Dr. Nina Ansary is a historian and expert in the women’s movement in Iran and one of the top social influencers on Iran. She is the author of the upcoming book, The Jewels of Allah (Revela Press/July 2015) which shatters the stereotypical assumptions about women in Iran and highlights the accomplishments and the powerful female voices in Iran’s past and present.
Dr. Ansary regularly contributes to the award-winning news website Womens ENews and serves on the Middle East Institute Advisory Board at Columbia University as well as on Columbia University’s Global Leadership Council. She is an active member of several national organizations dedicated to public policy, educational, charitable and gender-related causes. For more information, visit: www.ninaansary.com. She can be found on Twitter @drninaansary or on facebook.com/ninaansary.
She kindly agreed to speak with Clarion Project research fellow Elliot Friedland about the women's movement in Iran and the struggles that it faces.
Clarion Project: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, once said that gender equality is “one of the biggest mistakes of Western thought.” With an attitude like that coming from the top, how can a women’s rights movement succeed in Iran?
Dr. Nina Ansary: The road to equality for the women’s movement in Iran is one that is undoubtedly paved with tremendous obstacles. However, what is most important is the art of persistence and an ongoing activism demonstrating resilience despite the ongoing systematic and legalized gender discrimination.
For example, over the years, women’s reluctance to conform to the state’s traditional role – that of wife and mother, has manifested in different forms. In the three and a half decades since the Islamic Revolution, there has been an unprecedented surge in female literacy, with women outnumbering men in higher education. Furthermore, according to United Nations data, Iran has experienced a dramatic fertility decline, leading Ayatollah Khamenei to limit access to contraception and consider a ban on vasectomies to boost the birthrate. In this process, the divorce rate has climbed 3.4% over the last year alone. These are some of the tactics used by women as a means of maintaining some degree of autonomy in their lives, and in the process circumventing the regime’s effort to redirect them into the private domain.
Clarion: You have been outside Iran since 1979. How can the Iranian diaspora, combined with Western feminists support the feminist movement in Iran in an effective way? Has the Western feminist movement abandoned their sisters in non-Western countries?
Dr. Ansary: A crucial ingredient in supporting the women’s movement and their overall objectives is for the international community to actively engage in bringing much needed attention to the plight of women in Iran who continue to be handicapped by patriarchal laws. The regime has routinely attempted to silence this movement. Therefore, raising awareness and amassing support on the outside constitute important factors in this ongoing battle. In this scenario, Western feminists could be instrumental in not only giving their sisters in Iran a “voice,” but also in making a concerted effort to rally for support.
Clarion: Your upcoming book 'Jewels of Allah' is about the women’s movement in Iran. What were some of the things that you discovered when you started investigating? What surprised you?
Dr. Ansary: When I initially began my research, I was struck by the fact that women in Iran were one of the biggest supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini, and in fact a contributing factor to the collapse of the Pahlavi Monarchy. As an Iranian woman, this piece of information, was in and of itself most puzzling and in many ways counterintuitive, given that the Pahlavis were solely responsible for emancipating the Iranian woman after centuries of oppression. Most surprising, was discovering the myriad of bold, talented, and highly accomplished women in post-revolutionary Iran who despite all obstacles, continue to shine their bright light. The Jewels of Allah not only explores the failed gender ideology of the Islamic Republic, and the accomplishments of Iranian women in both present and past, but also exposes the concealed components leading to a feminist movement within a post-revolutionary patriarchal climate.
Clarion: You have said that the women’s movement is strong and flourishing. How can it flourish given the morality police and other ruthless state security apparatuses?
Dr. Ansary: The term “flourishing” is used as a means of showcasing that despite the barricades, women from all walks of life refuse to conform, and continue to forge ahead with an ongoing battle aimed at reversing the discriminatory laws. Just recently, Shahla Sherkat, one of the leading pioneers of the women’s rights movement in Iran, procured a license to re-launch her feminist publication, shut down by hardliners in 2008 after 16 years in operation. This revival marks a defining moment for the resurgence of women’s rights. In 2013, Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of Iran’s former President, served a 6 month prison sentence for her relentless criticism of the Islamic Republic’s gender practices. Upon her release, she made it very clear that she will not be deterred from the task at hand.
Many religious women have also resorted to re-interpreting passages in the Koran used by hardliners to justify their inferior position in society. Inarguably, their commitment and resolve remains fully intact. Having said this, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that even some of the most progressive Western nations have yet to achieve full equality. Just recently, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren made it known that “every single Republican in the U.S. Senate voted against equal pay for equal work for women.”
Clarion: British-Iranian citizen Ghoncheh Ghavami is currently incarcerated in Evin Prison for attempting to watch a male volleyball game. Are such forms of civil activism helpful in your opinion as they draw attention to the issue, or just a way for young women to end up arrested and in extreme danger?
Dr. Ansary: Although such forms of activism are undoubtedly dangerous and in some instances have serious consequences, they are crucial in bringing to the forefront the legal ramifications of women who are victimized and continue to pay a high price for the irrational premise of patriarchal laws. Ms. Ghavami’s brother brought much needed attention to his sister’s plight in a public statement made to the UK Foreign Office. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond additionally raised concerns about Ms. Ghavami’s incarceration with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif.
Clarion: During the protests surrounding the ‘Green Movement,’ rape was widely deployed by the Iranian police and Basij militia in order to intimidate and subdue the protests. Given the regime’s willingness to resort to such tactics how can protestors successfully agitate for change?
Dr. Ansary: Given such extreme tactics, it is virtually an uphill struggle to “successfully” bring about complete social change. Aside from the reprehensible acts of violence described above, we also cannot forget the courageous 26 year old Neda Agha Soltan, whose shooting death for peaceful protest during the Green Movement made her an iconic symbol of Iran’s struggle. Such shameful recorded images of human rights violations are undoubtedly ones that the regime would prefer remain behind closed doors. While bringing about social change is a monumental task, violence is never the answer, but it is important for the people of Iran not to surrender nor abandon their courageous stance in the face of adversity.
For more information on the situation faced by women in Iran and other human rights abuses committed by the regime, see Clarion Project's factsheet: Human Rights in Iran