Mahnaz Afkhami Receives Shirzan Award for Lifetime Achievement at 2018 IAWF Conference

Mahnaz Afkhami speaking at 2018 IAWF Conference

Mahnaz Afkhami at 2018 IAWF Conference
(L to r: Mariam Khoshravani, Azita Raji, Afkhami and Goli Ameri)

Afkhami was honored with the Shirzan Award for life-long leadership and community involvement  at the 16th Annual Iranian American Women Foundation Conference on April 29, 2018 at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles for her over four decades of visionary, global work in the civil society sector to advance women’s human rights and agency.




In her acceptance speech, she spoke of one of the most significant collaborations in the women’s human rights movement–the WLP partnership.  She encouraged the women entrepreneurs, leaders, and allies gathered to be involved with women-related causes, locally and at the national level, and to not forget that our human rights are now globalized and they require our vigilance and upkeep. She underscored the key to creating solutions and working for social good: embrace the diversity of one’s heritage but endeavor to take the risks required to make alliances with those whom appear to be so different from oneself.

Other speakers at the conference included advocates for women’s leadership including representatives of  academia, business, entertainment, and politics: Azita Raji, the first female U.S. ambassador to Sweden; Aggie Afarinesh, senior manager of human resources at Metrolink; Fay Arjomandi, the Executive Chairwoman of H2 Wellness and Founder and Chief Product Officer at mimik; Melissa Etehad, Los Angeles Times journalist; Ferial Govashiri, the Chief of Staff to the Chief of Content at Netflix and former personal aide to President Barack Obama in the White House; Hon. Judge Sam Hamadani, district court judge in North Carolina; Niaz Kasravi, founder and director of the Avalan Institude; Neda Nobari, founder of the Neda Nobari Foundation and former director and vice chair of bebe stores, Inc.; Maryam Rofougaran, co-founder of Movandi Corporation and the former senior vice president of radio engineering at Broadcome Corporation; Hon. Judge Shahla S. Sabet, superior court judge in the state of California; Hon. Judge Saba Sheibani, appointed judge in the San Diego County Superior Court; The Honorable Ashley Tabaddor, president, the National Association of Immigration Judges; Kiana Taheri, leader of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Smart City and Behavioral Science initiatives; Necar Zadegan, actress featured on HBO and Fox; Maryam Zar, commissioner on the Los Angeles Commission on the status of women; and Foojan Zeine, speaker, author, and psychotherapist.

IAWF is a non-profit organization providing networking and mentorship services to women of Iranian descent across all professional industries in the United States and internationally.

Mahnaz Afkhami and WLP at CSW 62


On March 19, 2018, during CSW 62, Afkhami (pictured at left) spoke about women’s rights in Iran and and the state of women’s rights in societies around the world. She discussed the approach to finding solutions that Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP) takes and explained why the women’s movement must be global, at the Canadian Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights/UN Watch special event, “Human Rights Defenders: A Panel with Female Advocates,” alongside other women activists including Wai Wai Nu representing the Rohingya community in Myanmar, Ketty Nivyabandi of Burundi, and Maria Corina Machado of Venezuela. View the event “Human Rights Defenders: A Panel with Female Advocates

WLP hosted three parallel events at CSW62 and was involved in several high-level side events and activities. For a full list please click here.


WLP’s Annual Convening 2017

Women’s Learning Partnership‘s annual Transnational Partnership Convening (TPC) opened on October 7, 2017 with welcoming remarks by WLP President Mahnaz Afkhami. She reflected on the state of the world and the Partnership calling attention to two of WLP’s newest endeavors—the Family Law Reform initiative and the Empowering Syrian Refugees for a Better Future project followed by presentations by Board members and partners representing regions of the world. After the presentations, the representative from each partner organization presented on the risks, challenges, and opportunities in their country.

