Yesterday, the United States Institute of Peace, in celebration of International Women’s Day, held an event in D.C. entitled Women Transforming Iran. An expert panel discussed how increasingly over the last 30 years the women’s movement has been integral to the overall political struggle for reform  in Iran. This can be seen in the overwhelming turnout of women in public demonstrations, the increased visibility of women in politics, and the emergence of women-led NGO’s and campaigns pushing for rights and reforms.

Images of women braving batons and bullets have been in the news since the June 2009 presidential elections and post-election fallout. This much is clear: the Iranian regime is an equal opportunity oppressor. Facing threat of imprisonment – and death – women have not shied away from taking to the streets. Who could forget the iconic symbol and face of Neda? The Mourning Mothers group was born out of the violent security crackdown. They are the spouses and mothers of those killed by government agents in the post-election protests. They call for justice for the deaths of their children. Iranian women have also organized the One Million Signatures Campaign which aims to collect one million signatures in support of repealing Iranian laws which discriminate against women. Both groups have been targeted by the regime and members have been jailed.

The women’s and reform movements intertwine in politics as well. The women of Iran are becoming a voice in politics. During the recent June presidential elections, many women wore green scarves to visually align themselves with the Green Movement. The wives of candidates stepped into the spotlight for the first time in a presidential election, and women’s issues were among the top four issues debated. Women also are becoming recognized as an important voting bloc in Iran, though they fall across the political spectrum. Members of the panel explained that while the women’s movement has been careful not to explicitly call for regime change, as doing so could potentially crush the movement, their push continues to open more space, to attain more rights and status.     

Opposition to the women’s movement comes primarily from the clerical regime. While some women wish for a secular government, many believe that women’s rights are not incompatible with  an Islamic republic-only with the current regime’s ‘brand’ of Islamic governance (and the oppressive legal code that comes with it).

But back on the Iranian streets, social mores and attitudes towards women are changing very rapidly. The panelists described a disconnect between the attitudes of the average Iranian man or woman versus the attitude of the regime. General acceptance is growing for what we in the West might think of as a normal role for women in society. Women are represented in many professions and actually outnumber men at the university level. They also are highly represented in the fields of science and technology.

Among the panelists yesterday was Haleh Esfandiari, who was detained in Iran in 2007 and held in solitary confinement for 105 days. Haleh is “very optimistic about the women’s movement in Iran.” This statement is significant coming from Haleh. Having been a target of an oppressive regime, she of all people deserves to be cynical. But Haleh believes that the women’s movement can continue to progress, even under the current regime, and indeed it has. The bravery of Iranian women to continue their struggle in the face of an oppressive regime should be honored, celebrated, and not forgotten.