Double Oppression: The Bitter Reality of Life for Kurdish Women in the Islamic Republic
Interview with Roya Tolouee
Among the issues that arose almost a century ago during Iran’s Constitutional Revolution, and that continues to be important today, is how to achieve democracy and attain human rights, particularly women’s rights, in a patriarchal society where religion has been the core of domestic and social life. Iranian women’s demands for equal rights began several decades ago and found new impetus in the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The women’s movement has become an integral component in the struggle against the regime and has achieved great progress. Roya Tolouee, a renowned women’s rights and Kurdish rights advocate who was imprisoned for her struggle for social justice, was only able to leave Iran after a long and difficult process.
Ali Sharifian: We are grateful that you are giving us a broader picture of your past struggle and your future activities.
Roya Tolouee: I am a member of the Kurdish women’s movement and Iranian women’s movement. Since women’s rights are intrinsically entangled with human rights and because I have struggled in the realm of Kurdish women’s rights as well, I consider myself a human rights activist. In this regard, we were able to organize ourselves and establish the Organization of Kurdish Women in Defense of Peace and Human Rights, which was dismissed by the Ministry of Intelligence and the security forces. As a result, I was sent to face the revolutionary courts. Since the Iranian and Kurdish systems are both patriarchal, I launched a journal in order to have a voice that solely belongs to women and serves women; a journal that is independent of men’s influence and can discuss feminist issues. Not only did I create the journal and become its editor, but I funded the project in its entirety. Our journal was called “Rasan” and was popular among the readers. Last summer, after a peaceful protest against the torture and murder of a young Kurdish patriot, I was arrested and placed in custody for over two months. I spent many terrible days in prison. After paying exorbitant bail, I was released and left the country shortly thereafter. There were three simple yet painful reasons that led me to take this action; I could not face my torturer in the court proceedings, I could not stay silent in the face of the regime’s criminalities, and I had to save my children from constant threats by the agents of the Ministry of Intelligence. I am now in the United States and am continuing my activities here, in a totally different atmosphere and under different conditions. Yet I am still thinking of returning to the mountains of Kurdistan, to my homeland, which I hope to see free and democratic one day.
You have experienced a great deal in your struggle for Iranian women, especially Kurdish women. Could you tell us briefly about the history of this struggle?
The Iranian women’s movement has a history that goes back one hundred years. Many intellectuals have written on this subject. It is noteworthy that the struggle of Kurdish women is almost as old, going back ninety years. In 1919, the first women’s association was established by a female activist named Anjam Yamaleki, whose goal was to help Kurdish women and children after World War I. Later, Kurdish women established the first girls’ schools in different regions of Kurdistan, even in Iraqi Kurdistan; this had a great impact on the education of Kurdish women. Ms. Roshan Badra Khan was the first Kurdish woman journalist (1932). There were others, among them Rahmeh Khani Pireh Moyared, Zahideh Ghara Dakhi, Nasetizeh Seh-Ayd, and many more, all of whom were quite active as journalists in the 1950s. The journal Aferati Azaad (Free Woman) was published in 1952 as the first journal for Kurdish women. We can also mention another journal, Dengi Aferet (Woman’s Voice), published in 1962. In Iran’s Kurdistan, women have played an active role since the movement known as Ghazi Mohammad began in 1946. Later, the Kurdish Women’s Union was established and many women began to participate in the social, educational and journalistic realms.
In the 1979 revolution, Kurdish women had a significant role along with other women in Iran. Even though the women’s movement was an integral part of the Kurdish people’s movement, the formation of special centers for women, run by women, in cities like Saghez and Marivan is noteworthy. Another journal called Dengi Jenani Kurdistan (The Voice of Kurdish Women) was published in 1979 in the town of Mahabad. However, one could not speak of an independent women’s movement as it exists today, managed by women and for women. What we call an independent women’s movement has emerged in recent years, since we have seen the most brutal oppression of women by the prevailing regime. In this atmosphere, women have been able to educate themselves and have entered the cultural and ideological arena in our country, where they are considered a fourth pillar in the intellectual scene. Women have been active in publishing, translating and printing journals such as Fasleh Zanan (Women’s Chapter) and Jens-e Dovom (The Second Sex), which have raised women’s consciousness in Iran. The women’s movement in Iran has forced men to acknowledge female contributions to the nation after many years of denial. As a result of this ongoing struggle, women have received support from their male counterparts. The women’s movement in Kurdistan is part of a larger national movement that struggles against patriarchy and pseudo-intellectual ideologies. Now, what is the use of this denial? One of these days, men must fight side by side with women in the struggle for democracy, because women have shown incredible courage and resilience in the midst of oppression. In fact, women have nothing else to lose, for they have been denied their rights for the longest time. Women have also been active in many parts of Iraqi and Turkish Kurdistan and, though they have to deal with the patriarchal mentality of our political parties, they have still contributed greatly to the elevation of Kurdish women in the education system. The Iranian/Kurdish women’s movement has had great influence on the broader movement; it has contributed to the growth of the women’s movement in neighboring countries as well.
