When Schoolgirls become Marxist Counter-revolutionaries

This piece is an adaptation of my capstone research project in Stanford’s Iranian Studies Minor program.

It wasn’t just me, there were a whole bunch of us in the car. They told us,

‘If any of you say a word, your head will explode.’

You know, the kind of nonsense they always say.

‘Come out of the car!’

And they push you and they don’t even tell you there are going to be stairs — you’re completely blindfolded. You don’t know where you’re going, but I had this feeling that I was in a public bath.

They took me to a room and from under my blindfold, I could see people sitting together with their feet packed like sardines. They had utilized every room because when I sat down, I knew I was sitting next to someone else — I could feel their body heat.

And isn’t it strange that I don’t know how I got out? I can’t remember… there is too much to remember… maybe I was just there for one night? I think I was in 12th grade. [1]

otivation

my experience, few children of the Iranian diaspora know the full details of their parents’ former lives. A friend at Stanford recently learned his mother spent 3 years in Iran’s notorious Evin prison, the detention, interrogation, and execution site of thousands of Iranian political prisoners before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. She is now a successful orthodontist in Southern California. Hearing him describe the shock he felt from learning about his mother’s former life, I saw the the remarkable contrast her past creates with the present. I wondered if any of her patients had ever guessed that the same person who aligns their teeth was once part of fringe political groups at the risk of torture and execution.

The reality that these girls formed an organized political force at a time when Iranian society was rapidly and forcibly Islamizing demands an examination of their movement. How did high school girls, a typically politically inert group, become so active? On what basis did they define their ideology? Answering these questions is made more pressing by the fact that these women remain largely anonymous in our society, even to their own families. With a few exceptions, their stories are largely untold, untranslated, or confined to an unwritten family history that dilutes each time it is retold.

Thus forms the motivation for taking a closer view at the unique story of female activism during the Islamic Revolution of Iran in the broader context of Iran’s transition from monarchy to Islamic state. With this context, we can move on to analyze the emergence of the more “pragmatic” feminist movement that has taken hold in Iran today.

PIONEERS OF THE ORGANIZATION OF IRANIAN PEOPLE’S FEDAIAN (پیشگام سازمان فدائیان خلق ایران )

the many groups that vied for influence in the nascent days of the Iranian Revolution, the Organization of Iranian People’s Fedaian (OIPF) represented a secular marxist counterbalance to the growing power of the newly minted Supreme Leader and Islamic government.

Though Iran’s current regime has published a comprehensive report of OIPF’s origins, operations, and key players, the lack of an English translation coupled with my second grade level Persian reading comprehension prevents this source from being included in my overview of the group and its activities.

What might be included in the Islamic Republic’s report but is otherwise not found in the body of research on the group outside Iran, is a description of the various “Pishgam” or “Pioneer” groups at high schools across Tehran and in other large cities. To tell the story of these groups required instead a series of interviews with women who had first hand experience as Marxist counter-revolutionaries… during lunchtime.

Foundation

The chaos in Iran leading up to the overthrow of the Shah permeated all levels of society. Mehdi Bazargan, the long-time pro-democracy activist who became the head of Iran’s interim government, and thus Iran’s first prime minister after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, described the mood of the nation as “an atmosphere of terror, fear, revenge and national disintegration.” [2] But for a schoolgirl at an All-Girls high school in Tehran, the atmosphere according to the woman was one of freedom and hope.

We felt for the first time that we were part of something. I was doing something besides going to class. We didn’t have anything like it before. If anyone was competing in something, it was family driven or individual. Only the top girls went to compete in anything, [so] there was nothing outside of class to do. We didn’t have any kind of newspaper groups or project teams. But a lot of girls had an interest in journalism, and these groups gave them an avenue for their writing. It became a kind of social group. [3]

The groups she refers to were the political activism clubs that formed at her high school and at others in Tehran. The school had decided to set aside a few of its classrooms for the political clubs that were forming. Girls would formalize their support for one of the many competing political groups (Fedaian, Peykar, the Islamist Mujahedin, and others) by picking a room to socialize in when they were not in class. At a time when existing social structures were fraying and the future was enigmatic, nothing seemed unusual about forming a high school chapter of a fringe political group.

Initially, it was very organic. We would go to our social room and sit at a round table and discuss current events and what we thought should happen. I remember it was very normal — if school started at 8 am, we would be at school in our room at 7. [3]

A progressive leftist on Monday, a Marxist on Tuesday, and an Islamist by Friday could describe the fluid political affiliations of girls at the school “who didn’t really know which group to identify with.” [3]

Organization & Activities

The OIPF realized they had a broad base of support among young people and “made the strategic decision to organize the groups in the schools” [3]. What had started as an organic reincarnation of the political angst that was infecting the nation, began to develop a solid structure and concrete affiliations with the leadership of OIPF. Rather than casual conversations about what was happening in the news, the girls began to receive “prompts for what to discuss in our meetings and what books to read.” [3] The group of 60 at the school with an average age of 16 elected a “seed” council of 4 to 5 leaders who would coordinate the group’s protest, outreach, and content distribution activities. One member of the seed acted as the group’s president. She would meet with the presidents of other Pishgam chapters, including those at all boys schools, to coordinate their efforts and share high level strategies.

