Obama, Ahmadinejad, and the Women of Iran

Author : Mahnaz Afkhami, Women's Learning Partnership

This month, for the first time in 30 years, formal negotiations between the United States and Iran took place in a relatively positive atmosphere. As President Obama had promised during his campaign, dialogue took the place of diatribe. This is an important development.

Why now and why during the term of the holocaust-denying, US-bashing President Ahmadinejad? The reason lies not in the often tried and unsuccessful economic and military threats. Nor is it due simply to the president’s call for discussion. Every president since Jimmy Carter has attempted some sort of negotiation with Iran. For an explanation, we need to look at the extraordinary uprising of the Iranian people during and after the botched elections of last June.

Day after day, masses of women and men jammed the streets of Tehran and other cities. They shouted slogans from rooftops and braved the batons and bullets of government thugs, singing songs of freedom and equality. These events shook the foundations of the legitimacy of the Iranian regime and created serious fissures in the fabric of the governing elite. The power of the Iranian people on the streets forced the Ahmadinejad government into a negotiating position. This power was motivated and led mainly by women.

Iran is old in history but young at heart: more than half its 70 million people are under 30. Of Iran’s 3.5 million university students, 60 percent are women, and they are leaders of the current drive for a more participatory and open society. Inspired by their own past and by such momentous world events as the U.S. civil rights movement, Iranian women founded the One Million Signatures campaign in 2006 to demand an end to human rights abuses, especially discrimination against women. This campaign created the network of millions of men and women whose dignified, peaceful street protests against the hijacking of Iran’s election heralded a new era.

Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, a co-founder of One Million Signatures campaign now threatened with imprisonment, details these events in her new book, citing as the movement’s inspiration the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” She writes: “Learning to stop instinctive and violent reactions before they start may not be easy, but it is the historic and ethical duty of us all.”

Iranian women have been pressing hard for their rights, networking on the Internet with women from Morocco to Malaysia, learning from them and teaching them how to build successful grassroots drives for equality and progress. Not victims but freedom fighters, they know that only the power of the people will change cultures of violence into cultures of peace, bring women fully into the workplace and the political space, use the energy and creativity that their country so desperately needs and which an oppressive regime stifles.

The children of Iran’s 1979 revolution have matured into world citizens. They are familiar with other peoples’ experiences, including America’s. They know it from people-to-people exchanges of films, sports, music, academics, artists and writers as well as the Internet and other media. Significantly, they view President Obama’s rise to the White House as an attribute of America’s history–from its immigrant roots through the frontier can-do mentality and the democratic trials of the civil rights and womens’ movements. They appreciate the virtues of grassroots civic activism, tolerance of dissent, inclusion and nonviolence, and are receptive to messages supporting those values.

President Obama may have taken a political risk in engaging Iran in direct talks about its nuclear ambitions, and the recent tentative agreement could derail in any number of ways. But he has at his disposal a weapon that could be far more persuasive than economic or military saber-rattling. It is the appeal of America’s history and culture, embodied in his personal story. He should capitalize on this by insisting on respect for the human rights of Iranian women and men and supporting Iranians’ struggle for political rights. While he opens more venues for dialogue with the Iranian government, he should focus especially on the people and their aspirations. He could begin by citing the courage of Iran’s women as a model in the drive for U.S. ratification of CEDAW, the United Nations treaty on women’s rights, which was introduced in the U.S. Senate 29 years ago. Such a message–and congressional action on the treaty–would help women everywhere.

The United States will find it hard to withdraw from Afghanistan or Iraq while Iran remains a regional threat, but it is Iran’s people, and especially its activist women, who will determine how long that threat persists.