Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani’s Interview with Mahnaz Afkhami for The Feminist School, September 27, 2008
The Feminist School: In 1976, Mahnaz Afkhami was appointed Minister for Women’s Affairs, thus becoming the second woman to achieve cabinet position in Iran. Born in Kerman in 1941, Afkhami served as the Secretary General of the Women’s Organization of Iran ( WOI) for eight years,1970-1978. She is currently with Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace (WLP), of which she is founder-president. WLP was created in 1999 as a result of a series of discussions which began at the 1995 Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women. Mahnaz Afkhami is the author of numerous books and articles on women’s rights, including Toward a Compassionate Society, Women in Exile, Faith and Freedom, Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation, Women and the Law in Iran, and Claiming Our Rights: A Manual for Women’s Human Rights Education in Muslim Societies.
Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani: Recently, there has been widespread reaction in Iranian society in response to the Family Protection bill that was sent by the Ninth post-revolution Administration to the Majles-e Showra-ye Eslami (the Islamic Consultative Assembly or the Majles). As in all the laws currently in effect in Iran, at the root of this bill are the notions that “man is the head of the family,” “woman is the second sex,” and “women and children are the property of the men in the family.”
As we all know, in Iran, the systematic revision of family laws began in 1967, culminating in the ratification of the Family Protection Act, which underwent further changes in 1975 to conform better to the interests of women in the family. After the 1979 Revolution, the Family Protection Law was revoked. At the time, you were among those in the WOI who worked hard to bring about reform in the laws in favor of the rights of women. In your view, in relation to the status of women in society, how does the Family Protection bill currently under discussion in the Majles differ from the Family Protection Law of 1975?
Mahnaz Afkhami: The Family Protection Laws of 1967 and 1975 increased the minimum age of marriage to 18 for women and to 20 for men. The right to divorce that had been the monopoly of the husband was given to the courts, and, under similar circumstances, both men and women could ask the courts for divorce. Among the conditions on the basis of which either spouse could ask for divorce were: maltreatment of the other by either the husband or the wife; incurable disease; insanity; addiction; a prison sentence of more than five years; the wife’s refusal to submit [sexually] to her husband; and/or infertility of either the wife or the husband. The courts determined who would be given the custody of the child and whether it would be more beneficial for the child to live with the father or the mother. The amount of child support payments was determined by the courts. The father was responsible for providing support unless he was deemed financially incapable of doing so in which case the mother would be held responsible. The father was responsible for managing the finances of the child. However, after the father’s death, or in case of his inability to carry out his duties, the courts could appoint either the mother or the paternal grandfather as the child’s guardian. Prior to the ratification of the 1975 Family Protection Law, a man could marry four wives and have a large number of temporary marriages. However, as a result of this law, a man could marry a second wife only by permission of the courts and after obtaining the express consent of his first wife. Besides, it was necessary to provide a valid reason to the courts in order to obtain this permission. Concurrently, the wife was given the right to obtain a divorce from her husband in case he took a second wife: that is, his marrying a second wife constituted sufficient cause for divorce. Thus, polygamy was restricted to a man’s taking a second wife, solely with the permission of the first wife and by order of the court, and under specific and limited conditions. At the same time, certain features were incorporated in the Implementation protocol of the 1975 revision in order to ease its implementation for women. For example, the protocol determined that in cases when the husband failed to pay the alimony set by the court or failed to continue to pay after some time, unlike in the past, it would not be necessary for the wife to return to the court since the initial order would remain valid for follow-up.
By giving men unrestricted rights to polygamy and temporary marriage; eliminating prison sentences for men who do not register their marriage; denying women the right to divorce; taxing the mehriyeh (marriage portion payable to the wife) above the level considered customary by the government; appointing male judges only; and setting the onset of puberty as the minimum age for marriage, the law that is now before the Majles reinstates the primacy of men within the institution of family, reinforces patriarchal norms and by doing so takes us back at least half a century..
Noushin Ahmadi: What stages did the process of ratification of the Family Protection Act of 1967 and its 1975 revisions go through? In which arenas were most of the efforts toward the ratification of this law exerted and what were the main obstacles to their ratification? Also, what strategies did you and your colleagues employ to overcome obstacles?
