Submitted to and Rejected by: The Los Angeles Times

By Carol Downer

International Women’s Day on March 8 has special meaning for me – this year, more than ever. I will be participating in a demonstration in Los Angeles on March 7 and sharing, long distance, in the power of another one in Sweden the next day.

What makes the events especially important to me is directly related to International Women’s Day thirty years ago in 1979. I had returned to Iran from Los Angeles only weeks earlier after the Shah was forced to leave on February 11, 1979, and Ayatolla Khomeini came back from exile in Paris. I was overjoyed that Shah’s torture chambers would be closed at last. I went back to Iran with my husband, Eraj, a university student whom I had met while attending meetings of the Iranian Students Association in California, and my father.

Many Iranian people welcomed Ayatolla Khomeini with joy, even though it was unclear what his role would be in the post-Shah era. We had participated in the huge revolution by marching in the millions until the Shah fled, despite having the fifth largest army in the world.

I was part of a Marxist group and we knew there were sharp divisions among Iranians as to how to complete our revolution, but we all had high hopes that Iran, a country rich in history, industrial development and oil, would work out these differences and a modern state free of the Shah’s oppression would be achieved. Women especially wanted to maintain the gains of the prior seven decades when Shah Reza Pahlavi’s father established a secular state and enforced modern ways. Women took advantage of this time period to gain new rights, such as the right to work, become judges, have child care centers at work, not have to marry before age 18 and to discard the veil.

Our joy in returning was short-lived. Within a few weeks, Khomeini shredded almost a century of progress for women. At first, despite the announcements of anti-women edicts, we excused his traditional thinking because we thought he was basically for the people. Then, the Family Protection Law was suspended; women could no longer be judges; only men had the right to divorce; women in the army were dismissed.

But on March 7, Khomeini shocked us all when he said that women could continue to work, but henceforth they must wear the Islamic veil at work. He shouldn’t have done this on the day before International Women’s Day. I, along with my mother, my aunt, and two of my sisters, attended one of the several mass demonstrations of women that took place to celebrate International Women’s Day and protested Khomeini’s statement regarding the veil. My father also came to support our outrage. He, like many Iranian men, does not support these Draconian laws. Our slogans said: “Liberty and equality are our undeniable right;” “We will fight against compulsory veil: down with dictatorship;” “In the dawn of freedom, we already lack freedom.” Revolutionary Guards. a gang of young, male thugs like the Taliban who had governmental support, fired in the air to make us afraid. We yelled back, “Freedom or death. We never give up.”

In addition to the large mass demonstration, estimated by the press to be 15,000, demonstrations were quickly organized by a collection of smaller women’s organizations. In several incidents, women were physically attacked. This day unified us as women to fight to end the Islamic Republic.

My husband and I continued to work against the regime for the next year, although the rollbacks kept coming. The Ministry of Education banned co-education; married women could not attend high school; the minimum age for women to marry was lowered to 13 years; all day-care and nursery centers were closed, and women with children were encouraged to quit their jobs and stay at home. Even though my husband opposed these measures, if I didn’t wear the Islamic veil in public, he would be accosted by other men, who told him, “Don’t let your wife come out without a veil.”

In June 1980, in downtown Tehran, we went to the last open large demonstration. The military began firing and shot some people. Soon, there was repression of all the groups that had any discussions or debates, and we went underground.

In 1982, my husband was arrested. Next, they came for my mother, and then for me, and then my father. We were thrown into the same prison that the Shah used for those who dissented from his rule. My husband was executed. I was sentenced to ten years in prison because I told them I was not religious and I wouldn’t pray. From my cell, where I was kept in solitary, I could hear the cries of people who were being tortured. I recognized my father’s voice. After three years, I was freed. My parents were released later. I stayed for five years with my in-laws who kept my two very young children while I was in prison. After 10 years, I sought menial employment, for which I was paid under-the-table, and I migrated to Germany. I am now a German citizen and I work with other Iranian and Afghani women to destroy the Islamic Republic in Iran.

Over the years, it has gotten worse in Iran under the Islamic Republic. Women are not allowed the custody of their children; they cannot go on vacation without their husband’s permission, and they cannot leave the country without the permission of their husband. In some rural areas, women suspected of not behaving like a “good woman” have been sentenced to death by stoning, or threatened with it, barring intervention.

Iranian women have not stopped fighting for their rights. In Iran, women meet in their homes to keep each other sane and to struggle to assert their values as women. Sometimes, however, these actions go public. In June 2008, university students at the University of Zanjan demonstrated against sexual harassment by a male university official, according to news sources.

Expatriate Iranian women continue their work abroad. For ten years, I have worked with the March 8 Women’s Organization, a coalition of Iranian and Afghani women’s groups that have the common goal of eliminating sexual oppression and male-chauvinist relations. This year, our unifying principles will be: ”No to the Islamic Republic of Iran! No to U.S. Imperialism!“ “No to the U.S.’s Islamic Republic in Afghanistan! No to the Taliban!” “Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ and Obama’s ‘Good Wars’ Serve the Empire!”

And in Iran, once a year — on International Women’s Day — veiled women band together to boisterously protest the regime. Some get arrested and jailed briefly, but more come back the next year.

March 4, 2009