A Feminist Space of One's Own

Material Information

A Feminist Space of One's Own Cyberspace and Feminist Websites in Iran's Women's Movement
Dolatshahi, Sanam
Place of Publication:
[Gainesville, Fla.]
University of Florida
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1 online resource (74 p.)

Thesis/Dissertation Information

Master's ( M.A.)
Degree Grantor:
University of Florida
Degree Disciplines:
Women's Studies
Committee Chair:
Babb, Florence E.
Committee Members:
Broad, Kendal L.
Anantharam, Anita
Graduation Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Gender discrimination ( jstor )
Gender equality ( jstor )
Gender roles ( jstor )
Political movements ( jstor )
Social activism ( jstor )
Social movements ( jstor )
Websites ( jstor )
Women ( jstor )
Womens rights movements ( jstor )
Womens studies ( jstor )
Women's Studies -- Dissertations, Academic -- UF
activism, activist, cyberspace, feminist, identity, internet, iran, media, movement, movements, online, resistance, social, women
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent) ( marcgt )
born-digital ( sobekcm )
Electronic Thesis or Dissertation
Women's Studies thesis, M.A.


My research explores the dynamics and politics of the space of feminist activism that the members of Iran's women's movement have created on the Internet. After the ban of many print publications in Iran at the beginning of the 21st century, many social movement activists, including women's movement activists, started using the Internet as an alternative venue for communication, mobilization, and networking. My research examines the impact of this trend of online publishing and the role of feminist websites in the women's movement in Iran. My interviews with fifteen Iranian women's movement activists and editors of Iranian feminist websites show that the online space created by Iranian feminist websites is a contested yet empowering space. The Iranian feminist websites are independent forums that have given voice and visibility to the women's movement in Iran. These websites have helped the movement activists to network and stay connected to other activists and to the public. These websites have helped the movement to mobilize the resources of the movement and have helped the movement to recruit men as well as women. The websites have also empowered the movement through creating a space where the movement activists can develop a sense of solidarity and form a sense of collective identity. On the other hand, the space of Iranian feminist activism on the Internet has enabled the movement participants to build individual or group identities that may sometimes be divisive among the participating groups. Class boundaries and lack of access to the Internet have made this online space of feminist activism exclusive to those who have the privilege of access to the Internet connection. There is always the risk that the movement activities become exclusively an online activity and the whole movement be reduced to an online movement. A power relation exists among the members of the movement and this power relation determines whose voice can be heard and what topics can be discussed. The main concentration of these websites is on gender discriminatory laws and lack of rights. While the websites do not encourage or reproduce heteronormative stereotypes, they lack a critique of it and topics such as sexuality and sexual orientation are rarely discussed in these websites. My research shows that it is possible for some subaltern groups such as the women's movement in Iran to employ the technological tools of the cyberspace for resistance, transformation, and building collective identities. Despite all the shortcomings and power relations that exist within the women's movement in Iran, these feminist websites remain a space for speaking up and challenging the status quo. Therefore, I argue that the space created from the network of Iranian feminist websites on the Internet is a profoundly feminist space. ( en )
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In the series University of Florida Digital Collections.
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Includes vita.
Includes bibliographical references.
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Description based on online resource; title from PDF title page.
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This bibliographic record is available under the Creative Commons CC0 public domain dedication. The University of Florida Libraries, as creator of this bibliographic record, has waived all rights to it worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law.
Thesis (M.A.)--University of Florida, 2009.
Adviser: Babb, Florence E.
Statement of Responsibility:
by Sanam Dolatshahi.

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2009 Sanam Dolatshahi 2


To Shadi Sadr and my sisters in the Women in Iran website 3


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I do not know if I can do justice to all those relationships and friendships that helped shape my (re)thinking along the way by simply naming them here. I am deeply grateful to Shadi Sadr, my mentor, source of inspiration, my friend and my comrade in activism along with our colleagues in the Women in Iran website for opening the doors of possibility to me and many other womens rights activists in Iran. Most affectionately, I would like to thank Florence E. Babb, my supervisory committee chair, for her support, encouragement, and her generous intellectual companionship. I coul d not have accomplished this ta sk without her unfailing care and kindness at a difficult time of my life, and I a ppreciate that she never lost confidence in me. I would also like to thank my supervisory committee members, Kendal L. Broad and Anita Anantharam, for patiently allowing me to l earn and for their challenging and supporting intellectual contributions to this project. I have enjoyed the sustained support of the faculty and staff of the Center for Women's Studies and Gender Research, my second home in the US. I owe a great deal to the members of the womens mo vement in Iran who patiently and generously answered my interview questions, who have always been my source of inspiration and who will always be my comrade sisters in the challenges we face. I would also like to thank my exhusband and friend, Babak Mohit for his generosi ty and support during those difficult student years we spent together. My pa rtner, Reza Mahjourian, whose warm support, love and trust helped me through the difficult times, deserves cred it for being just the marvelous person that he is. I feel blessed for having him in my life. 4


TABLE OF CONTENTS page ACKNOWLEDGMENTS ...............................................................................................................4 ABSTRACT .....................................................................................................................................7 CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION................................................................................................................. ...9 2 IRANS WOMENS MOVEMENT: 1900-PRESENT..........................................................14 The Constitutional Movement and Pahlavi Era......................................................................14 The 1979 Revolution and Post-Revolution.............................................................................16 The Reform Movement...........................................................................................................1 8 Is There a Womens Movement?............................................................................................20 Return of the Conservatives....................................................................................................25 3 METHODOLOGY.................................................................................................................2 9 Method....................................................................................................................................29 Feminist Ethnography.............................................................................................................30 My Positionality............................................................................................................... .......31 4 IRANIAN WOMEN ACTIVISTS VI EWS ON FEMINIST WEBSITES............................36 Independent Forum/Having a Voice in the Public.................................................................37 Recruiting Men................................................................................................................. ......38 Networking, Connectivity, and Crossing the Borders............................................................39 Resource Mobilization: Recruiti ng, Mobilizing and Publicizing...........................................40 Bypassing the Limitations of Patriarchal Media Ownership..................................................41 The Formation of Collective Ident ity or a War of Identities?.............................................41 Access, Class Boundaries, and Power....................................................................................45 The Risk of Limiting the Movement to the Internet...............................................................51 Absence of Discussions on Sexuality: What Is Not Being Said?...........................................52 5 CONCLUSION AND DISCUSSION....................................................................................56 Technologies of Social Change..............................................................................................56 Empowerment or Ethnocentrism?..........................................................................................57 Framing and Collective Identity.............................................................................................61 New Possibilities of the Cyberculture....................................................................................63 APPENDIX ORIGINAL TRANSCRIPT OF DIRECT QUOTED INTERVIEWS IN PERSIAN................................................................................................................................65 5


LIST OF REFERENCES...............................................................................................................70 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH.........................................................................................................74 6


Abstract of Thesis Presen ted to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts A FEMINIST SPACE OF ONES OWN: CYBE RSPACE AND FEMINIST WEBSITES IN IRANS WOMENS MOVEMENT By Sanam Dolatshahi May, 2009 Chair: Florence E. Babb Major: Womens Studies My research explores the dynamics and politics of the space of feminist activism that the members of Irans womens movement have created on the Internet. After the ban of many print publications in Iran at the be ginning of the 21st century, many social movement activists, including womens movement activists, started us ing the Internet as an alternative venue for communication, mobilization, and networking. My resear ch examines the impact of this trend of online publishing and the role of feminist we bsites in the womens movement in Iran. My interviews with fifteen Iranian womens movement activists and editors of Iranian feminist websites show that th e online space created by Iranian fe minist websites is a contested yet empowering space. The Iranian feminist webs ites are independent forums that have given voice and visibility to the womens movement in Iran. These websites have helped the movement activists to network and stay connected to other ac tivists and to the public. These websites have helped the movement to mobilize th e resources of the movement and have helped the movement to recruit men as well as wo men. The websites have also empowered the movement through creating a space where the m ovement activists can develop a sense of solidarity and form a sense of collective identity. 7


On the other hand, the space of Iranian feminist activism on the Internet has enabled the movement participants to build individual or gr oup identities that may sometimes be divisive among the participating groups. Cl ass boundaries and lack of access to the Internet have made this online space of feminist activism exclusive to those who have the privilege of access to the Internet connection. There is always the risk that the movement activities become exclusively an online activity and the whole movement be reduced to an online movement. A power relation exists among the members of the movement and this power relation dete rmines whose voice can be heard and what topics can be discussed. The main concentr ation of these websites is on gender discriminatory laws and lack of rights. While the websites do not encourage or reproduce heteronormative stereotypes, they lack a critique of it and topics such as sexuality and sexual orientation are rarely disc ussed in these websites. My research shows that it is possible for some subaltern groups such as the womens movement in Iran to employ th e technological tools of the cyberspace for resistance, transformation, and building collective identiti es. Despite all the shortcomings and power relations that exist within the womens movement in Iran, these feminist websites remain a space for speaking up and challenging the status quo. Therefore, I argue that the space created from the network of Iranian feminist websites on the Internet is a profoundl y feminist space. 8


CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION For us, true speaking is not solely an expression of creative power; it is an act of resistance, a political gesture that challe nges politics of domination that would render us nameless and voiceless. As such, it is a courageous act as such, it represents a threat. To those who wield oppressive power that which is thre atening must necessarily be wiped out, annihilated, and silen ced. (bell hooks 1989: 8) Iranian women have been active in publis hing and having their own media since the beginning of the Constitutional M ovement in Iran in the early 1900s, which some scholars and activists consider to be the beginning of the womens movement in Iran (Sanasarian 1982, Mahdi 2004, Ettehadieh 2004). Various womens issues have been discussed, negotiated, and challenged within womens media, from the pages of the small magazine Danesh in 1910 to the pages of banned feminist websites today. Irani an women activists have used the press to challenge gender constructions and gender relations and to call fo r radical rethinking of law, policy, and the Constitution (Khiabani and Sreberny 2004: 15). Among the issues discussed the most in womens media in Iran is the debate on the role of Islam and Sharia (Islamic) law on womens status in Iran, and the related questions of whether alternative in terpretations of Islam can be made in favor of womens rights. Wome ns right to divorce, work, travel, and have custody of children, and the debate s on the Islamic veil, stoning, and womens participation in the job market and politics are some of the ot her issues discussed in Iranian womens media (Khiabani and Sreberny 2004). After the ban of several Iranian reformis t publications, which reached a total of 80 publications by 2004, many journalist s and activists started to wr ite on the Inte rnet as an alternative venue of communica tion (Khiabani and Sreberny 2004). Iranian women journalists and activists, individually and in organizations, started to use the In ternet as an alternative media outlet. Today there are more than 20 websites dedi cated to womens issues in Iran. The majority 9


of these websites are being published and updated by womens activists living inside Iran, though a smaller number live outsid e Iran. The limitations for Irani an women journalists and the limitations for discussing womens issues in Iran s print media have been considered the main motivations for Iranian women journalists prefer ence for online media rather than print media (Shojaee 2004). The content published in the Iranian feminist websites can be used as a basis for research to explore how these womens groups frame their activities and the issues over which they are struggling. The systematic archiving of the cont ent of these websites makes it possible to view these texts as contemporary documents of a hist ory in the making, through which we can explore the interpretive proce ss of meaning-making or framing in the Iranian womens movement. While the limitation of the format of my thesis will not allow me to conduct a textual analysis of the content of these websites, I will discuss and explore the main topics discussed and represented in the websites through my interviews with the editors of these we bsites. Through these interviews I will explore the approaches feminist activists in Iran use to frame their activism, which can help us to understand what issues are salien t in the womens movement in Iran, and what strategies the movement activists in Iran employ to further their activism. While many feminist scholars have recognized the ways feminist activists make use of the media, not many scholars have explored the dynam ics of this media activism in terms of its contribution to womens movement s and the process of social change. As Carolyn Byerly and Karen Ross (2006: 103) note, the process of co mmunicative struggle itself, considering the work of change agents (i.e. feminist medi a activists) and the activ ities they conducted on multiple fronts are areas of inqui ry that still need further expl oration. My research will explore this communicative struggle, how a communication medium can contribute to womens 10


