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Women Inspiring Women

Tue, Jul 21, 2009

Press

Forbes / By Francesca Donner

When it comes to Muslim women’s rights, all eyes are on Iran.

More than a month has elapsed since Iran’s fated election and the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan, which stood out among countless others as a symbol of her country’s turmoil. But as the public protests continue, something big is going on behind the scenes: Women far beyond Iran’s borders are taking cues from one another and learning to become their own champions for change.

ForbesWoman sat down with Mahnaz Afkhami, a leading advocate of women’s rights in the Islamic world, to talk about what how Iranian women have become a model for many and what it is that Muslim women really want.

Born in Kerman, Iran, Afkhami now lives in exile in the U.S. She is founder and president of the Women’s Learning Partnership, executive director of the Foundation for Iranian Studies and former minister for women’s affairs in Iran. She serves on several advisory boards, and she is the author of numerous publications that have been distributed internationally.

Excerpts from her interview with ForbesWoman follow.

Is Iranian women’s prominence in the opposition movement being noticed by other women in the Middle East?

Yes. They have followed the movement in Iran very closely, especially the One Million Signatures Campaign that started out as an effort to reform family laws which involve every aspect of woman’s life–from her place of residence to freedom to travel, her right to marry, choose a partner, divorce, hold a job and keep guardianship of her children.

Similar reform effort in the late 1960s resulted in a very advanced set of family laws. What women have been working for is to regain some of the rights they fought for and won decades ago.

Ayatollah Khomeini rescinded the family laws as one of the first acts he ordered, which triggered the first massive demonstration by women. For the next 30 years, the battle continued.

So women who had supported the revolution in Iran quickly felt betrayed?

Yes. It was a very unhappy surprise to be pushed back after the revolution instead of gaining more freedom. It wasn’t only the women. The left, the intellectuals, the liberal elite and the international community had all been reading the [situation] wrong.

Khomeini talked about the dignity of the female body and all of this sounded in tune with women’s demands. Women mistook his intention as did the men, but the women realized it within less than a month [after Khomeini came into power].

Today’s Iran is a sophisticated civil society with archaic laws–including the segregation of public spaces, buses, schools, universities, classrooms, theaters–and a penal code which includes things like the stoning of adulterers, cutting off the hands of thieves, an eye for an eye literally–also forced veiling of women–hijab–and other laws such as polygyny [the marriage of one man to multiple wives] and men’s unilateral right to divorce, which go back to the Middle Ages.

On some of these areas, the government had to back down, such as on academic fields being closed to women and limiting women’s employment, but it made it difficult for women to work all the same by closing the child care centers, for example.

Do women in other Muslim-majority countries face similar treatment?

There are some similarities between aspects of family laws in Iran and those in other Middle Eastern countries.

In several, polygyny is legal, child custody rests with the male, women must gain permission to travel from their husband or father or a male relative before they can get a passport. In Pakistan, for example, Benazir Bhutto needed her husband’s permission before she could leave the country.

In most of these countries, there is conflict between the level of education and presence of women in socio-economic and political activity and their freedoms.

Are Iranian women an inspiration to women from other Muslim-majority countries?

Yes. Iranian’s efforts to mobilize within a closed society have been inspirational, especially their success in using Internet tools, creating Web sites in multiple languages and getting around the government’s attempts at censorship.

These women learn from each other: Twittering is going on across the world; messages are passed between people in Iran and those in exile. They look to each other for inspiration and innovative strategies.

On one hand, the Iranian women (and other Middle Eastern women) seem bold; on the other hand, they are oppressed. Which is it?

It’s complicated. In many Muslim-majority countries, women are extraordinarily active and involved in education. More than 60% of university students in Iran are women, and you have skilled women working, many in leadership positions. But you also have really strong conservative forces inside and outside government and a set of family laws that are archaic.

People in the West think all Muslim women are poor and downtrodden with no agency and no power. That’s far from the truth, although it is true that women face horrendous legal and cultural impediments.

What’s the situation like for women in countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan?

Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan are both backward in terms of women’s activism compared with Morocco, Jordan or Lebanon. The veil and gender segregation in both countries is compulsory by law and/or tradition.

In Afghanistan, there is so much destruction of infrastructure, and it has the lowest education and literacy rates for women. There is also the rising power of the Taliban–with philosophies similar to those of the governments in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

For women in Afghanistan, moving freely in the public space to go to work or go to the library or to school has become increasingly difficult. The vast majority are illiterate. Communication is weak. The roads are terrible. There is the problem of drugs and opium and the resurgence of Taliban. Afghan women’s eagerness to have communication through the Internet is interesting, for it is one way for them to escape segregated space.

Saudi Arabia is also highly segregated, but in some ways even more backward than Afghanistan and Iran. Women are not allowed any mobility in the public space. They can’t drive, for example. The country doesn’t have a constitution or a formulated set of civic laws, which most other Muslim-majority countries do have. They consider the Koran the constitution.

But it’s a very rich country and, unlike Afghanistan, has been able to educate large numbers of women in separate spheres. Women are trained for special services–female doctors and nurses for female patients for example–so there’s a population of educated women who have also benefited from the segregation in a way that Afghan women have not.

Perhaps because of this, Saudi Arabia does not have a large native population that is hungry for change. Labor comes from outside, and the more affluent Saudis and the elite are not vested in change in the same way some groups in Afghanistan are. Saudi Arabia’s elite are educated abroad and they live the double life, one within the confines of the home–dancing, listening to music, showing films–and the other on the street.

What are the changes most Muslim women want regardless of nationality?

The first is to reform family law. Morocco has been most successful here, using a holistic approach to lobby for change–an approach that includes positive interpretation of religious text, international documents, as well as research on the negative impact of laws condoning child marriage and polygyny on the well-being of society

The second is a nationality campaign based on the fact that women in most Muslim-majority countries don’t have the right to pass on their nationality to a husband who is a foreign national or to their child. This means the child doesn’t have access to government services such as education and health care.

The third is the elimination of discrimination against women. A lot of Muslim-majority countries–including Saudi Arabia–have ratified the U.N.’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), but they have done so with reservations, meaning it is ratified except in case of articles that are deemed to contradict Islam. Of course, it is the government which interprets Islam.

Where is all of this activism leading?

It is impossible to impose an archaic form of government on an aware and connected civil society, so within Iran, change and reform is inevitable. How and when is hard to predict, but these recent events have proven there are real divisions between the ruling elite. Fault lines have been exposed, and the government is paralyzed.

Something has broken, and that won’t be fixed without major alterations in the system. Women have borne the brunt of the oppression, having had their hard-won rights substantially reduced. That’s why women represent the main forces to mobilize in protests against the regime.

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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 – 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

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

Quotables – Muslim Women

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