This TPC also provided the opportunity to review WLP’s partnership model, discuss movement building, and communications and branding, monitoring and evaluation. TPC concluded with WLP’s public event “Equality: It’s All in the Family” at Johns Hopkins SAIS in Washington, DC featuring the premiere of the family law reform film, and a panel of WLP representative experts including Yakin Ertürk, Ann Mayer, Joy Ngwakwe, Jacqueline Pitanguy, and UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights Karima Bennoune.

Mahnaz Afkhami Speaks at Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Chicago Council Election 2016 Event









Photo: Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Watch the event via livestream

Mahnaz Afkhami spoke at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs on November 1, 2016 in Chicago.

Title: Election 2016 and the Global Women’s Movement


Chicago Council on Global Affairs Conference Center
130 East Randolph Street
Chicago, IL 60601


A growing body of evidence demonstrates that improvements in the status of women and girls also drive the prosperity and security of families, communities, and nations. In recent years the US government has incorporated gender equality as a metric of policy development and program investment of its domestic and foreign policies. Yet despite many indicators of progress for women and girls everywhere more work remains, and strong collaborations are still needed in areas regarding women’s economic and political leadership, eliminating violence against women and girls, and supporting women-owned businesses and entrepreneurs. As the US prepares for new governance what would a change in leadership mean for women’s rights, domestically and internationally? And how can we best continue to provide US leadership to women’s issues in the next twenty years?

Copies of the new book Women and Girls Rising: Progress and Resistance Around the World featuring contributing experts including Mahnaz Afkhami will be available for sale and signing after the program.


Mahnaz Afkhami, Founder and President, Women’s Learning Partnership

Catherine Bertini, Distinguished Fellow, Global Food and Agriculture, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Ellen Chesler, Senior Fellow, Roosevelt Institute

Fay Hartog Levin, Moderator, Distinguished Fellow, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs


Beyond Equality: A Manual for Human Rights Defenders

By Mahnaz Afkhami & Ann Eisenberg

In Beyond Equality: A Manual for Human Rights Defenders

Order at

Introduction: The World We Seek: Human Rights in the 21st Century

by Mahnaz Afkhami

Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP) began as an idea at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Witnessing the enthusiasm and energy with which 35,000 NGO representatives reviewed the status of women’s rights around the globe and discussed strategies for achieving full rights for women, a group of us came together to deliberate the future. The Beijing conference and its antecedents had already taught us that the status of women had been fundamentally the same throughout history and across the world. Everywhere, men had easy access to the public sphere, women did not; men were trained, educated, and encouraged to work for equitable pay, women were not; men were able to recognize and celebrate their masculinity and take pride in their gender, women were not; men were praised for being outgoing, aggressive, articulate, and forceful, women were not; men were applauded for creativity, daring, and innovation, women were not. The result was a much higher rate of achievement, participation, and power in the male of the species and subjugation for the female. For the next several years, we continued our discussions in Casablanca, Berlin, Beirut, and elsewhere. We reached consensus that the structure of relations between men and women was not a plan by men to abuse and oppress women everywhere, even though on the surface it seemed that way – otherwise, how was it that religion, culture, art, literature, even the design and practice of political and economic power all supported and sustained this system? It took us on a journey through history to realize that the culprit was the foundational dynamic created not by one sex, but by the prevalent conditions in earlier times – the time when women spent most of their lives either pregnant, breastfeeding, or caring for children, most of whom would not survive. Those children who did survive to adulthood would help with economic survival of the family and later with the care of the elders (especially if the child were female). Work, sustenance, and warfare all took physical strength. Men and women engaged in activities that guaranteed the sustenance and survival of both sexes. Thus was created a social architecture that comprehended every dimension of human existence.

As time passed, societies created elaborate traditional practices to keep women monogamous and their sexuality protected and contained. Myths grew around the dangers of the female body, the temptations presented by women’s hair as well as various female body parts, and the chaos that could ensue if the care were not taken to make the female body invisible and to set limits on women’s space and movement. In parts of Africa, female genital mutilation became an inescapable ritual. In China, women’s feet were bound in childhood to produce “two-inch lotus like” feet. In parts of the Middle East, the entire female body was covered in a shroud with only a split around the eyes to permit vision. In the West, women were sometimes burnt as witches.

