Read more of Slate's coverage of Iran's June 12 election and its aftermath.
Women in sunglasses and head scarves speaking through megaphones, brandishing cameras, carrying signs. When they first appeared, the photographs of the 2005 Tehran University women's rights protests were a powerful reminder of the true potential of Iranian women. They were uplifting, they featured women of many ages, and they went on circulating long after the protests themselves died down. Now they have been replaced by a far more brutal and already infamous set of images: the photographs and video taken last weekend of a young Iranian woman, allegedly shot by a government sniper, dying on the streets of Tehran.
I don't know whether the girl in the photographs is destined to become this revolution's symbolic martyr, as some are already predicting. I do know, however, that there is a connection between the violence in Iran over the last week and the women's rights movement that has slowly gained strength over the last several years in Iran.
In the United States, the most Americo-centric commentators have somberly attributed the strength of recent demonstrations to the election of Barack Obama. Others want to give credit to the democracy rhetoric of the Bush administration. Still others want to call this a "Twitter revolution" or a "Facebook revolution," as if zippy new technology alone had inspired the protests. But the truth is that the high turnout was the result of many years of organizational work carried out by small groups of civil rights activists and, above all, women's groups, working largely unnoticed and without much outside help.
Since 2006, the "One Million Signatures Campaign" has been circulating a petition, both online and in print, calling for an end to laws that discriminate against women: for equal rights for women in marriage, equal rights to divorce, equal inheritance rights, equal testimony rights for men and women in court. Though based outside the country, the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, founded by a pair of sisters, translates and publishes fundamental human rights documents online; it also maintains an online database containing names of thousands of victims of the Islamic republic. In the last decade, Iranian women have participated in student strikes as well as teacher strikes and in organizations of Bahai, Christian, and other religious groups deemed "heretics" by the regime.
Not Obama, not Bush, and not Twitter, in other words, but years of work and effort lie behind the public display of defiance—and in particular the numbers of women on the streets. And their presence matters. For at the heart of the ideology of the Islamic republic is its claim to divine inspiration: The leadership is legitimate, and in particular its harsh repression of women is legitimate, because God has decreed that it is so. The outright rejection of this creed by tens of thousands of women, not just over the last weekend but over the last decade, has to weaken the Islamic republic's claim to invincibility in Iran and across the Middle East. The regime's political elite knows this well. It is no accident that the two main challengers to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Iranian election campaign promised to repeal some of the laws that discriminate against women—and no accident that the leading challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, used his wife, political scientist and former university chancellor Zahra Rahnavard, in his campaign appearances and posters.
The Iranian clerics know that women pose a profound threat to their authority: As activist Ladan Boroumand has written, the regime would not bother to use brutal forms of repression against dissidents unless it feared them deeply. Nobody would have murdered a young woman in blue jeans—a peaceful, unarmed demonstrator—unless her mere presence on the street presented a dire threat.
They may succeed. Violence usually succeeds, at least in the short term, in intimidating people. In the long term, however, the links, structures, organizations, and groups set up by Iranian women, not to mention the photographs of the last week, will continue to gnaw away at the Iranian regime's legitimacy—and we should take note. I cannot count how many times I've been told in recent years that "women's issues" are a secondary subject in the Islamic world. Whether it's the Afghan Constitution under discussion or the Saudi government, the standard line among the standard commentators has always been that other things—stability, security, oil—matter more. But regimes that repress the civil and human rights of half their population are inherently unstable. Sooner or later, there has to be a backlash. In Iran, we're watching one unfold.