Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani: Two Decades in the Struggle for Women's Rights

Snapshot of Activism

                              

Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani is an activist, writer, publisher, and leading figure in the Iranian women's movement. Ahmadi Khorasani was a prominent member of the One Million Signatures for the Repeal of Discriminatory Laws campaign, which used a public petition to challenge the inequality of Iranian men and women before the law. In addition to her work on the campaign, Ahmadi Khorasani is a writer who has spotlighted women's rights in Iran, a publisher of books and journals, and a leading member of multiple non-governmental organizations focused on women's rights. She is a founding member of the Women's Cultural Center in Tehran and a member of the women’s rights campaign Feminist School, whose website she runs.[1]

 

Background

Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani was born in 1969 in Nezamabad, a working-class neighborhood in south Tehran. Nearly four decades later, when she began collecting signatures for the One Million Signatures campaign, Nezamabad was the first place she visited.[2] Ahmadi Khorasani completed undergraduate degrees in sanitation and in English translation at the University of Tehran and Azad University, respectively. She also holds a Master's degree in women's studies from the University of Tehran. One of six children, she is married to fellow publisher and editor Javad Mousavi Khorasani. Bilingual in both Persian and English, she has written and translated into both languages. She also works on short videos which highlight the issues facing Iranian women, some of which can be seen on her official YouTube channel.[3] In a September 2003 interview, Ahmadi Khorasani described her motivations for taking up the cause of women’s rights, explaining that while issues of gender discrimination had not arisen in her family life, they did play a significant role in society at large, where she was made to feel “guilty” for being female. Later in life, she realized how much resistance Iran’s patriarchal society showed to what she considered “small” changes, like gender equality and granting women the freedom to make choices about marriage and daily life. As a result of these experiences, she took to writing and publishing in order to “establish connections and start a conversation with other women.”[4]

Ahmadi Khorasani has been a member of Iran's women's movement for over two decades. In the early 1990s, she and other women capitalized on the post-war era to begin taking a more active role in society, forming small informal associations that would later evolve into part of an active civil society.[5]  In 1999, Ahmadi Khorasani and fellow activist Parvin Ardalan founded the Women's Cultural Center, an NGO dedicated to women's health and legal issues. The Cultural Center was officially registered in 2001, but went on to be shuttered, along with many other civil society organizations in 2007.[6] At the time of its founding, the Women's Cultural Center was reportedly Iran's first public (and secular) women's organization to operate since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.[7] When the organization was registered on International Women's Day (March 8) in 2001, its founders went to considerable lengths to officially secure permission to operate. All of the women involved were required to be married university graduates without any previous convictions for criminal (or political) activities. They also had to agree to fingerprinting. Nonetheless, their request for legal status was denied by Iran's Interior Ministry before being granted instead by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Although they strove to operate within the bounds of the law, the leaders of the Center refused to accept official oversight in the interest of operating independently.[8]

In their new organizational charter, Ahmadi Khorasani and the other founders set out to raise grassroots awareness of women's issues through workshops, seminars, and publications. Their approach to fostering awareness centered around workshops, where women learned about their civil rights, their legal situation in terms of family law and domestic violence, received psychological counseling, and learned how to handle pressure from the Iran security apparatus. The Center’s workshops educated women on topics such as shari’a (Islamic) and civil laws on prisoners, and how to deal with interrogation.[9] In addition to these forums, the Center also sought to create a library for women's studies that would act as "a resource and a gathering place." The group also published a periodical, Nameh-ye Zanan (Women's Letter).[10] In spite of their legal status as an organization, the group still faced numerous bureaucratic hurdles. Nameh-ye Zanan was banned, and authorities regularly refused permission for functions the group had already planned. Outside of the official judicial structure, plainclothes conservative vigilantes forcibly disrupted their meetings and events. These barriers forced the women of the Cultural Center to hold their functions in private homes. Even then, those who agreed to host them were subject to threats and intimidation.[11] In 2007, Iranian authorities ultimately forced the Cultural Center and its website, Zanestan (The Land of Women), to shut down.[12]

                                                                                                                                                                                     

Vision

As the Women's Cultural Center worked to arm Iranian women with awareness, Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani rose to prominence as a leading activist, most notably through her work on the One Million Signatures for the Repeal of Discriminatory Laws campaign. In a collection of essays titled Campaign for Equality: The Inside Story, she explores the circumstances surrounding the movement and elaborates on its goals, strategies, obstacles, and place within society. The campaign, as Ahmadi Khorasani describes and as specified in the petition, pushed to change the Iranian legal system by removing institutional inequalities between men and women. The examples cited by the campaign include the institution of polygamous marriage (Iran, in accordance with traditional Islamic practice, permits a man to take up to four wives), the differing levels of ease with which men and women can initiate divorce proceedings, the legal inability of women to exercise full custody over their children, the legally-accepted practice of marrying off girls as young as 9, and the reduced value placed on female testimony (or damages owed to women) in court. 

