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Iranian Women's Rights: Interview with Soheila Vahdati

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I have known Soheila for the past few years through her writings and activism on Iranian women's rights. Her hard work, consistency and discipline combined with her passion and creativity as an activist and a writer continue to impress me. I finally asked her if I could conduct an interview with her via email. She answered 10 questions over a two month period (November-December 2007).

1. You have long been a women's rights activist working closely with the women's movement in Iran. Could you please state how you first got interested and stayed in touch with activists in Iran while living in Northern California?

My contact with Iranian women activists goes back to 2003, when I started writing for Women in Iran. The website was founded by Shadi Sadr and a group of women journalists and activists. Although it started mainly as a women's news site it had other sections such as "Tajrobeh haye zananeh" (Womanly Experiences) which was my favorite section and I started writing for it. At the time Faezeh Tabatabaei was in charge of the column and encouraged me to continue writing. Soon, I started writing articles for the site as well. Gradually through the internal blog and online discussions about the site, we got to know each other more closely. Later on, Asieh Amini became the editor of the site. In summer of 2006, I had a trip to Iran and met some of my colleagues face to face. Shortly after that, we started the Stop Stoning Forever campaign.

I should make a distinction here. I have been working closely with some of the women activists. I am not sure how close any of us can claim to be to the women's movement in Iran since the women's movement is massive and cannot yet be characterized.

2. Your column on "women's experiences" captured the imagination of many. You wrote about culturally sensitive issues such as women's and mental health in Persian. What other topics did you write about? Do you feel you have pioneered a new genre of writing? Lastly, why do you write in Persian?

I should confess that I started writing as a therapeutic way of self-discovery. I found that column a safe place that could hold my writing without judging it; it was a sort of sanity check! And posting it on the web allowed me to distance myself from my experiences and understand them better. To share some experience with others, you must first separate yourself from them to a certain degree. In a way, you grow out of your past by talking about it. I was amazed, and of course happy, to see how many other Iranian women shared the same experiences. (A collection of these writings in Persian can be found here)

I wrote about my feelings as a woman in a traditional setting in Iran. And when I wrote about my experience of having an abortion in the US, I explicitly illustrated how my upbringing in Iran shaped my experiences in the US. I think such writing is acknowledging who you are, accepting it, and then moving on.

I am not sure under what genre you could categorize my writing as, perhaps non-fiction?

I wrote in Farsi (Persian) because most of my feelings were related to the time I lived in Iran. It was not until I was done with most of those writings that I could consider myself an American and think about myself in English.

3. I was particularly thinking about the writings of Katha Pollitt and how your personal essays in Persian resemble hers.

"Stop Stoning Forever" is a campaign you launched with activists in Iran. Could you please elaborate on this campaign? What are your goals and how close have you come to achieving them?

Thank you for the compliment! I guess Katha Pollitt and I have at least two things in common: we are both feminists and write about our personal lives.

About the Stop Stoning Forever campaign, the goal of the campaign is to abolish stoning and save the lives of those sentenced to stoning in Iran. Stoning is the punishment that the Islamic Penal Code of Iran (article 83) has set for adultery; it is not a tradition in our culture. So far, the campaign has been relatively successful. Prior to this campaign, the term "stoning" (sangsaar) was censored in the Iranian media.

After the campaign started, the European officials objected to this practice during their face to face meetings with their Iranian peers. The Iranian officials chose to first deny it, and then decided to defend it but either way they had to react to the accusations. The result was that the media, covering the official's statements, had to mention it and stoning became an open issue to the public. Consequently, many prominent political and religious figures publicly announced their opposition to the practice of stoning and asked the state to ban it by law, including Ayatollah Montazeri, Ayatollah Sane'ei and Ayatollah Bojnordi.

Since the campaign started, one man has been stoned near the remote town of Takistan -- which was later announced by the judiciary a judge's mistake. At least one man and 3 women have been saved from stoning and we hope that the stoning sentence of the other 9 women convicted of adultery will be reversed, too.

