Fatema and I began our work together in 1984 as contributors to Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology. She wrote the Morocco chapter and I, Iran’s. We stayed in touch through the Sisterhood Is Global Institute that Robin founded with the seventy writers of the book, but we did not meet in person until the MESA conference in 1993, where Miriam Cooke had organized the plenary on women’s human rights with Fatema, Nawal El Sadaawi, and me as speakers. Fatema and I immediately connected. We were similar in temperament and held shared views on status of Muslim women.
We regretted that there were so few Muslim women visible in international debates on the women’s movement. We found incomprehensible the nearly complete neglect of religion which to us was a powerful factor in shaping the values that impacted women’s lives. We also shared a love for music and dance. Fatema’s joy in life’s pleasures, large and small, affected those around her. I remember how she led our groups of mostly Middle Eastern women who gathered regularly to discuss MENA women’s issues—in impromptu singing and dancing, sometimes in public places such as restaurants. She loved making her own jewelry. She wore colorful, loose fitting chiffon vests on wool sweaters and long skirts or slacks. She gave me bright scarves and necklaces to counter my often dark, somber colored clothes.
I have fond memories of our first conference in September, 1994 on Religion, Culture, and Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World in Washington, DC, which Fatema helped conceptualize. I remember a long lunch at Sequoia in Georgetown overlooking the Potomac when she wondered at the size of the servings in America as we drank white wine and talked of many things, but came back to our work for and with women of our region. As I drove her home, I told her I planned an Anthology based on the papers of the conference focused on the themes we had discussed and would need one from her. “I have decided I will not do papers for anthologies,” she said. “But you must. You have to, as they say here, ‘put your money where your mouth is.’” She wondered over the expression for a while and tried it in French and Arabic and finally replied “o.k. ten pages.” “I need 20 pages,” I said, adding “do you see the pattern in this conversation—I mean ‘the haggling.’” “Yes,” she said. “In that spirit, we will settle for fifteen pages!” The conference was a great success and the book Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World was published in record time for the Beijing Conference the following year. The book launch brought together all the major figures in the women’s movement from around the world who were in Beijing for the conference. The year after Beijing we organized a conference at George Washington University on “Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation: Implementing the Beijing Platform for Action” that became another Anthology published by the second anniversary of the conference. In the interim Fatema published Dreams of Trespass and launched it in Washington. Principled as she was, she refused a full profile in The Washington Post because she wouldn’t be able to review the text and was, as we all are, afraid of misquotes.
Fatema thought of the US as the perfect place to have a secretariat for what became the Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP). “Whether we like it or not,” she said, “this is where the major media is and it is also, often unfortunately, where decisions are made that impact all our lives.” She cajoled, argued, and encouraged me to arrange meetings, press conferences, and briefings with significant women policy makers and reporters. I would’ve normally not followed that route. I wasn’t even sure I could make them happen. But she did push, and I did act, and they did happen. Our most pleasant and interesting meeting was with the then first lady Hillary Clinton in April, 1999. We did not know at the time that the two of us were the only guests at the White House. We were pleasantly surprised to also have with us her closest colleagues Melanne Verveer, her Chief of Staff, and Theresa Loar, Executive Director of the President’s Interagency Council for Women. The conversation was about our view of women’s status in the Muslim world. We communicated our views stressing the importance of separation of religion and state for development of both democracy and religion in Muslim societies as it has been in societies that have already gone through the secular phase. The first lady was positive, optimistic, and supportive. At the end she asked us an unexpected question. She wanted to know what we thought would be a good role for her after she is no longer first lady. There were rumors then about her running for the Senate. We suggested, maybe more bluntly than protocol required, if she wanted to eventually end up back where she was just then— in the White House– she should run for the Senate. If not, then we believed that the international women’s movement would benefit greatly from her support. When we walked out, Fatema said “you see, it’s not so hard. If you have something to say, there’s always someone who will listen.”
She was right. Over the years, many who had ignored culture and religion began to listen carefully. Emphasis on human rights based on an individual’s humanity rather than her other identities related to racial, gender, religion, nationality or any other category became the entry point for our theoretical context and strategic work. In effect we returned to the universality of rights expressed in the Declaration of Human Rights. This helped us point to the similarity of the condition of women within the family and in the community, in the private as well as the public sphere, and the structure of the relationships between men and women across the world and across history. We were able to emphasize the importance of solidarity across all divisions real and imagined to help us change what I called “the architecture of human relationships.”
Fatema was a solid friend, never ceasing to encourage, always ready to help. She made a point to validate my life choices as a Muslim woman fighting for women’s human right. I believed that women’s most powerful enemy was not the secular authoritarian government—not even the dictator. Our worst enemy formulated God into the conversation about the status of women to empower the patriarchy with the legitimacy of religion. The Western feminist movement had shed the “white woman’s burden” of raising the consciousness of women from the global south, but in the process had shifted into a cultural relativism that often condoned or tolerated any atrocity committed against women as culturally mandated and therefore somehow both inevitable and sacred. I appreciated the deep understanding, street smarts, and sophistication of Fatema’s worldview and welcomed her genuine respect and solidarity. It was refreshing to converse with someone who had lived religion and culture as a force that shaped society’s concept of a woman’s place yet realized the dynamic nature of these forces and their responsiveness to history and the changes it wrought in context and circumstance. Here was a woman who believed that social structures that have taken shape and self-sustained throughout history and around the globe will substantially change not by eloquent statements or passionate complaints only, but by a comprehensive collaborationamong activists, scholars, and policy makers across boundaries of nation, gender, religion, class and race. I believe she was instrumental in the emergence of a growing awareness of our issues.
Mahnaz Afkhami is founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership and Iran’s former Minister for Women’s Affairs (1975-1978)
Association for Middle East Women’s Studies Bulletin