As Ahmadi Khorasani explains, the campaign consciously avoided overly ambitious goals, targeting instead the more readily alterable Iranian legal code. She accuses these laws of laying the foundation for wider social ills, undermining marriages, and weakening the family as a building block of Iran society. Criticizing the legality of polygamy in her book, she writes: "By liberating the willfulness of one marriage partner while severely restricting the freedom of the other, legalized polygamy builds layers of instability, mistrust, and resentment into the deepest levels of some very basic human relationships."[13] She goes on to critique the practice on other grounds, including its detrimental effects on female economic independence and the rivalries it fosters between Iranian women. Ahmadi Khorasani also argues that some of Iran's outdated laws perpetuate problems instead of addressing them, as in the case of unequal sentencing for women and men. Citing one example, she writes: "In the Islamic Penal Code, there is a doctrine known as the “Farrash Doctrine” which states that if a man observes his wife committing adultery with another man, he can kill them both."[14]

In focusing on individual discriminatory laws as opposed to societal misogyny as a whole, Ahmadi Khorasani and the other campaign organizers anticipated accusations that their goals were too limited, or that the problems they were addressing were secondary issues. To this she responds: "Among the imperatives for the women’s movement today is to reject the attitude, all too common in our society, which says that one must pursue only the best or most important endeavors, or else retreat into passivity. This all or nothing mentality is a dead end. Sometimes it is best to take on what one can with a reasonable chance of success, and not use utopian aspirations as an excuse for giving way to inaction, infighting, and regression."[15] Even if the repeal of some discriminatory statutes could not resolve all of the obstacles faced by Iranian women, Ahmadi Khorasani believes that even limited progress could benefit the women living under the yoke of these laws considerably. As she wrote: "Will equal and humane laws fully rectify the situation of women in Iran? No, but by the same token, no such rectification can be imagined without them. The legal changes that the campaign seeks are no small goal. The significant effects that would flow from them are all the more reason to devote ample energy, as the campaign does through its educational efforts, to the work of preparing the ground for them, not only in the legal and political worlds, but within the setting of Iranian society and culture as well." (Page 20)

Once launched, the campaign itself relied heavily on grassroots outreach in the face of both unsympathetic authorities and considerable hesitancy on the part of the women it was trying to help. In a 2007 piece for the New Internationalist, Ahmadi Khorasani described her first day of canvassing for the one million signatures the campaign hoped to attract. Choosing to start in Nezamabad, her old neighborhood in south Tehran, Ahmadi Khorasani related her experiences speaking with two housewives. The first responded to her explanation of the inequalities facing women by asking: "What can I say? What has all this got to do with me? What can I do? My food is on the stove and the children will be coming from school soon…"[16] The second, an illiterate Azeri woman struggling to endure her husband’s abuse, showed Ahmadi Khorasani the bruises on her arm, saying: "My man has a lot of problems. He beats me. Can you do something for me?... I know you can't. No one can. Only God." Despite her misgivings, the Azeri woman ultimately signed the petition, marking an X for her name.[17] Ahmadi Khorasani and the other women and men behind the One Million Signatures campaign went on to face abuse and harassment from the Iranian authorities, particularly as their efforts began to influence the national conversation.

Despite official pressure, the One Million Signature campaign managed to make headway, collecting 30,000 signatures in its first six months. According to Ahmadi Khorasani, the seeming impossibility of the One Million Signatures campaign's goals helped it avoid some scrutiny at the outset. As she explains in Campaign for Equality: "In the beginning, the idea of gathering a million signatures seemed fanciful... perhaps because it appeared so unlikely, the authorities – the overwhelmingly male authorities, one might add – failed to take it seriously and wrote it off as unimportant. But in something of a triumph for the cause of feminine imagination, the movement slowly and gradually began to break through and grow legs."[18]

