The on-camera martyrdom of Neda Agha-Soltan, the 26-year old philosophy student shot dead during the protests after the fraudulent presidential election in Iran in June, caught the imagination of the world. But the post-election crackdown has two other victims whose fates better capture the radical shift in the country’s political culture. One victim was the protester Taraneh Mousavi, detained, reportedly raped and murdered in prison, and her body burned and discarded. The other is Majid Tavakoli, the student leader arrested on December 8, after a fiery speech denouncing dictatorship during the demonstrations on National Student Day.

Following his arrest, pro-government news agencies claimed Tavakoli had been caught trying to escape dressed as a woman and published a series of photographs showing him wearing a headscarf and chador — a common version of the “modest” garb (hejab) mandated for women by the Islamic Republic. Attempts at flight in such gender-bending disguises are a classic trope in Iranian political history. The best-known instance was when the first president of the Islamic Republic, Abol-Hasan Bani-Sadr, after his deposition in 1981, allegedly fled the country in women’s dress — the Fars News Agency put a photo of him in a scarf next to that of Tavakoli. But in pre-revolutionary Iran clerics, too, such as Ayatollah Bayat, are said to have evaded the Shah’s authorities by concealing themselves beneath chadors, which pro-government media outlets now choose to ignore.

To be nabbed in this act is portrayed by the state as doubly shameful — a prisoner so afraid of punishment that he literally denies his manhood. In this case, the shame was pictured not only draped over Tavakoli’s head and shoulders but also etched on his face, unshaven, his eyes downcast. The exposure of Tavakoli’s “cowardice” was intended to humiliate a hero of the student movement, but it backfired when an Iranian photographer invited men to post pictures of themselves wearing hejab on Facebook. Men responded en masse, inside and outside Iran, asserting, “We are all Majid.”

There are many ways, indeed, in which the June presidential election, and the Green Movement that emerged in its aftermath, herald the coming of an egalitarian shift in the politics of gender and sexuality in Iran.

Rights and Honor

In 1995, I heard a recording of a lecture given by the leading religious intellectual Abdolkarim Soroush to Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat, the main student organization, on the theme of the emergence of rights-based as opposed to duty-based approaches to religion. In response to a question about the disregard for human rights in Iranian society, Soroush said something that stayed with me, to the effect that, “Until we recognize rights (haqq) as just as important as sexual honor (namus), we cannot speak of respect for human rights.”

The analogy between the defense of rights and honor is intriguing. It captures the Islamic Republic’s obsession with sexuality and the control of women, as well as the intimate link between democracy and sexuality that energizes the Green Movement.

In Iran, as in many neighboring countries, sexual honor is a core value, so deeply ingrained in the dominant culture that it is rarely questioned or even discussed except when it is attacked or infringed. Girls are brought up to understand that their honor resides in their bodies; boys are raised with one of their prime duties being to protect the honor of their sisters. These practices mean that a woman’s sexual morality is always the concern of some man: her father, brothers, husband, sons.

Before the 1979 revolution, these notions were strong throughout Iran, but the spread of education and liberal ideas had weakened them in certain sectors of society, mainly among the educated middle class in the larger cities, and particularly in affluent north Tehran. Notions of women’s right to control their own bodies were germinating, and certain liberal laws were passed that improved the gender imbalance. The 1967 Family Protection Law restricted polygamy and gave women more or less the same rights as men to divorce and child custody.

After the revolution, one of the first acts of the revolutionary council was to dismantle the Family Protection Law. The victorious Islamist “brothers” took upon themselves the duty of “protecting” — in other words, controlling — the honor of all their “sisters.” Honor became collective and the state took charge of it. The authority of the regime, in fact, came to hinge on its success in policing sexual morality. Women’s “rights” were only those granted them by the rulings of Islamic jurists, and relations between the sexes — in private as well as in public — were strictly confined by red lines set in old jurisprudential texts. An official gender policy and culture were instituted, epitomized by compulsory head covering for women, which high-ranking clerics such as Ayatollah Ahmad Azari-Qomi called the “culture of hejab.” The Islamic government instituted gender segregation in public space, criminalized sexual contact outside marriage and reduced women to sexual objects, depriving them of many legal rights they had acquired before.