The changes brought about by the industrial revolution altered the nature of production and prompted many women to enter the paid workforce for the first time. Scientific advances eliminated many diseases and made it possible for women to control childbearing. Enormous changes in lifestyle ensued as men and women began working in factories and moving to the cities. By the mid-nineteenth century, questions about the roles assigned to men and women began to surface. Women and some enlightened men noted the injustice of women’s status, as the division of labor and segregation of spaces lost validity under the new circumstances and lifestyles. The previously prescribed gender roles became increasingly difficult to justify as societies changed. Those societies that had reached a higher level of development experienced the disparity earlier and changes in the status of women arrived sooner there. We realized that patriarchy, the controlling structure of this elaborate system that determined and sustained the unequal status of women, was primarily a product of history and not of culture.

The primacy of history over culture helped us understand why, even when unrecognized, the idea of human rights everywhere and always has been absolute – that every human being now and ever, here and everywhere, has been, is, and will be a claimant to human rights, whether he or she knows it or not; that there is no human right that in its nature is relative to any dictum, no matter what its source. It also alerted us to the fact that though universal in principle, these rights are in practice culture-bound and limited in application, but inexorably moving along the path of universality because cultures move and change as the exigencies of history move and change human beings, first a few and then through the few, the many.

The path to the practical achievement of human rights, however, has never been straight, unidirectional, or easy. Other priorities often overwhelm concern about rights. In the nineteenth century, preoccupation with colonial expansion, in the early twentieth century, the rise of totalitarian ideologies, world wars, and later the Cold War overwhelmed the struggle for human rights and especially women’s rights. In 1948, at the dawn of the Cold War, the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights was adopted but much that happened between 1948 and early 1990s in international politics was influenced by the demands of the Cold War politics. There was always tension between a group of nations, mostly Western, that emphasized civil and political rights and a group, mostly from the Third World, that promoted social and economic rights. In either case, Cold War demands as determined by the major powers superseded other demands.

Despite all that, women have made significant progress since 1948. The UN Declaration encompassed women, but was not focused on women. It encompassed economic and social rights, but was not focused on them. It encompassed freedom across the world, but was not focused on the plight of the people still under colonial rule. Its existence, however, established the path forward, and by speeding up the insertion of binding rights in international covenants, it helped expand the idea of rights across the world, though not always uniformly. Two decades later, in the 1968 Tehran Conference on Human Rights, economic and social rights were declared an integral part of human rights, although the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ECOSOC) to monitor these rights was not established until 1978. In 1975, in the United Nations First World Conference on Women, convened in Mexico City, the World Plan of Action for women’s equality was adopted, the roots of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was planted, and all of that was crowned by the assertion that all issues are women’s issues. In 1993, at the Second UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, we succeeded in gaining acceptance that “Women’s Rights are Human Rights.” In the 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, women’s reproductive rights were recognized and confirmed. And finally in 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, the first line of the Mission Statement declared that “The Platform for Action is an agenda for women’s empowerment,” and to that end signatories committed themselves as governments to implement the Platform for Action and urged the UN system, all other national and international governmental and non-governmental institutions, and all women and men “to fully commit themselves to contribute to the implementation of this Platform for Action.”

To transfer women’s human rights from the realm of the universal idea to the realm of social reality requires action taken in the name of the state, the only institution whose decisions are binding on all citizens and actors. Women’s empowerment being pivotal for the achievement of women’s human rights, Beijing signified a cusp – a bridge to a future of great promise. Clearly, decades of activism, encouraged and expanded globally, and spearheaded and strengthened by the UN conferences, had brought the ideas of the UN Declaration of Human Rights into sharper focus and pledges of the governments into more detailed and verifiable commitments. At the end of the twentieth century and with the end of the conflicts and rivalries of the Cold War, a spirit of optimism was in the air, and as heads of world governments gathered at the United Nations to announce the Millennium Development Goals, a widespread network of NGOs across the world pledged themselves to make sure that they would keep their promises and more.