movements and the social change process, and how movement participants interact with and employ that medium. Specifically, I am interested in exploring how the womens movement in Iran has used the Internet as a strategic medi um to interact, network, mobilize, and campaign. Moreover, I am interested in the politics of wh at I call a feminist sp ace, created by Iranian womens movement activists on the Internet. I explore how the activists use this space to discuss and challenge the diverse and complex issues the womens movement in Iran is struggling with, including gender discrimination, legal righ ts, religion, and patriarchal ideology. In the Western media, we often see women living in Muslim countries represented as passive victims of their antimodern and mis ogynistic societies (Nour aie-Simone 2005: xiv). The dynamic realities of womens participation in public disc ourses on human rights and civil rights specifically th rough their access to communication a nd technological resources have often been rendered invisible, or obscured by stereotyped representations of Muslim women (Nouraie-Simone 2005: xiv). As a critique of th ese stereotypes, I will show how feminist activists in Iran employ communication technologi es in complex ways and as active agents, to challenge everyday discri mination and oppression. Van de Donk, Loader, Nixon, and Rucht (2004) ha ve indicated that social movements communication is generally based on direct inte raction among physically present people. They argue that information communicat ion technologies (ICTs) and pa rticularly the Internet are likely to provide more opportunities to social movements to reach new levels in mobilizing, building coalitions, informing, communicating, and campaigning. They discuss the way many new social movements are based on homogeneous environments bound to particular territories and social locations (Van de Donk et al. 2004: 5). Some social movements such as environmental movements, womens movements, and the global justice movements have a 11


relatively heterogeneous natu re, but can easily extend be yond national borders (Van de Donk et al. 2004: 5). Moreover, these new movement s are more likely to welcome concepts such as diversity, decentralization, informality a nd grassroots democracy rather than unity, centralization, formality, and str ong leadership (Gundelach, 1984 as cited in Van de Donk et al 2004: 5). Therefore, it is speculated that new so cial movements are particularly enthusiastic about adopting ICTs, because these new means of communication fit their ideological and organizational needs (Van de Donk et al, 2004: 6). By studying how the activists in the womens movement in Iran are using the Internet, I will explore whether the Internet could work as a tool or space to empower the movement activists to challenge gender discrimination and to further their ac tivism. By putting the dynamics of the Iranian womens movement into a historical, political, and socio-economic perspective, and by exploring the actual use of the Intern et by the movement participants, I will problematize the role of the Internet in the wome ns movement in Iran. I will argue that while the Internet can provide a feminist sp ace for the movement participants to further their activism and advocacy, the limitation of access and the power dynami cs of the Internet will not allow us to romanticize the role of the Internet. Moreover, I will raise several key questions: w ithin this context of access to the Internet, connectivity, and having a public sp ace for activism, whose voice is be ing heard? Is this space an egalitarian one? Is there any hi erarchy of power within the ne twork of feminist websites? In the next chapter I will briefly review the history of the womens movement in Iran in order to place the movement within a historical and political context. In the third chapter I will present the narratives of the Iranian women who use the Internet for their activism and write for feminist websites based inside Iran. Through thes e narratives I will show the politics of the 12


feminist space created by the Iranian feminist websites. I will show the themes and meanings created, constructed, or challenged by the womens movement activists in these websites. I will also discuss how the members of the womens move ment in Iran use the Internet and what they think about the role of feminist websites in thei r movement. In the final chapter, I consider the online activism of the womens movement in Iran in light of the body of literature on feminist media activism and cyberfeminism. I will analyz e what this form of activism means for the womens movement in Iran and what it tells us about the current state of feminism in Iran. 13


CHAPTER 2 IRANS WOMENS MOVEMENT: 1900-PRESENT The Constitutional Movement and Pahlavi Era A brief look at the contemporar y history of Iran in the last hundred years shows that throughout that period Iranian wome n have been struggling to gain equal rights, to raise their consciousness, and to play a role in the public an d political sphere. In th e early twentieth century women were active in the Constitutional Movement in Iran through underground political activities and participation in riots (Mehdi 2004, Ettehadieh 2004, Sanasarian 1982). In addition, women were actively seeking to open schools for women and promote womens education, despite the extensive opposition of clerical figures in Ira n. (Mehdi 2004, Sanasarian 1982). Womens publications and magazines were launched in this er a, covering a range of topics from family and health to education, politics, right to vo te, and equal rights with men (Ettehadieh 2004, Sanasarian 1982). However, womens presence in the public sphere was very limited, and they were not allowed to leave home without covering their entire body, including their faces (Ettehadieh 2004). Nationalism and anti-imperialism were among the reasons why women became involved in the constitutional movement in the early 1900s (S anasarian 1982: 21). Women were discontented with their inferior status, but they placed the blame mainly on imperialism and thus became more motivated to participate in the constitutional mo vement. Sanasarian writes: Nationalism pulled women out of their domestic environment, and for the first time women learned to participate in an external, nontraditional affair (1982: 21). As the constitutional movement declined by the rise of the Pahlavi Dynasty in 1920s, many women, especially rural women, lost their motivation to be politically active in the publ ic sphere. Sanasarian suggests th at womens participation in the 14


public and political sphere during the Constitutional Movement was a form of womens movement, yet the participants were not conscious of it as a movement. Overall, the success of the wome ns movement in this era was mostly related to education, which was one of the basic demands of the partic ipants, along with better health care. Education, however, was only offered to urban women, and rural women did not benefit from either educational or health fa cilities offered to urban women (Ettehadieh 2004). In 1940, womens organizations started to grow due to a political vacuum and an atmosphere of more freedom of expression a nd association (Sanasarian 1982). During this period, the first women organizations were form ed and feminist media flourished. Equal rights for women, more educational oppo rtunities for women, demolishing the exploitation of female workers, and the right to vote were among th e issues these organi zations pursued. These organizations had strong affiliations with political parties, especially leftist parties, and they were seeking to attack the establishm ent as a way to gain equal rights. However, in the 1950s these organizations became co-opted by the political authorities to bring womens activities under control (Sanasarian 1982). The institutionalized womens organizations of the 1950s continued struggles for women gaining the right to vote. Since their activities were centralized, they had the chance to ask for political opportunities for women through governmental channels. However, these groups lacked the dynamism, autonomy, and nonpartisan ch aracteristics of the womens movement of the earlier period. [They] were mere window-dre ssing for the policies of the state (Sanasarian 1982: 82). The right to vote was finally granted to women by the government as a gesture to show a modern image of the state. The womens organizations of this period were also pursuing more radical legal issues such as less restrictive abortion la ws. With extensive lobbying of 15


these organizations, a legislative for not puni shing physicians who performed abortion under some conditions was ratified. However, this was probably a tactical mane uver [by the state] to prevent direct identification of th e law as a womens issue by maki ng it part of the doctors penal code (Sanasarian 1982: 99). Although the Family Protection law that was ratified in the 1970s granted many legal rights such as the right to divor ce and custody of children to women, legal changes in and of themselves during this period generally were no t sufficient to raise womens consciousness. As Sanasarian writes, Most of these legal changes had come about in the form of reforms from above (the authorities) rather than from a genuine womens movement at the grass roots level and the majority of Iranian women were not i nvolved in the process of changes (1982: 110). The 1979 Revolution and Post-Revolution The 1979 Islamic Revolution had a high level of support among Iranian women. While the Anti-Shah movement and Khomeini did not o ffer anything specifically related to womens issues, many women supported the movement. The efforts of leftist groups in raising anti-Shah and anti-Imperialist sentiments is considered by some scholars to be an underlying reason for womens support of the revoluti on (Nashat 2004). The women who participated in anti-Shah protests shocked the world by wearing veils in the protests (Sanasarian 1982: 116). Sanasarian indicates two strategic purposes for using the veil at the time of the revolution: one to hide from being recognized by the Shahs intelligence service, and one to make a s ymbolic gesture against the excessive Westernization policies of the ruli ng monarch and its pro-Western modernization projects (ibid.: 116). While the Family Protecti on law ratified in the 1970s gave many rights to women, the womens groups joined anti-Shah m ovement in an opposition to the Shahs proWestern policies of capita lism and modernization. 16


After the revolution, a number of laws were changed, many of which were related to women. The Family Protection Law that banned pol ygamy and child marriage and gave the right to divorce to women was suspended, coeducational activities were banned, female judges were suspended, abortion was banned and criminaliz ed, and the Islamic veil became mandatory (Nashat 2004). Different groups of secular women participated in demons trations against the mandatory veil, but their protests were repre ssed by the state (Ahmadi Khorasani and Ardalan 2003). The 1980s was a period of repression for all opposition groups, lead ing to the execution of thousands of the states opponents, at the time when the country was in the crisis of a war with Iraq. In this period, Iranian femi nists retreated into small private groups, holding secret and private meetings at their homes (Ahmadi Khorasani and Ardalan 2003). The need for womens participation in the work force at the time of war brought many women into the labor market (Nashat 2004). After the war, during the presidency of Rafsanjani, who was a technocrat and cleric several government-sponsored womens organizations were launched. These included the Sociocultural Coun cil for Women, the International Office for Women in the Ministry of Fore ign Affairs, and offices for womens affairs in other key ministries including education, hea lth, labor, justice, and the inte rior. Provincial governors were instructed to set up special offices for womens issues. Presidential Participation Center for Womens Affairs, a bureau for wo mens affairs, was established in President Rafsanjanis headquarter office. The number of women elected to parliament also increased in this era (Esfandiary 2004). As Hooglund (2002: xv) points out, during this era some religious women were very articulate in questioning unequal legal, economic political, and social customs and laws with respect to women during this era. Accordi ng to Hooglund, the efforts these women made to 17


challenge traditional religious in terpretations have resulted in a dynamic movement that some scholars call Islamic Feminism. Few men and secular women have supported these religious women. However, these women have achieve d some important successes in changing legislations affecting womens lives. As Kian-Thiebaut (2002: 61) has put it: Because the women were the first to bear the bur den of the rule of the political Islam, they were also the first to challenge its leg itimacy. Paradoxically, the implementation of the Sharia created a common ground of protest for women, regardless of their social status and political stands. According to Kian Thiebaut (2002: 62), some Islamist women became active in public sphere through creating independent networks to suppor t poor women or to hold literacy classes, because they believed that the ideals of th e revolution cannot be attained unless women are present in the public sphere. Some secula r women have also created nongovernmental organizations and informal networks to help ot her women find jobs or find legal advice at the time of family problems. The Reform Movement In May 1997, Mohammad Khatami was electe d as the president of Iran with a high turnout. A large portion of the voters were women who actively par ticipated in the elections and supported the election of Khatami. This participation was surprisi ng to those especially in the West who had held for a long time stereotypical im ages of Iranian women as dull, veiled pawns in the hands of Islamist politics (Kian-Thiebaut 2002: 56) Khatami was a reformist and modernist candidate who promised freedom of speech, civil society, dialogue among civilizations, and womens rights in his presidential campaigns. Without the help of women, who voted for him in large numbers, he could hardly have won with such a turnout. In fact, women voted for Khatami in the hope of a cha nge and improvement in their status. 18