This effort to turn back the clock was frustrated by the fact that after the revolution women retained the right to vote, and participated at a much higher rate in education. Not surprisingly, perhaps, over the decades since the revolution, the state’s assumption of the role of protector of women’s honor has led many men and women, particularly the young, to challenge the rhetoric and values of honor as a way of challenging the state’s denial of their individual rights. By the time of the 2009 election, many of the Islamic Republic’s sexual and moral red lines had been crossed in much of Iranian society — not just in prosperous, educated north Tehran.

The election and its aftermath suggest that rights — especially the right to vote and to have one’s vote counted — have indeed now become as important in Iranian culture as honor. Violation of this right created such fury, such a gut reaction, that huge crowds came out in the streets of many cities, with women at the forefront of the demonstrations, in open defiance of the regime’s rule of public gender segregation. Popular anger was at first focused into a single slogan: “Where is my vote?” As the protests have developed, however, they have seen a transformation in which a close link between rights and sexual honor is increasingly played upon in both the regime’s repressive actions and the Green Movement’s responses.

The Personal Is Political

Iranians of today, from both genders, all classes and all parts of the country, have rejected or at least questioned many of the gender codes and sexual taboos firmly enforced by the Islamic Republic over the past 30 years. So, at least, the current government appears to believe; hence the countrywide Social Morality Plan (tarh-e amniyat ejtema’i) instated by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2006 in an attempt to reimpose the rigid codes of dress and comportment that prevailed in the earliest days of the revolution. Further evidence is provided by several novel elements in the 2009 election campaign and its aftermath.

The first element was the nature of women’s political participation. For a long time, a division, if not an antipathy, between “secular” and “religious” women has marked the politics of gender. The distinction refers to political attitudes, and not personal piety. “Religious” women, in the main, believed that the country’s laws and social norms should be based upon Islam, while “secular” women might be anti-clerical or supportive of complete separation of mosque and state. Many women of all persuasions backed the reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), because he promised concrete improvements in women’s lives, but the divide lingered nonetheless. On the eve of the 2005 presidential election, at the end of Khatami’s second term, when secular women’s groups organized a rally in front of Tehran University to ask for equality, framing their demands in constitutional terms, women from the official reformist parties did not join them. They did not want to break all ties with the establishment and to be seen as siding with the newly emerging secular feminists, who for their part were keen to keep their distance from religious reformists.

But in April 2009, 42 women’s groups and 700 individuals, including both secular feminists and religious women from the reformist parties, came together to form a coalition called the Women’s Convergence. Without supporting any individual candidate, the coalition posed pointed questions to the field. They raised two specific demands: first, the ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and second, the revision of Articles 19, 20, 21 and 115 of the Iranian constitution that enshrine gender discrimination. Using the press and new media, they put the candidates on the spot to respond. [1] Women’s demand for legal equality became a central issue in the campaign season. Distinguished filmmaker Rakhshan Bani-Etemad made a documentary, available on the Internet, which registers the voices and demands of these women and the replies of the candidates. [2] Ahmadinejad was, of course, the only candidate not to appear.

The second novelty was the appearance of Zahra Rahnavard at the side of — and even holding hands with — her husband, the candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Though many women politicians have served in the Islamic Republic’s legislature, they had been absent from high-level politics, and the 2009 campaign was the first time that a woman appeared as an equal partner and intellectual match for her man. Rahnavard, in fact, was the more charismatic and articulate of the couple. Her open support for women’s rights and human rights changed the tone of the campaign. She was also blunt in many of her remarks, which inspired the youth of the country. For instance, in Mousavi’s second campaign film, Rahnavard is shown in conversation with the renowned actress, Fatemeh Motamed-Arya. At one point, she observes, “A woman does not even own her own body: If you go to the hospital for an operation, you need the permission of a man.”

The third novelty, in the election aftermath, is the availability on the Internet of letters to male political prisoners — key reformist figures and people active in Mousavi’s campaign — from their wives. What makes these often very affecting love letters especially significant is that many of the writers are women from religious backgrounds who now have no qualms about speaking of their physical longing for their men, and question the very justice of the system that has imprisoned them. They are breaking another taboo, challenging the confinement of expressions of sexual desire and love to the private sphere. So the policies of the regime have generated a paradox: Having politicized the sexuality and honor of all Iranian women, previously a private matter for the family and the local community, the regime now finds its own adherents taking the policies’ spirit to an uncomfortable extreme — by making the personal political, in true feminist fashion.