Mahnaz Afkhami: I was not involved in the process of preparation of the 1967 bill. However, I had detailed discussion and exchange of views about the history and process leading to ratification of this bill with those involved, including Ms. Mehrangiz Dowlatshahi, president of the Jam’iyat-e Rah-e Now (Society for a New Path), who was a Majles representative at the time and who, as Iran’s first female ambassador, was subsequently appointed ambassador to Denmark. In her interview for our oral history project, Ms. Dowlatshahi provided a detailed explanation of the preparation of this bill. In that interview, she said it took three years of sustained activity and lobbying, including study, research, and exchange of ideas and debate with legal experts, judges, and female and male attorneys to prepare the draft and have it submitted to the Majles by 15 deputies as the rules required. Nonetheless, the bill met with fierce opposition in the Majles. The reasons for this opposition were mainly concern over possible incongruities between certain articles of the bill and Islamic Law, and especially the text of the Qur’an. It took some time for the bill to be reviewed and ultimately, with the cooperation of a number of legal experts and the more progressive members of the clergy, it was determined not to be in conflict with Islamic Law.
One reason for the anxiety surrounding the 1967 bill was that concurrently another bill on the same subject was submitted to the Senate by Senator Manouchehrian and signed by 15 senators. This was a much more progressive bill than the one proposed by the Majles representatives. Even before it was discussed in the Majles committee, the newspapers got hold of the text of the Senate bill–either by interviewing Senator Manouchehrian or through one of the committee members–and discussed some of its most salient features with a certain amount of exaggeration and misrepresentation. As a result, the more radical aspects of Ms. Manouchehrian’s proposed bill became a matter of widespread debate in the country’s print media and attracted considerable attention and caused much sensation. Some members of the clergy even spoke of denouncing Mrs. Manouchehrian as a heretic causing her to leave Tehran until the publicity, and the possible threat to her safety, subsided. One of the consequences of these actions and reactions was that the articles about polygamy and child custody were not addressed again until 1975.
Noushin Ahmadi: As you mentioned, the bill submitted by Mrs. Mehrangiz Manouchehrian was a more progressive bill. For example, that bill completely revoked the law about multiple wives and included many more progressive features than did the bill that later became the Family Protection Law of 1967. To explicate this question further, let me pose it this way: at the time, which obstacles led to your inability to make the complete revocation of the law permitting multiple wives the cornerstone of the Family Protection Law? In your view, were the demands of a sector of Iranian women as submitted by Mrs. Manouchehrian as an alternative bill premature and, therefore, unrealizable at the time, or were the people in general, or the powers that be, such as the clerical establishment or government officials, the obstacle? In any case, the outlook of some of the statesmen of the time was at times extremely traditional and patriarchal.
Mahnaz Afkhami: Senator Manouchehrian was my teacher and mentor. I shall never forget that the first time I went to the Senate as the WOI Secretary General, Senator Manouchehrian told my fortune by reading the signs in my down turned cup of Turkish coffee. She gave me her advice about what she felt I needed to know with considerable finesse, in the form of a narrative of foretelling my future rather than a direct statement. Prior to 1967 I was still a student in the United States but from what I saw years later in the course of the debate on the right of women to travel without permission of their husbands which was embedded in the passport bill, I surmise that the major hindrance was the method of submitting the bill. If issues had been discussed sufficiently and probable reactions of powerful and influential groups in society measured and evaluated, Senator Manouchehrian possibly would have been more successful with her bill. She was an appointed senator, respected and supported by the authorities, and entrusted with one of the most important political positions of the time. That she consistently held to her progressive ideals and objectives is admirable, but in politics, as in other endeavors, one must judge whether it is useful to attempt reforms that have a good chance to succeed and thus to improve women’s lives as much as possible or is it preferable to wait until the ideal becomes realizable. Another point to consider is that in every society different groups have different ideas, beliefs, and ways of thinking. Groups that strive to improve women’s lives need to do their best to get to the heart of the issues, inform others, strive to mobilize as many members of society as they can, and, ultimately, take part in political give and take and lobbying as much as they can as long as they do not vitiate their key objectives and fundamental principles. At least this was our thinking at the time.