Crackdown & Female Imprisonment

After Mehdi Bazargan resigned from the head of the interim government following his inability to resolve the Iranian hostage crisis, Ruhollah Khomeini’s consolidation of power accelerated. The hope that a secular government could form began to fade as the Ayatollah’s cultural revolution began to impose various aspects of Sharia law on Iranian society. The women who had “proved that [they were] in the vanguard of the movement” and “proved that [they] lead the men,” [4] according to the Ayatollah, were now forcibly re-veiled and removed from various professions within and outside all levels of government. With these developments, the situation of the OIPF and other Marxist groups became more desperate.

The Pishgam at Marjan along with the clubs of all the other political dissident groups lost their social rooms when their school administrators were replaced by the Islamic government. Meetings moved to the home of a girl who was the niece of Farrokh Negahdar, the head of the OIPF. His occasional presence in the home during their meetings increased the girls’ interactions with high level members of the group.[3]

More pressing than the loss of her meeting room at school, the woman could no longer run her roadside Marxist bookstand with impunity. She developed tactics for feeling out her patrons before offering them a copy of the Communist Manifesto or OIPF’s popular newspaper, Kar (meaning “work”). “It was very popular, but we wouldn’t put it out. If we thought the person was fine, we would pass them a copy.” [3] On an occasion where the paper was accidentally revealed to a Basij, a member of the religious police branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the woman’s bookstand and its contents were destroyed — an incredibly lucky outcome for a transgression that typically led to arrest.

The rising tension among the groups at a national level — the split of OIPF into two factions and the growing radicalization and violent tactics of the Mujahedin — led to divisions among girls who had grown up together.

We had a lot of girls who supported the Mujahedin. At the beginning, we tried to do a lot of joint activities. But when things became kind of — when the leftist groups became very radical and very divisive — when my best friend and I stopped talking to each other, those things changed. We would not talk at school. [3]

Sitting around the lunch table in Wannsee reconnecting with that same best friend 36 years later, the days when schoolyard drama revolved around the degree to which your Marxist political group would be willing to resort to violence seemed comical.

But for those girls who did join the more radical factions or who stayed involved in their Pishgam as the process of Islamization continued, the crackdown on their activities became ruthless. Shahla Talebi, Associate Professor of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University recalled her experience as an imprisoned secular leftist in her novel, Ghosts of Revolution; Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran. As described in her book and corroborated by conversations with the second woman, the crackdown on Marxist groups and Mujahedin became increasingly effective. The regime began offering collaboration deals as a pathway to freedom for anyone imprisoned or arrested in connection with a banned group. Desperate to regain their freedom, these collaborators went to great lengths to appease the regime and, in the process, abandoned their causes. The second woman described how the arrest of members of her Pishgam stemmed from one arrested member becoming a collaborator and capitulating to demands for her to report the names of all the girls involved. [5]

The situation in Iran’s female prison wards, recounted by Talebi, was incredibly tragic. Physical abuse during interrogations was common and continued outside the interrogation room for those who did not participate in daily prayers. Flogging and whipping were preferable to being forced to stand for days on end, a torture that would teach its victims how to sleep standing while permanently disfiguring their feet and legs. [6]

Far more damaging to these women, however, was the mental trauma they sustained. Those who wanted a way out of the constant torture were saved at the cost of unbearable humiliation. They were required to read prepared statements of repentance in large assembly halls full of their peers. A recording of their statement would be sent to their families and broadcast on television. The woman recalls watching them. These public humiliations served as an example of how a good Muslim woman could reclaim her soul, but served doubly as the inauguration ceremony of a social outcast. They who had betrayed their own definition of patriotism would never truly become Islamists but would be seen as traitors by their peers. Often, in addition to spying on their fellow prisoners, these women were forced to become low-level guards in their wards. They took over the flogging and whipping of their former comrades. At the threat of execution, they would be required to stand on a suspended platform in some wards and whip prisoners below at the command of a prison official.

Other women, especially those who were perceived by guards to have inherent emotional sensitivities, were forced to behave like dogs and monkeys. The cycle of abuse was so maddening that they often continued barking and crying even after they had been told they could stop. Talebi ventures that the only souls who emerged unbroken from the experience of imprisonment were those who were killed or killed themselves without submitting to the repentance demands of the Islamists. [6]

LEGACY

he harsh realities of imprisonment, humiliation, torture, and execution for leftists and Mujahedin casts a dark shadow over the story of the Pishgams and the schoolgirls excited to have a role in shaping their new world. It is part of the reason why so many of these women, as characterized by Talebi and the woman, look back on their experiences with a sense of guilt for having survived what had been so tragic for so many others.

