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Sam Razi
Founder of Pressimus. Technologist that writes from time to time.
Sam Razi
A conversation with Dr. Nina Ansary about Iran's Women's Movement

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Sam Razi
Founder of Pressimus. Technologist that writes from time to time.

2015-07-12 16:18:20

Dr. Nina Ansary is a prominent scholar and historian who has recently published the preeminent book detailing the history of Iran's Women's Movement, Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of Women in Iran.

2015-07-12 16:15:25


The trailor for Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of Women in Iran:

I recently had the honor and opportunity to interview Dr. Ansary for INN, in Los Angeles.   I found her to be a strong yet very personable and passionate voice and advocate for the empowerment of Iranian women, and a pleasure to talk to and learn from about such an important topic.

Sam Razi: Today I am with scholar, historian, and expert on the Women's Movement in Iran, and author of "Jewels of Allah, The Untold Story of Women in Iran", Dr. Nina Ansary. Nina, thank you for taking the time to talk today.

Dr. Nina Ansary: Thank you for having me.

Sam Razi: It would be great to learn about your personal story. What led you to pursue your scholarly path? What led you to study and become an expert on the Women's Movement in Iran?

Dr. Nina Ansary: Sam, I left Iran when I was 12 years old at the onset of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. As such, much of my historical perspective came from friends, family and Western media. When I originally started my doctoral research on the history of the Women's Movement in Iran, what struck me as counter-intuitive in many ways, was the fact that women were one of the biggest supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini.

This baffling phenomenon was initially what prompted me to delve further into the history of the women's movement. In order to widen the scope of the narrative, one has to rewind to the very beginning for a more in-depth understanding of the social, political, and even cultural landscape of Iran's history.

Sam Razi: You had to go all the way back to the very beginning.

Dr. Nina Ansary: Yes. And more importantly you have to step back and take your own personal ideology out of the equation.

Sam Razi: So the Women's Movement of Iran today actually is influenced that far back.

Dr. Nina Ansary: Absolutely. The history of the Women's Movement in Iran, to say the least, is complex. Therefore, it's vital to explore all corners in order to gain a broader perspective of what has transpired. Iran has a convoluted political and social landscape to begin with. And so in many ways the history of women's rights winds through the maze of unexpected twists and turns within the labyrinth of this spectrum.

Sam Razi:
Tell me about your book.

Dr. Nina Ansary:
Jewels of Allah traces the ebb and flow of contradictory currents leading to a full-blown feminist movement in post-revolutionary Iran. The book is a tribute to and amplifies the voices of many powerful women throughout Iran's history. It also highlights the myriad of courageous woman in Iran today who fight an uphill battle aimed at reversing the discriminatory gender policies.

Iranian author Haideh Moghisi offers a brilliant rendition highlighting the tenacious resolve of women in post-revolutionary Iran. She states: "The Islamic Republic has not opened the gates...but that the women are jumping over the fences."

2015-07-12 15:27:32

(Haideh Moghisi)

An important component of this narrative includes shattering many of the stereotypical assumptions leading to misperceptions about women in Iran.

Today, Iran is distinguished by a highly educated female population, with women outnumbering men in higher education. Yet, the reality is that they continue to be routinely handicapped by societal restraints owed to antiquated notions and gender-related clichés perpetuated by the current ruling establishment.

Sam Razi: On the fact that women in Iran outnumber men in higher education, how did this happen, considering the phenomenon occurred after the 1979 revolution which imposed so many restrictions on women, and in many ways tried to relegate the role of women to the primarily within home.

Dr. Nina Ansary: Sam, Ayatollah Khomeini in fact championed the cause of education for all, including women. However, where it concerns the female population at large, education was primarily valued because as future mothers they would be vested with the proper knowledge for rearing a new generation who would be committed to perpetuating the ideological tenets of the Islamic Republic. With respect to higher education, in the early years of the revolution, women were banned from entering certain fields of study deemed incompatible with their role and responsibility within the framework of an Islamic society. However, over the years, they gradually gained access and have a presence in virtually all disciplines. On the other spectrum, imposition of the veil and the mandate for single-sex education at the primary and secondary levels was initially embraced by a majority of the traditional population, who entered the educational arena in droves due to a newly "chaste" atmosphere. Today, the majority of Iran's female population does not subscribe nor adhere to such notions. This is due to a combination of factors, including the power of education for a once illiterate segment, the phenomenon of social media and its borderless nature, compounded by the side effects of a restrictive and oppressive atmosphere.

