As September ushered in the new 2030 Sustainable Development Goals—one of the goals being dedicated to Gender Equality, and nearly every other goal addressing gender issues within its domain—the focus of the Chapter’s quarterly meeting was to review the progression and progress of international conventions on the status of women. At our Chapter meeting on November 2, our guest speaker was Dr. Mahnaz Afkhami, President and CEO of the Women’s Learning Partnership and former Minister of Women’s Affairs of Iran. She is one of the pioneers of the women’s movement both in Iran and internationally. The title of her presentation was International Conventions on Women: Successes and Failures?
Dr. Afkhami shared with us her personal and rich journey since the late 1960s as a prominent protagonist of the women’s movement in Iran and of International Conventions on Women, through which she reflected on lessons learned. While everyone today is familiar with the set-back on the situation of women’s rights in Iran since the 1979 Revolution and in the Middle East since the 2011 Arab Spring, who knows that the Iranian women’s movement was actually at the vanguard of women’s rights movements which led to the landmark international conferences and conventions from Mexico in 1975 to Beijing in 1995?
As a young woman, Dr. Afkhami expected to dedicate her life to academia, teaching English literature in Iran, until she got involved with other young women at the University of Teheran. While influenced by women’s rights movements in the West, they aspired to define their own model of independence, autonomy, and rights in the male-dominated and largely Muslim society of Iran. Dr. Afkhami was elected Secretary General of the Women of Iran (WOI), an association founded in 1966 by a fivethousand member assembly, which had local offices throughout Iran, offering services focused on literacy, education, and skill-building. In that capacity, she traveled all over Iran for grassroots consultations with women. What did Iranian women want? They pursued four main objectives: economic empowerment, continued acquisition of skills and education, the control over their reproductive rights, and that Iran provide personal security and safety for women and children.
In parallel, Dr. Afkhami and her WOI-Board colleagues traveled extensively abroad to find out about various models of women’s movements that had sprung up all over the world. They then invited some of the leading women voices from the West—Betty Friedan, Kate Millet, Germaine Greer and Helvi Sipilä, UN’s first female Assistant Secretary General—to reflect on the results of these travels. Helvi was particularly impressed at the work being done in Iran and thought it could inspire others elsewhere. This seminal visit was used to mobilize support from the Iranian Government and for the Iranian delegation to be one of the major players at the UN Conference on Women in 1975 in Mexico City.
The Mexico City Conference was a landmark event for the women of Iran, as well as for women in the developing world. At the conference, there was a lot of ‘talking to ourselves’ as Dr. Afkhami recounted, but this was an important process. Such exchanges amongst the 700 women participating from around the world was necessary to raise awareness and to develop a common view on the way Page 19 Thematic Group Events December 2015 forward. The Iranian delegation played a major role. Using its grassroots approach, it helped define what became the World Plan of Action for the Implementation of the Objectives of the International Women’s Year.
The processes leading to the conference and developing the implementation action plan after the conference were most instrumental in raising awareness on women’s needs and potential contribution to the changing societies. The Center for Research on Women had been established, seminars were held on a wide range of subjects from legal rights and political participation to health, education, and employment. Iran became one of the major funders of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) Center for Women and Development.
Dr. Afkhami became Minister of Women’s Affairs at the end of 1975—one of two such female Ministers in the world at that time. The Mexico Conference was critical in crystallizing a strategic planning approach for women’s advancement between international and regional efforts, and the development of local infrastructures to reach out to and involve women. The conference also brought to bear the need for public support in order to create a major cultural change.
Twenty years later, the 1995 Beijing Conference gathered not 700 women, but 35,000 women. For those at the conference, it is remembered as an extraordinary event where waves of women surged on Beijing just like the rain poured day after day! Governments did such a great job in adopting the Beijing Platform of Action for Equality, Development and Peace that “we do not try to have another conference lest we would lose what was acquired at Beijing.” The tenets of the Beijing Platform underlie the Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015) on gender, and now the Sustainable Development Goals and Targets.
Looking ahead, the overall challenge is to reconstruct our 21st century society. Dr. Afkhami’s vision is that this can be achieved with both women and men bringing their views to the table. Under this umbrella, there are many challenges which were discussed with Dr. Afkhami: how to translate the new vision into action; how to expand the work on gender and include transgender and other groups into gender policies and actions; how to revise the concept of leadership; how to reach out to more traditional women who may not want to change; how to manage gender issues within a context of radicalization and politicization of religion; how to get more women into the political area as, other than in Scandinavia, the numbers are still very low; and how to progress more significantly on women’s economic empowerment.
Learning from history is important, hence the Oral History Project on which Dr. Afkhami is working through the Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP). Continuing to empower women with education, training, information is essential and is one of the WLP’s primary missions. Further references can be found in ‘Women and Girls Rising: Progress and Resistance around the World’, Routledge, 2016. Women’s Learning Partnership: http://www.learningpartnership.org. The website provides details on programs and publications.
Next meeting of the Gender and Development Chapter: First quarter of 2016. We will launch the previously announced 1818 Society Women on Boards Initiative. Stay tuned! For suggestions and comments, please contact: Nadereh Chamlou at Nchamlou@gmail.com, Dominique Lallement at email@example.com and Mark Blackden at firstname.lastname@example.org