The Arab Spring: What can women learn from Iran?

The emergence of extremist Islamic identity which promotes discrimination against women is just one of the potential threats to women’s status in the wake of the Arab Spring according to Iranian-born Sussan Tahmasebi who is working to pass on the lessons learnt by the women’s movement in her native Iran.

The strengthening of extremist Islamic groups, division among secular and Islamic women and a widespread belief that the quest for women’s rights should be put on hold until after the revolution all could pose a threat to women’s status in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and LIbya, says Tahmasebi, who is working with the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) to encourage discussions between women in the region.

Tahmasebi, who was active in the women’s rights movement for 10 years from 1999, understands the impact on women when an extremely conservative restrictive form of Sharia law was adopted  and women lost many of their rights, following the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979.

A founding member of the award-winning One Million Signatures Campaign challenging discriminatory laws against women in Iran, Tahmasebi believes there are already signs that women in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya need to be vigilant to prevent their rights being undermined.

ICAN has recently published its first issue brief on the Arab Spring and the implications for women. While it shows that women’s rights differ from country to country, Tahmasebi is concerned that the emergence of a strong conservative and extremist Islamic identity could have a negative impact women’s rights in the region. She is optimistic that the demands of Islamic women will eventually become more aligned with those of secular women, however:

“I think Islamic women will come to understand, maybe in 10 years, that their vision, when implemented through male-devised laws is not going to be as ideal as they anticipated and they are going to be left behind closed doors far too often,” says Tahmasebi.

A breakdown of communication between Islamic and secular women’s groups is another key factor in the erosion of women’s rights in Iran that Tahmasebi is concerned that women in the Middle East and North Africa should avoid.

Relationships between women in Egypt are already showing signs of dividing on Islamic/secular lines says Tahmasebi, but she has warned women in Egypt particularly that they should start working together on less ideologically charged issues such as education or early marriage to maintain a constructive relationship.

Because they failed to do so in Iran, it was the mid 1990s before the Islamic and secular groups were able to begin to work together, says Tahmasebi, who has urged Egyptian and Tunisian women to avoid making the same mistakes:

“I have told them that they can’t afford to lose 15-20 years because they can’t stand each other. Once the Islamist women get out there they are going to start realising all the roadblocks that are in their way and that these so-called ideals they are following are just intent on excluding them.”

Tahmasebi is also concerned that some of those women who were involved in the Arab Spring are showing a similar reluctance as Iranian women did to put women’s rights at the centre of the reform agenda.

“We’ve seen this happen in Iran, we’ve seen it happen everywhere where people are fighting for reform,” she says. “Women are told that to talk about women’s rights is divisive, that women should be using their energies to fight for reform and democracy and when we’ve achieved democracy, then we can achieve women’s rights.”

It was during the elections of 2005 that women’s groups decided for the first time to articulate their own agenda no matter who was in power. It was then that women took part in the first protest since the early days of the revolution, demanding women’s rights and equality in the constitution. And although the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was followed by a period of repression, it was a time when the women’s movement became stronger, says Tahmasebi:

“I think a big part of this was because women separated their agenda from the political agenda and they decided they are going to press for their agenda and press for their rights no matter who is in power and that they are not going to tie it to the reformers.
This is an important lesson for the region. It’s critical that the women’s movement has it’s own political agenda that is not tied to other political groups.”

Women’s rights should not be sacrificed at this time because they are at the centre of the transition to modernity and the transition from dictatorship to democracy, argues Tahmasebi.

“Unless women realise that women’s issues are a really big part of what defines the collective identity and that much ofwomen’s rights are central to ensuring a successful transition to democracy, the people of these countries, but especially women are going to lose a lot.  This is a critical moment, where these countries are faced with the opportunity to ensure that women have equal rights under the law. They should seize the opportunity. ”

An earlier version of this post appeared on Huffington Post UK on 16 December, 2011