today those women are not just fighting for a sheerer head-scarf or the freedom to show a little more of their arms; they are fighting to change the political face of the country and thus their future.
For years many women have carried out subtle campaigns of civil disobedience. They pushed the boundaries with acts as small as wearing brighter nail polish, more make up and even by smoking cigarettes in cafes. These were considered huge steps. But these protests were as far as women would go because they feared punishment.
Azadeh Moaveni, who reported for Time Magazine from Tehran, in her latest book “Honeymoon in Tehran” described how the general population in Iran was not ready for revolt: “Every few months an editor at Time would ask whether we could do an 'Iranian youth at boiling point' story, and I would explain that Iranian youth weren’t even heating up yet.”
Moaveni’s view, which was very apt at the time, shows how so much changed this June when election results were announced and young Iranians felt anger and frustration. Many women, who used to be preoccupied with the latest fashion trends and what to wear to the next party, faced bullets and batons in the streets. Risking their lives, or imprisonment, they were fighting for what they had yearned for over many years. They were trying to get their rights by peaceful means because they knew the consequences.
Women have been undoubtedly a great part of the so called “Green Movement.” Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, became a key part of the campaign. Her presence meant a promise of a more open arena for women in the political scene and maybe some relaxation of the rigid social laws. Young women appreciated the attention that Mousavi gave his wife, treating her as his equal and a friend. They envisioned that such relationships would become more widespread in Iran if he became the next president.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's declaration of an overwhelming victory, however, was a big blow to their hopes. They now feel betrayed and dejected. One friend who supported Mousavi told me two days before the election that if Mousavi didn’t win, she wouldn’t stay in Iran for a moment longer.
When in 1979 the Iranian Revolution took place, all people who participated had one vision in mind: Get rid of the despotic Shah and replace him with democracy. But the revolution had a different outcome. Velayat-e Faqih — the current ruling system — gives power to the Supreme Leader. So in a way Iranians, after so much bloodshed and hard work, have accepted what could be considered little change.
But how could today, if the uprising were to result in big changes, be any different? The answer lies within the family structure in Iran. In 1979, even though a revolution took place, patriarchy was at the heart of many families. The mindset was that in families, fathers and husbands had the last word. It was a pyramid-shaped system, where men were at the top. They were in most cases the sole breadwinners and decision makers. In a larger sense, that would apply to the country too. People needed a single power at the top to decide everything.
Today, if we look at family structures in Iran, in many cases there has been a shift in power. Women have taken a place at the top of the pyramid alongside men. They are decision makers and breadwinners, educated and open-minded. This makes Iranian society today more fertile for democracy and the present autocratic system less acceptable.
When women can’t openly protest in the streets, they find other ways to rebel. But in the end, they express their discontent.
A glimmer of hope in dark times
For now all that occupies Iranians’ minds is sadness and sorrow, and nothing can heal their wounds. But there was a single moment of hope after the protests ended. Ali Shahrokhi, head of the Legal Commission in Parliament, announced on June 23 that the parliament is reconsidering the Shiite law of stoning. Stoning is a capital punishment that can be meted out on any woman convicted of adultery. Iran has decreased its used considerably, but the punishment does still exist in the law. Talks of removing it from the country’s laws are gathering strength.
There is still a very long way to go for Iranian women, but it is interesting that the parliament brought the issue into more light after these tumultuous days, and especially after the death of Neda Agha-Soltan.
(The author of this essay is an Iranian journalist who lives in the area of Boston, Massachusetts . She asked that her name not be published as she fears negative repercussions when she returns to her native Iran.)
More GlobalPost dispatches about Iran:
Essay: The flight from Tehran
Radio free Iran
How to run a protest without Twitter