The international community and women and human rights organizations have supported and helped the campaign tremendously. Amnesty International and Equality Now have been instrumental in spreading the word about the campaign by informing the European people and government authorities. Amnesty International in Spain alone collected more than half a million signatures in support of the campaign.

I should add here that the current Islamic Penal Code is temporary and the Iranian Judiciary is proposing a revised version to the parliament, in which we hope stoning is omitted. But we are afraid that adultery may remain a crime punishable by the death penalty. The text of the revised penal code is not open to the public yet.

(Here is more information on Stop Stoning Forever Campaign and the Persian version is here.)

4. I know that in the "One Million Signatures Campaign" to change the discriminatory laws towards women, the activists talk to people in the streets and also listen to their concerns and issues. Consequently, this campaign has attracted popular attention in Iran. What about strategies used in Stop Stoning Forever Campaign? How well do these campaigns work together and make coalitions with other existing social movements in Iran?

The most important issue for this campaign at the beginning was to inform the public that stoning - as archaic as it is - was being practiced as a legal form of punishment. The stoning of Mahboubeh M. and Abbas H. in Mashhad carried out in May 2006 were executed in a closed and guarded cemetery in the early morning. Asieh Amini, the investigative journalist who took a trip to Mashhad to find proof, had difficult time providing sufficient evidence to the public to support the campaign's claim about actual incidents of stoning by the state authorities. We believe there are very few people who would support stoning and perhaps that is why the state has been trying to keep it a secret and deny it in the international scene all together. A major success of the campaign has been getting the word out about this practice being current. The officials had to answer questions about it during their trips to Europe and so forth. In addition, the taboo of the word "sangsaar" (stoning) in the Iranian media was problematic; now the Iranian journalists follow stoning cases and the related laws closely.

The One Million Signature campaign has been very effective in mobilizing women, as well as men, against the misogynistic laws. And changing the discriminatory family law is something that can only be initiated from within the Iranian society. On the other hand, gross violations of human rights, such as stoning, which are a combination of the death penalty and the worst case of torture, are opposed vehemently by the international community. This is why the Stop Stoning Forever campaign has targeted as its audience the international community as much as the Iranian public. The international pressure could play an important role in stopping the practice of stoning and even changing the laws. We witnessed how the European community pressured the Iranian authorities to change the discriminatory penal code against the religious minorities and set an equal retribution sum "diyeh" for their bodily damages.

The main strategy of the Stop Stoning Forever campaign has been raising national and international awareness about stoning by providing accurate information in both Farsi and English. We have even translated to English the section of the Islamic laws and ordinances that pertains to stoning. The campaign has been repeatedly referred to by international human rights organizations as the credible source for information regarding stoning cases. This is because the campaign has the cooperation of volunteer lawyers in Iran who visit stoning victims in different towns and provide detailed information about their cases. The campaign volunteer translators help us translate this information into English. Once informed, the people will raise objections to this barbaric practice and the judiciary would have to stop the execution of the sentence, as we have seen in case of some victims saved from stoning.

I believe the two campaigns are in effect complimentary because most of the stoning victims are women, as a result of the unfair Family Law that allows child marriages, denies women the right to divorce and/or child custody, and considers a man the absolute owner of his wife's sexuality.

The Stop Stoning Forever campaign could join the other human rights movements and grow into a stronger anti-death penalty movement in Iran. There is always room to grow and more to learn.

5. Have the activists in the Stop Stoning Forever Campaign made successful transnational coalitions so far (could you pls name the organizations/movements that have supported the campaign? Are there other women's initiatives against stoning in countries -- Nigeria comes to my mind -- in which stoning is legal)? What could facilitate such ties?