Noushin Ahmadi: What were the reactions to the ratification of the Family Protection Law of different political parties and forces that were influential in Iranian society at the time of the Shah? What effect did these reactions have on advancing the movement, which were initiated by the elite, for the reexamination of family law? How do you think the various political forces could have acted so that more fundamental changes in all the laws—to the benefit of women—could take place?
Mahnaz Afkhami: As I mentioned before, the conservative clergy were vehemently opposed to our goals, not only because of religious concerns but also because they wished to preserve and increase the power and material advantages they gained by their involvement in the affairs of the family. The left attributed every step taken to better women’s lives to the Shah and considered it yet another symbol of his effort to present a progressive—but artificial—image of Iranian society. Then there were the obstacles posed by inflexible traditional elements, including the Bazaar and especially the more conservative clergy. Certain groups such as some of the more affluent women who had studied and lived in western societies disdained or undervalued anything local or originating in Iran, including an Iranian women’s movement. The foundation of all this was the patriarchal culture which permeated the thinking of the society, including that of many politicians and statesmen.
We must remember that Iran was a developing society and consider the historical obstacles confronting women in these societies. In early 20th Century, except for a very small number in the upper-class, Iranian women were for the most part without education or skills. They began to enter civil society about halfway into Reza Shah’s reign. It took many years before a small number of middle- and lower-class women received an education. When I was in the WOI, the number of women graduates of domestic and foreign universities who had entered the job market had just approached the critical mass to have a tangible influence on social movements. That means our movement as a mass movement had just begun when the Revolution took place. What was helpful to us was that the society was generally moving along the lines of development and modernity and the government was committed to change and progress. The prevailing atmosphere in society demanded a more open space where both men and women would have a presence and could declare their presence. We looked to a future that was to be very different from our past. In those days, it was rare to hear Iranians compare themselves with their neighboring countries. They tended to compare themselves with the world’s most advanced nations.
Noushin Ahmadi: Looking back, in which areas do you think you (as the head of WOI) and other organizations and structures involved in women’s issues should have been more active in order to solidify the Family Protection Law and bring about a more just attitude toward women. What were the impediments and what, in retrospect, do you believe should have been done that you were not able to achieve for whatever reason. In which areas do you now believe more work should have been done but was not and what do you really think were the reasons for these shortcomings?
Mahnaz Afkhami: In recent years I have tried to reexamine our work in the WOI. In retrospect I see that, without doubt, we made major mistakes in our work. At the same time, as concerns defending women’s rights, all in all the WOI’s record was positive. For example, the services offered at the WOI’s Welfare Centers served as a good vehicle for mobilizing large numbers of women, because it legitimized their leaving their homes and participating in group activities, which had a tangible impact on the lives of families. Printing simple pamphlets on the rights of women laborers, family laws, and the like, helped bring to women a greater awareness of legal issues. Functional literacy and life-long non-formal education programs that had just begun to be carried out throughout the country would have empowered women in the family and community throughout towns and villages. In the legal arena, our role in the reform of Article 179 of the Penal Code concerning honor killings, especially the methods we chose to research the texts of existing laws, disseminate information; elicit support of the decision-makers; and follow through with the various stages of changing the law served as a model for reforming laws in other countries in following decades. The research WOI conducted on honor killing in preparation for changing article 179 of the Penal Code was the first of its kind in the Middle East, later to be taken up by countries such as Brazil and Jordan. On these issues, we received help from international sources. For example, the information we received from Francoise Giroux, Minister of Women’s Affairs in France, on the revocation of an article similar to Iran’s Article 179 that had existed in France’s Civil and Penal Codes helped us elicit support in power centers in our own country. Perhaps our most important initiative in relation to the future was our preparation of the draft for the World Plan of Action that was ratified in 1975 during the United Nations’ First International Conference on Women in Mexico. This plan served as the basis for preparation and ratification of plans of action in member states of the United Nations, although Iran was the first to ratify a national plan and put it into practice.
