Forget the stereotypes: Iran's women are active and organised

By Massoumeh Torfeh, a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and a former producer for the BBC Persian Service (THE GUARDIAN, 09/01/08):

According to Kate Connolly's report on Iranian female photographers, the reason women "now play too significant a part in Iranian society to be 'brought back to the stove'" has much to do with the Iran-Iraq war of 1980 to 1988 (The secret lives of us, January 2).Katajun Amirpur, an Islamic expert at the University of Cologne, is quoted saying: "The war led to women taking over many of the roles previously held by men, including that of the photographer." But this is naive. Women have always played a significant role in Iran's social, political and artistic life. They gained the right to vote in 1963 - earlier than in several European countries.

The western media's portrayal of Iran is, unfortunately, often confined to photos of President Ahmadinejad in defiance of the US, or women in black Islamic chadors, apparently being treated as second-class citizens, or fundamentalist zealots beating their chests.

That is why when Connolly sees the photographs (on display in Berlin's Cicero Gallery for Political Photography) she is confused about their message. She tells us about a photo by Newsha Tavakolian from Tehran portraying "a woman in bright green scarf with swollen pink lips, bruised eyes and a thinly plastered nose". Connolly's first impression was that this is "a woman who has been beaten up, maybe by her husband". But Newsha tells her the woman has just had "a nose job, liposuction, even a boob job". Connolly accepts that this is a challenge to western preconceptions.

As early as 1937 Iranian women were attending university. From the early 1950s there have been female scientists, mayors, university deans and cabinet ministers. The highly acclaimed poet and film-maker Forough Farokhzad was openly expressing women's sexual desires in the 50s and 60s.

Bibikhatoon Astarabadi, born in 1858, became one of the most influential figures of the constitutional revolution of 1906. She founded the first school for girls and her book Failings of Men, published in 1895, was seen as the first declaration of women's rights in Iran. Women were also highly active during the shah's regime in the 1960s, and in the revolution that led to his downfall in 1979.

Since the Islamic revolution, with the onslaught of fundamentalism, Iranian women have fought back by proving themselves indispensable in government. They focused on high-level university education, and many organised themselves into political groups. Today the most persistently successful activists in Iran are female journalists, students, bloggers, lawyers and members of parliament. Women have organised demonstrations to stand up to unequal Islamic family laws, mistreatment of women, forced marriages and stonings. Brave female lawyers such as the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebady have confronted judicial authorities. Many have gone to prison for defending political and human rights.

None of these have any direct link with the Iran-Iraq war. Women have always played a significant political role in challenging religious or cultural norms which hold back their progress. Successful female photographers belong to that ongoing tradition.