Comparative Approaches to Civil Society

Women at the Forefront of the Democracy Movement in Iran

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 7, Issue 3, June 2005

By Nayereh Tohidi*

June 12, 2005, was a great day for the women’s rights activists of Iran.

Earlier, about 90 NGOs concentrating on women and gender issues, the environment, and education joined 350 prominent female writers, academics, lawyers, artists, activists, journalists, and 130 web-loggers to call for a public protest against the breaches of women’s rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The result was an unprecedented demonstration.

Against all the odds and intimidations, women gathered at 5 p.m. in front of the main gate of the University of Tehran – about 3,000 of them. The organizers had mobilized many male intellectuals and civil society activists too, by inviting them to sign a petition in support of the protest; some of them joined the demonstration as well.

The protesters were determined, well-organized, alert, and timely in their demands as well as in their efforts to make their voices heard, both inside and outside Iran. Their slogans and their ending statement (resolution) stressed the necessity for changing the constitution and the legal system. Many Iranian laws breach the human rights of women and justify violence against them. Activists see the present laws, based on sharia, as the main obstacle to achieving equality and the empowerment of women.

Though they agreed on the goals, demonstrators held various views on how best to achieve them. Some are planning to boycott the upcoming presidential elections and are calling for a national referendum for the election of a new constitutional assembly and the establishment of a secular and egalitarian constitution compatible with the universal declaration of human rights. Others plan to vote for the reformist presidential candidate, Dr. Mostafa Moin. Yet they all came together, regardless of political and ideological differences, to demand fundamental human rights.

The protesters’ slogans did not mince words: “Our path to liberation – just law and women’s consciousness,” “Anti-women laws are the basis of despotism,” “We are women, we are human beings, we are citizen of this country, yet we have no rights,” ”No to legal violence against women,” “Human rights are the path to democracy in Iran,” and “Oppressive laws and patriarchal traditions should be abolished.”

The security forces, of course, came in overwhelming numbers. They kicked some women (as reported by Parvin Ardalan and Fariba Davoudi-Mohajer), grabbed and tore many of the placards, and surrounded the demonstration with buses to prevent more women and men from joining. The women held hands and resisted the security forces by singing the “women’s freedom” song recently composed for this occasion. Overall, though, the event was relatively peaceful, with no confirmed reports of arrest or serious injury. The organizers cleverly timed the protest for the peak of the presidential election campaign, a less repressive period when security forces would be reluctant to attack women before the eyes of the public.

A few people managed to complete their speeches – including Simin Behbahani, Marziyyeh Mortazi-Langaroudi, and Shirin Ebadi (a message read aloud) – most speakers were prevented from proceeding by the security forces and the tensions they created. A group of Kurdish women, who had come all the way from Kurdistan (Marivan), managed to sing in Kurdish and deliver a speech, but the messages of women from Azerbaijan, Isfehan, Chahar-Mahal-Bakhtiyari, Khorasan, Sistan & Baluchestan, Lorestan, and Kermanshah could not be delivered. The text of many of the messages can be read (in Persian) on the web site of the Iranian Feminist Tribune,

As assessed by some of the activists, including Noushin Ahmadi-Khorasani, Shadi Sadr, and Mahboobeh Abbasgholizadeh, this was a great day for the women’s movement in Iran. Women activists were able to gain more confidence, improve their organizational skills, strengthen the ties among NGOs, and articulate their demands more clearly and unanimously. Once again, women proved that they constitute the primary agents of the burgeoning civil society and pro-democracy movement in Iran. This bold yet measured and well-conceived action marks a turning point in the history of the women’s movement in Iran.

Another important aspect was its global dimension. From different parts of the world, several NGOs and Internet sites for women helped generate international publicity of this important event. As organizer Noushin Ahmadi-Khorasani put it, “This action could not have succeeded without the effective international support behind it. Having five Nobel laureates, Human Rights Watch, and hundreds of academics and human rights activists from different parts of the world behind us gave us a sense of security and confidence to go ahead and overcome the fear of arrest.” The international campaign and a related petition can be found at

All who worked so hard, up front and behind the scenes, inside and outside Iran, deserve our congratulations. The successful demonstration of June 12 is likely to have major implications for the future of women’s rights, human rights, civil society, and democracy in Iran.

For additional information on the demonstration, its background, and its resolution, see the following: (Persian) (Persian and English) (English) (Persian)


* Nayereh Tohidi is a Research Associate at the Center for Near Eastern Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, and Chair of the Women’s Studies Department, California State University, Northridge.