In Iran, in the beginning, the draft National Plan of Action, based on the World Plan, was set forth, discussed, and debated in the WOI’s chapters throughout the country, in local councils, parent-teacher associations, and in provincial governors’ meetings. What was ultimately ratified by the cabinet was only a pale ghost of what we had initially prepared. However, the plan was approved and supported by the central government, influential local authorities, and women’s groups to a remarkable extent. The plan commissioned 12 ministries that were active in the fields of social, cultural, and economic development to keep track of the extent and quality of the increase in women’s participation in all development fields and report to the Minister of Women’s Affairs, who, on behalf of the Prime Minister, chaired the monthly meetings of the 12 ministries. This is the same concept that in the following decade was put forth as “mainstreaming” in the international arena. In terms of initiating, planning, and implementation, to this day, pre-revolutionary Iran remains the best example where mainstreaming came with a detailed strategy for action that enjoyed full support of both women’s and civil society groups and the government.
We also tried to learn from our mistakes. For example, when we sought to work on the passport law to change it in favor of women, I wrote an open letter to Mr. Sharif Emami, then President of the Senate, in which I expressed my opposition to the requirement in the law that to be able to travel abroad a woman must first obtain her husband’s permission. This letter landed on the front page of Etela`at (a major daily newspaper). Not only did the ensuing publicity in the press and elsewhere not help our cause, but it also aroused much opposition, probably exacerbating the conditions that later led to Senator Manouchehrian’s resignation. When Ms. Manouchehrian spoke against the bill in an open session in the Senate, Mr. Sharif Emami interrupted her in an insulting tone and, as a result, the senator resigned. Sharif Emami went to Mrs. Manouchehrian’s home and apologized, but she demanded a public apology. Sharif-Emami refused. Despite all our efforts to persuade Ms. Mancouchehrian not to leave the Senate, she did not rescind her resignation and we lost one of our two women senators and a great force for women’s rights. We learned from this experience. For example, we decided to disseminate the news of legalization of abortion– which made abortion legal by eliminating punitive measures against physicians performing the procedure–quietly and through internal memos disseminated by the Ministry of Health and the WOI.
Unfortunately, our success was akin to the success of the surgeon who said, “The operation was successful but the patient died.” Perhaps the reason for our failure was—more than any thing else—the weakness of the institutions of civil society along with the limitations on political participation that prevailed in Iran at the time, all of which rendered it difficult for various groups in society to participate and express their views. It is true that certain leftist and rightist fundamentalist groups strived to render the development plans, especially our programs, inoperative. Nonetheless, every one, including us (the WOI), should have learned how to talk to others, how to convince others, when to stand firm, and when to retreat against other points of view. We galloped forward with great speed and took advantage of the limitations faced by groups opposed to progress and gender equality. Our views prevailed then. Now, when I look back, 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. Among the Middles Eastern countries, we were trail blazers in the fight to secure women’s rights. We organized the first women’s film festival in the Middle East, the first women’s studies courses, the first National Plan of Action, the first study of the media to reform gender bias in presentation of women, and the first study of text books to change the prejudicial images and roles of women, among others. I am not sure what else we could have done that we did not do. But I can see very well how we might have implemented our plans more deliberately and on a more limited scale so that our fate and that of the country’s women would have turned out better than it did.
Noushin Ahmadi: We know that during Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign certain radical and totalitarian forces opposed legal reforms that would benefit women. Some are of the opinion that “the demands of women concerning the Family Protection Law were minimal.” Some of these people believe that maximal demands should be made so that minimal demands will be put into effect. In effect, with this method, they are saying that, if they oppose any reform and express maximal demands, that reform will come about. However, you seem to suggest that by taking a position against small changes we do not necessarily get more of our demands realized. Following your discussion, I may add, by way of example, that we (as a part of women’s movement) did not welcome the small reforms which took place during the reforms of the Sixth Majles. I justify this for myself in this way: at the time, we lacked the experience of a movement such as the “Campaign for One Million Signatures for Revoking Discriminatory Laws against Women” (the Campaign), and that, therefore, we were not able to produce a cohesive plan and therefore a cohesive, independent movement for bringing about the legal changes we sought. Whatever the reason, the result has been that not only have the small reforms introduced in the Sixth Majles not been implemented, but also that even the minimal reforms that were implemented are now rescinded or damaged. Consequently, today we are in a worse situation faced as we are with the Family Protection bill presented by the Ninth Government of the Islamic Republic. What I mean is that at least in the case of social movements whose aim is not to seize political power, perhaps we can move forward better and eventually accomplish more by welcoming small reforms, get them implemented, and then demand for more. It seems that the justification, advanced by certain political forces, for their extreme reactions to minimal reforms under various regimes (then or now), is that they oppose, on principle, any reform that might create “legitimacy” for the ruling regime in society because they consider the regime itself illegitimate. They are concerned not with change in the laws for the benefit of women but changing the ruling regime as a whole.
