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‘I was Iran’s last woman minister’

Wed, Aug 19, 2009

Audio, Press

BBC World Service / By Nikki Jecks

Audio B&WListen to the Interview (MP3)


The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has announced he intends to appoint Iran’s first women cabinet ministers since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Mahnaz Afkhami was one of the last two women to take part in an Iranian government before the revolution.

Under the autocratic regime of the pro-Western Shah, she served as Minister of Women’s Affairs between 1976 and 1978.

After the revolution, she went into exile and now lives in America.

“I was one of the first groups that were charged with ‘corruption on earth’ and ‘warring with God'; I was on the blacklist and so I had to live in exile,” she told the BBC’s World Today programme.

But she had a luckier fate than her other former female cabinet colleague – Farrokhroo Parsa.

“She was executed. She happened to be in Iran at the time, and she was executed,” she says.

Farrokhroo Parsa, who had previously been Minister of Education, had been out of office for eight years when the revolution happened.

But like Mahnaz Afkhami, even out of office, she remained an outspoken campaigner for women’s rights in Iran.

It was a position that did not sit well with the new Islamic Republic’s more conservative elements.

“The women who participated in the revolution, and they did in large numbers, many of them were actually pushing for more rights, they were pushing for more freedoms, pushing for more equality,” Mahnaz Afkhami explains.

“That was why the disappointment was so great when the revolution ended up taking away the rights that they had already gained.”

Prostitution

After the Iranian revolution in 1979, many of the secular rights that women had being afforded under the Shah were abolished or rolled back.

An order was passed that laws that were in contravention of religious (or sharia) rules had to be revoked.

Islamic polygamy was instituted and, most visibly, the hijab head covering became mandatory in all public spaces.

Divorced fathers got automatic custody of older children, and a ban was introduced on appointment of women as judges.
Forrokhroo Parsa
Mass protests took place to stop the roll-back of rights – but women who took part in the protests, like Mrs Parsa, were seen as a threat by the Islamic Republic.

She was charged with prostitution and executed by firing squad on 8 May, 1980.

According to Ms Afkhami, the revolutionary spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomenei viewed all political participation by women as tantamount to prostitution.

“Prostitution was the code word for activism during the early part of the revolution,” says Ms Afkhami.

Three decades on, she says the role of women in the country has continued to be a source of internal conflict.

“For the last 30 years the women’s situation has been at the centre of dialogue in the country… their role, their position, what they wear, how they act.

“The amount of energy, time, resources that the Islamic Republic has spent simply on getting women’s scarves pulled to the right place and make-up off their faces, and the kind of energy that has been spent to keep men and women separate has been extraordinary.”

New generation

Despite the last three decade, Ms Afkhami is convinced however that Iranian women will eventually triumph.
Afkhami with members of an Iranian women
“I have no doubt that women are going to win, simply for the fact that the archaic ideology of the Islamic Republic is in effect, against history,” Ms Afkhami believes.

“History is moving in a different direction…people are aware of what’s happening around them, people are interacting with each other and their aspirations are somewhere else.”

But it is far from likely that the women named by Mr Ahmadinejad as potential cabinet ministers will be pushing an agenda favoured by Ms Afkhami.

Fatima Ajorlou, his choice for welfare and social security minister, and Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, health, and Sousan Keshavarz, education, are all considered to be hardline conservatives.

Their nominations will have to be approved by parliament before they can take office.

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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