Sam Razi: What opportunities are afforded to these highly educated women in Iran.

Dr. Nina Ansary: Despite the fact that the female population in Iran is highly educated, official statistics reflect a low number of women in the economic sector. The reasons for this range from cultural to legal barriers. Iran's patriarchal culture clings to and continues to promote gender-related clichés leading to impediments in the workplace to the point where women themselves choose not to enter the official workplace, preferring instead to work from the confines of their household. Recent studies indicate that a significant portion of Iran's unofficial economy consists of women's occupations carried out from their homes, such as tailoring, catering and handicrafts.

Sam Razi: Considering that prior to the revolution, women attending sporting events under the Pahlavi era was not frowned upon, at least from a governmental perspective, what do you make of these recent reforms? Do you think they are cosmetic?

Dr. Nina Ansary:
There is definitely an ongoing tug of war between the reformist, more moderate factions and the more extremist factions in the Islamic Republic. Take for example the reformist Presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997 -2005) where countless feminist publications were given licenses to publish. Or that in 2005 women were briefly permitted to enter stadiums to watch all-male volleyball games. These small gains were short-lived as many were reversed during the Presidency of Mahmud Ahmadinejad (2005 -2013). Today, the conflict continues between the current moderate President and the Supreme Leader, specifically where gender equality is concerned. An example of this is when President Rouhani stated: "that women should enjoy equal opportunities," and the Supreme Leader countered this rhetoric by branding gender equality as one of the Wests biggest mistakes.

Sam Razi: There was a period where Ahmadinejad apparently attempted to allow women back in, and then it was reversed upon him. So again that plays into the kind of Machiavellian back and forth.

Dr. Nina Ansary: You know Sam, that's a great point because when all is said an done, the Supreme Leader holds the reins and the President is in many ways handicapped by the ideology of a conservative leadership who cling and enforce their outdated notions.

In many ways it's like walking a tightrope - meaning a more moderate leader might want to implement certain changes but is routinely debilitated by the dictates of a conservative ruling body.

Sam Razi: Do you feel that the current international situation is opening up a space. By international situation, I mean that there are negotiations taking now place between the United States and Iran after 35 years of absolutely no communication, at least no public communications, maybe back channels, but even then very limited. Is that playing a part in this, and is that opening also kind of leading to some of the news we're seeing, like for instance, a few months ago they announced that there is a new female ambassador? Her name is Marzieh Arkham. She was the spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry until recently, and now she is being designated as the first female diplomat since the 1979 revolution. So are these things even partially a result of the opening taking place?

Dr. Nina Ansary: This question is two-fold. One part has to do with the recent appointment of Marzieh Arkham. How effective she can be in her role depends on how much free reign she is given. So that remains to be seen. The reality is that there are relatively few women in power positions, with limited "power" at best. A concrete example of this trend is the low number of women in the Parliament. Only 9 out of the 290 lawmakers are female. One cannot help but wonder is this more or less for the purpose of "window dressing" and providing minor concessions to a defiant female population who continue to prove their resilience and are relentless in their pursuit for freedom. Your other question regarding the negotiations is a complete blind spot and in many ways is a double-edged sword. Because on the one lifting of the sanctions will bring much needed economic relief to the citizens of Iran who have suffered needlessly through no fault of their own. On the other hand, would lifting of the sanctions ultimately translate into the opening of more spaces within Iranian society? What is obvious is that the issue of women's rights and human rights remains unresolved. However, I am cautiously optimistic that lifting the sanctions could potentially be the beginning of better things to come, including women's rights and more freedom for Iranians in general.

Sam Razi: Even though the regime is saying that the scope of this engagement is strictly with respect to the nuclear negotiations, the taboo has been broken of talks between the U.S. and Iran, and this is clearly having an impact in Iranian society. You saw people in the streets honking their horns celebrating the deal. So clearly there is a segment-I would think it's a broad segment-that's very happy about it and wants to see more than just nuclear talks.

Do you think, given that the Supreme Leader has said that these talks are contained strictly to the nuclear program, that they can contain a potential groundswell of desire from the people of Iran for further engagement?

