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On the Iranian Streets: Tomorrow Begins Today

UCLA's Iranian American faculty members see current events as a possible transition period. No one knows exactly what will happen. But two things are now clear: the reform movement is far from exhausted and, for perhaps the first time, women in Iran finally have a voice. A big voice.


By Bethania Palma Markus

Published Jul 1, 2009 3:50 PM

Tension still simmers in Tehran following Iran's June 12 election pitting incumbent hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Since Ahmadinejad's disputed 63 percent win, millions of Iranians flooded the streets despite violent state crackdowns and threats, demanding everything from a new election to political and social reform.

But the nation's anguish, famously streamed over the globe via Internet networking technologies like Twitter and Facebook, is not confined to its own borders. In Westwood, UCLA's Iranian American faculty reacted with shock, dismay and anger.


Hossein Ziai, professor of Islamic and Iranian Studies and director of Iranian Studies at UCLA.

"The level of the brutality brought by the government, the police and paramilitary is enormous," says Hossein Ziai, professor of Islamic and Iranian Studies and director of Iranian Studies at UCLA. "This brutality is staggering and horrific. We see innocent people die before our eyes."

UCLA faculty members believe the election's aftermath shows Iranians have largely outgrown their country's leadership and system of governance. So while the streets have calmed, the story is far from over. And Bruin scholars predict that what has just happened is merely prelude to even more wrenching change in one of the world's most ancient countries. What shape that change will eventually take is still up in the air, but the consensus is clear — it will have a female face.

Reviving Women's Rights

Although more than 60 percent of Iranian university students are women, the country has draconian laws that place them well below men in social status. Women cannot leave the country without the permission of their husband or a male official. Men and paternal family members are given priority in child custody issues, and women's testimonies in court are only given half the weight of men's.

So gender equality in Iran has in the past taken a back seat to other causes. But no more, predicts Shiva Falsafi, a UCLA lecturer in Women's Studies and an expert on the Iranian women's movement.


Shiva Falsafi, a UCLA lecturer in Women's Studies and an expert on the Iranian women's movement.

She points out that during Mousavi's campaign, his educated, influential wife, Zahra Rahnavard, galvanized female voters — already a major bloc. A former university chancellor and political scientist, Rahnavard became a political force unto herself.

"For the first time, the vigor of the women's movement had persuaded the opposition that their equality and demands must be part of the platform," Falsafi observes. "[Rahnavard] asks for dramatic legal measures to achieve far greater equality than women now have."

In a country where women are becoming the educated majority, their demands for equality can no longer be ignored, agrees Rahim Shayegan, Musa Sabi assistant professor of the Iranian Department at UCLA's Center for Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. "[Women] are miserably repressed by the current regime, but they are by far more sophisticated and educated," he says. "If half of the people are women and they are better-educated in this highly literate society, how can their rights be ignored?"

The Fire Dampens But Still Burns

The face of the reform movement, in fact, is female. Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old university student, became an international symbol of the brutality against Iranian protesters when she was gunned down on the street and her death was captured in a shocking and disturbingly graphic video. The video quickly became a viral phenomenon across the world's social networks and Internet sites.

Learn more

Two of UCLA's faculty experts on Iran share their opinions on video. Click the video titles to learn more.

From Women's Studies lecturer Shiva Falsafi, an expert on the Iranian women's movement:

The Role of Women in Iranian Election Protests

How Iranian Youth are Using the Web to Power Their Protests

From Islamic and Iranian Studies Professor Hossein Ziai, director of Iranian Studies at UCLA:

The future of US-Iranian relations

Have Hezbollah and Hamas turned their backs on Iran?

Because the government has tried to clamp down on communication with the outside world and banned international media from leaving their offices to report from the streets, it is unknown how many have died in the uprising. Many have been wounded and some reports estimate that as many as 2,000 demonstrators have been imprisoned.

In the face of such violence, however, intermittent quiet on the streets should not be taken as a sign that the opposition movement has been quashed, Shayegan says. People may be afraid or intimidated by heavily armed security forces, but they are still angry.

"You cannot do away with the millions on the streets," he explains. "You can clamp it down, but they will be a strong, powerful force in waiting, because you haven't changed their hearts and minds or satisfied their needs."

Some say they haven't seen an uprising like this one since Iran's 1979 revolution, which brought about the current religious and political system. Three decades ago after months of demonstrations and strikes, the Iranian people, spearheaded by charismatic religious and political leader Ayatollah Khomeni, overthrew the monarchy installed by the U.S. and Britain in a 1953 coupe d'état that removed the democratically-elected Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq from power.

Iran now has a two-track government consisting of elected parliamentary leaders headed by a president, and non-elected Guardian Council headed by the Supreme Leader, who has over-arching authority on such functions as the military, judicial system and state television and radio.

Recent news from inside the country indicate that consensus in the ruling regime may be fracturing, with some supporting Mousavi and the reformists and others standing behind the hardliners.

"It is very clear that good section of the religious clerical establishment is also highly dissatisfied with what is going on," Ziai says. "People tried to demonstrate peacefully and this is what they got as a result. The government is on shaky grounds — they know they are not legitimate and they want to clamp down."

In what was interpreted by many as a chilling message from the ruling regime to dissenters, the daughter of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an influential politician and Mousavi supporter, was arrested and later released after taking part in a protest over the election.

While few things are certain in what seems to be a transitional period in Iran, faculty members are convinced that violence and intimidation will not prevent the population from bringing about some level of reform.

"Iran is not a country without a history of upheaval," Falsafi concludes. "It's not at all given, if Iranian history is our measure, that providence is with the hardliners. What remains elusive is the idea of a democratic society."



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