The same is true of the factions within the ruling regime: that is, in the recent two decades, due to their intensive political rivalry, instead of encouraging each other’s small and limited reforms, the various factions within the regime have negated and attacked them. If one faction wished to effect reforms, say, in women’s rights, the rival factions opposed such reforms for whatever reason and, in effect, did not wish that faction to gain more legitimacy by bringing about the said reforms. What I want to say is that these issues are related more to the political rivalry between the ruling regimes and the opposition or the political rivalry among the factions within the ruling regime and often are not related to the issue at hand. The result is that the Iranian women’s just demands are neglected or their realization is postponed. Still, fortunately, the women’s movement has tried to create an independent dialogue beyond the political and factional conflicts.
Regarding situations such as the above, given that during the rule of Mohammad Reza Shah you strived for reforms to realize women’s rights, what will your reaction be to any small reforms–for the benefit of women–brought about by the current ruling regime, a regime that seized power, in effect, by pushing you and your colleagues aside? Can you discuss an example of your reaction to, and your stand about events in the post-revolutionary period?
Mahnaz Afkhami: I support any reform that improves the condition of women, even if only in a small way. At the same time, I realize that social reform, especially regarding the role of women, is a complicated subject, which is affected by numerous and varied factors. Perhaps the most important of these is the level of awareness of the members of society of the individual rights of each and every other member of that society. The truth is that those who, in our time, opposed the Family Protection bill and who now present themselves as “seeking the maximum,” had a different goal in voicing their opposition. They would not have been satisfied with any legal reforms. Of course, these “opponents” of the Family Protection Law did not include just the “opposition to the ruling regime.” Some among them were active in various capacities in the media and within the government. On the day that the Family Protection Law was ratified, the reaction of one newspaper was: “Better pave the streets,” that is, whatever action was taken, and they would focus on some thing else, which had little to do with the subject at hand.
With respect to the current regime, my major problem is its perspective on women’s rights, which is the diametric opposite of the ideals that I have worked for throughout my entire life, ideals that with regards to women may be summarized as the sovereignty of the people and respect for the rights of each and every individual, with an emphasis on eradicating all discrimination against women. Of course, whenever a step is taken toward improving the situation of women, I am in support of it. For instance, in the early years after the revolution, women were deprived of the right to pursue numerous fields of study and the right to be employed in fields related to these studies, but later, as a result of women’s strong resistance and the increasing need for their skills nationally, the regime retreated. I have discussed and admired this victory of women at every opportunity. I consider the increase in women’s participation at all levels of higher education a source of personal pride. I consider the regime’s retreat in the matter of women’s political participation—which at one point it called tantamount to prostitution—an extremely positive point. Under the current conditions, I consider the linking of the mehriyeh with inflation a help for women. Also, although payment for women’s house work during marriage (ojrat-ol-mesl) is an indication of low esteem for women’s contribution to the economic well being of the family, I approve of it because in the short term it benefits some women. Unfortunately, such examples are rare. When the minimum legal age for marriage is raised from nine to 13, and even then under certain conditions, or the blood money paid in the case of death of a woman is made equal to that of a man only in cases of accidents when women and men have paid identical insurance premiums, there is still such extensive breaches of the rights of women and children that it is impossible to applaud these measures.
Interestingly, some of the laws and regulations that we succeeded in passing with great effort have been reinstated by the current regime for completely different reasons than we had intended. For example, we worked for a package of laws intended to provide opportunities for full participation of women in the work force. These included creation of child care centers at the work place, including in government offices and factories, provision of part time work with full time benefits for working mothers up to the child’s third year and extension of paid maternity leave to seven months. Our goal was to ensure that along with job security women were also able to take care of their children. The stated goal of the government being to encourage women to take on the primary role of mother and house wife, it seems that provision of part time work is intended to limit women’s employment and especially their ability to reach decision-making positions.