One of the organizations that have actively supported the campaign is Amnesty International. They have published various statements regarding different cases of stoning and have been instrumental in relaying accurate and timely information that the campaign provided to the European officials, who in turn put pressure on their Iranian counterparts. In 2008, Amnesty is also planning an international campaign against stoning in Iran. Another organization that has similarly provided tremendous support for the campaign is Equality Now. Equality Now showcased Kobra Najjar as a victim of stoning and relayed campaign information to the UN officials.

We have wanted to get in touch with grassroots movements against stoning and honor killing in other countries, as well. Stoning is a form of honor killing that is sponsored and executed by the state. We were not able to identify similar groups or movements in other countries.

Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) recently had the idea that it could turn the Stop Stoning Forever campaign into an international campaign in Muslim countries. The Stop Stoning Forever campaign has been formed as a secular movement. WLUML's strategy is to promote women's rights in Muslim societies emphasizing that these rights are not contradictory to Islamic values. Abolishing stoning needs no Islamic justification in a country where many of its grand ayatollahs approve a ban on it. Stoning has no background in our history or culture and only came into practice by law after the Islamic revolution of 1979. The social, cultural, and political landscape in Iran is vastly different from any other Islamic country and a universal campaign strategy would not work. It would have been ideal if WLUML supported this campaign and helped grassroots movements and different groups from different countries join efforts together. However, two of the campaign members in Iran accepted the proposal by WLUML without even consulting the other three campaign members, including myself. Consequently, Shadi Sadr participated in a conference in Istanbul, Turkey on November 26, 2007, where WLUML announced the launch of an international campaign against stoning and killing women.

Stoning is codified in some countries but not practiced, as in Nigeria. It is practiced in some countries by people but it is not legal, like Iraq. Iran is the only country in which stoning is legally practiced by the state. This new international campaign in Muslim countries convolutes the issue of stoning by the state with honor killing by individual citizens. More importantly, the Islamic Republic of Iran is no longer the focused target of the international opposition to stoning: the issue of stoning is being discussed as a religious issue in Muslim countries rather than an urgent political issue in Iran.

As a result, The Stop Stoning Forever campaign has practically come to an impasse especially at the international level. You can read more about this campaign on WLUML website, www.wluml.org and www.stop-stoning.org.

6. In the past, Iranian women's movement(s) have been initiated by the elite women- either educated, wealthy or attached to the political system. To the contrary, these campaigns are grass-roots with transnational ties. In your view, what are the reasons behind such innovations in the strategies of women's movement in Iran today? Why are they facing imprisonment and even lashing?

The number of educated women in Iran is rising rapidly and these women have higher expectations of their lives than older generations. This is the age of information, which is the best side of globalization; women learn more and more about the rights they don't have through the Internet and TV satellites. And with many Iranian women activists and academics in diaspora there is a strong communication bridge between the women in Iran and the feminist movements in other countries.

With the current systematic abuse of women's rights, the grounds are ready for women's serious objection to the status quo and the time is ripe for organized movement. This is because women are especially unhappy about the Family Law and their lack of rights to divorce and child custody. The One Million Signature Campaign is successful because it is happening at the right time with the right strategy. The strategy is the result of experiences including trials and errors in the past. This campaign formulates core legal demands of women and is spreading among different factions of society in various cities in Iran. Demonstration is not used as a campaign tool. The campaign activists work persistently and avoid making noise in the streets. One strong point of this campaign is that it emphasizes on its non-political nature and states that its demands are not anti-religion. The activists have recently started low profile lobbying with some sources of religious and political powers as well.

This campaign is grassroots in the sense that these women, as you mentioned, have no ties to the political establishment or other sources of power in the society. It has the potential of growing into a widespread grassroots movement in the Iranian society and perhaps this is why the government is considering it a threat to its legal system. If women succeed to change the Islamic law of divorce, they can change the law of stoning, child custody, inheritance, and other laws that are designed to keep women under strict control of the men. Soon, women would be in control of their own bodies and sexualities and pose major issues to fundamentalism. Although many Muslims believe that women's rights are not contrary to Islamic rulings, fundamentalists believe otherwise and are trying to diminish it.

