This is the prepared text of Mission Free Iran’s statement made at the National Press Club on December 9, 2010, where a group of human rights activists from around the world was invited by Jeffrey Imm of REAL Courage to speak about ongoing struggles for freedom and human rights worldwide, in recognition of Human Rights Day. The theme for the day was “Compassion and Human Rights.”
On March 8, 1979, as an Islamist counterrevolution was working to defeat the popular revolution that brought down the Shah of Iran, 15,000 women marched in the streets of Tehran.
Their chants were: “I say it every moment, I say it under torture, either death or freedom!”
They said, “Freedom is not eastern or western – it is universal!”
As Hezbollahi thugs took to tacking the veil to the scalps of women who refused to wear it, as they shouted at women, “Yaa roosari… yaa toosari!” – Either the veil, or you take a beating! – women marched in the streets and shouted: “Without and with hijab, we fought against Shah. Without and with hijab, we will guard freedom.” They said: “We did not have a revolution to go back.”
In 1979, these Iranian women said, “We are awakened! Our demonstration is not just about hijab, but it has a wide range. We want equal pay, the right of employment for women, freedom of speech, association and organization. Women politicized with the movement against the Shah, and these demonstrations are a continuation of that struggle. We will continue our struggle until the complete emancipation of women. Without freedom for women, no real revolution can exist.”
These were the demands of Iranian women nearly 32 years ago.
And although, through torture, rape, gender apartheid, forced hijab, hanging executions from cranes in the town centers, and stoning executions – through all of these barbaric methods, the regime of the Islamic Republic has done its utmost to silence – to eradicate – these demands of Iranian women, they have failed.
For nearly 32 years, freedom-seeking women and men have fought for gender equality in Iran. And although they have paid the highest price, they have continued the struggle through all of these years. They have never stopped fighting for equality.
Women came to the streets in numbers, and they fought against basiji side by side with men. They came to the streets to solve a constitutional problem of gender apartheid. And this time, the whole world sat up and took notice.
In a single day, women in Iran shattered every cultural relativist argument that would deny fundamental human rights to women living under repressive regimes, particularly those based on inhumane and misogynist shari’a law.
The world saw women on the front lines, fighting back against basij, throwing off the grasp of the Zeinab sisters on their “morality” patrols to enforce hijab, and we understood, many of us for the first time, the struggle of women in Iran. Which is why, on June 26, when Sajjad and Saideh, the children of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, called out to the world in a cry for all humanity to express its compassion for their mother, who was to be stoned to death, the response was overwhelming.
While there have been other campaigns against stoning before, none have had the same united global force of millions of voices, backed by millions of acts of compassion, that for the first time was able to do what some once believed unthinkable: force the brutal Islamic Republic to halt a barbaric act.
It was the world’s understanding of the relation between the people of Iran – especially women in Iran – and the Islamic Republic government, that prepared people outside of Iran to hear – and feel – the calls of Sakineh’s children, and generate an unprecedented, historic response to the barbarities inflicted upon Ms. Ashtiani, and by extension millions of women living under the Islamic Republic. And as people around the world made Sakineh and her family part of their own human family, they extended their compassion too – to embrace other women under stoning sentence – Azar Bagheri and Maryam Ghorbanzadeh. They then embraced political prisoners Zeinab Jalalian, Nasrine Sotoudeh, Behrouz Javid Tehrani, Manour Osanlou, and many, many others. They extended their care and concern and acts of compassion to Shahla Jahed, the woman executed just a few days ago by the Islamic regime because it could not kill Sakineh Ashtiani. And the world continues to wait, and worry, over the fate of two other political prisoners, Sakineh’s brave young son Sajjad – a 22-year-old bus ticket taker who defied the Islamic Republic and even his own family, to lead the fight to save his mother. He and Houtan Kian have been imprisoned and under torture since October 10. Sajjad’s whereabouts remain unknown.
It is important to note that this global compassionate response has resulted in not just preserving the life of one woman in a prison in Tabriz. This compassionate response has been at the heart of a resurrected call for stoning to be abolished worldwide – to the benefit of all human beings, men and women, particularly those living under threat of stoning. It has generated a demand that gender apartheidist regimes, and governments that stone women to death, and governments that use rape as a centerpiece of their domestic policy – that all of these regimes that depend fundamentally on violence against women be expelled from the UN’s women’s organizations.
In an impressive natural experiment, the world watched in horror and disgust as the UN legitimized the misogyny of the Islamic Republic by handing it a seat on the UN Commission on the Status of Women – a body tasked with setting global policy recommendations on gender equality and women’s empowerment – in April of this year.
By October, when the UN and its constituent governments were poised to once again display their animosity toward the women of the world, and especially Iranian women, by handing the Islamic Republic a seat on the Board of the new UN Women organization – also tasked with furthering the cause of gender equality worldwide – they found themselves unable to do so.
And as our demands to ensure that the Islamic Republic not be seated at the table of UN Women prevailed, we embraced expanded demands as well: we demand expulsion from UN Women of Saudi Arabia, a gender apartheidist regime that lashes women for being victims of rape. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose soldiers are largely responsible for the rape of 15,000 Congolese women last year alone, is inexplicably sitting on both UN Women and the UN Commission on the Status of Women. We do not accept this in silence.
The United States is one of 8 countries in the world that has refused to sign the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Violence Against Women (CEDAW). And the fight to support women in Iran has revived the demand that the United States sign and ratify CEDAW.
A campaign that opened in Tabriz, Iran, with childrens’ cries for compassion for their mother, who faces unimaginably brutal injustices simply for being a woman, has expanded to become a growing global force backing demands for women’s equality and human rights everywhere, for everyone.
The effects of this organic, international groundswell of support for Sakineh Ashtiani have demonstrated to all observers that no act of compassion is ever too small to make a difference for the better, and when we join our acts of compassion together in furtherance of a common cause – our most fundamental common cause, that of human rights, freedom, equality – we can and we do force the dynamic changes required to make ours a world worthy of the name human.
We at Mission Free Iran see our struggle for freedom in Iran as inextricably linked to struggles for freedom worldwide – in China, Congo, Zimbabwe, and Sudan – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Israel – in the United States. We would like to thank Jeffrey Imm and REAL Courage for bringing all of us together today in honor of Human Rights Day, and we look forward to working together in the future for our common cause.