Noushin Ahmadi: Based on my readings, I can say that the efforts and accomplishments of the WOI in connection with women in Iran at that time are quite remarkable. In terms of management and accomplishments, the WOI has been unique in that, either before or after it, such a phenomenon rarely has been seen in our country. In any case, at that time, the literate and educated women who were active in the field had a good knowledge of the world and were capable managers. But, in my opinion, one cannot ignore one of the WOI’s indefensible policies: that it tried to absorb into itself those who were independent activists in the women’s movement. While it is true that the WOI was well-positioned to bring about reform and acted quite effectively in matters related to women, it seems to me that its policy of amalgamating activists and independent groups, which had started during Reza Shah’s reign, was not a positive process. If this had not been the case, I believe that the WOI’s services could have become much more effective because support from the grassroots would provide added pressure exerted from below and would thus achieve more substantial reforms in the interest of women’s rights. Do you still believe that this was the right method or was such a policy imposed on you by the government institutions of that time?
Mahnaz Afkhami: I believe that attracting women to the common ideal of complete equality and full participation of women in society is an objective pursued by practically every women’s organization across the world. It is the goal the Campaign seems to be striving for also. On the other hand, women’s movements everywhere are faced with the challenge of attracting grassroots women because in most countries the masses do not have the same opportunities as groups that are better off economically. This means that their level of literacy and welfare, and the amount of free time at their disposal are more limited, and as a result, they lack the time, ability, and motivation necessary for joining movements that do not impact their lives in the short run. Therefore, the moving force for women’s movements around the world is still middle-class women who have the wherewithal to participate in such activities.
In response to the needs expressed by women from the less privileged classes, the WOI established Family Welfare Centers. At these centers, the WOI provided women with services such as teaching literacy and vocational training, along with child care, employment counseling, and legal advice. By attracting women to these centers, WOI not only helped empower them, but also provided them with an opportunity for consciousness-raising through dialogue and debate with other women. The WOI’s connection with the government was limited to grants in partial support for planning and implementation of the Family Welfare Centers project by the Plan and Budget Organization, the rest of which was covered by contributions from individual donations at each location.
I think a short explanation about the structure and method of operation of the WOI would provide a better understanding of the organization. A majority of the activists in the organization’s network throughout Iran were teachers, low-level government employees, or middle-class homemakers aged mostly from late twenties to late forties. They worked as volunteers and elected their own secretaries and heads of various committees. The secretaries participated in the Organization’s general assembly every year and elected the members of the central council. The central council held weekly meetings, in which members exchanged views and debated plans and activities and exercised oversight on all matters. Princess Ashraf was the WOI’s honorary President, who, in the first years during which I was secretary general, appointed six members of the organization’s central council of which the secretary general was one. This particular responsibility of Princess Ashraf’s was in contradiction with the internal democratic processes of the organization. She accepted my recommendation that all members of the central committee be elected by the general assembly. She explained that the appointment of half the members of the council was due to the fact that initially the general assembly tended not to elect any one from among the minorities and the academia. This was to ensure that the organization had the benefit of the views and capabilities of representatives from these groups. This is how a Zoroastrian (Farangis Yeganegi), a Bahai (Mehri Rasekh), and a Jewish woman (Shamsi Hekmat) as well as several university women came to hold leadership positions in the central council throughout WOI’s life span.
Regarding women’s associations and groups, when the WOI was established, many of the existing societies and associations, while keeping their board of directors, goals, and agenda, decided to become affiliates of the new organization. This affiliation was not a formal or structured one. Of course, everyone believed in the overall goal of “striving to advance the position of women.” However, in most cases, the affiliation with the WOI was limited to their use of the meeting halls and conference rooms of the organization or participation in WOI’s conferences. Several groups, such as Association of Women Lawyers, or Association of University Women decided not to join the WOI. However, their members cooperated with each other and with the WOI activists on various issues. For instance, when the draft Family Protection bill was being prepared, women lawyers rallied all their energy in support of this effort and provided assistance wholeheartedly. Of course, women who were members of radical political organizations whose goal was to overthrow the regime were barred from forming groups and being active. As a result, members of the cherikhaye fadaye or Mojahedin or members of the Tudeh Party, for example, did not have a presence on the civic scene.