The fourth, and perhaps the most important, novelty is that the regime has been caught breaking its own taboos, with the revelations of the extensive sexual abuse and rape of detainees of both sexes. Those who are demanding political rights, the government seems to be saying, have no sexual honor. The fate of Taraneh Mousavi is just one of the more egregious examples. These atrocities and the allegations of more have horrified the public — and many leading clerics. The role played by defeated reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi in the disclosure of these sexual abuses, his support for the victims and the authorities’ refusal to allow proper investigations have added further to the rumors and led gradually to other victims breaking their silence. One of Karroubi’s witnesses, a male rape victim, refers to his decision to disclose what happened to him as “committing social suicide,” which speaks to the power of the taboo — but then, once a taboo is broken, it loses its power. On December 16, Britain’s Channel 4 TV broadcast an interview with a refugee member of the Basij, the paramilitary force charged with carrying out the arbitrary detention and abuse of protesters, movingly detailing his horror at what occurred. “I have lost my world,” he says, choking back tears. “I have lost my religion.” The clip has rapidly spread through Iranian cyberspace. [3]

The political prisoners include a number of women, ranging from Azar Mansouri, deputy head of the reformist Mosharekat Front, to human rights activists, journalists and students. [4] Some have been released, but none were among the victims of the show trials held in September, when well-known reformist personalities “confessed” on camera that there could be no cheating in the Islamic Republic and that the opposition was mistaken and misled. This government strategy had worked well in the 1980s, when “confessions” and shows of remorse by opposition leaders were regular features. But this time, far from convincing people of the integrity of the election, the show trials displayed the brutality of a regime prepared to go to any lengths to destroy former revolutionary allies who had now become reformists and leaders of the Green Movement. And this tactic, too, backfired, as messages of understanding, eulogies to the pragmatism of the political prisoners and voluntary “confessions” started to appear on the opposition-friendly websites.

Together with the Tavakoli episode, these aspects of the election aftermath have discredited the regime’s “culture of hejab” and shaken the very foundation of the government’s Social Morality Plan.

“Multiplied, Not Humiliated”

The Green Movement is not dead; in fact, it is still in its infancy, not yet fully formed. Pluralist, organic, colorful, fluid, it has moved beyond the stage of “Where is my vote?” to tackle a range of issues that animate the population, not just the restive middle-class urban youth of a thousand Western newspaper headlines, but many strata of society. The protests on National Student Day and the creative response to Tavakoli’s staged escape attempt are further evidence of the movement’s vibrancy and grassroots nature.

The campaign in support of Tavakoli has became an occasion for both solidarity and spirited debate among different elements in the Iranian opposition, as well as for condemnation of state-imposed hejab and gender discrimination, and a celebration of women’s equality and their involvement in the Green Movement. [5] “Majid Tavakoli Was Multiplied, Not Humiliated,” reads one poster. The students issued a statement referring to Tavakoli as the “honor of the students’ movement” (though the word for “honor” here, eftekhar, is neither sexual nor gendered). They stress that what matters is resistance to injustice and the struggle for freedom in Iran, a struggle that will undoubtedly continue, whether in male or female clothing. On December 15, the attorney and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi welcomed the response of the “veiled men” as a blow for human rights against discriminatory laws, a move that honors both men and women, and gives feminism its true meaning. [6]

The popular response to the fraudulent June elections shows, above all, that the hardliners now in control of all centers of power in the Islamic Republic have not realized that the early revolutionary rhetoric and political chicanery that worked well enough in the 1980s have gone hopelessly stale. The more they deploy the same old tricks, the less remains of the legitimacy of the regime. The “culture of hejab” and the regime’s ability to manipulate the discourse of sexual honor have passed their sell-by date, and a “culture of rights” has taken over the popular imagination.


[1] See Nayereh Tohidi, “Women and the Presidential Election: Iran’s New Political Culture,” Informed Comment, September 3, 2009, available at
[2] The film, “We are Half of Iran’s Population,” is accessible online at
[3] The interview with “Sayyed,” the refugee Basij man, is available at
[4] The known women political prisoners are listed at˜. [Persian] [5] See for instance: the writings of Fatemeh Sadeghi (; Nasrin Afzali (; Sarah Laqaie (; and Masih Alinejad ( [Persian] [6] Ebadi’s commentary is posted at [Persian]

How to cite this article:

Ziba Mir-Hosseini "Broken Taboos in Post-Election Iran," Middle East Report Online, December 17, 2009.

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This