tportal.tr/by Petra Sjaus
(Original article published in Croatian)
Mahnaz Afkhami is the founder and president of Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP). She is also the executive director of the Foundation for Iranian Studies and former minister of Women’s Affairs of Iran from 1977 to 1979; she was also the last woman in Iran at the ministerial function. She founded the Association of Iranian University Women and served as secretary general of the Women’s Organization of Iran prior to the Islamic revolution. Since 1979 she has been living in exile in the United States. She is the author of numerous books on women’s rights, and she’s been an advocate of women’s rights for more than three decades. Tportal got the chance to talk to her about the women who participated in the Arab Spring, women’s rights in Iran and the Islamic world in general.
How do you comment on the fact that Iran has banned women from running for president? Does that mean that the Guardian Council fears that a woman could actually win?
The Iranian government’s view of the role of women in society is clearly expressed in the use of the word “complementary,” meaning that women are not “equal” citizens but their role “complements” that of men. Therefore, a woman cannot be president. But neither can she be a judge, nor can she be a witness to a crime. A woman’s testimony is counted as half of a man’s. When two witnesses are needed, one man and two women will suffice. If no male witness is present then the two women’s witness will not count at all.
Iran is a society where women are generally subordinated. While you performed duties of the Minister, did you encounter any problems with authority, based on gender discrimination because you were a woman in a ‘male society on male function’? How different was the situation in the Shah era?
Iran, as all societies, developed–as well as developing–has a history of patriarchy and subordination of women. However, many societies have moved forward in this regard, especially in the previous century. Even though the culture of patriarchy was prevalent in Iran during the previous era, the thrust of government policy was toward modernity, progress, and development. To achieve these goals, it was understood that women’s participation is not only crucial, but indispensable. Although there was need to convince the policy makers concerning the role of women, it was not difficult. The Islamic Republic, however, shuns modernity, equating it with Westernization, and it does not believe in equality of all people regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or gender. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to lobby policy makers whose goal for the society is entirely different than the ones held by women and human rights activists.
Is women’s rights movement still present in Iran and how strong is it?
After the revolution, the first dictates of Ayatollah Khomeini were to negate the family status law and shortly after to establish gender apartheid in all public spaces such as classrooms, transportation and places of congregation. This before there was a constitution or a government. The women of Iran lost in a month nearly all the rights that it had taken them a century to achieve. Even though legally they were set back a hundred years, they continued to mobilize, organize, and struggle against all odds. They work successfully and brilliantly in the private sector and as artists, creators, scientists, and writers. They have organized successful network to campaign for family law reform and for reinstating other rights. Even though they are constantly harassed, oppressed, and imprisoned, they continue their struggle. Once an opening comes about, they will be ready to participate fully in building and developing their society.
Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, several laws based on gender discrimination were established, such as the introduction of mandatory veiling and public dress code of females. Some believe that Islamization has resulted in the ‘marginalizing’ of women. Others believe that through the dynamic nature of Sharia, a unique consciousness of feminism has been formed in Iran. What is your opinion?
The consciousness of feminism in Iran is a consequence of having a history of activism and organizing to look back to and to learn from. It is also a consequence of their contacts both digital, and in person, with women around the globe. Shari’a, as interpreted by the Islamic Republic is detrimental not only to feminism, but to human rights in general. No woman becomes a feminist if she is considered sub-human in the laws of her society. Polygamy, loss of the right to marry or divorce by her own will, or to hold a job or travel freely does not make women feminists. It makes them angry and rebellious which can end up in feminism but through reaction and rejection.
Widely accepted as the new universal reality in almost all educated and developed nations, women are marrying later and, as a result, are having fewer children as they pursue ambitious career goals and positions which deviate from the traditional domestic role. Does this ‘new reality’ exist in Iran among Iranian women?
Even though the minimum age of marriage is nine years in Iran, women, especially urban, educated women are marrying at an older age.
Women played a variety of roles in the Arab Spring, but its impact on women and their rights is unclear. From Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain, to Syria, to Yemen and Libya women from this region have made their presence a defining feature of the uprisings, but unfortunately the situation for women is worse since the uprisings. What did those women actually fight for?
Unfortunately, the visible and vital role of women in the uprisings did not result in an enhanced role for women. The pattern after the “Arab Spring” resembled very much the trajectory of the Iranian revolution, where liberal and progressive forces brought support and success to the uprisings but the better networked, resourced, and organized fundamentalist forces succeeded in taking over the governments. Women in Iran and in the Arab world sought progress, equality, and rights. But they did not have the organizational capacity and the resources to impact the political landscape. The story is not finished yet. They are honing their skills and working hard to build their capacity. Regressive forces simply cannot sustain themselves over time in this stage of human development.