Promoting Lessons in Leadership for Women

Sun, Apr 15, 2007


World of Education / By Claude Carroué

Sixty years ago her grandmother broke out of traditional gender roles as a working single mother in southern Iran. A generation later, her mother found the courage to leave her wealthy husband, come to the UnitedStates, go to work in a cannery to support her children and put herself through school.

Not surprisingly, Mahnaz Afkhami was profoundly inspired on a personal level by her grandmother and mother’s fiercely independent lives. Professionally speaking, one of the most influential people in her life was the first female cabinet minister in Iran, who set up a girls’ high school and began giving lessons in leadership.

“I was the second woman to become a minister in Iran, so I followed in her footsteps in many ways,” Afkhami said. “My work has been pretty much involved with education as a pillar of movement building. It is based on the idea that young girls especially need to be exposed to a variety of ideas, concepts and philosophies so that they can choose how they will shape their lives.”

After studying in the United States, Afkhami returned to teach at the National University of Iran. There she was head of the Department of Literature and set up the association of university women students and professors. Its goal was to help “bridge our cultural roots with new concepts of human rights and social justice.”

On March 8, to celebrate the International Women’s Day, Afkhami will be in Washington, DC, to deliver the message that “in spite of the diversity of circumstances and of contexts within which we work, there is a great deal that binds us together. There are numerous strategies we can share, and our solidarity is our strength.”

She will also be there to launch “Against All Odds,” a film made about Women’s Learning Partnership, an organisation Afkhami founded.

“We came together originally with women leaders from five countries: Palestine, Morocco, Jordan, Pakistan and Nigeria,” she recalls. Now they work with a network of 18 independent partner organizations in the Global South, to empower women to transform their families, communities, and societies.

The Women’s Learning Partnership now works in Muslim-majority countries as well as in countries, like Brazil or Nicaragua, with different religious traditions. “Our particular way of looking at leadership appeals to women in a variety of cultural and religion contexts,” Afkhami underlines. “Women’s Leadership Partnership came through the proved need for women leaders, especially in the Middle East-North Africa region,” she explains.

“They came to the conclusion that we need to create a curriculum and concrete learning situations that will help women to realise their leadership capacities. Until and unless women realise that they are agents in their own lives, all other changes for the society are really unlikely to be achieved.”

“We have just launched the Young Women’s Learning Partnership to emphasize the education and movement building among girls from 12 to 18,” she adds. But she does not see this exchange of experience and knowledge as the older generation mentoring the younger, rather as generations having a dialogue and learning from each other.

Asked what is the most important obstacle she and her organisation face, Afkhami responds without hesitation. “It’s the longheld patriarchal cultural context within which almost all of our partners work, this traditional concept of human relations, which affects not only the status of women, but also the creation of just and democratic societies.”

More than anything, Afkhami hopes that “peaceful resolution of disagreement will become the way of the world.”

To learn more about Afkhami’s work with the Women’s Learning Partnership, go to: www.learningpartnership.org/


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

Quotables – Human Rights

"We must pose the question: why is it that the denial of the most rudimentary rights to civil treatment for women is always based on some fundamental point of culture? Is this culture real, or is it a fetish that is used to maintain some economic, social, or simply psychological privilege?" - A Vision of Gender in Culture

"Women's status in society has become the standard by which humanity's progress toward civility and peace can be measured." - Architects for Peace

"The crass infringement of women's rights we see in the Muslim world has more to do with power, patriarchy, and misuse of religion as political weapon than with religion properly understood as individual faith." - Gender Apartheid, Cultural Relativism, and Women's Human Rights

"Rights and empowerment are interconnected: unless a substantial number of women in a community come to believe that they have rights and demand to exercise them, right remains an abstraction." - Faith and Freedom