IRAN: Will Change in Iran Empower Arab Women?

Sunday, April 22, 2012
Al Arabiya
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security

The impact of Iranian doctrines in the region is apparent throughout history. At one time Iran had a constitutional monarchy, which affected the entire region. Then it had a campaign for modernization during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-1941), the effects of which were felt throughout the region, once again. Nationalization of the oil industry in the 1950s also brought nationalism to the entire region.
The Iranian Revolution in 1979 fuelled the rise of Islamist ideologies across the whole of the Middle East as well as North Africa. In 2009, the ‘Iranian Green Movement' marked the beginning of revolution in the region and now the democratic movement in the Arab world will eventually inspire Iranians to rebel once again.

Once this happens, change in Iran will have a tremendous impact in the region especially on women's development. Dr. Alireza Nourizadeh, Director of the Center for Iranian and Arab Studies, explained to me the interconnectedness of Iran and the Arab world. The dilemma is, will ‘hard' power using military interventions or sanctions against the regime be the only way to support that change in Iran or will ‘soft' power using the media and by giving a voice to women and young people be able to bring about such change?

An interesting discussion with Nourizadeh inspired me to think about a suitable approach for dealing with the Iranian context from an Iranian perspective. The Khomeini Revolution in Iran changed the position of women in Iran and had a huge ideological impact across the whole region. Nourizadeh said that since 1962, Iranian women have had the right to vote and the right to become a minister, an ambassador, a governor and a judge.

Women were also free to wear any outfit they wanted during Mohammad Reza Pahlavi period. In 1979, however, both men and women supported the Khomeini Revolution because of beliefs in social justice. They wanted to topple a centralized royal power structure state that was backed by the West that had stripped the country of most of its wealth; a structure that was heavily protected by a lavishly financed army and security services. Only later on did women realize they had been deceived by Khomeini, as before he gained power he had declared that women would be free and that there would be no dress code.

Only afterwards did women realize what they had let themselves in for, especially when they started hearing revolutionary slogans like “either scarves or chador or be punched”. A year after the Revolution, in February 1980, thousands of women demonstrated in front of the prime minister's office shouting “No scarves no punching”. But the next day, regulations became even stricter, preventing women from any kind of objecting and then the war started. The eight years war helped the mullah government to strengthen their system and women forgot about the internal disputes, focusing instead on the war.

When the war ended, all laws related to women had already been established and solidified including barring women from becoming judges, for example, Judge Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize winner, was banned from court and in 2009 she was expelled from the country. Women and men were also segregated on beaches and in sports and the marriage age for girls was lowered to nine.

Other Sharia and Shiite laws that were not put into practice before the Revolution were implemented, such as equating two female witnesses with one male in court, lifting the ban of polygamy, and the permission and even promotion of temporary marriage (Mutta). The ideology of the Revolution opposed equal rights for women and spread the belief that woman is the property of a man and he can do whatever he wants with her. The wives of the mullahs wanted to set an example of being good wives, which means they never meet outsiders and never leave the house unless they are accompanied by a male relative such as son or brother. All these new laws came to symbolize this post-revolution society, which aimed to impact not only on women in Iran but women across the whole region.

The ambitions of the Islamic Revolution and the Iranian regime were not only focused on Iranian women but their influence and menace expanded to the whole region and the wider world. The Iranian regime continuously attempted to export the ideologies of the revolution to the region, establishing allies serving the Iranian Government's interests in the region such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Hawthi Shiite rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Kuwait, the Shiites in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and others. The threat to Bahrain is summed up by it being referred to as Iran's 14th province, and Iran supported the rebels in Bahrain against their government claiming that it is the right of the majority while the mullah government crushes any opposition voice in Iran.

Other threats include closing the Strait of Hormuz, which would affect the world's oil supply, the accusation of hard-line clerics that Saudi Arabia is the centre of sedition because it has sent troops to Bahrain and supports the rebels in Syria. Lately the unjustified visit by Nejad to UAE's Abu Musa Island occupied by Iran, which indicates undermining UAE full sovereignty on the Island that will increase tensions in the relations. All of these threats and accusations raise doubts and fear among neighboring countries that the Iranian Government's nuclear program is not actually designed for civil purposes, but to develop a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile targeted mainly at them, not Israel.

Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, the Lieutenant General and Chief of the Dubai Police Force announced that Islamists headed by the Muslim Brotherhood are planning to take control of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and it will begin in Kuwait. He also mentioned in his speech on 20th January 2012 that Iran is one of the main threats in the GCC because it supports Islamists in gaining power in the region, with the exception of Syria. But a revolution or any change in Iran against the regime will shatter these fears. Nourizadeh stresses that this change would be completely different to the changes seen in other countries in the region that experienced Arab revolutions because the Iranians have already tried and now rejected an Islamic system so Islamists would be in a minority.

The main concern is deciding what would be the best strategy to challenge the Iranian regime; one that can help both the Iranians and serve peace in the Middle East? Americans are worried that a military strike against Iran could cause oil prices to spiral, which would threaten America's economic recovery and directly impact the finances of voters, who are already voicing disquiet over fuel costs that are approaching record levels. Many western and Arab countries think that the Iranian regime may survive the sanctions and thus Iran may continue its nuclear program. However, since ‘hard' power can be expensive and dangerous why television as a ‘soft' power, has not been used as an approach? For the price of one military tank, a television satellite channel could be launched. The Iranian Government is already using this kind of power to create allies in the region.

There are forty Arabic channels financed by the Iranian Government talking to Arab people day and night influencing them against their governments. Examples include Alalam News Network, Al-Manar TV Lebanon, Lulu satellite channel and Al-Kawthar TV. The ‘Iranian Green Movement' in 2009 showed us the thousands of young people and women who were against the regime. Seventy-five percent of the Iranian population is under the age of 35, 60,000 are under 30 and 58,000 are under 25; the majority of this young population opposes the regime vividly. The regime is discriminating against a number of minorities who are struggling for their freedom, such as the Arab Ahwaz, the Sunnas, and the Kurds. Adding to that, the majority of demonstrators were women of different ages. They are always on the front line shouting against the dictator and encouraging men to be with them. The sacrifice of women in the ‘Green Movement' was symbolized by the martyrdom of the young and beautiful woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, whose death became iconic in the struggle of Iranian protesters against the disputed election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Those Iranian opponents would love to see a television satellite channel conveying their views to the world. This is evidenced by the large numbers of hits on the Persian language version of Al Arabiya's website. The website has had more than one million hits, ‘imagine the impact a television satellite channel in Persian, targeting the Iranian people?' said Nourizadeh. There are also millions of Iranians who watch MBC Persian, but this channel only broadcasts American movies with Persian subtitles. Dr. Nourizadeh mentioned that the ideal would be to launch a channel in Persian that would be a mixture of politics and entertainment. We must remember that the Khomeini Revolution used the power of the media. Everything was reported live on television at that time. Using the power of satellite television, combined with social media, would be even more influential today.

Arab and Western countries have tried ‘hard' power approaches with Iran for more than 33 years and it seems that none have had the desired effect. On the contrary, in some instances it has even strengthened the Iranian regime. It is about time ‘soft' power is used, especially satellite television, against this nightmare of the Iranian regime's threats that have been haunting its own people, neighboring countries and the whole world since 1979. As the Khomeini Revolution changed the whole region, another regime change in Iran could have an even greater impact, especially in terms of women's development.