The horrendous events of 9/11 and the wars that followed, however, shook the globe. The fear and anxiety that spread across the world through these cataclysmic events marginalized human rights at multiple levels of governance, from local to global. The robust language of the Beijing Conference focusing on human rights gave way to an emphasis on democracy, defined as elections, and on security – the effect of which was to curtail freedom. More than a decade after 9/11, we are witnessing both the inadequacy of “elections” and of military-centered security to promote peace or guarantee national or individual safety.

This may be a cause for dismay but not despair. Women have learned to take advantage of the ebbs and flows of our history. The world may be in disarray, but we are in a better position to face it and move forward. In the past, we have moved from seeking simply to walk in the public space unchaperoned, to the right to education, to the right to hold a job, to the right to vote and stand for political office as citizens, to the right to be free from violence in the private and public space, to the kind of equality summarized in the 50/50 slogan.[1]

Women are now in a position to consider that our demands should evolve along with our evolving consciousness and the growing awareness around the world that women’s rights are human rights. We are now ready to accept full responsibility as citizens of the world to think about a new vision for all citizens of that world – men and women. We will not forget the oppressions and continuing abuses suffered by many women across the world. But we realize that an equal share of the ruling 50 percent is not enough for us. We want to think about “The World We Seek.” To make that better world become reality, equality is no longer enough for us or for the world. We must dare to plan the world we envision with and for 100 percent of its people.

[1] For example, the UN Women campaign’s slogan, “Planet 50-50 by 2030 – Step it Up for Gender Equality.”



Women and Human Rights

“Women are now in a position to consider that our demands should evolve along with our evolving consciousness and the growing awareness around the world that women’s rights are human rights. We are now ready to accept full responsibility as citizens of the world to think about a new vision for all citizens of that world–men and women. We will not forget the oppressions and continuing abuses suffered by many women across the world. But we realize that an equal share of the ruling 50 percent is not enough for us. We want to think about ‘the world we seek. To make that better world become reality, equality is no longer enough for us or for the world. We must dare to plan the world we envision with and for 100 percent of its people.”- Beyond Equality: A Manual for Human Rights Defenders

Mahnaz Afkhami Speaks at Alliance for Peacebuilding on CSW60

March 30 Highlights of CSW60_Alliance for Peacebuilding event









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Mahnaz Afkhami spoke at the Alliance for Peacebuilding on March 30, 2016 in Washington, DC.

Title: Highlights from the 60th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations

Venue: The Alliance for Peacebuilding

1800 Massachusetts Avenue, Suite 401

Washington, DC 20036

The Commission on the Status of Women meets each year at the UN in March. This year the theme is focused on the new 2030 Agenda, linking sustainable development to women’s empowerment. A panel of CSW participants will share their highlights from the UN sessions as well as the many NGO programs spanning a two week period. This event was co-hosted by the Alliance for Peacebuilding‘s Women and Peacebuilding Affinity Group, The United Nations Association of the National Capital Area and The National Capital Chapter of the U.S. National Committee for UN Women.


Mahnaz Afkhami, President of Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP)
Karen Mulhauser, Chair, UNA USA and founder, Consulting Women
CeCe Cole, President, National Capital Chapter of the US National Committee for UN Women
Kimberly Weichel, Moderator, Consultant, UN Women, Advisory Council, UNA NCA, Chair Women and Peacebuilding Affinity Group


Mahnaz Afkhami Speaks at The Wilson Center on Global Women’s Movement and Policy Implications

Mahnaz Afkhami spoke at the Wilson Center on February 25, 2016 in Washington, DC.

Title:  Women and Girls Rising: Progress and Resistance Around the World

Venue: The Wilson Center, 5th Floor Conference Room

Ronald Reagan Building and
International Trade Center
One Woodrow Wilson Plaza
1300 Pennsylvania, Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20004

How do we encourage the empowerment of women and girls in societies that find this threatening? How can women in public service help the rise of women and girls globally? And how can women’s rights and women’s movements pave the way for policy change?