One of our major mistakes was that, in our enthusiasm to reach our goals, we continuously attributed the successes we had achieved with hard work, through our own initiatives, actions and decisions to Princess Ashraf or the Shah, thinking that this would keep opponents of the women’s movement at bay. This policy facilitated the work of the organization but it conveyed a false impression, which has been used constantly by our critics. Unfortunately, at this point, it is futile to say “we made a great mistake,” given that that part of the history of the women’s movement was halted in 1979 and no traces of it remain. I must, however, say that during the entire period I served as the Organization’s secretary general (two-third of the life of the WOI), save for one occasion, not once did any one, either the Shah or Princess Ashraf, or any one in the government put any pressure on the Organization or dictate an agenda to us. That one time was when we received a message from the Shah concerning our upcoming legal seminar, warning us that subjects that are clearly in contradiction to the text of the Qur’an, especially inheritance, should not be debated.
Unfortunately, in reexamining the past, it has become common practice to attribute every thing to the Shah and the government. Opponents contend that the Shah did very little and that what little he did was bad, whereas those who agree say that the Shah handed every thing over to women on a silver platter. The effect of this approach is that it makes us see the ability to discern and to make decisions somewhere other than in women themselves and, as a result, we deny women’s agency, and render ourselves helpless and weak. Not only is this in conflict with reality, but it is also damaging to the women’s movement…
I personally believed that, with all its problems in the political arena, the previous regime’s view of women was one within the general framework of which it was possible to do productive work and bring about positive change. This means that it believed in modernity, progress, and development. Therefore, if we discussed women’s emancipation and equality within this context and related it to the advancement of these goals, no one pestered us, except in the case of matters related to the family, about which, despite the regime’s outlook, the prevailing patriarchal culture was particularly sensitive. After four decades, this issue still creates the greatest resistance to change not only for women in Iran, but also in the majority of our neighboring countries. It is clear that a general difference exists between the previous regime and the prevailing conditions in the country today. In the past, progress in the arena of women’s equality was considered a point of pride. Today, movement in a direction diametrically opposed to equality is considered grounds for gaining legitimacy and acceptability among domestic “insider” groups and among certain powers in the region. Iranian women’s struggle for freedom and equality today is clearly taking place under conditions that are much more difficult than before. Not only is this struggle deserving of the admiration of the international community, it is also morally incumbent upon every one to support it with all his or her strength.
Noushin Ahmadi: Mrs. Afkhami, in my interviews with some women who were active in the WOI in the past, one problem which every one has pointed out has been that, at one time, Mohammad Reza Shah issued a manifest saying that every one must join the Rastakhiz (Resurrection) Party and that this manifest was announced to all members of the WOI. The majority of those I have spoken with expressed unhappiness about having had to join the Resurrection Party, and it seemed to me that, on the whole, the announcement of the issuing of this manifest led to a sort of disappointment in action and a lowering of energy. In fact, their complaint was that they did not consider themselves political and that they cooperated with the WOI for the sake of the charity work done for the benefit of women and children and did not like to enter the arena of party politics. I mentioned this example as a preamble to the following question: in your opinion, had the WOI been a completely independent organization that did not seek to benefit from the government grants (i.e., in the case of the above-mentioned Welfare Centers), could it not have had a more positive effect? By way of an example, let us compare the WOI with the Association of Women Lawyers, established by Mrs. Manouchehrian. The Association of Women Lawyers was able to have a presence even after the Revolution and took a stance in the case of revocation of the Family Protection Act. However, the number of such independent associations was small and, at the time of the Revolution, women’s associations were affiliated either with the political parties or with the previous regime (in both of which cases they had more political encounters than if they had acted from the specific angle of “women’s interests”). As a result, the fundamental problem faced in the first post-revolutionary years was that there were very few independent women’s associations that could look after women’s interests. Given that despite its many accomplishments, the WOI (which was close to the regime) was completely disbanded after the Revolution (due to the said closeness), don’t you think that, no matter what the circumstances, preserving the complete independence of women’s groups from ruling regimes (whatever form or shape they may take) could be to the advantage of women’s movement in the long term or do you still believe that, in order to have widespread effect, such groups must become close to the governments and factions, otherwise nothing can be done to benefit women?
