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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Iran is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its Islamic revolution when the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile and replaced monarchy with theocracy. One of the most remarkable and under-reported stories in Iran over the past three decades is the strength and character of its women's movement. Through politics, literature, religion and poetry, women's voices have sometimes roared and at others times have whispered dissent. Women have been agents of change and continued to be targets of persecution. NPR's Jacki Lyden first went to Iran in 1995 when few female reporters had access. Jacki and senior producer Davar Iran Ardalan went back to the archives for our story today.

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JACKI LYDEN: Testing, testing one, two, three, four, five, six, testing.

I remember thinking as I took out my microphone back in 1995 that no one would talk to me on tape, that no one would be brave enough to question the revolution of 1979, which so many women and Iranian students had helped bring about. Very few of those young women students realized that while they may have opposed the autocracy of the Shah, his pro-Western ways included a view of women as equals. For decades, Iranian women had been unveiled, had divorce and marriage rights, had the right to choose a husband, rather than have one chosen for her. They were visible in public life. And then, almost overnight, it changed. A woman named Guity Ganji took me for a hike in the pathways just leading into Tehran's Albourz Mountains.

(Soundbite of bells tinkling)

LYDEN: We were hiking just past the country's infamous political prison, Evin, which is set incongruously in a beautiful valley. Guity had been close to the Shah's female minister for women's affairs. How out of place she felt now, she said, with this hike - her only moment of freedom.

Ms. GUITY GANJI (Iranian Resident): Actually, I feel sort of alienated from these people. Maybe it's because I've been outside the country for so long. I think a lot of people feel like I do because of what's happening.

LYDEN: Is it especially hard for women?

Ms. GANJI: Especially harder for women, yes, because the way we are treated, the way they behave towards us. It's aggravating. And I'm not a professional person - just think if I were a professional and working with men and the way they would behave towards you. And they don't look at you at all.

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LYDEN: That was a feeling any Western woman could understand, especially one trying to do an interview in a headscarf wearing earphones. What was somewhat harder to understand was how the Islamic Republic had co-opted the revolution so that now women had to live in black scarves and head-to-toe gowns.

In a real sense, the Shah had been forcing traditionalists in Iran into modernity, causing a deep clash of cultures. By encouraging women, even his own wife, the empress, to go about unveiled at public functions, the Shah was handing the Shia clergy an issue every village elder could defend. Islam traditionally insisted on women's veiling. And when the veil came back, for all those Iranian modern women - and there were legions of them in the professional classes - it wasn't so much about wearing a piece of cloth as it was about the abnegation of self. And perhaps no voice expressed that better than that of an Iranian literature professor who is teaching "Alice in Wonderland" in her classroom.

(Soundbite of Professor Azar Nafisi teaching)

Professor AZAR NAFISI (Iranian Professor): When Alice comes back to the world of reality, she cannot look at reality. She cannot look at the grass, she cannot look at the white rabbit, in the same way that she had looked at it before. So, there would be a power in you which you get from fiction, which you get from that other.

LYDEN: That was Azar Nafisi when I met her in 1995 in a university classroom in Tehran. Today, Nafisi is an internationally renowned writer, the author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and one of Iran's best-known women in exile. As a professor there, she used Western writers like Nabokov as a way to challenge autocratic thinking. Nafisi herself devoted much of her 20s in America to political movements dedicated to abolishing the monarchy in Iran seen to be a puppet of U.S. policy in the region.

Prof NAFISI: It is very unreal, going back 30 years ago to the way these whispers of dissent were articulated as opposed to now because I was one of the dissenters. I was very, very active in the student movement here. We were demonstrating against the Shah and in front of the White House. We were asking for the overthrow of the regime, you know, and among ourselves - those, for example, who were religious and those who were Marxists, or those who were nationalists - there was a polarization within the movement itself.

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LYDEN: Nafisi was typical of the young students abroad. And Iran sent many young women abroad. Others were recruited into joining guerrilla groups both communist and non-communist. But a far greater number were the uneducated, lower class women who participated in street demonstrations in 1978 and '79, answering the call of the Ayatollah Khomeini to demonstrate against tyranny.

Unidentified Man: The Shah arrived at the airport and got into a Royal Boeing 707 jet and took off with the Shah himself at the controls.

LYDEN: By 1979, the pro-Western Shah, sick with cancer, was on a plane to Egypt. And the strongest U.S. ally in the Muslim world was ousted. But if all of the groups who had made common cause against the Shah - women, nationalist, Marxist - no group had won the hearts and minds of the masses like the Islamist.

The new regime under the Ayatollah Khomeini executed thousands of people. Women went from being judges and lawyers to being non-entities, if they were lucky. The struggle became not just political but existential.