Another reason for the harsh treatment of women's rights activists is the current political condition. The US continues to threaten the state and sovereignty of Iran, and the government is doing its best to counter any possibility of uprising in case the US threats turn into action.

7. What has been the greatest challenge for you in your work with activists in Iran? How has this experience changed you personally and professionally?

There are challenges and there are rewards, of course. A great challenge has been the different work cultures. In Iran, for example, personal qualities, ambitions, and relations define the project, the work environment, and even impact the results. Professional conduct is neither well defined nor appreciated. In addition, since the project is defined and initiated in Iran, the individuals who reside in Iran have a pivotal role in defining the project, its strategies, and its tactics. This is due to the fact that they must face the consequences and possible persecution and their safety should be considered in all aspects of the work. This would lead to an invisible power hierarchy among the volunteers based on their geographical location. Missing the details of everyday life in Iran and face-to-face meetings contribute to the hierarchy.

How I have changed: well, I have learned that I should respect different work ethics and expect others to do the same in all working environments, including volunteer projects. I cannot blame others for not acting professionally when such behavior has been accepted by me at the time. Principles, however, as minor as they may be, should not be neglected for any goal, no matter how major.

8. Reflecting on the social movements during the previous regime, what do you think has changed? Why?

I think the movements during the previous regime had more of a political than social agenda. There is now strong social movements by women as the post-revolutionary conditions are changing the economic, social and political landscape of the country. They are not organized and have no leaders. There are activists, intellectuals and academics who are raising their voices against the systemic discrimination and violence against women. Considering the past movements, I think we bear the legacy and see similarities. The activists and intellectuals are not representing the body of the movement and lack the public support as it was the case with the left political movement in the previous era. There was no lobbying with the officials and no direct addressing of the demands. Recently, there have been signs of change. The One Million Signature Campaign is gradually penetrating into the society. Women activists have written a letter to the parliament representatives objecting the proposed Family Protection Bill. Iranian secular activists have inherited the opposition style struggle of leftist movements in the past. The oppression by the regime makes the situation even more difficult. It takes time for the women's movement to get organized, articulate its demands, and define its own strategies without budging to the left or right.

9. How can interested individuals reading this interview contribute to women's movements in Iran?

I believe the most effective contribution by people living abroad has been analyzing and writing about the issues of women in Iran. In addition, many individuals have been active in drawing international attention to the Iranian women's issues. Bringing the world attention to the stoning issue is what we did successfully in the Stop Stoning Forever campaign. As a result, four people were saved from stoning, and stoning is now a subject of public debate and no longer a secretive practice.

Social theories and movements cannot be exported or imported, but the tools for understanding the political aspects of personal issues and analyzing social phenomena can be shared. The terminology invented and applied by feminism, such as "domestic violence", "bodily integrity", and "gender mainstreaming" are examples of the tools used to describe women's rights, analyze social phenomena and mobilize women and public in general to change the status quo. An effective way of contributing to women's movements in Iran is to bridge the communication gap between Iranian women and western feminist movements. The language barrier impedes the transfer of knowledge and sharing of experiences. The number of women activists who can read English and participate in international symposiums and conferences is very small. By writing, translating and sharing stories of women's experiences in the west, we can provide some of the needed aforementioned tools that have already been invented by women in the west and pave the road for women in Iran to invent their new tools and define their theory and practice of feminist movement. Similarly, we can bring the stories of women in Iran, their issues and struggles, to the western audience.

10. If there is anything I have not asked about and you would like to add, please do. Thank you for your time.

It is important that we view women's rights as human rights and make a conscience effort to tie the two movements together. Objection to stoning and execution of women cannot be accompanied with silence towards the execution of minors. Any gross violations of human rights by the Iranian regime prepare the grounds for an increase in violation of women's rights. I appreciate the opportunity to voice my views.