Some of the women who voted for Khatami we re expecting radical and complete changes in Islamic laws such as the Family Protecti on law and the Islamic Penal Code, while some others, as Kian-Thiebaut (2002: 57) writes, argued that the reform of law would not be sufficient as long as social customs and cultu re remained unchanged. These women were all hoping that the perception of women as inferior beings would be modified. They voted for Khatami, hoping that radical changes would happen in politics, law, and culture to the benefit of a better status for women. According to Kian -Thiebaut (2002: 57), women from various social backgrounds and classes [used] their right to vote as a potent agent to implement change. Womens enrollment in universities increased after the revolution. In the 1980s, about 30 percent of university students were women. By the 1999-2000 academic year, 50 percent of university students were women (Kian-Thie baut, 2002: 67). In 2008, about 64 percent of students admitted to universities were women. 1 As Kian-Thiebaut (2002) writes, after the re volution more women wa nted to work after graduating from universities. She considers the economic problems and lower ability of families to purchase goods as a reason why more women pa rticipated in the job market. The increasing number of women present at th e universities and job market in creased the presence and thus status of women in public sphere. The outstanding rise in the participation of women in education and the public sphere of employment can be considered as Moore (1988: 178) put it everyday forms of womens resistance. Following the presidency of Khatami and the more politically open e nvironment that was created due to the rule of the reformists womens movements found a chance to express themselves, and when necessary protest, more publicly (Abbasgholizad eh 2003). Developing the 1 Radio Zamaneh (In Persian) 19


civil society was one of the presidential camp aigns of Khatami and he kept his promise by facilitating the formation of several NGOs duri ng his term, many of which were womens NGOs. (Nashat 2004). Womens publications became more active during the reform movement to the extent that Zan (woman), the first Iranian womens newspaper was launched in August 1998 (Khiabani and Sreberny 2004: 33). However, Zan was banned from publication in April 1999 and only in 2000 more than 20 reformist publications were banned and several journalists were detained and imprisoned. After many reformist publications were banne d in the years 2003 and 2004, the Internet became an attractive publishing space for many j ournalists and activists including the womens movement activists. (Khiabani and Sreberny 2004) Soon, this alternative space became the only space for feminist activists to publish and have their voices heard. The feminist websites that started their work in this environment have or ganized several public ga therings, including the celebration of International Womens Day in pub lic places, campaigns to enter soccer stadiums that ban women, and protests agai nst the discriminatory laws in the constitution. The articles published in the websites before and after each protest can be used as historical documents for further study of Irans womens m ovement, since these texts depict the frames of the movement and how the movements participants th ink and feel about their activism. Is There a Womens Movement? Womens struggles in Iran, as in many other Middle Eastern countries, have rarely been conceptualized as a movement (Sanasarian 1982). Many factors, such as the practice of Sharia, strict traditional upbringi ng of girls, womens lower status in the society and in politics due to established legal and cultural systems of Muslim societies, and the practice of wearing the veil could be the reasons for not considering womens activities in these countries as a movement (Sanasarian 1982: 1). In the last twenty-five years since the Is lamic revolution in Iran, the 20


concept of the existence of a womens movement has been the subject of debate. Hamidreza Jalayipour, 2 a reformist politician, journalist, and social movements researcher who has examined the concept of the womens movement in Iran from a critical lens and has published several articles on this issue, ar gues that womens activism in Iran has not elevated itself to a movement, because womens activism beco mes a womens movement only when the participants are recognized as feminists. On the contrary, he argues, many womens activists in Iran, who are feminists in a practical sense, avoi d using the word feminist, because they fear being labeled as anti-family or pr o-immoral sexuality (Jalayipur 2003). Jalayipour (2003) also argues th at social activism may be cal led a social movement when there is a collection of non-in stitutional networks that have sustainable relationships (interactions) with one other. Along with a network of individua ls, a collective identity should be formed among the participants. They should discuss the discrimination against them and analyze the underlying causes of the discrimina tion. Moreover, a movement should culturally or politically challenge and oppose those who reje ct their demands. He argues that womens activism in Iran does not have such characteristics. In his book Sociology of Social Movements Jalayipour (2002) summarizes four elements he considers necessary for a movement: the moveme nt should be formed in reaction to a social gap or discrimination; it should be based on an id eology; it should consist of extensive informal social networks; and there should be a political opportunity for poli tical and social protest. He 2 Although the debates on the existence of a womens movement in Iran is rarely discussed academically both inside and outside Iran, a lot of discussions on this issue can be found in the Iranian feminist and reformist media. Since I believe these discussions play an important role in the interaction between participants of womens movement in Iran and the participants of other social movements such as the reform movement inside Iran and the opposition groups (to the state) outside Iran, I have included these nonacademic discussions here. Although these discussions might not be based on in-depth research, and although they might be superficial for being anecdotal or using tokenism, they are still worth considering, I argue, since thes e discussions reflect part of what I call the frames of Iranian womens movement. 21


points out that womens grassroots and nongovernmental organizations have flourished during the reform movement in Iran. However, he crit icizes the feminist discourses within these networks and argues that activists in Iran have not formed a solidified discourse and feminist literature to analyze and critici ze gender discrimination. He furthe r argues that Western feminist literature and perspectives should be localized in Iran, and a comparative femi nist discourse that targets local issues should be formed (Jalayipour 2002). In her article The Doomed Triangle of Veil and Womens Movement in Iran, Fathieh Naghibzadeh (2006), who is a member of an opposition group in diaspora, reiterates many opposition groups outlooks on the status of the wome ns movement inside Iran. She rejects the existence of an established womens movement in Iran based on her view that women in Iran do not have any autonomy in relation their bodies (b ecause of the veil). She argues that womens struggle for control of their bod ies is one of the main compon ents of a feminist womens movement. Moreover, she emphasizes the slogan the personal is political and argues that since women inside Iran have low social status and are regarded as inferi or to men, they dont have the chance to politicize the personal, and on the contrary, they try to personalize and then depoliticize politics. Sh e concludes that because of the veil and the lack of womens low social status in Iran, talking about a womens move ment in Iran is incorrect and misleading. Elaheh Rostami (2004), an Iranian scholar working on gender, development, and institutions, challenges the view s of critics such as Jalayipou r and Naghibzadeh on the womens movement in Iran. In an article in Zanan magazine, she offers a brief overview of social movement theories and considers them applicable to the womens movement in Iran. According to Rostami, social movements form when groups of people are not satisfied with their situation and mobilize to make social change. Social movements change constantly and do not have 22


organized or institutionalized structures such as political parties. Social movements act collectively based on collective identity and cons ciousness, and do not necessarily form because of political or economic problems. According to Rostami, social movements also form to address cultural issues and to challenge sex, gender, class, and et hnic oppression. She calls the Iranian womens movement a form of new social movement, because it do es not have a hierarchical structure, does not have a l eader, and is not centralized. Rostami (2004) reviews various activities of Ira nian feminists both Islamists and seculars, and considers their activism as important issu es that contribute to the formation and sustainability of a womens movement in Iran. Some of these activist works include increasing womens participation in the social and political sphere, promoting womens education, struggling for reforms in gender discriminato ry laws, forming informal networks for entrepreneurship, and democratizing both institutions and nongovernmental organizations. Feminist activists inside Iran (as well as many Iranian feminist scholars in diaspora) do not necessarily hold such views about the womens movement in Iran. Following the rise of womens NGOs during the reform era (1998-2006), various organized activ ities such as public protests, public celebrations of the International Womens Day (March 8), and formation of several womens rights campaigns, as well as the rise of feminist websites in recent years, many articles have been published in feminist media (specially websites) that refer to the word womens movement or womens movement activists. Mahboubeh Abbasgholizade (2003), the director of the Iranian NGOs Training Center, argues that instead of questioni ng whether there is a womens movement in Iran or not, we should ask how the womens movement in Iran functions. According to Abbasgholizade, the womens movement in Iran is a headless movement: 23


It does not have a specific leader or leaders, but it consists of small or large groups and individual activists that are connected to each other through informal and horizontal networks. Since womens movement in Iran does not have a leader, it has a democratic structure. The movement is diverse in terms of demands and types of activities. However, there is a convergence and para llelism among the participants due to their basic demands such as basic equal opportunities and equal rights with men. Abbasgholizadeh (2003) considers th e lack of leadership in the m ovement to be a positive factor that contributes to the sustainability of the movement, since on the one hand the opponents cannot oppose all different branch es of the movement, and on the other hand the equivalence of the participants provides an environment fo r free circulation of internal criticism. According to Abbasgholizadeh (2003), due to th e rise of civil societ y in recent years, many marginal groups such as provincial women, in tellectual and academic women, political women and former directors of minority political fractions, and young women with non-traditional demands have all stepped toward to form NGOs. The rise of professiona l, specialized and union NGOs shows the participation of womens moveme nt members in civil so ciety organizations. Following a protest on June 12, 2006 which was violently attacked by policewomen and ended with the arrest of 70 people, several criti cisms were raised against the organizers of the event. The protest was not endorsed by some wo men groups that argued that the timing of the protest was not strategically suitable. Some of the critics of the protest mentioned that there was a gap among the movements participants, and some others even questioned the existence of the movement (Javahery 2006). Jelveh Javaheri (2006), who ran an NGO of younger generation feminists called Hastia at the time of the protest and was one of the organizers of the protest, argued in an article that: [The] womens movement in Iran is not a homogenous or ganization [in which] all members act the same When the political situ ation is positive, members have more unity and act collectively/similarly. When there are political limitations, participants might use different strategies to mobilize and increase empowerment. 24


According to Javaheri (2006), a social moveme nt should not be perceived as a homogenous phenomenon. She argued, that womens movement in Iran uses diverse forms of protest strategies, consists of inform al networks, and different participants may support different protests. Afsaneh Najmabadi (2003), an Iranian womens st udies professor at Harvard University, in an important article in Zanan titled What if we call Irani an womens struggles a nonmovement, questions the politics of the debates on whether or not feminist activism in Iran can be conceptualized as a social movement. She cr iticizes categorizations such as movement and non-movement, arguing that categori zation contributes to a power circ le in which some issues lie within the circle and some other issues lie on the margin or outside the circle and thus create an insider/outsider power relationship. She argues that the question Can we talk about the existence of a phenomenon called womens move ment in Irans society is based on the assumption that there is an essential notion of movement which we can measure and calculate and, based on that, make a positivist evaluation of Iranian womens efforts and struggles. As I will show in the following chapters, th e discussions on whether or not there is a womens movement in Iran did not last for a long time after the rise of Iranian feminist websites. As I will show in the examples and quotes from activists in the following chapters, the broad presence of the womens rights activists a nd the continuous use of the words womens movement and womens movement activist on the Internet gave visibility to Irans womens movement as a vibrant network of men and wome n for equality, and established the concept of womens movement activis t as an identity. Return of the Conservatives Soon after president Ahmadinejad was elec ted in Iran in August 2005, he changed the name of the Presidential Center for Womens Part icipation to the Center for Women and Family 25


Affairs. He also replaced the head of the cen ter. The center used to give funding to womens NGOs, conduct research and workshops, and advise the president on the wa ys to increase the participation of women in governance and soci ety. The new head of the center ordered the pulping of many of its publications, and brought a court case against Shojai [the former head of the center] for misusing public money. (Mir-Ho sseini 2006). The head of the center announced that she would not ratify CEDAW [The Conve ntion on the Eliminati on of All Forms of Discrimination against Women], as long as she was in charge. At the same time, the minister of culture and Islamic guidance of Ahamadinejads administration issued a directive limiting womens work outside the home to daylight hours so that women would have time to fulfill their family duties (Mir-Hosseini 2006). The public celebration of women on the In ternational Womens Day, March 8, 2006 was raided by the police. Hundreds of men and women were beaten by the police that day (Human Rights Watch 2006a). Another public gathering on June 12, 2006 was disrupted by the police, and for the first time female police officers att acked and hit the women who were present in Tehrans Hafte Tir Square. More than 70 women were arrested that day and some of them still have ongoing court cases. (Human Rights Watch 2006b) While I was conducting my final interviews, the Legal and Judicial Commission of the Iranian Parliament approved a new Family Protecti on Bill to be presented to the parliament for ratification. The bill was initially proposed to the parliament by the conservative administration of President Ahmadinejad. While the older existing family bill had always been the subject of the protests and criticism of the Iranian womens movement, the new bill which had more problematic issues than the old one added insult to the injury. 26