Despite the threat of arrest and imprisonment, the campaign continued to force gender discrimination into the public discourse, accomplishing this task so successfully that it was able to play a key role in Iran’s hotly contested 2009 presidential campaign. Before the allegedly fraudulent results prompted a nationwide protest movement, Ahmadi Khorasani and 700 other activists from six organizations took advantage of a relatively open campaign atmosphere to compel reformist candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi to specify their positions on gender discrimination and women's rights. Those positions, shaped by the activists’ pressure, amounted to a rejection of the Islamic Republic’s "complementary model" of male-female relationships which assumes that men will naturally take women’s needs into consideration, and the acceptance of the U.N.'s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, a document decried by Iran's Guardian Council as anti-Islamic.[19] Ahmadi Khorasani described the activists’ electoral strategy thusly: "…[The civic forces] were particularly energetic in holding the feet of the self-declared “reformist” candidates (Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hussein Moussavi) to the proverbial fire, insisting that they at least respond to civil society’s ideas and appeals in hopes of wringing some concessions, however partial and symbolic, from men whom the Guardian Council had certified as eligible to hold the presidency of Iran. The civic forces, in other words, recognized that even such a small victory would help sustain that hope for change without which no positive transformation of society is possible." (Page 96)

Ahmadi Khorasani and her colleagues in the One Million Signatures campaign continued to play an active role in the protest movement against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election. As Mousavi and Karroubi transformed from officially approved candidates into opposition leaders, these women's rights activists took up the banner of Iran's nascent Green Movement by establishing the "Green Coalition Movement of Women's Activists."[20] In the violent crackdown that followed the election, however, both Ahmadi Khorasani and her fellow activists were arrested and put on trial for their activities. In fact, as Iran's social and political climate have become increasingly repressive, several members of the campaign remain in prison. According to Ahmadi Khorasani, the laws they had expended such effort trying to overturn had become even more discriminatory.[21] Despite pressure from the government, she and her fellow women’s rights activists continue to push for gender equality, advocating for women’s issues and interests in the face of repression. In 2008, the closure of the Women’s Cultural Center led to their establishing the Feminist School, an online resource on women’s issues for which Ahmadi Khorasani currently serves as editor-in-chief. The site, which provides news, commentary, and analysis on women’s issues, remains closely linked to the One Million Signatures campaign and provides visitors with information about the effort.[22]

Accomplishments

Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani is also a prolific writer, publisher, and translator of books and journals dealing with women's issues. Beginning in the early 1990s, Ahmadi Khorasani wrote articles for several magazines, including Farhang Tose'eh (The Culture of Development). With the editor's agreement, Ahmadi Khorasani prepared a special edition of Farhang Tose’eh in commemoration of International Women’s Day (March 8th).[23] The positive reception that edition received encouraged her to publish a collection of articles on women’s issues that would run independently of the magazine; this idea would eventually be realized in the form of the quarterly Jens-e Dovom (The Second Sex), a collection of essays on feminism and women’s issues which ran in ten parts between 1998 and 2001.[24] In a 2010 interview, she described the challenges of releasing this collection in Iran’s restrictive environment, explaining that pressure from the government prevented many publishers from agreeing to the project. Under threat from official bodies, they were unwilling to put their magazines at risk. This pressure, as well as long delays by the Ministry of Culture in granting her the necessary permissions to do the work herself, pushed the project back by several years.[25] With the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami coming to power, however, Jens-e Dovom finally came into being, providing one of the earliest and most prominent examples of a secular women’s publication at a time when the feminist movement was re-emerging as a force in Iranian civil society.[26] From that point forward, Ahmadi Khorasani became a prolific as both a publisher and a writer. Jens-e Dovom was followed by another quarterly, Fasl-e Zanan­ (The Season of Women), a collaboration between Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, Firouzeh Mohajer, and longtime collaborator Parvin Ardalan which ran between 2002 and 2007.[27] Another regular project was the Salnamah-ye Zanan-e Iran (Iranian Women’s Almanac), which appeared annually between 1998 and 2002.[28]

                                                                                        

Outside of publishing these journals, Ahmadi Khorasani has also written and translated numerous articles and books. In 1998, Zanan Bigozashteh (Women Without a Past), which includes four of her short stories, went to print.[29] In 2001, she released Zanan Zir-e Sayeh-e Pedar Khandeh-ha (Women in the Shadows of Godfathers), which saw its fifth print run in 2003.[30] Ahmadi Khorasani and Parvin Ardalan later co-wrote Senator (Senator), a biography of Iranian jurist and lawmaker (and female member of Iran’s pre-Revolutionary Senate) Mehrangiz Manouchehrian which was published in 2003.[31] In addition to her book on the One Million Signatures Campaign, her more recent works include Daftarcheh-ye Khaterat Shanzdah Zan Irani (A Booklet of the Memoirs of 16 Iranian Women, 2008) and Hejab va Roshanfekran (The Hejab and the Intellectuals, 2011), an overview of different interpretations of the hejab from different eras in Iranian history.[32] In 2012, Ahmadi Khorasani released an illustrated book for children and young adults, titled Yes I Can, You'll See!, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of Iranian women's suffrage.[33] In the same year, she published her memoirs, The Spring of the Women’s Movement: A Story of Smiles and Tears. As opposed to a personal narrative, these memoirs focus instead on Ahmadi Khorasani’s two decades as a member of the women’s movement, detailing its development, successes, setbacks, and important initiatives. As fellow women’s rights activist and One Million Signatures leader Mansoureh Shojaee described it in a review for the BBC, The Spring of the Women’s Movement provides a “behind the scenes” look at the experiences of the Iranian women’s movement as a whole.[34]

Where Is She Now? 

