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Women Campaigning for Equality

Sun, Oct 19, 2003

Press

IranDokht / By Pari Esfandiari

Pari Esfandiari: Many courageous women throughout time, and of many different regions, have stood up and made their voices heard, both within larger movements and through their own efforts on the behalf of human rights, peace, and freedom. They have shaped and transformed the progress of the global community by working toward the sustainability of an environment of peace and prosperity for all. Although, many of these same women have faced castigation and enforced exile from their homelands, they have and will continue to struggle on in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and defeat them again and again. Without the contributions of both group struggle and one-woman-campaigns made up of activists such as these, the world and all its peoples would deeply feel the loss of so many gains that have been fought for and won by such humane generosity and self-sacrifice.

The importance of women’s rights groups such as the WLP should not be overlooked nor should the contributions of individual women to the world-wide struggle for peace, freedom, and equal human rights, women such as Mahnaz Afkhami, the Founder and President of the Women’s Learning Partnership. She is also the Executive Director of the Foundation for Iranian Studies, and the former Minister of State for Women’s Affairs in Iran. Ms. Afkhami is a strong proponent of women’s rights and has been the president of many international groups that have sought to help advance women’s status in the world community. She is the author of various publications that can be found and read in many different languages in many parts of the world. She now lives in exile in the US and recently took part in a conference entitled, “Clash or Consensus? Gender and Human Security in a Globalized World” sponsored by the WLP.

Pari: As the former Secretary General of the Women’s Organization of Iran and Minister of State for Women’s Affairs, how have your past experiences affected your views and your life in exile in relation to the women’s movement?

Mahnaz: My past experiences in Iran taught me a great deal, much of which I am currently using in my work in the international women”s rights community. What I learned working at the grassroots, as well as the grasstops levels, helped me give shape to the theory and to develop the methodology of the leadership concepts we are now working on in the Global South, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.

Pari: Within your experiences of promoting human rights and women’s rights, both from governmental and non-governmental organizations, what do you think are the key differences between these two types of organizations?

Mahnaz: When I was first invited to join the cabinet of Mr. Hoveyda as Minister of State for Women”s Affairs, I was uncertain as to the effectiveness of the role I might be able to play in the government. At that time, that is January 1, 1976, there was only one other woman in the world with that title and that was Francoise Giroux of France. There were no models to follow and no job descriptions. Now there are nearly fifty such positions in the world and various models to follow. Not having a precedent was, in a way, helpful. We were able to suggest what the job should be in ways that were very effective and to gain acceptance. This may not have been possible after the more limited models were developed in other countries to shape the function and the job description of Minister of State for Women”s Affairs. Later, we soon found that there was a tendency to ghettoize women”s issues by those in authority who would point to the Minister of Women as the person responsible for issues related to women. We, on the other hand, took the position that “all issues are women”s issues” and that the work of the entire government–at minimum twelve ministries–directly impact women”s lives. So the cabinet agreed that twelve ministers including those of education, labor, mines and industries, health, higher education, plan and budget, agriculture, as well as heads of the literacy program and the radio and television organization, would participate in the High Council for women”s affairs. The ministers met twice a year, but the highest ranking deputies met with me every month to report on the progress in gender equality work and to help describe the challenges and develop projects to ensure women”s participation in development. Both the slogan “all issues are women”s issues” and the concept of “mainstreaming” that became popular in the 90”s, had been part of our conceptualization of activism for women in pre-revolutionary Iran. So to get back to your question, it is important for women to be where information is, where resources are allocated, where power to decide resides. However, it is also important to have strong non-governmental organizations that can be innovative in their thinking, break boundaries and create new spaces, and pressure the government and other powerful institutions for change. The dynamic interaction between the two is crucial and can give great results.

Pari: What is the Foundation for Iranian Studies and what role do you play there?

