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Iranian Women Bring Century of Activism to Protests

New America Media, Interview, Elena Shore Posted: Jul 03, 2009

Mahnaz Afkhami is founder and president of Women's Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), executive director of Foundation for Iranian Studies, and former Minister of State for Women's Affairs in Iran. Ms. Afkhami is also a Global Council member of the International Museum of Women. Born in Kerman, Iran, 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. In exile in the United States, Ms. Afkhami has been a leading advocate of women's rights for more than three decades.

Mahnaz Weve seen women at the forefront of the protests in Iran. Is this unusual in Iran?

You know, the Iranian women have about a century of activism behind them. Their first involvement in political events was at the beginning of the previous century, 1906, in the first revolution which was the Constitutional Revolution in Iran. They were very active working toward getting the right to vote in 1963. And then they organized again to change the family laws. They achieved a very progressive family law which gave them almost equal rights in these areas.

Of course they also demonstrated in the late 70s in massive numbers for the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Unfortunately, what they had thought would be a struggle for freedom and for democracy, brought about a government which was, in effect, the only theocracy in the world.

As soon as the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in February 1979, the first thing that he did, before there was even a new constitution, before there was a government, he nullified the family law that they had worked so hard to achieve. And he instituted gender apartheid, the segregation of men and women in public spaces. And he put in place obligatory veiling. The first massive demonstrations against the revolutionary regime were by women on March 8, 1979. So less than a month after the revolution, the women were the only, and the first, group to demonstrate against the limitations on their rights.

Has the womens vote been a factor in recent elections?

During the election of Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president, it was the vote of the women that brought him to power in 1997. Disappointed by his lack of success in bringing about change, they boycotted the next election which brought Ahmadinejad to power. This time, they prepared for the election, mobilized other groups, and not only participated but played a leading role in the process.

How have women responded since Ahmadinejad has been in office?

Since 2006, there has been a very systematic and concerted effort by the women to mobilize the masses. So when it came to the elections, they were able to be the main force, actually the leading force, in mobilizing people. And of course that was also greatly based on their use of the Internet and other social networking tools. There are probably more bloggers in Iran than in most other countries of the world.

Women were the main force behind the demonstrations. The others, in effect, followed the women.

How do Iranian women fare compared with women in other neighboring Arab countries?

In terms of their experience in organizing, civic activism, connectivity and use of modern vehicles of communication, I think theyre at the forefront of the womens movement in the Muslim-majority society. In terms of the laws that govern their lives, however, they have some of the most primitive laws.

For instance, the laws that govern womens lives in Iran right now allow polygamy almost an unlimited number of temporary wives, and four permanent wives. Divorce is a prerogative of the man. Guardianship of children is by the male members of the family. The minimum age of marriage is puberty, which was considered nine years old and now, provisionally, its been moved to 13. A woman who is getting married for the first time -- so is considered technically a virgin -- even if shes 60 years old, cannot get married without the permission of her father or her brother. And women dont have the right to travel without permission from their male guardian, whether its the husband or the father. Segregation in all public spaces and public transportation and obligatory veiling are the law of the land.

So, you see, legally, there are very few countries that match the limitations on women only perhaps Saudi Arabia and possibly Sudan are as backwards as Iran is. But thats the legal situation imposed by the government. At the level of civil society, women are in every area they are directing prize-winning films, they have businesses, they are members of Parliament. And, most importantly, more than 60 percent of the university students are women. Getting into the university requires passing a very difficult entrance examination. The men at the universities are in a minority, so much so that recently the government tried to have reverse affirmative action to make room for the men.

So if were just thinking of the women, they are among the most advanced, and if were thinking of the laws, they are least advanced. So we are faced with a sophisticated womens movement that had achieved considerable advancement facing a regression of their status after the revolution.

How do Iranian women feel about Ahmadinejad vs. Mousavi? Weve seen images of anti-Ahmadinejad protesters. Are there also conservative women participating in the protests?

Im sure there are some conservative women who consider certain positions by Ahmadinejad attractive to them. When you have someone who makes these populist statements Im for the poor, Im for the down-trodden, Im against foreign influence there are some groups of people who may be taken in by that. And he has also provided for certain groups. For instance, among the Basij, the paramilitary militia in Iran, there are people who are regularly paid by the government. Some say there are 12 million of these young men in Iran. Their families, who are getting paid by the government, would tend to be sympathetic.

But generally people are not. They are very unhappy with the regime, for the very fact that the regime is anti-historical. In todays world, you cant have segregation between men and women, especially when the women are so modern. Women cant go watch a soccer game unless its segregated, and since the stadium is not segregated, women cant go watch sports events.

So what do Iranian women think of Mousavi?

Mousavi was not the ideal candidate for the women either, because he also started with a background connected to the revolutionaries who instituted the Islamic Republic. But because of his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, whos a feisty, active, well-educated woman, and because of their own organizational skills and strong networks, the women were able to convince Mousavi to take on some of their positions.

Mousavi has agreed to ratify CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women). Mousavi has agreed to have as his goal the equality of men and women. So even though he was not the ideal candidate for women, they settled on him.

Was the role that his wife played in the elections something new in Iran?

In the Islamic Republic of the last 30 years, its totally new that a woman would go out and hold her husbands hand and do the modern kind of campaigning. Not only did she do that, but most people think that she was more progressive and more radical than her husband.

And there are other women who are members of the religious ruling class who have been very active and feminist in their aspirations. For instance, the daughter of Mr. Rafsanjani, the former president and one of the leading members of the clergy. Also Khomeinis granddaughter has been very outgoing and liberal in her statements. So many of the leading figures among the clergy have had wives and daughters who have been pro-womens rights. And that has helped bring in some of the traditional women.

How do you think women in the West and in other countries can help their counterparts in Iran?

One thing that has helped Iranian women is international and regional connection. My organization, Womens Learning Partnership, has been very involved in bringing that about. Three years ago, when the Iranian women started the 1 million signatures campaign to reform family laws, we helped them to get their message to other Middle Eastern countries and internationally.

That connection helped a great deal because whenever one of them was arrested, there were a lot of letters that pressured governments and the United Nations to intervene. It also provided an opportunity to learn from other women with similar challenges. For instance, the example of Moroccan women in the process of reforming their family laws was very helpful to the Iranians.

That solidarity and support and understanding is very important to Iranian women. Making their voices heard outside is extremely important. And it also brings them recognition, more self-confidence, and a feeling that theyre not alone and that theyre being understood and appreciated and heard.

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