Remarks by Mahnaz Afkhami on behalf of the women and girls in Iran for the 2023 Atlantic Council Distinguished Leaders Award

On May 11, 2023, the Atlantic Council honored the courage of Iranian women and girls at the 2023 Distinguished Leadership Awards. A delegation of Iranian activists and scholars accepted the award on behalf of the women and girls in Iran. Actress and activist Nazanin Nour read the acceptance remarks written by WLP Founder and President, and Former Minister for Women’s Affairs in Iran, Mahnaz Afkhami at the awards celebration.

Good evening. Thank you, Atlantic Council, for the tremendous honor of this Leadership Award, representing the women and girls of Iran who are fighting for freedom and equality. Distinguished guests, it is a privilege for me to accept this award on behalf of the millions of mothers, sisters, and daughters in Iran who–at great personal risk–are pressing for a brighter future.

The seeds of Iranian women’s liberation were planted over a hundred years ago. In 1906, Iranian women took an active part in shaping the Constitutional Revolution that transformed governance and political participation in the country and in the region. Over the next seven decades, Iranian women helped move Iran to a democratic, participatory system that was inclusive of religious, political, socio-economic and other minorities. In 1963, Iranian women–many of whom were choosing to delay marriage, enter a profession, even attend college–were granted the right to vote.

In 1966, Iranian women successfully launched one of the most influential and powerful national women’s organizations in the world. The Women’s Organization of Iran would influence Iran’s leadership at the 1968 UN International Human Rights Conference and the establishment of INSTRAW, the UN’s Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women. In 1975, Iran passed the Family Protection Law, which remains to this day one of the most progressive and comprehensive in the Middle East and in much of the world. Among its reforms were women’s rights to divorce, guardianship of their children, and childcare for working women, among others.

In 1979, exactly two weeks after Khomeini came to power, his very first decree was to nullify the Family Protection Law. He then also banned women from many jobs and from obtaining college degrees in over forty disciplines, banned contraceptives, and brought back polygamy, forced veiling, and segregation of women and men.

To this day, the clerical leadership of the Islamic Republic has hinged on the repression of women. Time and again, the regime’s response to women’s calls for greater freedom has been swift and brutal. But the extraordinary women of Iran have persevered. From the One Million Signatures Campaign in 2006, where activists went door-to-door gathering signatures in favor of women’s equality, to later pushes for employment opportunities and fair elections, women have been in the vanguard demanding change.

Sparked this time by the senseless death of Mahsa Amini, calls for “Women, Life, Freedom” are still blazing across the nation. Today, women and men are marching side-by-side in support of a revolution that was launched by women and girls.

This is the first revolution in history to be initiated by women and supported by men. It is the result of the work of the thoughtful, dedicated women who a century ago were open to learning from each other and from the rest of the world about rights and freedoms and how to achieve them. Their history shows a worldview that is worthy of the fact that women are half of the world’s population and that they train and raise the children of both genders. Their unique success is based on a holistic approach that reflects the reality of the lives of the majority of the people of the world and that allows for dialogue and interactive decision making. The success of this revolution, which is modern in its goal and in its language, slogans, and approach, promises that with the expansion of communications technology, Iranian women’s latest struggle finally brings the promise of a truly global movement on which, at this moment of dire need of collective action, we can all agree.

As the protests in Iran continue, from a distance one day’s events can be hard to distinguish from those of the next. It is easy for the sacrifices of the protestors to disappear from the headlines. On their behalf, and on behalf of individuals fighting for freedom everywhere–including here in the United States–I implore you to continue your solidarity. I implore you to support democracy. I implore you to stay the course on equal rights for all. In doing so, you fuel the memory of Mahsa Amini and the continued dream of freedom and equality for Iranian women and girls.


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