After Ahmadinejad came to power in 2006, the women’s movement was more successful than other movements (e.g. the students’ movement or the labor movement) in continuing to mobilize civil society in Iran.
In a context where demonstrations are banned and where participation in demonstrations bring severe penalties, women activists were nevertheless able to mobilize two major demonstrations in 2005-6. In 2005, around 10,000 people demonstrated in front of the University of Tehran. In 2006, around 500 demonstrated in Hafte Tir Square. These valuable experiences of mobilizing people to participate in high-risk demonstrations now serve as a template for the democracy movement’s mobilization of millions through ICTs and satellite-based media. Two significant campaigns took place in 2006 – the One-Million-Signature Campaign and the Stop Stoning Forever Campaign. Such advocacy was non-violent and reached out to large numbers of citizens, including not only the thousands who came out to the streets to demonstrate, but also many more who accessed the websites of these campaigns in their homes. The One-Million-Signature Campaign had a dedicated website for every province in Iran, adding up to 22 websites altogether, which enabled networking between provinces.
Following the botched election, the Iranian government now uses draconian methods to suppress the democracy movement. All women leaders in the movement have been harassed, imprisoned, and tortured. Many have been forced into exile. But the women’s movement remains a significant force in Iran. In fact, the very configuration of the democracy movement – popularly known as the “Green Movement” – is derived from successful networking approaches pioneered by the women’s movement. What makes the women’s networking so successful is the shape of the network, not the numbers involved. Unlike the top-down, bounded structure of Iranian political parties and NGOs, the women’s movement has an amorphous shape. It is informal and democratic. There is no fixed leadership but there is a substantial core made up of key activists, who act autonomously yet collectively.
Despite the importance of the women’s movement in Iranian civil society, women and women’s concerns are nevertheless being marginalised in the democracy movement. This situation echoes the historical experience of the 1979 Islamic Revolution when women participating in the political process waited for the revolution to be completed before demanding their rights. But the time for their rights never came. The consequences of that mistake have been suffered by women in Iran in the last three decades. If women continue to be marginalised in the democracy movement, then it is possible that even if there were to be a regime change, women’s marginalised and disempowered position may not change.