As soon as the womens groups were notified th at the bill was going to be discussed on the floor of the Parliament, they set up a mailing list to decide how to warn the Parliament and the public about the problems of the bill. They deci ded to run a huge media campaign to force the parliament not to ratify the bill. The new bills main problems, according to the joint statement of the coalition of Iranian womens movement groups were as follows (Tahmasebi 2008): Womens lack of legal rights has been rein forced through this Bill. This piece of legislation not only does not seek to end the practice of polygamy but it in fact encourages polygamy by placing on men who wish to take on additional wives the sole condition of financial capacity as the d eciding factor by the courts. The "Family Support Act" not only reinforces womens lack of rights in obtaining a divorce, it extends the procedure and waiting period for obtaining a divorce, thus imposing greater difficulties and obstacle s on women in this process. The "Anti Family Bill" not only does not prohibit the practice of temporary marriage for married men, it does not require th e registration of such marriages. Not only does the "Anti Family Bill" not gr ant married women unconditional rights to employment, it imposes a tax on their mehrieh 3 (a type of dowry) at the time of marriage. Not only are there no supports provided to th e Family in the "Anti Family Bill," the outdated and inhumane laws promoted in this piece of legislation will work only to push the family unit toward instability and crisis. The bill was finally ratified in August 29, 2008, but the coalition became successful in removing two of the problematic articles of the bill, in cluding the infamous Article 23, which would allow men to marry a second wife without the permissi on of the first wife. This success occurred after the coalition of womens groups organized meeti ngs with the members of the parliament and published various articles in the newspapers and in their websites in protest to the bill. The coalition published brochures on the Web which would explain the problematic issues in the bill 3 Mehrieh is an amount of money, a property, an amount of gold coins, or any other kind of property with financial value promised by the groom to be paid to the bride anytime she asks for it. This amount should be specified in the marriage contract, and a marriage contract without it is not valid. Usually the man does not pay mehrieh to his wife until the time of the divorce. Many families of the brides ask the groom to promise huge amounts for mehrieh, so that their daughter would have some financial security at the time of the divorce or be able to use the promised amount as a sort of blackmailing to be able to get her divorce (since women do not have the right to divorce). Oftentimes when the couple cannot get along with each other and the woman wants to divorce but her husband does not want to divorce herthe woman waives her mehrieh to get the divorce instead. Many Iranian feminists encourage women not to include mehrieh in their marriage contract and instead add the right to divorce, study, work, travel, and choose their place of residence in their marriage contract. 27


and had the phone numbers of the members of th e Parliament, encourag ing people to call the MPs and express their concerns. The womens groups printe d and distributed the brochures widely among the public and promoted the broc hure and a blog they created for their campaign through their websites (F eminist School 2008). The womens movement groups are now prep aring to form a coalition against the forthcoming reforms in The Islamic Penal Code, which, according to one of the Iranian feminist websites, limits the sexual rights even more and has assigned death penalty and long-term imprisonment for sexuality-related crimes su ch as homosexuality and adultery (Saeedzadeh 2008). 28


CHAPTER 3 METHODOLOGY Method As Byerly and Ross (2006: 99) note, research about feminist media activism is underinvestigated and under-theorized in feminist and media scholarshi p. Similarly, few studies exist on feminist media activism in Iran, and no rese arch exists on the onl ine presence of the contemporary womens movement in Iran. Therefor e, my study offers a qualitative exploratory case study, as a starting point, to explore the pos sibility and relevance of further research on feminist media activism in Iran. My central objective is to explor e the possibilitie s that a public space can offer to a social movement that is subj ect to interlocking oppressive factors of state, religion, and patriarchal ideology. The research field in this study is the Inte rnet, particularly the feminist spaces on the Internet that the members of the womens movement in Iran are using for social activism. I have conducted 15 in-depth interviews with the editor s and writers of eight Ir anian feminist websites through instant messaging and emails. I have used Yahoo! Messenger and Google Talk as my instant messaging services. During the interviews I have explored how the activists in the womens movement Iran use the Internet, what they think about the role of the feminist media in their movement, and what contribut ions the Internet and the Irania n feminist websites have made to their social movement. I have used pseudonyms for the interviewees. I have tried to avoi d giving any specific information about the interviewees to keep th eir confidentiality. All th e interviewees have written for feminist online media for at least one year, many of them for more than three years. They are all female and are between 25 and 40 ye ars old. They participat e in various campaigns 29


in the movement. All but two of th e participants lived in Iran at the time of the interviews, which were carried out between July and October 2008. Since the interviews took place through online ch atting or emails, I did not need to record any voices or transcribe the interviews. I copied the whole text of the chats and emails in MS Word documents. All of the interviews took place in Persian. I translat ed the material from Persian to English. I categorized to pics mentioned in the interviews as falling into several themes and my conclusions are based on these recurre nt themes. An original copy of the quoted interviews in Persian is in an appendix. Feminist Ethnography Several feminist researchers have explored the possibilitie s of a feminist ethnography (Abu Lughod 1990, Stacey 1988, Visweswaran 1994). Abu-Lughod (1990) has emphasized issues such as feminist epistemology, representation, and self and other as the issues that should be taken into account while conducting a femini st ethnography. She acknowledges that a polyvocal ethnography that decoloni[zes] on the level of the text, would ma ke clear that the voice of the narrator/anthropologist was only one among many, and would allow the voices of the subject to be heard (1990 :8). But she also emphasizes th at a discussion of feminist ethnography and gender studies should not be limited to emphasi zing how we represent in stead of how we know; it should also be about subject and object, self and the other; it should also be about challenging these dichotomies and paying attention to situated views (p.15). Many feminist scholars share Abu-Lughods concerns about feminist ethnography (Lal 1996, Stacey 1988, Visweswaran 1994, Wolf 1996). There is also the issue of power relations in research that concerns many feminist scholars. Th e hierarchical position of the researcher and the research subject and the power of the researcher to interpret her observations are among the main issues feminist researchers struggle with (Wol f 1996). I had the same concerns in conducting my 30


study, especially when it came to interpre ting the interviews. I wondered whether my interpretation of what the Iranian women activis ts say about their work along with my criticism of some of their practices might put me in a position of power. Abu-Lughods notion of situated views was very helpful for me in figuring out how I should approach this issue. I decided to represent the participants ideas as they are, and let them speak in my paper. Rather than speaking for the women activists, I decided to let them speak for themselves as much as possible. I have incl uded quotes from all of the 15 women I have interviewed in my study. I have in cluded all the issues considered important by the interviewees, even if the issues were mentioned by only a few wo men. I realized that this way I would be able to show the dynamics of the Iranian feminist we bsites as perceived by all the feminist writers I interviewed, and not only by me. Gajjala (2002:185) argues that in order to avoid a colonial Western approach to studying South Asian women who were participati ng in a mailing list, she let the participants speak for themselves. By narrating the voices of these women and showing their agency, their silences, rejections, or approvals she tried to decons truct the third world picture of these women represented in a hegemonic western acad emic milieu. I share the same concerns of Gajjala about representing Iranian women activists and thus tried my best to let them speak for themselves. My Positionality I started blogging as one of the first Iranian female bloggers in 2001. I started blogging at a time when a lot of newspapers, including the only newspaper dedicated to womens issues, were banned and the only news sources available to Iranian society we re the government-run national TV and newspapers, as well as the satellite TV channels. I wrote my blog under a pseudonym which gave me the liberty to talk about issues I had never talked about in public. I wrote a lot 31


about relationships, sex, and feminism. My bl og and the few other blogs written on the same issues were under constant harassme nt of some visitors and some other blogs. At the same time, I started receiving an increasing number of ema ils from women who we re applauding me for writing about intimate and persona l issues. I would ofte n read in the emails how these women identified with me and how they were happy that somebody like them was speaking up. Soon there were a lot of women who were blogging and who were speaking up about their private lives, about the personal. A few months after I started blogging, many journalists whose newspapers were banned started to have their own blog on the Internet. News websites st arted to appear, and Iranian activists started using the Internet as an altern ative form of media. This was the time I came to know a group of women activists who could not ge t the authorization to establish their NGO and thus started the first Iranian feminist news website called Women in Iran. I joined this group and helped them with publishing their news in E nglish. Later, as I overcame my fears of the technology and cyber world, I learned some techni cal methods of online publishing and I started helping them with technical issu es as well. Our group held weekly meetings in which we would discuss the current situation of wo men and the topics that needed coverage, as well as theoretical issues. We would sometimes hold book reading se ssions and on a few occasions we organized community gatherings such as a meeting of female bloggers and a celeb ration of International Womens Day. This group taught me a lot about feminism, feminist activism, patriarchal ideologies, gender inequalities and Sharia (Islamic laws) in Iran. I couldn t get the education I received from this group from any academic venue in Iran. Our website became so popular in Iran after a few months that we had thousands of hits everyday and the traditional media started quoting us prominently. Newspapers started 32


dedicating special columns about wo mens issues and our writers we re invited to write as guest editors for these columns. Many women starte d blogging with special attention to womens issues in their posts. A lot of feminist websit es started working. Campaigns for womens rights issues started finding publicity through online networks. After 25 years of Iranian womens demonstration against the manda tory veil that began after th e 1979 revolution, Iranian women organized a demonstration in front of Tehran University to prot est against constitutional gender discrimination. It seemed that the Web had given a new voice to Iranian women. Then the government realized the threat. Our website and many other websites were filtered. We had to change our domain name twice. It seemed Iranian feminism on the Web was finally recognized by the state, and consequent ly had to be shut down. But the trend has not stopped since then. Every year a couple of new feminist websites start working. New campaigns are getting organized through feminist online medi a. Womens groups are networking from all over the country and with Iranian activists in dias pora. It seems Iranian women are not afraid of technology the way many assumed that they would be. Our website stopped working a few months after I left Iran and moved to the US in 2004 because of inadequate resources and constant bans by the government. Different members of our website either started new projects or joined other groups. Part of our group, led by our initial founder, restructured and started a new website called Womens Field This new website focuses on specific campaign rather than acting as a news website. I have cooperated with this group as part of the Stop Stoning Campaign. On one occasi on, when 32 women activists, including all the members of our group in Iran, were arrested, I and other members of our group who lived outside of Iran continued updating the website and launched an emergency campaign about the arrests. 33


As I bore witness to history in the making with the rise of an Iranian feminist movement on the Internet, I started thinking a bout the importance of this movement and the need to document, theorize, and criticize its pract ices. My unique position as both a womens studies and a mass communication student offered me the chance to b ecome familiar with the literature on feminist activism, new social movements, and information communication technologi es. Being part of the womens movement in Iran and its online activism gave me the opportunity to have some insider knowledge and experience a bout this movement. One of the dilemmas feminist researcher s who study their own country or community encounter in their field research is whether thei r insider/outsider status gives them an unwanted power position or whether it can help them have a better understanding a nd interpretation of the field. Many of these researchers, according to Dian e Wolf (1996), often claim that they have an advantage that led to a privileged or more balanced view of the people/society under study. Some other feminist researchers who have an outsider position believe that as outsiders, they have better access to local secrets because of their neutrality,.. great er objectivity, and an enhanced ability to see patterns in which insi ders would be immersed. (Wolf 1996: 15) As Wolf points out researchers such as Ki rin Narayan (1993: 671) indicate that the quality of relations between the researcher and the subjects that are represented is more important than being either an insider or an outsider. As an Iranian woman who has been part of the presence of Irans womens movement on the Internet from day one and is now studying in Western academia, I have often wondered about my own positionality and whether my status can be considered an insider, an outsider, or both. I have also wondered in what ways my po sitionality could have affected my judgment, research, and power position. As I me ntioned earlier, I have tried my best to let the activists I 34


interviewed speak for themselves. At the same time, I voice my own opinion and criticism about the field I am exploring based on my own liv ed experience. I am going to make my study available to the womens movement in Iran thro ugh translating it into Persian and publishing it on the Internet in a space where feedback can be posted. This way, I will leave the decision on whether I have been fair in representing the womens movement in Iran and its activism in cyberspace to the Iranian women activists and perhaps reduce my own power as an omniscient observer. 35