All studies indicate that the lack of freedom and the violation of women’s rights have cultural as well as political roots. What we witness in our society is the presence of a male-dominated mentality that is part of the texture of our culture. What is your opinion on this subject?
I agree with you that the problem of women will not be solved even if the regime is changed. With a free and democratic atmosphere in place, women must continue their struggle in the cultural and social sphere in order to change the status quo. We have a greater role to play in our society, to change things in the fields of education, law and the media, in order to completely eradicate all kinds of discrimination in these areas. Women must be ultra-careful not to go through what Iraqi women are facing today. Due to a scarcity of educated women, they are forced to accept lesser positions in the political arena.
What is bothering women in Iraq today is the prevalence of a mentality that views incompetent men as more acceptable than capable women. It seems as if the establishment of relative democracy and freedom has given free rein to patriarchy, revived suppressed religious complexes and has put even greater restrictions on women.
In the current atmosphere in Iran, the male-dominated culture has solidified itself in the realm of law, religion and social conventions, which has created a huge hurdle for women.
If you disregard greater Tehran and the larger cities, and look to the small cities, women face many obstacles related to the patriarchic mentality. Every woman must constantly struggle not just with the laws imposed upon her by the government, but also with the mindset of men who fight women on all fronts. Even our pseudo-intellectual men, who support the idea of women’s rights, still want women to be subordinate when it comes to their own territory. They, in fact, treat active women in the meanest and most dishonorable ways.
If we are to look at the different periods in our history, what are some of the different stages of the women’s movement in its struggle for freedom and basic rights, starting with the Revolution of 1979?
At the onset of the revolution, the hijab became mandatory. Many courageous women protested this action but were quickly suppressed. The existing revolutionary atmosphere and then the war did not provide the right conditions for women to become independent.
The ultra-conservative religious ideology ended up lowering the status of women in Iran to the extent that they became sexual slaves only capable of child rearing. I remember it was in this kind of atmosphere that one had to succumb to marriage, accept a sub-standard life or try to get an education in order to find employment. Even then, men enjoyed preferential treatment in the job market. For us in the rural areas, the only way out of this bind was to get educated; any other option was agonizing and even dreadful. Educational opportunities were largely conditional upon one’s family background, and whether the family allowed for higher-level education for the girls or not. Needless to say, with the ever increasing number of women attending university, the tables have turned; women are now able to participate in greater numbers at the universities and elevate their awareness.
The widespread culture of economic bargaining and profit making in the market, which does not necessarily require knowledge and expertise, has caused young men to feel less enthusiastic about entering university. Unemployment after finishing education is another factor involved. Whatever the reason, today 65 percent of university students are women. We must emphasize, however, that this statistic is not correct for all universities throughout Iran; for example, in Kurdistan 35 percent of university students are girls.
Nevertheless, many educated women are aware of oppression and discrimination against them and are slowly educating others, despite the existing pressures. As I said before, the publication of a feminist journal and the translation of texts on women, all this has had a very significant role in raising the awareness of women inside the country. The growing number of NGOs has also contributed to a more open atmosphere for women who can thrive and get organized. We saw this during the movements of June 2004 and 2005. Despite tremendous pressures on women and the oppression they have faced, the women’s movement has gained a new identity. This is a home-grown movement made of women, for women, dedicated to the realization of democracy and the elimination of ideological and pluralistic discrimination. You must realize that I am speaking about the women’s movement inside Iran, though the facts about the movement abroad are intertwined with the one in Iran. Since I lived in Iran until recently, obviously my emphasis has been on the inside and the bitterness that we have experienced there.
What has been the extent of violations of women’s rights, and especially of the rights of minority women, since the Revolution?