I’m 55 and I have a different life perspective now. When I look back, there were so many girls below me that got into long jail sentences. They were just very innocent. And I think the more innocent they were, the more likely they were to be arrested. [3]

The memory of those who gave their lives to a utopia that never manifested is not lost from Iran’s memory. In a nation whose government has desperately tried to sanitize its history, the story of political prisoners following the Revolution has made its way out of the country in both the memoirs of those who lived through it and the fiction of those who watched their society crumble. The late Houshang Golshiri, one of Iran’s leading secular writers and a prominent advocate of free speech and human rights, wrote a compelling novella on the Islamic prison system in his 1990 King of the Benighted. Golshiri incrementally sent handwritten pages of the manuscript to Professor Abbas Milani in California disguised as personal letters, “to avoid the ever-watchful gaze of the Islamic censors”. Included in one of his letters was a small note asking Milani to translate his work to English. [7]

The manner by which Golshiri’s work was published tells its own story. Without words, it communicates the tragedy of Iranian artists and authors who never found their voice in the transition from one regime of censorship to another. In novella’s words, however, Golshiri poignantly and painfully immortalizes the desperate oppression so few political activists survived. His depictions of torture and exploration of the psyche of a prisoner, hardly indistinguishable from those in Talebi’s memoir, demonstrate that Iranian society has not forgotten what befell those who dared stand for a different vision of Iran. [7]

That memory of tragedy is part of what makes it unlikely that Iranian women today will engage in the same pattern of organized resistance that their mothers did. A new pragmatism has come to define feminist movements in Iran. Characterized by a focus on what is “attainable” rather than what is “desirable” has led to new ways of peacefully dissenting through sustained but relatively minor transgressions of Sharia law. From the recent trend of removing and waving their hijabs on public utility boxes to singing in the Tehran metro, Iranian women have shown a new “consistency, maturity, and resilience … positively influenced by the negative experiences of the past thirty years” [8].

Haideh Moghissi, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at York University, Toronto describes this “learning and unlearning from past experiences” as a remarkable contrast to the “major shortcoming of post revolutionary socialist feminist activities” that aspired to a utopian vision of societal change. That sort of unsustainable movement, found in the schoolgirls in the Pishgams who “[allowed] ideology to replace one’s own mind and common sense” has parted entirely from modern Iranian feminism. Though Moghissi qualifies that “personality clashes or group and individual rivalry” still exist, today’s coalitions of Iranian feminists, “though quiet, are executing a counteroffensive against the state’s gendered policies and practices” and are demonstrating “that it is possible to work together on specific, urgent issues of concern without demanding agreement or indeed sameness regarding every minute detail of a political project.” [8]

CONCLUSION

hough it is impossible to determine the exact moment at which the female quest for equality in Iran will reach a sustained resolution, the gears are irreversibly turning towards the continued secularization of Iranian society and thus improved status of women. The legacy and tragedy of feminism in post revolutionary Iran, characterized by drastic, fragmented, and radical forces that existed at every level of society, including at all girl secondary schools as we saw through the remarkably organized network of Pishgams, has informed a new brand of pragmatic feminism that has shown no signs of slowing as it continues to wrangle societal control from the hands of the Islamic regime.

Works Cited

[1] Ramos, Cameron, and The Woman. “Experiences of Arrest in 1982 Iran.” 26 Dec. 2016.

[2] Kifner, John. “Khomeini’s Grip In Iran Appears Unshakable.” The New York Times, 16 Nov. 1984. https://www.nytimes.com/1984/11/16/world/khomeini-s-grip-in-iran-appears- unshakable.html

[3] Ramos, Cameron, and The Woman. “Discussion of Post-Revolutionary Pishgam Groups in Iran.” 3 Mar. 2018.

[4] “The role of women in the victory of the Islamic revolution”. Al-Islam.org . Archived from the original on 11 September 2017. Retrieved 10 May 2017. https://www.al-islam.org/printpdf/book/export/html/15306

[5] Ramos, Cameron, and The Second Woman. “Discussion of Post-Revolutionary Pishgam Groups in Iran.” 27 Feb. 2018.

[6] Talebi, Shahla. Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran. Stanford University Press, 2011, p. 264, www.sup.org/books/title/?id=20116. Accessed 10 Mar. 2018.

[7] Irani, Manuchehr. King of the Benighted. Mage Publishers, 1995. Translation by Abbas Milani

[8] Moghissi, H. “Women and the 1979 Revolution: Refusing Religion-Defined Womanhood.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East , vol. 29 no. 1, 2009, pp. 63–71. Project MUSE , muse.jhu.edu/article/262224.

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