CHAPTER 4 IRANIAN WOMEN ACTIVISTS VI EWS ON FEMINIST WEBSITES After talking to the writers and editors of se ven Iranian feminist we bsites who are also active in various campaigns of the womens mo vement in Iran, it became clear that many of them share similar views about the positive roles of the Internet and the space provided on the Web for feminist activism in the womens movement in Iran. They also share some views about the shortcomings and negative effects of the use of the Internet in the movement and the politics of this virtual space. Based on what these activists and writers told me in the interviews, I came up with 10 themes that are characteristic of the Ir anian feminist websites and explain the role the Information Communication Technologies pl ay in the womens movement in Iran: Independent forum /having a voice in the public Recruiting men Networking, connectivity, and crossing the borders Resource mobilization: recrui ting, mobilizing and publicizing Bypassing the limitations of pa triarchal media ownership Collective identity formation (or war of identities), solidarity, empowerment Lack of access, glass boundaries, power The risk of limiting the move ment just to the Internet Absence of discussions on gender and sexuality The Internet has been used by academic research ers for years in Iran. It became accessible for the public after special tool s such as Unicode Standard 4 were developed. These tools made it possible for Iranian users to produce content in Pe rsian on the Internet, wi thout the need for any technical computer skills. This time period coin cided with new rounds of strict limitations and censorship of print media in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as a woman I call Shadan, who is a prominent Iranian journalist and activist and the editor of a feminist website, recalls: 4 Unicode is an industry standard allowing computers to consistently represent and manipulate text expressed in most of the world's writing systems. See: 36


Followed by the ban of reformist newspapers, cyberspace substituted the void of print media and turned into the only space to freely read and write and have a dialogue. Although the state later implemented strict censorship through th e filtering of the Internet and limiting the users access to the websites that were against the official policies, still the Internet has remained the only free space for expressing ideas. This was the most significant characteristics of the Internet th at encouraged women to use the Internet increasingly, not as a passive audience, but as content producers. (July 13, 2008) Independent Forum/Having a Voice in the Public One of the themes that was brought up several ti mes in my interviews with the writers and activists of the womens movement in Iran was the fact that the Internet has provided an independent public tribune (forum) for the womens movement in Iran. As many of the interviewees pointed out, the Internet has made it possible for the voice of these women to be heard. Some of the interviewees mentioned that the Internet has remained the only outlet for the womens movement in Iran to continuously communicate with the public. Moreover, this online platform has helped the movement partic ipants to publicize thei r demands. As Nastaran, the editor of a feminist website, stated: [use of websites] has helped to bring the issues and concerns of the movement members out of isolation, out of the circle of a specific group, and put it out there for the masses. (August 10, 2008) As Marjan, one of the writers of a womens website, noted, the womens groups used to be small and have their own private gatherings called Mahfel The discussions in these elite groups used to remain in the closed circles of frie nds and group members for a long time. The Internet helped to bring out these private discussions a nd put it out there for the masses. Those private mahfels, as Marjan mentions, are now public feminist spaces on the Internet. (September 8, 2008) Parinaz, a blogger and journalist, also told me that the Internet ha s acted as a forum for Iranian women to talk out loud; as a forum to have their voice being heard: 37


While all official media outlets, including the print media, are closed to Irans womens movement, the Internet has become the sole source for spreading the news about the movementwomen were less social in the society and had no chance to voice their opinion, but now the Internet has become a sa fe haven for them to talk about and for themselves; about their lives and their thoughts. (September 7, 2008) Foroozan, an active feminist blogger and journa list, thinks that the main function of the Internet for the womens movement is that it is an independent medium. She believes the student movement was not successful in continuing its wo rk during the reform movement, because it did not have an independent media: The only medium they [student movement] ha d was the outlets provided to them by the reformist political parties, i.e., reformist newspapers. Then later, when the student movement and the reformists clashed with each other, these mediums were easily taken away from the student movements activis ts and the movement found itself in an environment with very few media outlets at hand. Therefore, I think the womens movement, cleverly, defined and created its own mediums, which, a big part of it was situated on the Internet. In this environmen t of having no official media, the Internet helped women a lot to have their voice heard. (July 17, 2008) Publicizing the demands and activ ities of the movement has an important role in raising consciousness about womens issues, according to the interviewees. Having more forums will attract more audiences, and thus more pe ople will know about gender discrimination and collective organizing for social change. Th e ongoing process of consciousness raising and attracting more audiences will help the continuity of the movement, according to some interviewees. Recruiting Men One of the important benefits of having a public voice, according to some of the interviewees, is that men are also getting more educated about gender discrimination in the society. Many of these men become interested in knowing more about the activities of the movement and sometimes join the movement. Mona a blogger and editor of a feminist website comments: 38


[The Internet] has publicized the demands of th e movement to the extent that some male bloggers who used to make fun of the wome ns movement and even write misogynistic and sexist posts have changed their attitude. They are now either helping to make these demands public, or have lowered th eir level of sexism. (July 27, 2008) Zohreh, another activist notes: I t has introduced the demands of the movement to men. Some men have been attracted to the movement and/ or joined the movement after getting to know about the movement through our websites. (July 28, 2008) Nastaran, points out the importance of the on line presence of the mens committee of one of the major campaigns of the movement: The mens committee of the campaign has a blog called Men for Equality. The main website of the campaign also publishes seve ral articles written by the male members. These online forums have given visibility to the presence of men in the movement. I think this has been encouraging for some other men to join our campaign. (August 10, 2008) Networking, Connectivity, and Crossing the Borders The Internet has become the main tool for Ira nian women movement to network with other members of the movement, to find about their simila rities and differences with each other, and to form short-term or long-term coalitions for coll ective action. Some particip ants pointed out that the Internet has helped to form a communica tion network among various womens groups. It has also helped the members of the movement to connect with groups in other social movements. Iranian womens groups in diaspora are also usin g the Internet and websites to communicate and network with womens groups inside Iran. Some times the websites of the groups inside and outside Iran publish articles in re sponse to each others critics and create a dialectic space over the internet. In the past, the communication between Iranian women inside Iran and in the diaspora was mainly limited to face-to-face intera ctions of women in their individual travels into and out of Iran. The Internet has provided the opportunity fo r these women to have a transnational dialogue, to exchange their views, and to exchange in formation without facing physical and geographical 39


barriers. This transnational communication has le d into cases of transnational cooperation and alliances, as well as educational opportunities. Froozan gives some examples: Another function of the Internet was the comm unication bridge between Iranian feminists inside and outside the country after years, thanks to the Internet. Before that, the only communication outlet was individuals traveling out of Iran or to Iran and bringing some books and publications with them. But the Inte rnet crossed the geographical barriers to a great extent and made women closer to each other. This closeness helped everybody to understand their similarities and differences, fi nd members for coalitions (both short-term and long-term coalitions) that could c ooperate with them better. (July 17, 2008) Resource Mobilization: Recruitin g, Mobilizing and Publicizing Through communicating with young men and wome n bloggers who would show interest in womens issues, women activists have been able to recruit new me mbers and volunteers for the movement. Shirin, a blogger, student activist, and writer of a feminist website, states; It is also a good tool for the womens movement to recruit members. For example, womens movement activists search for bl ogs of girls and boys who have th e potential to b ecome feminists and start networking with them. (September 27, 2008) Since many activists believe that the state is eavesdropping on their phone conversations, email and online chat have been used by the members as safe tools for communication. The pressure on those who write online is also less co mpared to the pressure on print journalists: Communication networks can easily spread their information in a large capacity with minimum expense and in a short amount of tim e, without being held accountable for each piece of news or story. Although Internet crimes has been given attention by the government recently, and some have been arrested in recent years, still it is not comparable to the number of arrested journalists who were involved with print media. (Jayran, September 7, 2008) According to one of the interviewees, womens online media has acted as an information tool to publicize the events, gath erings, and protests of the movement. The invitation to seminars and March 8 (International Womens Day) celeb rations have been conducted mainly through 40


mailing lists, websites, and blogs. The Internet ha s remained the only source to cover news of activists arrests and police violence against women in their protests. As Zohreh mentioned, the internet has made it possible to spread information and to communicate with the public as quickly as possible, with the lowest costs: Its cheap and fast to communicate and spread information. Its very cost effective. (July 28, 2008) Bypassing the Limitations of Patriarchal Media Ownership In the early years of the reform movement in Iran (1998-2006), reformist papers flourished and there was a relatively more open environment in the media, so that some womens issues could find their way into the print media. Ho wever, this space was limited, because the media ownership and management have been principally in the hands of men. Since the ban of about one hundred reformist publicati ons at the turn of the 21 st century, even those limited spaces in the print media have been lost, and the Intern et has become the only venue for feminists writings. Parinaz, who has more than ten years of experience in print media, stated: All the newspaper owners are men. Many of them are patriarchs, old, and have a patriarchal mindset, and are even anti-femin ist. So weblogs, or on a broader scale the Internet, aside from their other benefits, are the only option for publishing women-related news. And it is a much more democratic atmo sphere compared to other forms of media. No one will be banned from it because of being female, or black or belonging to a certain order or sect. (September 7, 2008) Some of the interviewees also mentioned that websites are much cheaper than print media and are easier to manage. Also, there is no need to get publishing permits for a website and the women activists are not therefore subjected to a patriarchal or state media ownership. The Formation of Collective Identity or a War of Identities? The formation of any sense of collectivit y in the contemporary womens movement in Iran has been limited to local face-t o-face interactions in private gath erings of the activists in the 41


years of repression following the 1979 revolution in Iran. In the past six years the Internet has provided Iranian feminists with a wider sphere, where they become informed about each others activities, form coalitions, mobilize collective action, recognize their similarities, express themselves as feminists and expand their face-to -face interactions in larger private or public gatherings. As mentioned by some of the participants in the interviews, these interactions have helped the members of the wome ns movement in Iran to form a feminist collective identity. Katayoun, a feminist blogger and activist who now lives in diaspora, believes that the space provided on the Internet for media activism ha s played a pivotal role in the process through which the activists experience the formation of a collective identity. She observes a trend in which more and more Iranian women in genera l and Iranian womens rights activists in particular label themselves as feminists or w omens movements activists in cyberspace. She argues that the word feminist or womens movement activist has become an umbrella identity under which all womens rights activists inside Iran have gathered. She maintains that no other space in the Iranian history has ever gi ven such a spatial opportu nity to Iranian women to express themselves and declare a certain identity (July 28, 2008). Marjan, a womens rights activis t who has been part of one of the first Iranian feminist websites, believes that historically there has been no public space or opportunity for women to have a public display of their identities, due to the limitations of the so ciety, censorship of the media, and lack of feminist activists access to the media. This lack of public space barred women from experiencing a sense of collective id entity. She adds: Perha ps even some of the womens groups have not been even aware of each others activities to embrace a sense of collective identity as part of the womens m ovement. Or there have not been many ways to communicate and network for collective action. (September 8, 2008) 42