Dr. Nina Ansary: This is a great question Sam because an important factor that comes into play with respect to this deal is the humanitarian aspect and the fact that it may have the potential to thread into other arenas such as bringing the citizens of Iran out of isolation and in the process providing much needed relief from economic hardships. The trespasses of the Islamic regime have had severe consequences and crippled the general population at large. What is most important to note, is that the people of Iran are not reflective of the current regime. In fact, from it. You mentioned there is so much joy. I believe that although one of the main factors fueling this elation is directly linked to economic relief, the other is the possibility of opening more doors into a world in which they have been routinely forbidden from entering.

So I hope that in many ways this is the beginning of opening the doors, but nevertheless, it takes one small door at a time. It would be most unrealistic to assume that we can open the floodgates immediately, but there can be the hope of eventually releasing the floodgates.

Sam Razi: It's an arc that seems to be headed in the direction of more openness.

Dr. Nina Ansary: Yes Sam. It certainly does seem that way.

Sam Razi: Well look, from the beginning of these talks they were kind of relegated as having a very low chance of success. You had conservatives in the United States and in Iran and in Israel and other countries all rooting against it. And look where we are now. They have a framework and so there is this momentum, and I'm with you in being very hopeful that it does go through. Because I think it will benefit not only Iranian people but it will also benefit the world to view Iran again differently, and outside of the lens of what has been projected since the revolution, which has been this kind of cut and dry thing.

Dr. Nina Ansary: Very true.

Sam Razi: Who are some of the women that are making a difference and having an impact today. That's a very broad question I know.

Dr. Nina Ansary: There are so many women who have and continue to make an impact. I would hate not to name them all, as they are all part of what that which collectively makes this movement so beautiful, despite all the hardship, unimaginable pain and suffering.

One of the women at the forefront of the women's rights movement in post-revolutionary Iran is Shahla Sherkat. Mrs Sherkat had the longest running feminist publication Zanan (Women) (1992 - 2008) which flourished during the reformist era, was shutdown during the Ahmadinejad Presidency, reinstated during President Rouhani under the banner of "Zanan-e-Emruz" (Today's Women), only to be recently shut down again after a short time in operation. Shahla Sherkat has been the recipient of numerous International journalism awards for not only her courage but for her ability to navigate the difficult waters.

There is also Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former Iranian President Rafsanjani who in recent years served six months in jail for her activities against the Islamic regime's discriminatory gender practices. Upon her release she stated that her incarceration has not and will not derail her from the task at hand. Ms. Hashemi had the first woman's newspaper in post-revolutionary Iran (Zan) (Woman). The paper was shut down in 1991 after only one year in operation for its satirical cartoon mocking The Islamic Retribution Laws ( laws in which women are relegated to an inferior position), as well as for publishing an interview with the former Empress of Iran, Farah Pahlavi, on the eve of the Persian New Year.

There are also many others including Noushin Ahmad-Khorasani, Parvin Ardalan, Bahareh Hedayat, and 28 year old Atena Farghadani who was recently given a 12.5 year jail sentence for her peaceful activism.

Sam Razi: One woman that also came to mind as you were talking is another person that was jailed until fairly recently, Nasrin Sotoudeh.

Dr. Nina Ansary: Yes, Nasrin Sotoudeh, the attorney. She is a phenomenal lady.

Sam Razi: You occasionally see on Twitter, postings where she's standing in front of I think the bar association in Iran, protesting the fact that they're not actually giving her a license to practice. Why do you think someone like Nasrin Sotoudeh is released-and she was released very close to the time of the current President Rouhani being elected-versus others still being held for lack of any objective reason, that are in the same sort of space. Why is she allowed to be free and to protest now.

Dr. Nina Ansary: This is a difficult question to navigate because one never really knows the underlying ulterior motive behind the current regime. What is indisputable is the fact that Nasrin Sotoudeh is a high profile individual who is a highly respected lawyer. These are some the factors that may have been taken into consideration. And as you allude, one should not discount the possibility that this may have also been a strategic motion on the part of the regime.

Sam Razi: So part of the reason why I ask the question is because it seems like women in Iran, like the ones you've mentioned, are testing those very boundaries. It seems there isn't always a clear definition as to what is allowed, what's not allowed. They're testing the boundaries either by their direct boldness or by indirectly stating something that challenges a taboo, or that steps across what would be conceived of as a red line even a few years ago and they're moving things forward?

