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Executed But Not Forgotten: Iran’s Farrokhroo Parsay

Sun, Aug 23, 2009

Audio, Press

NPR / By Liane Hansen

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LIANE HANSEN, host:
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced his nominations for cabinet ministers last week. Included in his choices are three women. If confirmed, they would follow only two other women in Iran’s history in cabinet-level posts.

The first was Farrokhroo Parsay, a minister of education who was executed on charges of corruption after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But she was more than a cabinet minister. She was one of Iran’s most important advocates for women’s rights.

The only other woman named to a cabinet post in Iran is Mahnaz Afkhami. She was in charge of Women’s Affairs in Iran before the revolution. She’s now a leading proponent of women’s rights in the Islamic world. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland and she joins us. Welcome to the show.

Dr. MAHNAZ AFKHAMI (Former Minister of Women’s Affairs, Iran): Thank you, Liane. Good to be here.

HANSEN: Tell us about Farrokhroo Parsay. Tell us about her name, her family.

Dr. AFKHAMI: Ms. Parsay was a woman who came from a long line of activists and strugglers for women’s rights. Her mother was a feminist before her and she published one of the first journals on women called “Women’s World.” And she had a couple of articles in that journal that asked for equal opportunities for education for women. And at that time she was pressured into exile, internal exile to home, and that’s where her daughter, Farrokhroo, was born in 1922.

HANSEN: Hmm. What do you consider to be some of her most important contributions to women’s rights? She was pretty much responsible for getting the women the right to vote in Iran.

Dr. AFKHAMI: Well, yes. She was one of the first six women who entered parliament herself. And prior to that there was an ongoing struggle for a number of decades, and many people participated in that, hundreds of thousands of women. And, of course, she was one of the main leaders of that movement.

HANSEN: It’s a little ironic now that after this election and now three women in the cabinet, and in the story about it, she was but a footnote.

Dr. AFKHAMI: Well, that’s true. That’s true and it’s a shame because she was a pioneer in every way. She was a role model in every way. She was my own personal mentor. I know the idea of having a Women’s Ministry actually came to my mind in a conversation with her, when I had just become secretary general of the Women’s Organization and she was minister of Education. She paid me a courtesy call and it was very gracious of her. And I asked her, you know, about things that we wanted as women and were wishing for. And among them, I asked her if she could help with revision of the school textbooks to relay a more egalitarian image of women. And she said, yes, I’ll do whatever I can. But, my dear, you have to remember I’m minister of Education. We need a minister of women for these ideas. And she was one who had that concept and idea, and relayed it to me.

HANSEN: So her legacy lives on.

Dr. AFKHAMI: Oh, absolutely. All of these women in Iran who are now doing these extraordinary things: they’re protesting, they’re asking for democracy, they’re working so collaboratively and democratically together. They are so much committed to education. More than 60 percent of university students are women. All of these are in many ways owed to her legacy, to her spirit, to her courage.

At the time of her execution, she 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.

Which I think is an eloquent expression of how she viewed life and how she viewed her struggle for women’s rights.

HANSEN: Mahnaz Afkhami is a former minister of state for Women’s Affairs in Iran, and founder and president of the Women’s Learning Partnership in Bethesda, Maryland.

Thank you for joining us.

Dr. AFKHAMI: Thank you.

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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

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