Women’s Rights In Iran

Fri, Nov 27, 2009

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PRI’s The World / By Marco Werman

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Iran’s authorities recently confiscated Shirin Ebadi’s Nobel Peace prize medal. Activists say the move against the Iranian human rights lawyer exemplifies Tehran’s hostility toward women. Mahnaz Afkhami was the Minister for Women’s Affairs in Iran before the 1979 revolution. She now lives in Bethesda, Maryland. Afkhami wrote the foreword to a new book called Iranian Women’s One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality. Anchor Marco Werman talks with Afkhami about the women’s movement in Iran and the ‘One Million Signatures’ campaign.

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MARCO WERMAN: Iran has been acting provocatively in other ways. Authorities this month confiscated Shirin Ebadi’s Nobel Peace prize medal. Activists say the move against the Iranian human rights lawyer exemplifies Teheran’s hostility toward women. Mahnaz Afkhami was the Minister for Women’s Affairs in Iran before the 1979 Revolution. She now lives in Bethesda, Maryland. Afhkahmi wrote the forward to a new book called “Iranian Women’s One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality.” The book describes a drive to overturn Iran’s so-called family laws.

MAHNAZ AFKHAMI: Mainly the rights of women within the family from the right of a woman to marry without anyone’s permission, the right to divorce, the right to guardianship of children, the right to travel freely, the right to hold a job without her husband’s permission, a whole range of law. Actually, you know, it’s called family laws, but in effect this set of legislation controls all aspects of a woman’s life, woman’s worth as a citizen.

WERMAN: So to get a lot of signatures on a petition, you have to convince people that what you’re doing is right, and obviously this movement inside Iran has had to be very innovative. One thing that really caught my eye, and is innovative is this guerilla theater that the campaign has been conducting. Tell us about that.

AFKHAMI: Yes, actually what they want is not just one million names under a petition, but what they want is really to recruit one million activists. So this involves really convincing people, getting them mobilized. And so since they’re not allowed to gather in large numbers or hold workshops freely and that type of thing, so what they do is improvise. They have street theater for instance. At bus stops they begin a conversation between two of the campaign activists taking the two sides of an argument, and people gather around them and begin to participate in the argument. And then, before long the major issues of the legislation come under discussion by people who don’t even know they’re being part of the street theater. And it’s been said that in previous times police have come to stop what they consider an argument, and sometimes they have joined in the discussion and then the two people who started it get on the bus and leave. They do it in different places. You know, they do it in taxi cabs, beauty shops, in schools, wherever women gather.

WERMAN: So Ms. Afkhami, I mean, it’s a pretty radical program you’ve got going. We’re talking not just a simple petition here. Is that an especially toxic form of activism in Iran, and how have the authorities of the Islamic Revolution reacted to this?

AFKHAMI: Well, they haven’t liked it one bit actually, and what they haven’t liked also is the fact that the movement has grown to include other social justice movements. And this is something that very important. At least 30% of signatures on the campaign are from men and men are really very active in the campaign, and they take it on as their own aspiration and not just something that they’re supporting the women for. And that worries the authorities a great deal and, of course, you know, almost everyone who was one of the founders or leaders of the movement has been harassed, has been imprisoned, is in prison or has some kind of suspended sentence hanging over their heads.

WERMAN: You live here in the United States but the author of the book, “Campaign for Equality” Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani lives in Iran. Has she been able to be public about this book and this petition drive?

AFKHAMI: Yes, she has, as others do, a number of websites in constant interaction both in Iran and with the outside world, and she has that website. She has published the book in Persian, although surreptitiously without permission. And she asked to have the book publicized in the United States, and although we were all rather concerned about the backlash, they are very courageous women. They really know what dangers they face and, of course, that’s part of also being very young, and most of them are. Most of them are under the age of 30.

WERMAN: We should add that you’re in the United States because after the 1979 Revolution the Ayatollahs put you on their death list, and charged you with corruption on earth and warring with God. I supposed you’ve had quite a few years to think about what that actually means. What does warring with God mean?

AFKHAMI: Well, at first it was very frightening because at the beginning of the Revolution there was a lot of also state executions being conducted outside. The only other woman who was a minister was actually executed on these charges in Iran. At first, it was very frightening, but actually as time goes by I feel in such august company. All of my wonderful colleagues, democrats, freedom fighters, strugglers for human rights, all of them have something of that sort of a label attached to them. So I feel very proud to be in that company.

WERMAN: Mahnaz Afkhami was in charge of Women’s Affairs for the Iranian government before the Revolution. She’s now a proponent of women’s rights in the Islamic world. She spoke with us from the BBC studios in Washington.

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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