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August 10, 2018
While the world’s attention was on US President Donald Trump’s Twitter war with Tehran the other week, some good news in Iran escaped notice. A group of women’s rights activists arrested in front of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs on International Women’s Day were acquitted, after initially being charged for planning and participating in a protest on the economic situation of women. Many feared the mass arrests would result in heavy sentences and be used as a justification to crackdown on rights defenders who have slowly managed to rebuild the Iranian women’s movement over the last few years.

The acquittal of the twenty-one activists seemed to confirm that part of the security apparatus isn’t fully intent on cracking down on women’s groups, and that some of their peaceful activities would be tolerated. This message was echoed by Shahindokht Mowlaverdi—a staunch advocate of women’s rights and special advisor to the president on citizens’ rights—who in a recent interview promised that the Rouhani administration was working to ease social, cultural, and political pressures. However, Mowlaverdi also warned that “the [Rouhani] government is not the only entity in charge of these sectors,” referring to the Judiciary and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who are responsible for much of the crackdowns and pressures over the years.

In other words, the hardliners may continue to target activists and social movements, even if President Hassan Rouhani finally decides to provide opportunities for more meaningful participation of citizens. But hardliners aren’t the only impediment to social movements.

Given the threat of war between the US and Iran is more real than ever before, and the reimposition of economic warfare via sanctions—which promises to destabilize the country—women’s rights activists fear their hard-earned gains over the last few years may be in peril if the Iranian government adopts a harsher security approach toward civil society. Women’s rights advocates have often been accused by hardliners of seeking to adopt Western values, which undermine the Islamic values of the country. As such, they’ve worked hard to ensure their demands are rooted locally, while also reflecting universal rights principles.

As part of a harsher stance against Iran, the US State Department and secretary of state have issued speeches and tweets that are increasingly vocal on Iranian women’s rights, while also advocating punitive sanctions. Regime change advocates have also adopted narratives that depict women’s legitimate demands for rights as a call for toppling the Islamic Republic. Given these developments, women’s rights activists worry that their efforts to rebuild their movement, which suffered setback during the Ahmadinejad presidency, may be undermined.

Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the women’s rights movement suffered serious crackdowns, and was substantially weakened when many of its members were forced into exile or left the country after the 2009 post-election protests known as the Green Movement. Iran’s poor economic situation—a result of political mismanagement and severe sanctions—impacted the largely volunteer sector as well. Those activists remaining in Iran were forced to take on multiple jobs to make ends meet, preventing them from continuing their volunteer-based activism. Sanctions also helped weaken and further isolate an already secluded movement, making it difficult for women’s rights activists to participate in international conferences to connect with their non-Iranian counterparts.

These developments were compounded by harsh policies adopted by Ahmadinejad and the 2008 – 2012 conservative Parliament aligned with him. During those years, women’s social gains were targeted, including the adoption of quotas limiting female student enrollment in universities and certain subjects, eliminating all research on women, and ending women’s studies programs at universities.

In the period following the election of President Rouhani, women’s groups had to overcome serious hurdles before they could rebuild. The continued antagonism by hardliners to women’s rights and activism has made the process even more difficult.

Activists, including those advocating women’s rights, expected Rouhani’s election—who promised to reduce the security approach of the state—to usher in an open period for civil society activism. They were disappointed when it didn’t. Still over the last five years, there has been some easing of pressure and limited opening.

These opportunities signal personal commitments and capacity within Rouhani’s administration rather than a broader strategic national policy, that values the role of civil society and seeks to strengthen it. Women’s groups, however, haven’t benefited much from official and or unofficial policies intent on supporting civil society.

When the sources of uncertainty are war or economic collapse, it’s difficult to plan for the long-term. Already activists who had never contemplated leaving Iran, are considering migration.

Noushin, who works with abused girls, explained to this analyst, that having lived through the difficulties of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War with her father on the frontlines, she felt torn about the notion of subjecting her daughter to the difficult days ahead. “I’m a child of war. I don’t think it’s fair to subject my young daughter to those difficult conditions, when I could save her from it by migrating.”  

To make matters worse, sanctions and poor economic conditions tend to impact the most vulnerable groups hardest: women, children, the poor, and those living on the margins of society. These are the very groups that rights activists work to support, requiring the priorities of the women’s movement to shift in favor of serving the most pressing of needs. For a sector that doesn’t have financial support from the Iranian government, foundations, or the private sector—and relies largely on self-funding—this is a big burden. Even if the sector manages to shift its priorities, it will be addressing basic and fundamental needs, rather than more progressive issues focused on the promotion of rights.

In the past, sanctions and increased isolation of Iran have consistently impacted women’s rights defenders and their ability to connect with their foreign counterparts. While one reason is lack of access and isolation of activists inside, the other is that international groups tend not to have the funding to support the participation of activists from inside the country in their events. Many also believe that this kind of support would be contrary to US sanctions policies. Now the rights movement is seemingly back to square one with the reinstatement of unilateral sanctions.

Even if the international women’s movement were to engage with Iranian activists, they face serious hurdles when it comes to attending events. In anticipation of a worsening economic situation in Iran that would lead to increased migration, most European embassies are no longer issuing visas to Iranians. Those that are, can take anywhere from several to thirty months and often use costly intermediaries that don’t always guarantee success.

What activists fear most is that with increasing pressure and instability, the Iranian government will take a more forceful approach toward civil society, making it difficult for many groups to operate. As one activist, who conducted research on the impact of sanctions on women, explained to this analyst, “The West, and the US in particular, talk about human rights and proclaim that they care about Iranians, but their policies hurt ordinary Iranians and those of us trying to create positive change the most.”

Iranian activists inside the country are worried about what the future holds for them and for Iranian women. They fear that the crippling sanctions which took effect again on August 6, will put them on a fast track similar to what transpired in Iraq.  

As the Iranian women’s movement braces itself for tough times ahead, it’s critical that progressive international rights groups and especially the international women’s movement engages with activists inside the country. This is the only way to amplify the voices of activists working in the most difficult of contexts. The Iranian women’s movement has been isolated for far too long. It’s time to end that isolation.

Sussan Tahmasebi is a veteran women’s rights and civil society activist. While in Iran (1999 - 2010), she co-founded the Iran Civil Society Training and Research Center and the One Million Signatures Campaign, a grassroots effort working to end gender-biased laws in Iran. She continues to maintain strong ties with Iranian civil society and women’s groups inside the country. She is also the director of FEMENA, an organization supporting women human rights defenders and women’s movements in North Africa and West Asia. Follower her on Twitter: @sussantweets.