Dr. Nina Ansary: I believe what is most remarkable about women in Iran is their fearlessness and their ongoing activism, despite the repercussions. Perhaps one of the boldest acts has been the reinterpretation of verses in the Koran used by the conservative establishment to justify the inferior position of women. In many ways highlighting the ambiguity of these passages shows that religion is able to evolve. This ideological leap of faith also allows the religious woman to maintain her religiosity while finding liberation from within the text itself.

Sam Razi: Are you aware of any cases within the judiciary where a law that is cut and dry, or the interpretation of it is cut and dry, and has been adjusted?

Dr. Nina Ansary: Over the years women's activism has yielded partial gains. For example, in 2008, the inheritance laws were amended, giving women the right to inherit their husband's property. Women were also granted the right to equal blood money, but only in accidents covered by insurance companies. Parliament also prevented the passage of laws enabling men to take additional wives without the consent of the first wife.

Sam Razi: It still seems that even though these steps are being taken that there is such a long way to go, just to get back the rights that women had prior to the revolution.

Dr. Nina Ansary:
I believe that this will continue to be an uphill battle as long as church and State continue to be intertwined. This is why the Pahlavi era brought much needed relief as this "marriage" was momentarily interrupted.

Sam Razi:
That's where it goes back to the beginning of our talk where you talked about how the women's movement is actually tied to so much history which goes back hundred and even thousands of years.

Dr. Nina Ansary: That is correct. There is an ebb and flow of contradictory trends in the history of Iran that vacillates between pockets of liberal and restrictive trends.

Sam Razi:
Back to your back, tell me about the title and the cover art, because it's actually very striking and quite provocative.

Dr. Nina Ansary: This book is based on my doctoral thesis written for Columbia University in 2013. I have re-written this manuscript is solely an homage to the Iranian woman who has struggled for centuries and continues to struggle against a discriminatory and irrational gender ideology imposed and justified by hardline conservative factions as the will of "Allah" (God in the Muslim world). The title is meant to convey that women, who have been ordained as inferior, are in fact the jewels of the Creator.

The cover is a painting by an Iranian gentleman who was born in Ahwaz, Iran in 1985. His name is Morteza Pourhosseini. He uses the canvas as a form of soft protest to showcase the oppression of women in the Islamic Republic. I explain the significance of this portrait in the book.

Sam Razi: And you bring up an interesting point. What are men doing inside of Iran? And don't limit it to just inside of Iran, but outside of Iran as well, in the expatriate community. What are men doing either directly or indirectly with respect to the women's movement.

Dr. Nina Ansary: Without a doubt, when you look at the overall picture, even among some of the most progressive nations, a crucial ingredient for women achieving full equality centers on the support of men. With respect to the women's movement in post-revolutionary Iran there have been many men ---- both religious as well as secular men contributing to women's ongoing struggle. I talk about some of these men extensively in the book.

Sam Razi: You had mentioned to me prior to this interview that you're in fact donating 100% of the proceeds of the sale of the book.

Dr. Nina Ansary: Yes, 100% of the proceedsfrom the sale of the book will be distributed among various charitable institutions and organizations with the primary recipient being the Omid Foundation; an organization which has been empowering girls and women in Iran for over a decade.

Sam Razi: Dr. Ansary, thank you for taking the time to do this interview.

Dr. Nina Ansary: Thank you very much Sam. It's always a pleasure talking to you, and I look forward to having many more conversations with you.

Sam Razi: Thank you, and likewise.

Pictures of some of the gems of Iran's Women's Movement

I asked Nina to provide just a few names of prominent women who she considers "gems" of Iran's Women's Movement.

Simin Behbahani (20 June 1927 - 19 August 2014)

The late Simin Behbahani is a prominent Iranian contemporary poet and activist.

2015-07-12 15:51:41

Noushin Ahmad-Khorasani

From her Wikipedia Page:

Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani is a notable Iranian journalist, women's rights activist and community activist. She is one of the founding members of the One Million Signatures campaign.She was also a founder of Women’s Cultural Center.

2015-07-12 15:56:58

Simin Daneshvar (April 1921 - 8 March 2012)

The late Simin Daneshvar is widely regarding as Iran's premier novelist.

A quote of Simin from 1941:

“I wish the world word was ruled by women, women who have given birth and know the value of what they have created”. 

2015-07-12 16:03:58

Shiva Nazar Ahari

Shiva Nazar Ahari is a prominent Iranian human rights activist and a founding member of the Committee of Human Rights Reporters.

A quote from Shiva:

"When your heart trembles for the right of another women, that is when you become the accused."

2015-07-12 16:07:00