This Women in Public Service Project event is a panel discussion on the relationship between women’s rights and politics.

Copies of Women and Girls Rising: Progress and Resistance Around the World will be available for purchase.


Mahnaz Afkhami
Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership; Executive Director, Foundation for Iranian Studies, and former Minister for Women’s Affairs in Iran

Shad Begum
Reagan-Fascell Fellow from Pakistan, National Endowment for Democracy

Ellen Chesler
Senior Fellow, Roosevelt Institute


Indira Lakshmanan
Foreign Policy Correspondent

A Personal Remberance of Fatema Mernissi

L to R: Fatema Mernissi of Morocco, Mahnaz Afkhami of Iran, Deniz Kandiyoti of Turkey, and Yasmeen Murshed of Bangladesh, featured in a May 12, 1996, New York Times article on Muslim women movements.
L to R: Fatema Mernissi of Morocco, Mahnaz Afkhami of Iran, Deniz Kandiyoti of Turkey, and Yasmeen Murshed of Bangladesh, featured in a May 12, 1996, New York Times article on Muslim women movements.


December 1, 2015

Fatema Mernissi, the Moroccan sociologist widely known as a pioneer in Middle Eastern Women’s studies, passed away this week. It is difficult for me to speak of her – a friend, ally, and colleague of over two decades – in the past tense.

I first met Fatema at the Middle East Studies Association Conference in November 1992. Fatema, Nawal El Sadaawi, and I were speakers at the first and only MESA plenary ever dedicated to gender. It was an exhilarating time, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. There was a brief era of global peace and all things seemed possible. We were upbeat about the Middle East, about women, about human rights. Fatema and I connected instantly. She brought me the gift of her extraordinary compatriots Amina Lemrini and Rabéa Naciri, co-founders of L’Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc, which became one of the five founding partner organizations of Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP). There followed twenty years of exciting, interesting meetings in Berlin, Casablanca, Washington DC, and elsewhere.

Fatema was a vibrant woman, blessed with a creative intelligence, who discovered new ways of looking at events, personalities, and subject matter. Books were not only sources of knowledge, but originators of life-changing ideas. She took pride in the strength, humor, imagination, and intelligence of women of her own background and saw their under-representation in the global dialogue on women a loss for the women’s movements. She worked hard to bring understanding of the complexity of MENA women’s lives to the West. She enjoyed her travels to the U.S. and her role as featured speaker at many prestigious venues.The Iraq war changed all that. Fatema said she would not come to the U.S. until the war was over, and she never did.

Her pathbreaking books, among them The Veil and The Male Elite, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, and Islam and Democracy, were standard reading at colleges and universities around the world. But she came to believe that her ideas would be better received and understood if she were to write fiction. She asked me to recommend a “how-to book” and was exuberant about Henry James’ The Art of Fiction. Perhaps she was right. Her Dreams of Trespasscaptures her humor and lively personality better than any of her other works. She was delighted that the book was translated into Chinese and that her works were being enjoyed and studied in India.

During our years of friendship Fatema became ever more passionate about the role of civil society. In this – as in her academic work – she was original. She organized “Caravans” to the Atlas mountains to introduce the work of grassroots women to western journalists and scholars. She was an early advocate of the possibilities of new technologies. She was ever hopeful that connecting civic activism and technology would make possible the kind of dialogue and advocacy across all borders, real and artificial, that separate people and would help build more peaceful, tolerant societies. We have lost a leader whose intensity, steadfastness, and innovative spirit have made a real difference in the work and lives of many.

Mahnaz Afkhami

VOA Persian Interview: Mahnaz Afkhami on Marzieh Afkham (In Persian)

VOA Persian November 9 2015 interview

Voice of America Persian

View the interview.

Mahnaz Afkhami was interviewed by Gity Arian of Voice of America Persian on November 9, 2015 to speak about Marzieh Afkham, the first female ambassador to be appointed in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

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