As mentioned by some interviewees, the sp ace provided for feminist media activism helped these womens groups know each other be tter and network for collective action. Instead of working in isolation, this space helped the wo men to cooperate and interact with one another on the areas in which they shared similar goals and strategies. Even their disagreements and differences that have been highlighted on the Internet have not prevente d them from forming a sense of collective identity, since these differenc es and disagreements have been part of the feminist discourse that exists in the womens movement in Iran. A few years ago, we rarely heard women talking about their feminist iden tities in public. But now we often hear women talking about feminism and identifying themselv es as feminists and members of the womens movement in Iran. As one of the interviewees pointed out, the In ternet has also given a sense of identity to each individual group within the movement. The ongoing formation and reformation of collective identities has not stripped the groups of their specific charact eristics that distinguish them from other groups. This individuality with in collectivity is best explained by Shirin: Each website is the forum of an active group in the movement and can be a source for creating communication networks with other groups When a group has a forum, its easier to contact and communicat e with it to organize for collective action. This way, the views and activities of each sp ecific group will be communicated without the need to have a hierarchical relationship with other groups. (September 27, 2008) As Sara mentioned, geographical proximity is no longer the de facto element for facilitating the process of building collective identity and mutual trust. Cyber closeness has become an effective factor that can lead to building collective identity. (October 2, 2008) To Shadan, who is a veteran of womens right s activism in Iran, this new identity is so important in the context of a movement, that she once advised me during our interview not to use the word women activists, and instead to use the word womens movement activists: 43


Why do you use the word womens activists instead of the word womens movement activists? This [womens activists expressi on] is for newspapers and where there is censorship. Do you know that this expre ssion does not convey the meaning you are intending to convey, and is basically a forged expression? (July 13, 2008) Hosna tells me that she realized the power of collective action by fe minists using various websites while she was in prison. According to Hosna, the womens movement in Iran becomes united at the time of the arrest of the activists and starts informing the public transparently and promptly. Both Hosna and Shadan told me that they felt their interrogators and judges were under pressure as a result of the widespread attention their arrests had received from the online media. So Hosna believes there is a sense of solid arity at the time of the crisis which is displayed publicly in the feminist websites, and she thi nks this feeling of co llectivity empowers the activists. However, she also believes that the fe minist websites have not necessarily contributed to the formation of collective identi ty among the womens rights activists. I think our collective identity was formed befo re the websites became serious as the only public spaces we have. This collective feminist identity was formed somewhere else before that, although we didnt used to talk about be ing feminist as transparently as we do now. But for example, in the cel ebration of Interna tional Womens Days [in 2001], we had various groups of the womens movement in the public gathering in Laleh Park... Or later in hamandishi sessions [i.e. the consu lting sessions where various womens rights groups used to gather to discuss the issues salient in the movement. Th e sessions stopped after serious conflicts among the gr oups.]... In fact, I can say that the websites pushed the womens movement towards boundary formation Each group started to define its work, its area of activism, and its approach through its website. It also made the womens groups to compete with each other. (October 7, 2008) Hosna sees this boundary making in the websites as positive, since she believes we can get an overview of the work of each group and assess their work this way. She emphasizes that the real spaces for gatherings had more effect than cybers pace in the formation of a sense of collectivity among the movements activists, although the activists could talk more easily about being feminist in cyberspace. In the gatherings, we were transparent, we were public, and being feminist was our connecting point So, I dont mean that the In ternet deprived us from getting together, 44


but I just want to say that we would reach this sense of collectivity in any other public space, if we had access to any. (October 7, 2008) While cyberspace can be a place for expressing identities, forming solidarities and at the same time showing the individuality of each group, it can also be a place for clashes of identities. During the time I was conducting my interviews, Change for Equality the website of one of the campaigns of the movement, published a long ar ticle which had short passages written by 30 activists. 5 Each of the passages complained that the writers of a new feminist website of the campaign called Feminist School opened the new website with out consulting with other members of the campaign. The writers of the passag e claimed that the writers of the new website were attempting to hold a vertic al power system within the camp aign. While the details about the conflict between the two groups are not my concer n in this study, what interests me is the way this new feminist website has become part of a very intense and ha rsh conflict within the movement. From my interviews, I realized this new we bsite and the older website of the campaign each represents a different group of activists working on the same campaign. These groups have different approaches to activism because they have different ideologies and politics. The websites of these groups have become a space for expressing these differences. Thus, it can be concluded that the feminist websites can also have functions for boundary making and expressing individual movement identities. Access, Class Boundaries, and Power The lack of access to the Internet among ordi nary women in Iran was one of the main issues that the interviewees brought up repe atedly. 23 million people out of the 70 million 5 See Challenging Centralization: Behind the Silent Scenes (In Persian) 45


population of Iran have access to the Internet, 6 but there are no statistics available on the number of women who use the Internet as an informati on source. It was mentioned by many interviewees that they estimate that only a sm all percent of the women in Iran ar e actually exposed to the news and information that feminist media produce on the Web. Even those who do have access to the Internet might not be able to access feminist we bsites, since the majority of the websites have been filtered by the state. Moreover, not everyon e who has access to the Internet knows how to use the Internet efficiently. [The use of the Internet by Iranian women ac tivists] might look very progressive at first. However, the fact that just using the cybe rspace would stop us fr om interacting with masses of people in Iran who still dont have acc ess to the Internet, makes us accept that the Internet, despite all its uses, if it beco mes the only outlet to communicate with people, or even in its existing form, if it stays the main communication tool, will limit the womens movement to the limited number of the Internet users. This way, the movement will not spread into other layers of th e society. (Shadan, July 13, 2008) One of the interviewees mentioned that print me dia and broadcast have more prominence than online media among all classes of society. Some of the interviewees believed that the majority of their audience belongs to the urban middle cl ass of society. According to Zohreh, online presence might result in the movement being dist anced from the real world and the real people: Some members of the movement might be prone to concentrate a lot on online activities without having actual presence and activity in the real world (J uly 28, 2008). Mona also warned against assuming that the Intern et is being used by all groups of women: [The increasing number of websites] might create the false im pression that the movement and its cause have reached all the masses, while we know that fe w people have access inside and few people use it outside. (July 27, 2008) 6 CIA World Fact Book. See: rary/publications/the-world-factbook/print/ir.html 46


Marjan, who thinks the Internet has helped the movement to become more publicly accessible, still believes that the movement n eeds to reach out more to the masses. Katayoun, who believes the feminist space provided on the web has helped the creation of a sense of collectivity among the activ ists, also warns about the risks of alienating those members who do not necessarily find their way into the crowd. She brings up the issue of power, and she mentions how, even in this feminist space, voices might not be heard. You see, I dont want to use this word, but there is a fact that the dictatorship of the majority rules in the cyberspace. So, if for example, you support polygamy, you will find no place in the crowd of feminist websites. For example Shahrnoush Parsipour [a famous Iranian feminist writer] who is pro-polygamy and argues that sigheh [i.e. temporary marriage] can be useful for some poor wo men, or women who cannot find a husband, but she was suppressed and stigmatized in many ar ticles in these webs ites and you never read any article written by her in this websites th at elaborates on what she meant. (July 28, 2008) The issue of power of the majority of those who have access and a forum was also mentioned by two other activists. Nargess, an activist of a campaign who lives in a city outside of the capital and who runs a blog of their campaigns chapter, believed that not all voices are equal. While their campaign struggles really hard to exercise an egalitaria n horizontal model of cooperation, she believes the voices of the members who live in the capital city are heard more: I know that there is a link to the blogs of all the chapters of the campaign. But in reality, you read more from the members of the campaign in Tehran. Even one of our member s publishes her articles in the main website of the campaign rather than our blog (October 7, 2008) On the issue of voice, she also reminds us about many women who work with them and are not present in cyberspace: Some of these women dont know how to even work with a com puter, let alone have a presence on the main website of the campaign or the other chapters bl ogs. She tells me how their group holds regular 47


meetings and where they share the news they rece ive from the Internet and ask their members to write for the blog of the campaign. I myself have been part of the proce ss in which various groups in the womens movement in Iran started using the Internet as a tool for activism. Being familiar with the majority of the websites, I would argue that what is missing in these webs ites is the voice of the majority of the women that the movement is st ruggling for. We read about the women who are murdered for honor killing, we read about the wo men being stoned, we read about women forced into marriage, but we do not hear directly from these women. One of the recent efforts in the womens move ment in Iran to solve the issues of access and representation has been made by members of the One Million Signature campaign, one of the major womens rights campaigns in Iran. Th is campaign, which started its work on August 27, 2006 in the streets of Tehran, aims to collec t one million signatures in support of a petition addressed to the Iranian Parlia ment. The petition asks for the reform of several laws which discriminate against women. The campaign aims at educating the masses in the real or offline world about the gender discriminatory la ws and at the same time it aims at providing spaces within the websites of the campaign to p ublish the stories of the women who do not have a public forum. One of the main goals of the campaign, according to the campaigns website, is to educate citizens and particularly women about the negative impact of these discriminatory laws on the lives of women and society as a whole. 7 The campaign uses a face-to-face education approach to promote awareness about discriminato ry laws and to collec t signatures. After going through a training course on the laws and the im plementation of a face-to-face approach, the 7 See http://www.forequality.inf o/english/spip.php?article226 48


members of the campaign start coll ecting signatures for the petiti on. They talk to people face-toface in various environments such as parks, metros, and buses, or sometimes knock on peoples doors. They distribute an educational booklet entitled The Eff ect of Laws on Womens Lives. The booklet discusses the le gal changes that the campaign seeks, such as: equal rights for women in marriage, equal rights to divorce for women, end to polygamy and temporary marriage, increase of age of criminal responsibility to 18 for both girls and boys, the right for women to pass on na tionality to their children, equal dieh (compensation for bodily injury or death) between women a nd men, equal inheritance rights, reform of laws that reduce punishment for offenders in cases of honor killings, equal testimony rights for men and women in court, and other laws which discriminate against women. After explaining about the conten t of the booklet and the above-mentioned legal reforms that the campaign supports, the members ask individuals to sign the petition. There is a section called Alle y to Alley in the website of this campaign. This refers to the main strategy of this campaign which is cr eating face-to-face interac tion with people from all social sectors and educating them about th e gender discriminatory laws in Iran through faceto-face encounters. Members of this campaign go doo r-to-door and talk to people in the metro, in parks, in the universities, and so on, and explain to them what laws are gender discriminatory and what impact they have on the lives of wo men. During this process, the activists meet different people, men and women, from various classe s of society with various points of views. Some men and women are supportiv e of the current laws and some do not welcome the idea of defending womens rights. Many women these activists talk to have person al stories of abuse and gender discrimination. The activists of the campaign always highlight two stories in the Alley to Alley section of the campaign, whic h is about the experiences of the campaign members in meeting with people face-to-face and collecting signatures. Here we read the stories of women who have suffered from the laws th at the campaign is petitioning to change. The stories of these women, and sometimes men, give context to what the members of the campaign 49


