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Radio Pooya Interview: Mahnaz Afkhami (In Persian with English transcript)

Wed, Dec 4, 2013

Audio, Featured, Multimedia, Persian, Press

Radio Pooya / By Shahrnush Parsipur

Listen to the interview 20131208_Radio Pooya Interview_Mahnaz_Afkhami

سرکار خانم افخمی
با سپاس از وقتی که به رادیو پویا دادید از طریق لینک زیر میتوانید گفتگویتان را با شهرنوش پارسی پور گوش کنید
این برنامه به مدت دوهفته در رادیو پویا پخش خواهد شد.
رادیوی ما بیش از 25000 شنونده دارد و بصورت کاملا مستقل براساس کارهای داوطلبانه همکاران ما تهیه میشود هزینه های این رادیو نیز بصورت شخصی (به دشواری )تهیه و پرداخت می شود ما علاقه فراوانی داریم تا در زمینه مسائل زنان برنامه های گوناگونی تهیه بکنیم زیرا معتقدیم کار فراوانی در این زمینه میشود انجام دادکه چنانچه در این زمینه مارا یاری کنید سپاس گذار خواهیم شد همینطور رادیوی ما نیاز مبرم مالی دارد تا بتواند روی پا بایستد در این زمینه هم اگر بتوانید از طریق سازمانهائی که در آن فعال هستید برای این رادیو بودجه اعانه ویا هرنوع کمک مالی دیگر فراهم کنید به پایداری یک کار فرهنگی کمک کرده اید

لینک گفتگوی شهرنوش با مهناز افخمی

با سپاس
وحید بدیعی
مدیر رادیو پو

English Transcript
Mahnaz Afkhami (née Ebrahimi) was born in 1941 in Kerman, Iran. Afkhami was educated in Europe and returned to Iran. She joined the Women’s Organization of Iran and then later became the general secretary of the organization. In last three years of the Shah’s reign she was appointed to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, but she left Iran before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. After leaving Iran, Afkhami began working with the Foundation for Iranian Studies. She founded Women’s Learning Partnership in 1995 in America. This NGO was founded after the World Conference on Women in Beijing, and has partnered with organizations in 20 different countries. Mahnaz Afkhami is the author of books and numerous articles on human rights, including Towards a Compassionate Society, Women in Exile, Faith and Freedom, Muslim Women’s Participation in Politics, Iranian Women’s Rights and Women’s Rights Education in the Islamic World.

Shahrnush (interviewer): Greetings Radio Pooya listeners! Today we are going to talk with Mrs. Mahnaz Afkhami. She was a high-ranking official of the Iranian government prior to the Islamic Revolution.

Hello Mrs. Mahnaz Afkhami.

Mahnaz: Hello Shahrnush.

Shahrnush: Could you please let us know where and when you were born?

Mahnaz: I was born in Kerman, Iran. My father was a landlord and as you know Kerman is famous for its pistachio nuts, cumin seeds and hand woven rugs. My family was mostly engaged in the production of pistachio nuts. My mother was a member of the Nafisi family who was known as being active in the fields of higher education and literature. We had a large and closely knit family. My grandmother had a more forceful character than my grandfather. In fact, she was the dominant member of our family. My uncles, aunts and their children were either living in the same house as we did or lived nearby. It looked as if whoever we saw was either a close or distant relative of ours. In my adolescence, however, wherever I lived I was far away from my family. I actually cherished the memories of my childhood when I was surrounded by my relatives and could rely on their support and feel their warmth.

Shahrnush: You were born at an interesting time, five years after the unveiling of women in Iran and during the Second World War. Do you have any memories of these events? What was the reaction of your family to the obligatory unveiling of women? How did they manage their lives during the war?

Mahnaz: I don’t have any memory from the war years because we barely saw or heard the scenes or sounds of military clashes. As to the unveiling, neither of my parent’s families did really care about Hijab. My grandmother, who was quite a liberated and independent lady had divorced my grandfather and eked a living by working as a tailor. She took charge of her own life and even renounced Islam and adopted Baha’i faith as her religion. This was a daring and perilous step to be taken at that time. But she must have had the courage of her conviction. In fact, I never saw her wear any kind of Hijab. My father’s family belonged to a mystic offshoot of Islam. They practiced their faith in a more liberal and flexible manner than most Muslims do these days. I think at that period religious practices were taken less rigidly than they are today, particularly in rural areas since women had to toil the farm lands. They mostly wore white chadors covered with colorful prints. As I said, my family did not have any problem with unveiling any way. But, later on I realized that some women with strong religious beliefs were quite disturbed by the unveiling order.

Shahrnush: Are you a member of the Sheikhi sect?

Mahnaz: Yes I am.

Shahrnush: What’s the difference between Sheikhis and Muslims?

Mahnaz: I did not understand the difference even when I asked my relatives.

Shahrnush: Have you ever had any interest in the Baha’i faith?