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LYDEN: One of the women who never went home again after the Revolution is Mahnaz Afkhami, the Shah's former minister for women's affairs. Under the Shah, she'd worked for women's rights specifically the Family Protection Law. That made her a post-revolutionary target. To go back to Iran meant death, yet she never gave up working for women's rights in her homeland.

Ms. MAHNAZ AFKHAMI (Former Minister for Women's Affairs): Individual women, are feeling that they need to assert themselves as individuals. They need to have a role, they need to have a say, both in what they want to be and how they want to lead their lives, and how they want to relate to other members of their family and their society. It's not necessarily the same answer for everyone. It's not the same answer for every society.

LYDEN: The Family Protection Law Afkhami had worked for was repealed in 1979. That meant women, had no right to divorce. For a time, women's voices were banned from the radio, female singers barred from television. Family planning was abolished and the birthrate soared, straining the economy. But Iranian women never really reconciled to this and by 1997, almost 20 years after the revolution, women were in the vanguard of change.

(Soundbite of Iran women demonstrators)

LYDEN: These women demonstrated at Tehran University for the reformist cleric Muhammad Khatami who they helped elect president in 1997. It wasn't just secular intellectuals who were participating in politics. I met Azam Talehgani in 1997. She was the daughter of a prominent ayatollah and she wanted to run for president. She was 58 and ran a settlement house for poor women. She said she knew that the Ruling of the Council of Guardians would never choose her - a woman. But she decided she wanted to run anyway. She speaks here through an interpreter.

(Soundbite of Azam Talehgani's interview)

Ms. AZAM TALEHGANI (Daughter of Prominent Ayatollah): (Through translator) Let them be silent. I won't be silent. And even if I remain silent, the women won't be silent. I can't tell you how many phone calls I've received in the past few days of people thanking me for speaking out and demanding that woman be considered as presidential candidates. And I tell them that our government officials have been put on notice and our movement will continue.

LYDEN: By the '90s, the Iranian State had reversed itself. Family planning clinics distributed contraception. Women were again lawyers and investigating judges, women like Mehrangiz Kar though she too would eventually suffer jailing and exile.

Ms. MEHRANGIS KAR (Iranian Resident): (Through Translator) Before, it used to be said the laws on the books were like revelations from God and therefore not subject to change. But in the last year, there has been more dialogue in every aspect of the society about a need for change. We are hopeful that this will be a good sign towards more moderation.

LYDEN: In trying to recognize how much women were risking to create a civil space for themselves in a theocracy, no lawyer attracted as much attention as Shirin Ebadi.

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Unidentified Man: I call upon the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate for 2003, Shirin Ebadi, to come forward to receive the gold medal and the diploma.

LYDEN: Shirin Ebadi, a human rights lawyer, was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. I'd met her, too, on that first trip. In Oslo, she talked not just about women's rights, but Iran's ancient tradition of human rights.

Ms. SHIRIN EBADI (Human Rights Lawyer; Nobel Peace Prize Laureate for 2003): (Through Translator) I am an Iranian, a descendant of Cyrus the Great, the very emperor who proclaimed at the pinnacle of power 2,500 years ago that he would not reign over the people if they did not wish it, and promised not to force any person to change his religion or faith and guaranteed freedom for all.

LYDEN: It was a big psychological win for the women of Iran. Ebadi, in a book published in English in 2006, said she believe in peaceful, nonviolent change from within. She had an increasingly educated class of young people to draw on - by the time her book came out, over half of all university students in Iran were women. In applied physics at Azad University, 70 percent were female. The post-revolutionary young woman was an educated young woman. And such women believe in their rights. The "One Million Signatures Campaign" was proof of that. The idea was that women and men from all walks of life would collect one million signatures to educate women about their rights, and to demand changes to laws that discriminated against them. When they demonstrated in Iran in June of 2006, 70 of them were arrested.

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LYDEN: Perhaps by becoming such a powerful symbol, it was almost inevitable the government would crack down on Shirin Ebadi. Indeed, from those heady days, much has changed. Ebadi has experienced an intensified campaign of harassment. In December, her office dedicated to the defense of human rights was shut down, her computers seized. Human Rights Watch says it now fears for her life. With the ascendancy of the conservatives, especially since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, where is the Iranian women's movement today? To Azar Nafisi, it is simply a force that cannot be defeated, no matter who is in power in Iran.

Ms. AZAR NAFISI (Iranian Academic and Writer): You see what no regime can do is to take away from a people their past, the memory of what they had achieved. What the Iranian women had achieved became a weapon to fight for the rights that were taken away from them. I think the past is creating the way to the future, and that is why the women are so much at the forefront.

LYDEN: The forefront of the struggle for equal rights will continue to be difficult for these Iranian women, but it will also continue to be anything but invisible, passive or silent. I'm Jacki Lyden, NPR News.

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