Over the course of her activism, and especially as a result of her participation in the One Million Signatures campaign, Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani has faced arrest and prosecution from the Iranian judiciary.  Unlike many other prominent advocates, however, Ahmadi Khorasani has not been forced to endure long-term imprisonment or exile, allowing her to continue her work on behalf of Iranian women from inside the country. Nevertheless, she has had several encounters with Iran’s security forces and its Revolutionary Courts.

The first such encounter was a result of a June 12, 2006 demonstration by women's rights activists, including Ahmadi Khorasani, in Tehran's Haft-e-Tir square. The protest, which included hundreds of men and women, demanded the reform of laws which discriminated against women – a demand many of the participants expressed through the One Million Signatures campaign soon after. The Iranian police forcibly broke up the rally, arresting 42 women and 28 men and charging them with "participating in an illegal assembly." In the run-up to the demonstration, Ahmadi Khorasani and several other activists had been summoned for interrogation by the Iranian judiciary. When these activists followed the demonstration with their campaign that August, these authorities tried to block them. The activists began collecting signatures anyway.[35] 

As the petition progressed, authorities continued to target Ahmadi Khorasani and her fellow women's rights activists, arresting them for taking part in public demonstrations. When four women were being prosecuted for their role in the June 12th demonstration, she and 32 other activists were arrested for holding a silent protest in front of the Revolutionary Court on March 4th, 2007. Ahmadi Khorasani was held on charges of "endangering national security" and "disturbing public order."[36] While international pressure soon led to the release of all the women, Ahmadi Khorasani and colleagues Parvin Ardalan and Shahla Entesari were sentenced to three years in prison on April 24th on charges dating back to June 2006. These sentences, however, were suspended. [37] In 2008, she again faced trial, this time for the events of March 2007. With Nasrin Sotoudeh as her attorney, she was obliged to appear before Branch 13 of the Revolutionary Court.[38] 

After the 2009 elections, an increasingly repressive Iranian state and rising tensions between the Islamic Republic and the international community combined to place greater stress on Ahmadi Khorasani and on Iranian society, particularly Iranian women. In September 2010, she was summoned before the court at Evin Prison, which is located near Tehran and is one of the most infamous prisons in the country) to "provide explanations." The next day, she returned to the court and was charged with "propaganda against the regime" in the guise of "anti-regime content" on the Feminist School website, as well as for her participation in 2009's "illegal" post-election demonstrations. Ahmadi Khorasani was then freed under a custodian [as opposed to bail].[39]

Her trial finally began before Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court in March 2012. On June 9th of that year, she was sentenced to one year's suspended imprisonment and five years probation.[40] As she told the New Internationalist in March 2013: "I can say that [my] prison sentence hangs over my head like the Sword of Damocles. But, more than that, it is the ensuing political and economic crisis within greater society (fear of war and sanctions, intensification and the worsening economic situation) that undoubtedly weighs on my activities and plans."[41] In spite of these hurdles, she made clear that her work on behalf of Iranian women would not cease: “For me, the struggle for women’s rights is life itself. So, like many other women’s-rights activists, abstaining from such endeavors is basically impossible for me. While my fellow countrywomen suffer from discrimination and prejudice, my fight against such inequity is among the pillars of my life.”[42]

 

Learn More

 

Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani's Wikipedia Page (in English)

Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani's Facebook page(in Persian)

Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani's YouTube Channel(in Persian)

Campaign for Equality: the Inside Story (Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani's book on the One Million Signatures campaign)(in English)

Zanestan (The Women's Cultural Center) Official Website (in Persian)

Archive of Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani's Writings, Articles, and Interviews(in Persian)

The Feminist School Official Website (in English)

The Feminist School Official Facebook Page (in Persian)

One Million Signatures Campaign Official Website(in English)

"Signed with an X," Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani piece in the New Internationalist (2007) (in English)

New Internationalist Interview with Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani (2013) (in English)



[3] Tavaana interview with Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, August 2013.

[13] p. 21

[14] p. 24

[15] p. 40.

[18] Campaign for Equality. p. 43.

 

 

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