Mahnaz: Not really, even though my grandmother deeply believed in it. But, she never tried to persuade us to convert to Baha’ism. She didn’t even explain to us what it represented. She just had a prayer book in Persian which she read at night time. It surprised me to know that her prayer book was in Persian and our holy book, Qur’an in Arabic.

Shahrnush: Did you have your early education in Iran? And where did you continue it, in Europe or in the United States?

Mahnaz: At first, I enrolled in a Zoroastrian school which might have seemed a bit strange since we were followers of Sheikhi sect and my grandmother was a believer of Baha’ism. It was perhaps an indication of our family’s uncommon religious tolerance. The Zoroastrian School was a good one and was open to both Muslims and Zoroastrians. I had my primary school education in that school. I was eleven years old when my parents were divorced at which time I went to Tehran with my mother and grandmother. I attended Anooshiravan Dadgar high school for about 18 months following which I came to the United States with my mother. She sent me to live with the family of an American friend of hers so that getting to know the American culture and to learn English language would be easier for me. Later on, I was sent to Seattle, Washington to study in a school where I was the first foreign student and where all the students were white and Protestant.

My host family wanted me to learn English as soon as possible. This was not an easy task for me since I was only a 13 year old kid having come from another country with a completely different culture and way of life. However, when you go through difficult and at times painful experiences you learn a great deal about life and periods of adjustment. Years later, after Iran’s revolution the lessons that I had learned from my experience as a teenager helped me greatly in building my life again here in the United States.

Shahrnush: What did you do when you returned to Iran?

Mahnaz: You mean when I went back to Iran before the revolution?

Shahrnush: Yes.

Mahnaz: I was accepted in the Literature department of Melli University because I had studied English literature at the Colorado University. I taught English literature while my husband taught political science in the same university. My students were quite smart and attentive. I used the same books and reading materials which we used at Colorado University. At the time, male and female students were not separated in class rooms. I soon realized the enormity of the problems Iranian women faced even in those days. The books they were required to read in my English literature classes made them more aware of the restrictions and problems they were facing in their lives particularly in comparison to the lives of women in the advanced societies of the world.

It became quite clear to me that they liked to live the life of their counterparts in US and freely plan for their own future. But, they also wanted that freedom in an Iranian context. I mean they didn’t want to ignore their culture or become Americanized. They liked to find their own way to attain their freedom. I tried to help create a cohesive community of female students who could face the modern world and learn from it; how to learn to communicate with each other; how to express one’s inner feelings; and how to define one’s role in the modern world. Later on, we discussed other topics of interest such as pop music vs. old or classical music, poetry, art or religion. These were exciting times and the girls had become deeply absorbed in what they were doing and learning. Our interactions also altered my approach to women’s issues and women’s organization.

Princess Ashraf used to attend the annual sessions of the general assembly of the United Nations, as chair of Iran’s delegation. Ms. Rejali, who was secretary general of Iran’s Women Organization and taught psychology in Melli University, had told me that princess Ashraf, who is eager to see Iranian women play an active role in the United Nations, had decided to take two Iranian women activist to the United Nations as members of the Iranian delegation. Thus, Soheila Shahkar and I were selected, respectively, as the French speaking and English speaking spokespersons of the delegation. The following year when, for the second time, I came to the United States to attend the annual session of United Nations General Assembly, Princess Ashraf asked me to become the Secretary General of Iran’s Women’s Organization of which, she was the Honorary President. I thought a lot about it. My close relatives and friends, including my sister, all believed that I should not accept the offer and take up that responsibility. Nobody wanted me to quit my teaching position in the university and head the Women’s Organization. But, despite my lingering doubts, I decided to accept the challenge. In retrospect, I don’t have any regrets about my decision. Certainly, I missed teaching at the university but getting involved with women’s issues opened up new and exciting vistas for me and offered me tremendous opportunities to learn and to meet wonderful people. It enabled me to contribute to the advancement of women’s cause not only in Iran but also across the globe.

Shahrnush: What kind of activities did you undertake at Iran’s Women’s Organization?

Mahnaz: When I began my work I didn’t have any idea about women’s issues, so I tried to find out about our problems. For the first few months I spent most of my time to meet and get acquainted with as many women as possible. To learn more about women’s problems and conditions I traveled to various cities and villages, visited schools and even prisons. At first, I thought Iranian women wanted to change or amend the laws that restricted their rights and freedoms, such as the right of divorce or custody of the child. However, I realized that they did not fully understand the importance of these rights and freedoms and instead were more concerned about with other issues in their lives. For example, a female worker at an Isfahan factory asked me if she got divorced from her husband what could happen to her and her child. “How can I raise my child?” She asked, or “Do I have to go back to my father’s home after my divorce?” So, we realized that the most important issue for women is economic independence. As a result, we began to think about women’s education in general, and their access to technical skills, in particular. These were the essential elements that would empower them to manage their lives independently. We began by setting up a number of educational centers for women. Later on, we realized that some of the women who were holding jobs in private or public sector, needed to have access to daycare schools for their young children. So, we started building kindergartens. In the next phase, we launched a project for family planning and the ways to avoid unwanted pregnancies. However, it was difficult to overcome men’s opposition to the project since in Iran man is traditionally the dominant member of the family. So, we decided to educate and inform women about their rights and specially their right to independence.
Shahrnush: On the eve of the Islamic revolution, you were still holding your job as Secretary General of Iran’s Women Organization. Is that right?

