Gender Apartheid, Cultural Relativism, and Women’s Human Rights in Muslim Societies

Author : Mahnaz Afkhami, Rutgers University Press

(An earlier version of this article, titled “Gender Apartheid and the Discourse of Relativity of Rights in Muslim Societies” appeared in Courtney W. Howland, ed., Religious Fundamentalisms and the Human Rights of Women (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999)).  I. Introduction In modern times, women have moved from the margins to the center of history playing increasingly important roles in families, communities, and states across the world. As women became increasingly aware and assertive, their demands for equality, participation, and access elicited reactions that range from curtailing their right to the privacy of their bodies and minds to policies that deny them experiences that are essential to their ability to compete in society. The infringement of women’s rights is usually exercised in the name of tradition, religion, social cohesion, morality, or some complex of transcendent values. Always, it is justified in the name of culture. Nowhere is this better demonstrated …

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Leadership and Learning Societies

Author : Mahnaz Afkhami with Ann Eisenberg and Haleh Vaziri, Women Learning Partnership

Most of us live in societies that are hierarchically organized and command-oriented. The locus of command may be home, community, the political arena, or the economy. The structure of command nurtures and is nurtured by a culture of obedience that at once sustains and camouflages a pecking order by producing a system of authority. The role of authority is to legitimize command relations by creating consent. In the absence of authority, everyone in the command relationship becomes a potential bully or wimp. This cannot be the ideal relationship we seek. Rather, we look to a different kind of society where men and women turn to one another not as objects in social functions, where one commands and the other obeys, but as genuine communicating beings. We look at leadership in a learning society as a means of nurturing genuine beings who look to one another for community and meaning. Yet …

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Harnessing Technology to Advance Women’s Human Rights

Author : Mahnaz Afkhami, The Global Fund for Women

The 21st century is ushering in rapid and unprecedented technology that offers women a range of new opportunities to shape the world in which we live. But these opportunities will enhance our lives only if we are prepared to take advantage of them. We are now in the midst of a communications revolution that is changing the nature of power. Modern communication has drastically reduced the size of the globe by practically overcoming the barriers of distance and time. Information technology has made communicating globally as easy as conversing locally, forcing governments and companies to further reorient themselves to the requirements of global competition. Nation states are being squeezed between the demands of global competition and the social needs of local populations. Globalization has already widened the gap separating the haves and have-nots everywhere. Unless we harness the evolving technology, the future, potentially bright, will descend darkly, without our knowledge, …

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At the Crossroads of Tradition & Modernity: Personal Reflection

Author : Mahnaz Afkhami, The Johns Hopkins University Press

I have spent most of my adult life defending and promoting women’s human rights. I came to this field through English literature, largely innocent of theories of feminism. By the time I encountered these theories formally in the 1970s as secretary general of the Women’s Organization of Iran (WOI), I had already experienced their essence in my contacts and conversations with my students from the English Literature classes at the National University of Iran. A good novel poses abiding issues, one can appropriate and contexualize-issues of individual space, of burden of choice, of the tension between authority and freedom. I found my students very interested in exploring these questions in the context of their own lives. They lived in a culture that was changing, a culture that was torn between tradition and modernity. My students experienced it in the form of a tension between their wish to make their own …

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A Vision of Gender in Culture

Author : Mahnaz Afkhami, World Bank

My task is to talk about a vision of gender in culture to an assembly that wishes to integrate culture in its policies to achieve sustainable development. The reason why the World Bank is interested in this proposition, I assume, is two-pronged: On one hand, you cannot have long-term sustainable development if half the population of the world is kept out of the developmental process. On the other hand, to achieve women’s participation in the development process, you need to consider the requirements of the prevailing culture. Women have been at once preservers and destroyers of culture. They preserve culture by transmitting it to new generations. They destroy it by seeking values, facts, and esthetic arrangements that correspond to their vision of a just and equitable society. In their acts of destruction, women seek to be creators of better cultural arrangements for everyone. In this process they try not to …

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Towards Global Feminism: A Muslim Perspective

Author : Mahnaz Afkhami, Spinifex Press

Waging their struggle in the colonial environment, Third World feminist thinkers have achieved a multicultural ethical and intellectual formation and a plethora of experience relevant to the development of an internationally valid and effective discourse addressing women’s condition on a global scale. The question is whether this foundation can become a springboard for a global discourse. By definition, such a discourse must transcend the boundaries of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, socialist, capitalist, or any other particular culture. It will be feminist rather than patriarchal, humane rather than ideological, balanced rather than extremist, critical as well as exhortatory.1 The global feminist discourse recognizes that the problem of women constitutes an issue in its own right, not as a subsidiary of other ideologies, no matter how structurally comprehensive or textually promising they might seem to be. It insists in relating concepts to the historical contexts in which they are embedded (see Delphy: …

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Resisting Fundamentalisms

Author : Mahnaz Afkhami, Canadian Human Rights Foundation

Fundamentalism is a militant reaction to modernism; that is, to changes that have come about as a result of the development of science and technology, secular­ization of social relations, and movement from collective to indi­vidual forms of identity and moral valuation. Fundamentalists are found in all societies and reli­gions. Their approach to religion is basically political because it manipulates religion in order to achieve specific social, cultural, and economic ends. The movement has exerted its influence in the West through­out the twentieth century, waxing and waning depending on the prevailing social and economic conditions. In recent years, for example, it has achieved renewed intensity in the United States. It has become particularly vocifer­ous in the Muslim world in the last quarter of a century partly because of the political, economic, and moral failure of the national­ist and socialist ideologies and partly because of the shortcomings of the ruling elite in …

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Rethinking Women’s Human Rights in the Middle East

Author : Mahnaz Afkhami, Kendall Hunt Publishing Company

I am privileged to speak here today, not only because it is an honor to be on the same forum with such distinguished colleagues, but also because of the issue that is the subject of the discus­sion. This, as I understand, is the first time that women’s human rights have been the subject of plenary discussion at MESA. MESA is crossing a threshold, taking up a topic that has already become, and which surely will remain, the test for all genuine discussions of human rights in this decade and into the years that will open the next century. It is equally important that this discourse concerns the condition of women in the Middle East, where the question of women’s human rights is bound to complex historical and intellec­tual foundations. During the time allotted to me, I wish to make the following points: 1) Women have been wronged everywhere since the …

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