(Associated Press) – For years, women's defiance in Iran came in carefully planned flashes of hair under their head scarves, brightly painted fingernails and trendy clothing that could be glimpsed under bulky coats and cloaks.
But these small acts of rebellion against the theocratic government have been quickly eclipsed in the wake of the disputed June 12 presidential elections. In their place came images of Iranian women marching alongside men, of their scuffles with burly militiamen, of the sobering footage of a young woman named Neda, blood pouring from her mouth and nose minutes after her fatal shooting.
In a part of the Muslim world where women are often repressed, these images have catapulted Iran's female demonstrators to the forefront of the country's opposition movement. It is a role, say Iranian women and experts, that few seem willing to give up, and one that will likely present President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hardline government with even greater challenges in the wake of the recent violence and protests.
"Iranian women are very powerful and they want their freedom," said one woman in Tehran who said she's been taking part in the protests. Like all women in Iran interviewed for this story, she did not want to be named, fearing government retribution. "They're really, really repressed, and they need to talk about it."
The election seemed to open the floodgates for airing that sense of frustration.
Claims by Ahmadinejad's chief rival for the presidency, Mir Hossein Mousavi, that the election was riddled with fraud were the catalyst for days of protest following the vote. The government's harsh response – evidenced in hundreds of arrests, the deaths of over a dozen demonstrators, clampdowns on the media, the refusal of the country's theocratic leaders to entertain the possibility of a re-count – fueled popular discontent across wide swaths of the population.
But there is an extra layer of resentment and anger among many of Iran's 35 million women. Many fear that a second term for a man who was first elected in 2005 in part on a platform of restoring "Islamic values" will only prove to be worse than the first.
"The root of the current unrest is the people's dissatisfaction and frustration at their plight going back before the election," said Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi. "Because women are the most dissatisfied people in society, that is why their presence is more prominent."
Across the Muslim Middle East, women have often joined men in protest movements.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, women took part in street demonstrations in the tiny Gulf country. Over the years, images of Palestinian women, fists raised in anger against Israel and tears flowing in despair over children and husbands killed, have become a staple of that conflict.
But Iran's protests have elevated such images to a new level.
While Iranian women have been politically active in the past, coming out in large numbers in support of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the latest demonstrations showed them standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts, enduring the same blows and threats.
"We were all together, and we helped each other despite our sexuality, and we will be together," said one 34-year-old Tehran woman who is active in the protests.
They have also given the movement some of its most high-profile arrests – former President Hashemi Rasfanjani's 46-year-old activist daughter – and its first martyr, Neda Agha Soltan.
Soltan, who was allegedly shot by pro-government militia as she walked through a protest Saturday, became the public face of the government's repression – a female martyr in a culture that celebrates such symbols, but usually relegates women to the role of the martyr's mother or wife.
Video images of Soltan lying on the street, blood pouring from her mouth and nose as a few men crouch down, struggling to save her, quickly made their way onto the Internet. From there, they bounced around the world.
"She represents this youth who went there with such hope and idealism," said Ziba Mir-Hosseini, who researches the situation of women in Iran, at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. "In a way, she is the first woman martyr. She is a martyr for democracy."
President Barack Obama on Tuesday summed it up as such: "We have seen courageous women stand up to brutality and threats, and we have experienced the searing image of a woman bleeding to death on the streets."
In the convoluted, and fluid, calculus of Iranian politics, it remains to be seen how the government will deal with these challenges. Also unclear is how these developments will shape policy.
Under previous reformist regimes, Iranian women secured a wink-and-a-nod attitude from the government that allowed them to adopt more casual hair coverings and more freedoms than those seen in other conservative Muslim countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia.
Although they are barred from the presidency and religious posts, many Iranian women are in parliament and other political offices. About 65 percent of university students are women.
In 2006, a group of women launched a campaign to gather a million signatures in favor of equal rights for women. And, in the run-up to the presidential election, a coalition of women from diverse economic and social classes worked to ensure that the candidates focused their platforms on efforts to improve women's lives.
Mousavi's bid for the presidency further encouraged them, with women buoyed in no small part by his progressive stance on women's issues and his unorthodox – at least for Iran – campaign appearances alongside his wife, Zahra Rahnavard.
Rahnavard, who was forced out of the chancellor's position at Al-Zahra University by conservatives in 2006, campaigned by her husband's side, appeared in campaign videos and even drew political attacks from opponents.
"For the first time in a presidential campaign you could see a man campaigning with his wife," said the University of London's Mir-Hosseini. "At many of these meetings they were holding hands, and that was breaking a big taboo."
On Wednesday, Rahnavard made her voice heard again, saying on one of her husband's Web sites that his followers had the right to protest and the government should not deal with them harshly.
It remains to be seen how women, particularly after the days of violence, will demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the regime, especially if its headed by a man whose earlier actions were seen as limiting their rights.
Under Ahmadinejad's first term, rules were set in place that made it difficult for women to work late or take on extra hours, and pushing many into part-time jobs. Last year, his government proposed a law that would have made it easier for men to take additional wives _ a practice allowed under Islam but generally frowned upon in Iran. More than 60 women activists who took part in the signature campaign were arrested, some of whom are still in jail, said Nayereh Tohidi, a professor at California State University, Northridge.
Then, there is the issue of clothes. Under Ahmadinejad the rules are being tightly enforced, women are required to cover their hair and wear loose and long garments over pants. They face arrest if their fashion is deemed too risque – a qualification that has even included pants tucked into boots during the winter.
"It is the biggest insult to a woman that somebody can tell her what she should wear," said the 34-year-old Tehran woman active in the protests. "Nowadays many people can see the world easily, how they live peacefully in their countries without any enforcement, so we know our basic rights as a human and especially as a woman."
(Associated Press writer Constant Brand in Brussels contributed to this report.)