Mahnaz: Yes, I was there until the end, we had built up our connections with some women movements in other countries too, since, among other things, the government was eager to maximize Iran’s prestige in the world. Furthermore, as activists for women’s rights, we wanted to have contact with, and be recognized by, women’s organizations in advanced countries. We believed our international contacts could also have positive effect on our activities at home. Our participation in the first UN Conference on Women in Mexico was quite successful. In fact, it was in this conference that we proposed the draft of the National Program for Action. We also offered to set up an international education center for women in Iran. Most importantly, Iran was selected to host the next UN women conference to be held five years later. As a result, all these activities laid the foundations for Iran becoming a country ready for research and planning on women issues.

A few months before the Islamic revolution, I traveled to the United States in order to finalize our agreement for the creation of an international education center in Iran. I, as the representative of Iran and Helvisipilä, Assistant-Secretary General of the United Nations, worked for nearly five weeks to draft an agreement. It was about the same time that I was advised by my relatives in Iran to remain in the US. They warned me that if I returned to Iran, I would risk going to prison in the final weeks of the Shah’s reign or face a worse fate after the victory of the Islamic revolution. I had already lost my ministerial position when Sharif Emami was appointed prime minister.

Shahrnush: Which ministry did you run?

Mahnaz: I held the portfolio of the Minister of Women’s Affairs. As you know, today there are more than a hundred ministers of women’s affairs in the world. At the time I held this position in Iran, I was the second Minister of Women’s Affairs in the world, second only to Françoise Giroud who was the first woman to hold this position in France. At the time, no one in Iran or anywhere else had any idea what exactly were the functions of a minister of women’s affairs. Were governments responsible for solving the problems of women who desired to be independent? On this issue, we helped enact a law which allowed for women to have a seven month leave of absence before and after a pregnancy. The law also required employers to set up daycare centers for the young children of women employees. It was also mandated that all proposed bills must first be reviewed and confirmed by the Women’s Organization before final approval by the parliament. For example, we insisted those women farmers, who played an important traditional role in rural areas, must also be trained to have a role in industrial farming; a training which was available exclusively, and unfairly, for men. Altogether, we were successful in implementing many of our projects thanks to the help of our friends and women activists.

Shahrnush: How did you pursue your goals after you decided to remain in the United States?

Mahnaz : I, managed, with the help of a few friends, to set up the Foundation for Iranian Studies in order to help preserve Iran’s cultural and artistic heritage. Perhaps, you remember that banning certain books was one of the main preoccupations of the government following the Islamic revolution. The ban covered the works of some of Iran’s classical and admired poets, such as Hafez and Ferdowsi. We were able to publish some of the banned books. We also published a number of educational texts for children. We have also sponsored annual Noruz lectures by prominent scholars in the field of Iranian studies. The oral history archive of the foundation has been one of its most successful an acclaimed projects.

Sometime later, I decided to pursue my lifelong interest in women’s issues and managed to set up a foundation for Women’s Learning Partnership in Rights, Development and Peace (WLP). Currently WLP is cooperating with 20 partners in 20 different countries in Asia, Middle East, South America and Africa. In these countries WLP is pursuing the same goals that we had in Iran, but using better and more advanced methods in 20 different languages. WLP’s main objective is teaching women how to gain independence, manage their lives and become leaders in their communities. It also offers women political education and skills training.
WLP is a successful organization and is doing better and better every day. Our 20 main partners are currently cooperating with 40 other women’s organizations. For example, WLP has a central office in Nigeria which is assisting similar organizations in a number of countries in Africa and Latin America, such as Brazil, whose official language is Portuguese. In the Middle East, our partners in Morocco also work with women organizations in Algeria and Tunisia. We also pursue the same approaches in Iran through internet and other social media. WLP also offers some E-courses in Persian. In a word, Shahrnush, we do everything we can to advance women’s causes across the globe.

Radio Pooya is a non-profit, community based and volunteer run radio station for the Iranian and Farsi speaking Community. The interviewer Shahrnush Parsipur is author of the novella Men Without Women.

رادیو پویا پژواک صدای من وتو
رادیو پویامکانی برای برخورد اندیشه ها
رادیو پویا فضائی آزاد براساس ارزشهای انسانی
رادیو پویا تریبون روشنفکران پارسی زبان

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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

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