A Season of Change

Tue, Dec 30, 1980


Mahnaz returned to Iran in 1967 as a professor of literature at the National University of Iran, where she and her women students faced the challenge of negotiating their demand for independence, autonomy, and agency within a male-dominated culture and religion.

She worked with her students to found the Association of University Women and together they sought ways to define and demand rights while preserving their spiritual beliefs and their cultural values. Through the Association of University Women, Mahnaz was drawn into the women’s movement in her country and in a short time she became the secretary general of the fledgling Women’s Organization of Iran.

Over a period of ten years, she worked with tens of thousands of women throughout the country to help discover and articulate women’s needs and priorities, arrive with them at a shared vision of rights, and map out an efficient strategy for a successful struggle. Navigating a difficult and tortuous terrain between the growing fundamentalist movement, the patriarchal government bureaucracy, and the aspirations of women who wished to achieve rights but did not wish to abandon their cultural and religious roots, they succeeded in putting women’s issues at the forefront of national concerns.

Following a year of intense activism during International Women’s Year (1975), she was asked to join the cabinet and hold the newly created national-level post of Minister for Women’s Affairs—the second woman in the world to hold that position after Françoise Giroux of France and the first in the Muslim world. Using her new position, she helped enact legislation that refined and consolidated the achievements of the family laws of 1967.

By 1978 women had gained equal rights to divorce, and the minimum age of marriage for girls was raised to protect the girl child from stunted emotional and physical growth and limited educational possibilities. Mahnaz initiated and sponsored a package of laws and regulations to support women’s employment that included extended paid maternity leave, part time work with full time benefits for mothers, and childcare on work premises.

Mahnaz helped empower and expand a vast network of activist women’s groups that made possible the participation of women in the highest levels of decision-making and their presence in non-traditional fields of work, including the armed forces, the judiciary, the parliament, the cabinet, the diplomatic corps, as well as the spectrum of private professions.

Read on: Revolution and Regression

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

Kudos to @RepRoKhanna & @RepMattGaetz on their bipartisanship efforts in passing the Khanna-Gaetz amendment in the #House. We're a step closer to preventing another unnecessary/costly war in the #ME. Congrats to @PAAIA & other allied #Iranian-#American orgs for their #advocacy.

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Quotables – Iran Women’s Movement

"Now, when I look back [on the work of the WOI], it seems to me that our main mistake was not that we did not do other things which we should have done. Our main mistake was that we created conditions in which the contradictions related to modernity, progress, equality, and human rights, especially women’s rights, increased and the reaction to our work put perhaps too much pressure on the country’s social fabric." - Fate of the family protection law

"Iran’s One Million Signatures Campaign for the Reform of Discriminatory Laws is an extraordinary phenomenon. It is democratic, nonhierarchical, open, and evolving in a polity that is none of those things." - Iranian Women’s One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality: The Inside Story, Foreword

At the time of her execution, [Ms. Parsay] wrote one of the most moving letters to her children. And in that she expressed the same courage and the same steadfast belief in her principles that she had followed all of her life. And that was that: I’m a doctor. I know what it means to die, that takes only a minute. I’m not afraid of that. What I’m afraid of is to be pressured into denying 50 years of service to women. - Executed But Not Forgotten

“Prostitution was the code word for activism during the early part of the revolution” - I Was Iran's Last Woman Minister

Quotables – Political Participation

"Quotas are a good starting point. But they are not the end-goal." - Mauritania Moves Toward Political Empowerment of Women

"Women’s representation in political life worldwide is less than 14 per cent" - Women's Conference Opens in Jordan

"Activism women realize that awareness of rights is the first step in gaining a political voice and the political power to gain rights." - Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation
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