Muslim Woman Leads Global Fight For Feminism

Mon, Mar 9, 1998


Daily Nebraskan / By Amanda Schindler

LINCOLN, Neb. — As a young girl, Mahnaz Afkhami never suspected she would leave her home for a far-off land and a foreign culture.

But her mother felt differently.

The wife of a feudal landlord in Kerman, Iran, Afkhami’s mother dreamed of leaving and of becoming more independent despite women’s strict societal limitations.

When Mahnaz was 11, her mother acted on that dream, packing up her three children and leaving her husband and her comfortable life for a new start. With no English-speaking skills and no money, she began her life again in San Francisco.

Her daughter would forever admire her for it.

During the Women’s Studies No Limits Conference, Afkhami said fundamentalism and feminism struggle against each other across the globe, especially in Muslim societies.

“We’re a long line of people that just don’t leave things alone,” Afkhami said with a smile during her presentation Saturday morning for the fourth annual conference in the Nebraska East Union.

The largely female crowd laughed along with her good-natured sarcasm.

Afkhami said fundamentalists are afraid of changes in the status of women, and many fundamentalist groups have united to fight feminism despite differences in religion.

For example, fundamentalist delegates from the Vatican worked closely with Iranian Muslim delegates at the 1995 Beijing International Women’s Conference, she said.

“The boys got together and had no problems,” she said. “That’s the way it was supposed to have been in some golden time. The fundamentalists unite across cultures and geography and religion to stop the women.”

She stressed fundamentalism is a political movement and not a religious one.

“In Islam, there’s nothing that says women have to be segregated (from men) or not go to school,” she said.

But many women hesitated supporting feminism for fear of sacrificing tradition, she said.

“Either you were feminist or you were Muslim,” she said. “Now women are very strongly asserting that they shouldn’t have to choose between culture and religion and feminism.”

Afkhami said another deterrent to feminism in Muslim society was the stereotype of the liberated Western woman.

“The Western feminist is seen as some type of Madonna,” she said. “(Muslim women) were afraid they were going to be Western, painted dolls.”

Muslim women have developed their own type of feminism, she said, and stereotypes are fading.

Afkhami urged feminists across the globe to unite in the same manner as the fundamentalists.

“The most important thing that we share is that we want to mess things up,” she said.

And Afkhami said she takes pride in the “messes” she makes as executive director of the Sisterhood is Global Institute, an independent international organization that works to improve women’s rights.

Membership includes women in 70 different countries, showing feminism is a common need among women.

“We all want the same things,” she said, but stressed that work in Muslim countries was especially important because “the crisis seems to be crystallizing there.”

When working for women’s rights in countries where feminism has not fully evolved, one might expect hostility from certain organizations, but Afkhami said governments are more docile than expected.

“A lot of governments are not as smart as you think they would be,” she said. “Patriarchal governments don’t take women seriously yet – and that’s a good thing.”

The Declaration of Human Rights is another good thing in Afkhami’s mind. Now in its 50th year, the document has been criticized by many Muslim men for being too Western, she said.

But she said she disagrees with their rationale.

“I’ve looked at the items and articles and have never seen a women saying ‘I don’t want this right,'” Afkhami said.

Nancy Rosen, director of the Strengthening Neighborhood Partnership program, said she was “very impressed” with Afkhami’s message of women’s rights and empowerment.

“Rights are not Western, Eastern, Islamic or Christian,” Afkhami said. “They are human.”

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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

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