Since its establishment, the Islamic Republic has been based upon discrimination; women of national minorities in Iran have endured sexual discrimination in addition to the violation of their religious and national rights. As an example, Kurdish women face problems on a daily basis both as women and as citizens of Kurdistan, which as a region is kept behind in terms of social, educational, economic and political progress. There are the regional problems such as of poverty and unemployment that result in more violence against women. Women in Kurdistan feel desperate; there are higher rates of suicide and even self-burning in these areas. Human development in Kurdistan is by far the lowest in Iran; the living conditions are sub-standard and in some ways horrific.
Life expectancy among Kurds is eight years lower than the average and per capita income is lower than the country’s average. There is a high rate of illiteracy and the level of education is the lowest in the country. Since the Iran-Iraq war, there are mines all over the Kurdish region which have not been defused; as a result, dozens of Kurdish children are injured or maimed. Since the regime has not opened any new factories or facilities in these areas, and because of unemployment and economic stagnation, many Kurdish males are forced to find jobs at the Iran-Iraq border. Security forces constantly open fire on Kurds, which results in numerous deaths each day. In the month of August 2005 alone, every three days a Kurd was either injured or killed by the regime’s armed forces. Consequently, women have to carry the burden of raising and providing for the family, and they face mine explosions and injuries themselves. Since the few factories are in the hands of non-Kurds, there is enormous exploitation of workers, especially female workers, by factory owners. They try to silence the government inspectors by bribing them. The political atmosphere is totally closed to both men and women in Kurdistan and it makes it harder on the women, who have struggled side by side with their male counterparts. I should add that even in the prisons of Kurdistan there is discrimination and women prisoners are denied their most basic rights.
Under these circumstances, a Kurdish feminist must not only fight for her rights as a woman, but also against the widespread discrimination against the Kurdish nation. In effect, the women of national minorities in Iran must fight on two fronts.
Iranian women and the women of national minorities have struggled for their rights against the laws imposed upon them by the Islamic regime. How have these struggles paid off?
There have been some minimal achievements. For example, the fostering of boys has changed from two to seven years, which is nothing. Women are not permitted to attend sports games in the stadiums. A woman’s blood money is half that of a man’s and her inheritance is one-eighth that of a man. There is still stoning. In fact, women have realized that political reform in this regime is impossible. Achieving equality for women in a country that considers them as half of a man is quite impossible. Nevertheless, the women’s movement has great potential.
Since women comprise more than half the population of the entire nation, they are very much part of the national minorities’, students’ and worker’s movements. Hence, women are an integral part of the democratic struggle in Iran and a potential force. I consider this a great achievement in the struggle of women—if this movement is not stopped or halted.
What is the role of women of other minorities, such as Baluchi, Arab and Azeri women from provinces such as Guilan, Mazandaran and Loristan, in the struggle for women’s emancipation and equal rights?
Many of the women of other minorities have contributed to the feminist cause in Iran and have faced similar discrimination. In Kurdistan, the women’s movement is a massive one. Some of us Kurdish women analyze the question of sexuality and nationality. I have translated a book on this subject that will be coming out soon. I conclude that the women’s movement in Kurdistan, Azerbaijan and Golestan is quite active.
How have Iranian women’s activities abroad helped the Iranian women’s movement inside Iran’s borders?
If we disregard the ideological and conservative thinking of some people who believe that they have the monopoly on women’s emancipation, that they are the only inheritors of Clara Zetkin’s legacy—as if the women’s movement and International Women’s Day belonged solely to them and no one else—who are constantly in the business of branding domestic activists as liberals, bourgeois and reformists, I must conclude that some of the sound activities of those abroad have had a positive impact on the struggle inside Iran. In example, the many seminars held by the Women Studies’ Conference, especially last year’s conference of March 8th, were instrumental in exposing the violations of women’s rights in Iran. Let us not forget the activity and unstinting support of women activists outside the country who rushed to our support in cases of our incarceration and have brought worldwide attention to the plight of the women of Iran. Iranian women activists abroad have also enriched the library of Iranian women with their writings and have provided their own vast experiences of living in democratic societies for the new generation living under tyranny.
In conclusion, considering the current situation in Iran, what should the role of women be in the political and social affairs of our country, today and in the future?
In my opinion, the women’s movement in Iran is active and inexorable. Our women’s cultural depth, educational level, intellectual zeal and relentless struggle against discrimination cannot be dismissed or marginalized. Democracy in Iran will not be just a male affair, for women are a major part of the democratic struggle. They have chosen a peaceful and non-violent path, which will disarm the regime in power. Additionally, our women, with their persistence and stubbornness, have injected courage into the veins of our society. With a little patience, the dawn is near.