are struggling against. This sec tion is where we not only hear th e voices of activists, but also hear the voices of ordinary people, the women who do not have access to any form of media. Hosna also told me about her groups writing workshops. She told me that they encourage the members of their groups to write and they publish these writings in their websites. She mentioned that the members of her group believe strongly in the power of writing. We women have lots of things to say. We have lots of analysis, feelings, and problems that we never write about. In the official medi a those things are important that are about politics, economy, or sports. We women are us ually far from all these three or we have limited access to them. Thats why we are always in the margin in the media. We become headline news only when we are murdered or raped or we murder someone. Thats why we should write in our own media about the things that are very, very important and change our lives, but the patriarchal systems in the me dia always set it aside and pass it silently. (October 7, 2008) She reminds me of one of the issues of one of the websites she works for, in which they dedicated a whole section to me ns verbal harassments and gropi ng of women in the streets. These things have no place in the mainstream media because they are not important for them. But it is important for women and we know what effects it has on our lives. And its not just that all these inequalities that have always existed and have always been considered ordinary. These are all the things that only we women can write about it. Thats why in our writing workshops we asked the women who are not writers, young and old, to write in our websites about th eir experiences and the violence they have suffered. Writing gives a sense of identity and c onfidence to women. (October 7, 2008) These attempts are all made by the womens rights activists to remove barriers and give voice to the women who do not have access to the forums of the movement. Even so, according to Elham, there is not always equality with the members who do have access to these forums. Elham believes that some of the websites are usually managed by the more experienced members of the movement, some of whom are from the older generation of the movement. She and some of the activists who can be considered part of a younge r generation believe that there still exists a hierarchy of power, in such a way that the ol der generation has more connections and power. We see a website from outside and think that the members of the website have an egalitarian group work in running the webs ite. From outside, you see a nice united group, 50


but as much as I know, the internal relationships among the members of the groups are not always the way we see them from outside. There is a subtle exertion of power, and sometimes the taste of some people dominate s the work of the website more. (Elham) (October 7, 2008) She believes that the more experienced older ge neration has more connections and network and thus has more control and power in the information channels. Some of the members have more influence and connections since they have more experience and have been in the field longer th an others. These members give part of their power in the form of access and connections to those young members that they prefer and they have some control over what is being published and what is not. This process creates a hierarchical dynamic. What I mean is th at the communication networks sometimes are controlled or blocked by those who have more experience than others and a free circulation of information does not necessarily exist. Of course, there is resistance from the younger generation. (October 8, 2008) Elham thinks this power system is a reflection of the hierarchical power stru ctures that exist in a patriarchal society. She speculates that the olde r generation tries to maintain an egalitarian system, but since this generation has been born, raised, and gendered within a patriarchal and hierarchical power structure, it sometimes repr oduces the same power structures unconsciously. She told me that the younger generation has resisted this power structure. We [the younger activists] somehow broke this hierarchical structur e within our groups. Thats why I guess some of the members couldnt bear staying in our group and left. Those who wanted to have everything in their cont rol left and opened their own website. They couldnt bear not to have contro l of all the words, strategies, and decisions of our large and diverse group. (October 7, 2008) The Risk of Limiting the Movement to the Internet Shadan believes that because of the nature of the Internet, the content produced online cannot be comprehensive or very deep, and if it is, it does not have a high readership. Therefore, she argues, that concentrating on ly on the Internet might actually contribute to theoretical poverty of the movement (July 13, 2008). Zohreh, who works in the media committee of one of the major campaigns, is afraid that too much emphasis on media in general might di stract the movement from its main goals. 51


Too much emphasis on the role of media in a movement will have the risk of undermining other aspects of the activities of a social moveme nt. There is the risk that all that remains from a social movement is just a media s how-off. Giving too much importance to the media will have the risk that the medium b ecomes more important than the message in constructing the movements identity. (July 28, 2008) Absence of Discussions on Sexuality: What Is Not Being Said? After many of my conversations with the wome ns movement activists, I noticed that the issues mainly mentioned by them as the issues of the movement are related to equal legal rights such as the right to divorce, the right to have custody of children, the right to inherit equally, and so on. Some of the major campaigns that current ly have online presence and have the coverage of feminist media in Iran struggle for such e qual rights: The One Mill ion Signature Campaign (already discussed), Stop Stoning Campaign, Co alition of Womens Groups against Family Protection Bill, Campaign against gender discrimination in university admissions, and Open Stadiums to Women Campaign. Other issues prominently discussed in the websites are related to Islam and secularism, strategies of the move ment, life stories of women who have been oppressed because of the discriminatory laws, and the governments pressure on womens dress code. As a reader of these feminist websites, I am already aware that discussions on sexuality and sexual rights are largely absent from the campa igns and these websites. However, I was not sure what this absence meant. S o, I started to ask some of the in terviewees about the absence of a discussion on sexuality and sent follow-up ema ils to the ones I had al ready interviewed. I wondered whether the activists did not care about these issues, or whether they had to eliminate the discussions on sexuality because of the state censorship and repression. Moreover, I wondered whether the civil society was not yet ready for discussions on sexuality because the legal demands for public and political partic ipation of women had not been redressed. 52


In some of my interviews it was mentioned that there are some activists, especially from the older generation, who do not consider sexuality important In addition, almost all the people I talked to mentioned that there are many activists who thi nk sexuality is a lower priority for the Iranian womens movement. However, I did not hear from any of the interviewees, older or younger, that sexuality and di scussions on sexuality do not matte r to them. I did not encounter anyone in my interviews who would tell me that to her sexuality is not a priority. So, I should mention here that my representation of this matte r might not give a comple te or fair picture of what the majority of the movement activists think. Hosna was one of the women who mentioned that some activists consider sexual issues to be less important than legal issues. However, she also insisted that many activists do care about the issue, but they cannot di scuss it in their websites: I dont say these issues are not important [to them ]. They say the priority is something else now. Of course they are somehow right, si nce the only space the womens group has for discussing their issues are these few website s These websites all have an about us section and it is obvious who runs them. And, you should consider th e fact that we are feminists and we have a series of beliefs a nd viewpoints about sexual ity and having control of our own bodies that are different from the official viewpoint. Well, if we want to say our point, we should say it completely, and it will be costly for us to say it completely, and all that makes the womens websites silent about these issues. (October 7, 2008) Hosna further told me how her group prepared an issue of their online ma gazine entirely about sexuality, but in the end they decided not to run it, fearing that they would be accused of being prostitutes. She and some other activists mentione d that the only way to discuss sexual issues in the websites is to use a medical approach and medical terms which might not necessarily be the best way to discuss sexuality issu es from a feminist standpoint. Nargess who lives in an urban city outside of the capital city of Tehran, told me about the discussions on sexuality that have taken place in the gatherings of her group: I think in these forums [feminist websites] mo re discussion happens about legal issues and changing them I think [legal issues] have not left any space for talking about these 53


things [sexuality] in feminist forums I feel there is a kind of attitude about these issues that these issues are not important issues fo r our society now and there is no discussion specifically about these issues. If there is any discussion, it is in the margin of a broader topic. When we talk about these issues in our own group, we are always told that we should wait, that first some other pr oblems should be solved. (October 7, 2008) When I specifically asked why sexuality is considered a lower priority, she said: I dont know exactly. I just think it is not the concern of active feminists of our society. But specifically in our group, we came to th e conclusion that the campaign does not have the suitable forum to discuss these issues and they should be discussed mostly through cultural and stronger forums. (October 7, 2008) Elham reminded me that the identities of people w ho write for the feminist websites are not just cyber identities and these women can easily be recognized. Also, she mentioned that those activists who are better known and prominent are also more c onservative in writing about sexual issues in public, because of safety matters. However, like many other people I interviewed, she mentioned that sexuality is not a priority in the movement. It seems in the present womens movement gr oups, there are certain ranges of goals for activism, and it seems these are considered enough and issues such as feminine sexual identity are put in the lower priorities. Theref ore, big part of the act ivities of these women or websites will revolve around the goals de fined in advance and it seems nobody has the intention to change these prio rities Anyway we are living in a society where talking about these issues is a taboo. Even for the mo st progressive people these taboos determine their direction of activism. It is not even important for the older generation. The younger generation cares more about these issues, but they dont have any spaces to talk about them, except in the blogs. (October 7, 2008) The issue of blogs as a space to discuss sexuality was mentioned by some other activists, too. To many people, women have more liberty to disc uss sexuality and taboos in the blogs than on feminist websites. Shahrzad, who writes for a womens sports website thought womens blogs have had important contributi ons to the womens movement: There is another category [in cyberspace] that had an impact in the womens movement in Iran. This category has been successful without any special planning or goals. This category is girls blogs. That is, blogs owned by young girls who write about their desires and needs. It is because of these blogs that today we can talk about virginity, we can talk easily about menstruation. We can also see the reflection of discrimina tion in the daily life of these girls. So, cyber space has had two a dvantages for the movement, one, breaking the 54


taboos, which is not an easy task, and the other, reflecting the effect of social discrimination on the daily lives of these girls. (August 5, 2008) Since 2001, when I started blogging as one of the first Iranian female bloggers, I and many other female bloggers have written about sexuality is sues such as homosexuality, sexual rights, sexual orientation, virginity, orgasm, ma sturbation, heteronormativity, rape, sexual harassment, and so on. Many feminist activists have told us that our writings have been inspiring and have paved the way for their online activism. As Shadan mentioned to me, the space feminist bloggers provided on the web made it easier and friendlier for femi nist activists to write on the Web. However, there is still a distinction betw een feminist blogs and websites on the way they discuss sexuality. It has not been easy for feminist bloggers to discuss sexual issues in their blogs. Many of these bloggers, including myself, have been subjec t to verbal harassment in the feedback section of our blogs or through email. At the same time, because many of the bloggers who write on sexuality write anonymously or live outside of Iran, they do not fear legal consequences. The informal space of the blogosphere offers the opportunity to many people to remain anonymous and yet discuss important issues that the feminist websites cannot approach. The different forms of technology used by vari ous political generations in the womens movement in Iran may help explain why sexuality is or is not being discussed in the Iranian feminist blogs and websites. Given the limits to the scope of this project I have not provided a fuller analysis of the content of the Iranian feminist websites, and thus it is not possible to give a definitive answer to this question here. An in-depth frame analysis of the content of Iranian feminist websites and blogs in future studies woul d be useful to account fo r the lack of attention to sexuality in these feminist blogs and websites. 55


CHAPTER 5 CONCLUSION AND DISCUSSION Technologies of Social Change Through the interviews I conducted with Iranian womens rights activists it was revealed that these activists believe in the important role of the Internet as a forum, a networking tool, and a medium for recruitment and mobilization. As Toulouse (1998) and Brake (2005) have noted about the opportunity the Inte rnet provides to bypass contro lling publishers and traditional goalkeepers, the Internet has provi ded these Iranian activ ists with platforms to bypass traditional and patriarchal media ownership and the state c ontrol to disseminate information about their movement. This medium has been effective in building decentralized networks to exchange views, and to mobilize a virtua l or physical community of activ ists (Van de Donk et al. 2004: 8-9). The Internet has provided these activists wi th an opportunity for continued interactions both internally and with their ex ternal reference groups within th e movement and in the broader public. This can be considered to sustain this movement, and thus, as Van de Donk, et al. (2004) have mentioned, to make the Internet an attracti ve tool for the movement participants. According to the interviewees, information communicati on technologies (ICTs) have been helpful in shortening the cycle of actions and reactions, as for example in mobilizing people to participate in protests or in the efficient use of the Internet to cover the news of activ ists arrests. The use of ICTs has also increased the speed of the diffusion of new ideas, tactics, and arguments in the campaigns launched on the websites, which resona tes with what Van de Donk et al. (2004: 11) suggested. ICTs can help social movements to expand the scope of communicating their messages to larger areas, and therefore can faci litate specific activities such as collecting signatures, since they can reach people who ar e not physically residing in a specific location 56


