Katherine Butler: 'Suffragettes' of Iran demand to be heard

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If what unfolded over the past week was a Tehran "spring", then it was, at least partly, driven by the pent-up despair of women, who more than any other group, have waited in vain for more than 30 years to get back their social and political rights.

As the campaign of Mirhossein Mousavi, the main reformist challenger, took off, the rallies and gatherings grew bigger and more vibrant and everyone noticed how so many of those out flag-waving, whistling and shouting for change were young women.

They were of course wrapped, as the law dictates, in head scarves and modest, figure-disguising tunics. But as the chanting grew louder, their slogans grew more audacious than anything heard publicly in the past three decades. Some were even demanding an end to "dictatorship". Remarkably, there was no move to silence them or move them off the streets. Yesterday as the votes were cast, women too, were out in force.

But does the mobilisation of Iran's women during the election mean they emerge from the excitement with anything more lasting to show than hoarse throats and green paper baseball caps over their hijabs?

Legally they are second-class citizens. Despite extraordinary gains in education and the professions the life of a woman is still worth (according to the male-run judiciary) only half that of a man. Men can divorce on a whim, women have to jump through impossible hoops. Women football fans who want to cheer on their teams have to cut their hair and dress up as boys.

In the past two to three years, women campaigning peacefully for civil rights have, like 19th-century suffragettes in Britain, been arrested, detained flogged or jailed just for attempting to raise awareness of injustices. What they want is disappointingly modest by the standards we use to judge Iran: not revolution or regime change, just equal rights, within the Islamic system.

All three candidates challenging President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad competed to promise a better deal for women. These men would, of course, have to work hard to give women a worse time than the devout firebrand Ahmadinejad. And Iran's Islamist political system makes meaningful change extremely difficult for any president to deliver.

But the appearance on the campaign trail of Zahra Rahnavard, Mr Mousavi's wife, and her open discussion of such things as the morality police jolted the debate and gave voice to many ordinary women. If nothing else, women should now feel entitled to shout louder for real political space. More importantly, the patriarchal clerics who run Iran will have a harder time ignoring women if they are to retain any of their fading legitimacy.

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