Mahnaz Afkhami: The activities of the members of the WOI in the Resurrection Party were the result of the understanding that a small number of my colleagues and I had about the issue of women, power, and politics. The majority of the members were opposed to joining the Party and, as some of them told you, they were more eager to do charity work. However, I was of the opinion that fundamental change in the underlying structures of society for the benefit of women will not be possible except through access to decision-making positions. One can safely say that this is now generally accepted in the women’s rights movements internationally. My mistake was not about women and power, but that I thought the Resurrection Party, which had been ill-conceived and which became operational in an even worse way, could be a suitable venue for the empowerment of women and could help ensure their presence and participation in the political arena.
Several of my colleagues and I succeeded in convincing the others, as well. However, it can be said that almost all of us became active in the Resurrection Party reluctantly. No one had sent us a manifest and/or an order. Becoming active in the Party was our very own mistake and it definitely was not related to the grant for the Welfare Centers. As regards the independence of women’s associations and organizations, I believe that women’s groups should operate independently of governments or political parties and that they should make their belief in equality and full participation of women the cornerstone of their activities, separate from their political inclinations or affiliations. However, we must not forget that the contexts and conditions are different at various juncture in history and we need to make the utmost use of openings and opportunities available in each specific period. For instance, teaching and learning political leadership, adopting successful methods of communicating with the grassroots, ways of shaping and disseminating effective messages, establishing dialogue and exchange with diverse groups are necessary to create conditions suitable for women gaining political power, and political power is a prerequisite for legislative reform and other structural changes that determine the status of women in society.
Of course, within this framework, various groups play different roles. Some mobilize women to pressure governments and force them to reform and change. Other groups strive from within the government and other power centers, and still others serve as liaisons between large numbers of women and the political elite. What we have learned in the international women’s movement in recent years is that, in order to change the conditions of our societies, we must seek not only 50/50 participation of men and women, but we must also change the concept of leadership so that we can realize and mobilize the talents and resources of every individual in making decisions. We must strive for a truly participatory, non-hierarchical, and communicative leadership concept. My organization, Women’s Learning Partnership, works with twenty partner organizations in four regions of the world using such a leadership curriculum that is now adapted and translated in seventeen languages.
As to how the WOI could have survived after the Revolution, I believe that under no circumstances and with no amount of change could either the organization or its work have survived under the conditions that prevailed after the Revolution–unless it were to change its main ideal, which was the equality of men and women. The Revolution brought a fundamental change in the overall perspective of the political forces, at the center of which was distancing women from civic scene and forcing them to return to the confines of the home. The WOI could not have survived in such an atmosphere. Nor could the atmosphere that came about tolerate the WOI. It was the start, continuation, and widespread growth of women’s resistance in the face of enormous restrictions that brought about a gradual change over at least two decades that has made it possible for activities such as those of the Association of Women Lawyers or the existing campaigns to be taken place.
Noushin Ahmadi: You mentioned the progressive clergy in connection with the process of the ratification of the Family Protection Act. It was really interesting for me to hear you say that, at the time of the conference of the WOI, Mohammad Reza Shah personally sent you the message that subjects that may contradict clearly the text of the Qur’an should not be broached. But in the last year, during the Seventh Session of Majles, the subject of changing the law in the case of women inheriting from their husbands was debated and even the fundamentalist women representatives in the Majles became involved in this debate. Given these discussions, I would like to ask you if, in your opinion, securing women’s rights does not contradict the basic tenets of Islam.
Mahnaz Afkhami: In my opinion, women’s right as human right in essence does not contradict the principal dictates of any of the religions. At the base of these dictates is the pursuit of justice in human societies. However, in all religions there are texts which can be interpreted or paraphrased in such a way that they contradict universal human rights. I do not believe in Islamic Feminism. I think that, as a theoretical concept, feminism cannot be placed within the framework of any religion or belief system. However, one can find texts, dictates, and statements in all religions to validate and support liberty and equality. In addition, texts which have been interpreted negatively can be reconsidered in a positive light. Of course, the world’s one billion, two hundred million Muslims living under diverse socio-economic, political, and cultural conditions have come up with a variety of interpretations of religion and these have led to ratification of laws and creation of conditions for women that are vastly different. However, the important point is that, in democratic societies, issues related to legislation and governance are studied and decided upon separately from religious debates with the understanding that allowing a particular religion to rule societies that are undergoing transformations and becoming more pluralistic with every passing day is akin to depriving the followers of other religions of full participation in the social arena and violating the rights of others.
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