Mahnaz: The Foundation for Iranian Studies is an organization that was founded by a group of Iranian university professors in 1982 in order to help preserve the cultural heritage of Iran, and to provide cultural and intellectual activities for the exile community. The Foundation publishes “Iran Nameh,” a quarterly journal of Iranian Studies that is a much-respected multi-disciplinary literary, cultural, and historical research publication. The Foundation also has an archive of oral history interviews that cover a wide range of subjects from women to labor, from education to military affairs, from political parties, to opposition groups to the Pahlavi regime, through recorded memoirs of those who were first hand witnesses to historical events in each of these subject areas. The interviews are transcribed and edited and made available to researchers. The Foundation also has a series of publications for children. The Foundation organizes an annual distinguished lecture series to coincide with Norooz and gives an annual prize to the best Ph.D. dissertation on Iranian studies, and holds occasional concerts and painting exhibitions. The Women”s Center at the Foundation carries out research on women and has a collection of oral history memoirs of notable women. I am the Executive Director of the Foundation.

Pari: Your books Women in Exile and In the Eye of the Storm: Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran were both critical successes. Aside from the publications that you put out with the Women’s Learning Partnership, do you have any plans for other future writings?

Mahnaz: I have published a number of books about women in Muslim majority societies and a manual called “Claiming Our Rights: A Manual for Women”s Human Rights Education in Muslim Societies.” In addition to my more academic writing on subjects related to women, religion, culture, and democratic participation, I am now in the process of writing the English version of my Persian oral history memoir about the Women”s Organization of Iran called “State, Society, and the Women”s Movement in Iran.” But my favorite writing has to do with a series of short stories, one of which was just published in a collection called “Remembering Childhood in the Middle East,” edited by Elizabeth Fernea for the University of Texas Press.

Pari: What led you to fund Women’s Learning Partnership?

Mahnaz: I didn’t fund Women’s Learning Partnership, but I founded the organization in response to the suggestion, support, and I might even say, pressure of members of our extensive network of women activists, funders, and researchers who wished to continue the work we had carried out with regards to the women”s struggle for rights in the Middle East/North Africa regions and to continue this work in a systematic way. Two foundations who support human rights and women”s rights guaranteed initial support for the organization. It seemed like an idea whose time had come. I am very pleased with the progress of our work. We began with three partner organizations in Palestine, Morocco, and Nigeria but after just three years we are working in fifteen countries and have produced curriculum in eight languages, including, of course, Persian.

Pari: What is the chief mission of the WLP?

Mahnaz: The mission of the Women”s Learning Partnership (WLP) is to advance communication and cooperation among and between the women of the world in order to protect human rights, facilitate sustainable development, and promote peace.

Pari: What are some of the WLP’s main accomplishments?

Mahnaz: WLP has worked to empower thousands of women in the Global South to take on leadership roles in their families, communities, and nations through leadership training workshops held throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Our leadership curriculum, Leading to Choices, has been translated and published in seven languages. WLP has recently published Leading to Choices: A Multimedia Curriculum for Leadership Learning, an innovative multimedia training package designed to empower women to engage in their own leadership development and participate as leaders in the decision-making processes that impact their lives. The package provides interactive, scenario-based activities and illustrative examples of how to create participatory and democratic learning environments, how to implement successful advocacy campaigns, and how to develop compelling messages. WLP collaboratively developed the curriculum and materials with women”s rights activists and partner organizations in Afghanistan, Cameroon, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, and Uzbekistan.

Pari: What kind of leadership training does the Women’s Learning Partnership focus on teaching women?

Mahnaz: WLP’s program is based on a concept of participatory leadership that enables women and men to develop skills to prevent conflict, share power, and build coalitions to promote human rights, social justice, and peace. In cooperation with our partners, we offer leadership training workshops that strengthen skills in participatory leadership; the kind individuals and organizations need for effective collaborative action. Each workshop establishes a cooperative learning environment in which participants learn to take responsibility for achieving shared goals and values. We offer leadership and skills training to women from a wide range of social, economic, and religious backgrounds, including teachers, women’s rights activists, doctors, religious leaders, domestic workers, journalists, students, and community leaders.

Pari: What has made the Women’s Learning Partnership so successful in bringing together women leaders from around the world to discuss and take action on important issues, such as those talked about at the latest conference concerning gender and human security in the globalized world?

Mahnaz: WLP maintains strong networks with women’s rights organizations in the Global South and with activists at the grassroots level. WLP’s recent conference on human security in Washington, DC provided a highly visible opportunity for these experts from the Global South to add their voices to the growing international debate on how to best create a global community where human rights, sustainable development, and peace are a reality. Human security provides a viable framework by which women leaders can work together to achieve sustainable societal change.

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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