(Van de Donk et al. 2004), for ex ample the Iranian feminists in di aspora. The issue of resource limitations raised by several social moveme nt communication scholars (Brake 2005, Robins 2002) was mentioned extensively in the interviews. This is one significant area that needs much more attention from movement activists. While my interviews with Iranian women activists support Van de Donk et al.s (2004) theory that new social movements adopt info rmation communication technologies because of their heterogeneous and decentralized nature, and while scholars increasingly talk about emerging applications of the ICTs for new social movements, the role of the Internet for social change should not be romanticized. There is still a long way to go and a huge infrastructural change is needed in order to employ the full poten tial of the ICTs for social change. As Robins (2002: 246) has argued, the Intern et and other high technolog ies can provide tools for empowerment, but can also foreshadow a wi dening gap between rich and poor, women and men. ICTs may prove to be technologies of freedom, offering women increased access to resources and training, but also, pote ntially, of intensified domination. Empowerment or Ethnocentrism? Cyber feminists such as Radhi ka Gajjala have explored whether women in the global South can use the Internet in an empowering way, and if so, in what contexts. As Gajjala and Annapurna Mamidipudi (1999: 8) discuss in their work on Cyber feminism, technology, and international development, th ere are two central questions regarding the issue of using technology by women of the South. First, will women in the South be able (allowed) to use new technologies under conditions that are contextually empowering to them, because they are defined by women themselves? Second, within which Internet base d contexts can women from the South truly be heard? How can they define the conditions under which they can interact on-line, to enable them to form coalitions and collabora te, aiming to transform social, cultural, and political structures? 57


As my interviews showed, women activists in Iran have been able to use the new technologies effectively. These wo men have proven to be as t echnologically up-to-date as many women activists in the North. The Internet and online media have facilitated the womens activism and connectivity, and have given them an opportunity to communicate with the public effectively. Moreover, the movement has define d its own media; therefore, it has been independent from male patriarchal ownership or po litical parties. Based on these characteristics, it can be argued that the Internet has played an empowering role for the women activists in Iran. However, it was revealed through the interviews that Iranian feminist websites are not free from the states control. In many cases, movement activists self-censor themselves out of fear of the state, and therefore topics su ch as sexuality are rarely disc ussed in the websites. Several interviewees mentioned that their websites get blocked constantly insi de Iran. While no womens movement activist has been arrested specifically because of her writ ings in the feminist websites, when the activists are arrested, they are usua lly questioned or condemned for their writings during the interrogations. As such, my research demonstrates that, while the movement activists have been able to bypass patriarchal ownership control and have ha d a public space of their own to discuss and present the issues of the movement, they still do not have complete freedom. The space created by and for them on the Internet is yet another pu blic space for them to struggle with the state, patriarchal practices, and gender norms. Gajjala points out that there are hierarchies of power embedded in the very construction and design of Internet cultur e (Gajjala and Mamidipudi 1999: 12). As several interviewees noted, a hierarchy of power is strongly felt by ma ny movement activists in terms of who controls the content and direction of th e Iranian feminist websites, who has more access, and whose voice 58


is more prominent and thus heard more. Moreov er, the majority of Iranian women who do not have access to any public forum because of their socio-economic status have no say in what is being said about women in the public space. Mo st Iranian feminist websites have a secular approach to womens issues. Charghad the only Iranian womens website that approaches womens issues and womens rights from an Islamic perspective close to th e views of the state, is completely ignored by the rest of the womens websites in Iran. There is no link to this website in any of the feminist websites. Moreover, there is no reaction, intellectua l interaction, or even critique of the materials of this webs ite in other womens websites in Iran. As some of the interviewees mentioned, the active media presence of specific groups of women, while constructive, can have some drawb acks. This active media presence of specific groups can create a false impression that these gro ups are representative of all women in Iran or that the demands of the movement receive popula r support in Iran. The media outside of the state media circle, such as opposition groups media and reformist political groups media inside Iran, only interact with the womens movement activis ts who are publicly known in cyberspace. The overall secular mode of the womens movement in Iran has created a space where Muslim women or many women out of the capital city do not have a voice. The theme of this years Iranian Wo mens Studies Foundations (IWSF) Annual Conference was The Essential Needs of the Iranian Woman Today. 1 IWSF is the only regular Iranian womens conference that exists for presen ting activist and scholarly research on Iranian women and the womens movement in Iran. Each year this conference is held in a different location outside of Iran. I was a spea ker in this years conference wh ich was held at University of California, Berkeley. The fact that this confer ence, in its 19th year, chose as its topic the 1 See 59


essential needs of Iranian woman, can speak volumes on its own. I voiced my concern at the conference that the active onlin e presence of womens groups a ll sharing some demands might have conveyed the idea that what we read in thes e websites is representati ve of all women that we are all well-connected with all the women, and that we know the needs of all Iranian women. This has contributed to the very questionable noti on that there is such a thing as essential needs of the Iranian woman. Prioritizing the dema nds of the movement and excluding discussions on sexuality can be one result of such an assump tion; representing the movement as a secular one and dismissing Islamic feminism can be another result. This essentializing assumption is what Mohanty (2003: 21) has talked about in a broader sense as ethnocentric universalism. She calls it et hnocentric universalism to assume women as an already constituted, coherent group with identical in terests and desires, regardless of class, ethnic, or racial location, or contradictions. According to Mohanty (2003: 21) such an assumption of women implies a notion of gender or sexual difference or even patriarchy that can be applied universally and cross-culturally. The problem of creating such ethnocentric assumptions makes it important to pay attention to issues such as voice and representation when we study feminist media. It is important to consider who is speaking and who is not. Ther efore, the face-to-face methodology of the One Million Signature Campaign can be considered to be an important st rategy to reduce the possibility of such ethnocentric universalism. Bringing forth the life stories of women whom the activists encounter in the streets, parks, metros, and shops can give us a better perspective on the diversity of the demands of Iranian women. Using online networks in ways that enable activists to connect to the real world can make the moveme nt more diverse and can also provide a bigger public space for move ment activists. 60


Framing and Collective Identity As Broad, Crawley, and Foley (2004) show, the textual content produced and presented to the public by social movement participants can be used to explore how movements frame themselves and their issues. Mobilizing beliefs and ideas, and the meanings negotiated in the movements are both carried and produced activel y by movement participants. This interpretive process of meaning-making, which is discursive and takes place in interaction with the individuals within th e movement, the observers, and th e opponents of the movement, is conceptualized as framing (Snow and Benford 1988, Broad, Crawley, and Foley 2004). This process of framing and the interpretive framew orks that emerge from a groups struggle to define and realize members common interests in opposition to the dominant order (Taylor and Whittier 1994: 114) serves to develop a collect ive consciousness among the participants of a movement which can lead into the fo rmation of collective identity. Given the scope of my work, I could not conduc t a close textual analysis of the content produced in the Iranian feminist websites. Howeve r, through the interviews I showed that many Iranian feminist groups that write for feminist websites share important goals such as reaching legal equality and changing patriarchal gender no rms in the society. The women I interviewed frequently mentioned that a major part of the writ ings on these feminist websites is in critique of gender discriminatory laws which prohibit women from having the right to divorce or custody of children, equal inheritan ce rights, and so on. When I questioned the interviewees about whether there is a sense of collective id entity within the movement, some of them raised the issue of common goals as something that builds solidari ty among the activists. The way the movement activists frame their goals, that is, the way they prioritize legal rights in their websites, helps them to share a sense of collectiv ity against the dominant order in Iran. This sense of collectivity enables them to unite for collective action in ca ses such as the ratification of a new Family 61


Protection Bill, discussed earlier. Therefore, it can be argued, that frames such as struggling for legal equality and prioritizing such struggles over other demands have helped different groups within the movement to devel op a collective consciousness. As discussed earlier, several scholars and poli tical activists have que stioned the existence of the womens movement in Iran and whether Irani an feminists activism can be conceptualized as a movement historically. However, in the last five years during which Iranian feminist websites have flourished, I have rarely heard any critic questioning the ex istence of the womens movement in Iran or the widespread use of the expression of women s movement in the Iranian feminist websites. During my interviews it was confirmed that the expressions such as womens movement and womens movement act ivists are well-established and known to the members of the womens movement in Iran. Therefore, I argue, th at having a public forum such as feminist websites to form and share certain frames and express certain identities has had an important role in the formation of collective identity in the womens movement in Iran. On the other hand, this new-found public forum in cyberspace has provided a space where group identities that are not necessarily shared by all members of the movement can find an audience. Not all the frames produced in the movement are dominant frames such as legal equality. Moreover, the approaches of some of the groups towards activism and feminism can differ and be divisive. As discussed in some of the interviews, since the Internet provides a space for expressing identities with fewer obstacles comp ared to other spaces, it also helps groups to exercise individual identities. Therefore, the sp ace created on the Internet for feminist activism can sometimes contribute to boundary-making among groups and to creating identity clashes. 62


New Possibilities of the Cyberculture The feminist websites in Iran have provided an important space for activism in the womens movement in Iran. This space gives ag ency to the women activists to express themselves and to challenge patriarchal practices despite repression from the state and lack of resources. The space created on the Internet within the pages of these feminist websites can be considered as what Arturo Escobar (1999: 32) call s the location of new political actors and the source of promising cultural practices and possibili ties. Escobar believes that it is possible to have a cultural politics of cyberspace that resist, transf orm or present alternatives to the dominant virtual and the real wo rlds (1999: 32). However, he ar gues that such cultural politics of activism can be possible only if cyberactivism is accompan ied by real world face-to-face interactions. In other words, Escobar calls for a place-based political practice where the main activism should be carried out by the local actor s in the physical real world place (Escobar 1999: 46). Despite all the shortcomings and power relatio ns that exist within the womens movement in Iran and its presence in cyberspace, examini ng Iranian feminist websites helps provide an affirmative answer to a central question raised by Escobar: Is it possi ble to think that new technologies, by their very char acter and in the hands of suba ltern groups, would foster novel practices of being, knowing and doing? (Escobar 1999: 50). As the case of Iranian feminist websites shows, it is possible for some subaltern groups such as the womens movement in Iran to employ the technological tools of cyberspa ce for resistance, transformation, and building collective identities. The Iranian feminist websit es might be banned by the state, activists might be arrested, and repression of the movement mi ght continue; however, these feminist websites remain a space for speaking up. Thus, this courage ous act, as bell hooks (1989: 8) calls it, can be considered an act of resist ance to challenge the politics of domination that would render us 63


nameless and voiceless. For this reason, I argue that the space created from the network of Iranian feminist websites on the Intern et is a profoundly feminist space. 64


APPENDIX ORIGINAL TRANSCRIPT OF DIRECT QUOTED INTERVIEWS IN PERSIAN Page 36, Shadan: Page 36, Nastaran: Page 37, Parinaz: . Page 37, Foroozan: ) ( . Page, 38 Mona: Page 38, Zohreh: Page38, Nastaran: . Page39, Froozan: 65


) ( Page 39, Jayran: Page 40, Zohreh: Page 40 Parinaz: . Page 41-42, Marjan: Page 42, Shirin: Page 43, Shadan: Page 43, Hosna: 8 ... 22 84 ... ... Page 44, Hosna: ... Page 45, Shadan: 66


. Page 45, Zohreh: Page 45-46, Mona: Page 46, Katayoun: . Page 46, Nargess: Page 46, Nargess: Page 49, Hosna: . Page 49, Hosna: . 67


Page 49-50, Elham: Page 50, Elham: Page 50, Elham: . Page 51, Zohreh: Page 52, Hosna: . Page 52, Nargess: Page 53, Nargess: 68


Page 53, Elham: ... Page 53, Shahrzad: . . 69


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BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Sanam Dolatshahi was born in Tehran, Iran in 1979. She has a BA in English translation and an MA in English literature from Tehran Azadi University. She is one of the first Iranian female bloggers who started blogging in Iran in 2001. She has cooperated with several feminist websites in Iran such as Women in Iran (Zanaan -e Iran) and Womens Fi eld (Meydaan-e Zanaan as a writer, translator, and edito r. Concurrent with pursuing an MA in womens studies, she is completing an MA in the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Florida.