Despite my old doubts about the real contribution of the Iranian Women Studies Foundation (IWSF) to the movement of Iranian women for securing their human rights, this year I attended the very same Denver Conference that Elham Gheytanchi described in her report in Iranian.com.
The reason for my participation was the presence of Skokooh Mirzadegi who has been active as a feminist writer for years and some of her works are posted on Iranian.com too. I was curious to know why she has finally decided to participate in this conference, especially in the role of its host. She, and her newly established Center for Studies and Documents of Iranian Women (CSDIW), were to host this year's conference that was to focus on “Women, Religion and Ideology”.
Though I decided to participate in this conference at the last moment and could not benefit from the package they had provided for the participants. Fortunately, I could arrive in Denver early Friday morning and did not miss any part of this conference.
What I observed in this conference was totally different from what Gheytanchi is rendering in her report. To her, this was yet another IWSF conference with its as-usual's. Whereas to me, this was one of the most important incidents in the history of the Iranian women's movement outside of Iran and I am sure that its repercussions will linger in our little world for quiet a while.
I have pondered on why Gheytanchi has come up with such a convoluted report on the proceedings of this conference and have come up with an explanation. I think all she is doing is whitewashing the new theoretical framework that was put forward by the Executive Committee and Shokooh Mirzadegi for the conference.
This is a framework totally different from the viewpoints of those few loud (arbade-kesh) people who have highjacked the previous IWSF conferences and have turned them into a kind of exclusive “hamum e zanune”.
To me, the essence of what happened in Denver during those three days was the confrontation of two outlooks at our movement. One, the 'traditional one', is based on gender segregation, ultra-feminism, 'Woman Power' theory, man bashing and so on that has dominated the IWSF conferences – and the other, 'the new one', is based on the advocating of women's rights through cooperation of both genders – a message so prominent in what CSDIW and the executive committee was presenting to the conference.
Gheytanchi is totally mute on this challenge and tries to pretend that this was an 'as-usual' IWSF conference with the dominance of the traditional school. It is significance that, for doing so, she ignores the role of CSDIW and Shokooh Mirzadegi, as much as she can, even by misrepresenting the sequence of proceedings.
Despite what she has written, the Conference did not begin with a talk given by Golnaz Amin (the owner of IWSF). It was opened but by the words of Mirzadegi, who greeted the participants, not only on behalf of the executive committee but also as the head of CSDIW that was the co-organizer of this year's conference.
She talked about her, and her colleague's, experience over the 11 months they had put into the preparation of this conference. She said that she had confronted a outspoken front comprised of a section of women involved in the Iranian Women's Movement whom she could call 'Shopkeeper Feminists' (feminist-haa ye herfe'i).
She said that this bunch does not have any agenda for the movement and treats its relationship with it as a club membership. She also said that, as written in the introduction of the Conference brochure, the Center and the Committee does not believe in emphasizing on the rifts between men and women. They believe that the ultimate goal of the movement is attainable only if the believers in the social and legal equality of men and women, regardless of their gender, work on a platform of understanding and cooperation.
Three days later, immediately at the outset of a session dedicated to evaluating the procedures and results of the conference, she was attacked by Gheytanchi for these inaugurating words. She called her talk a bitter and unsuitable introduction to the Conference.
The culmination of this confrontation came about when, in her talk in that evaluation session, Mirzadegi explained her position on the IWSF conference. She said that her experience has proven to her that her ideas about feminism and the Iranian movement are totally different from what the IWSF and its 'circle of consultants' are advocating and, thus, in her own words: “I will never set my foot in the future conferences of this Foundation.”
Gheytanchi has also penned just one sentence about the talk given by Mirzadegi's husband, Dr. Esmail Nooriala. That was amazing to see how he was bombarded by the people around Golnaz Amin, as though it was pre-planned that, regardless of what he says, he should be attacked.
Nevertheless, to most of us sitting in that hall, Nooriala's lecture was one of the most interesting talks given to the conference, directly relevant to the theme of this year's session. Almost all of the other personalities who appeared behind the podium concentrated on, and actually repeated, the evident restrictions that religions in general and Islam in particular imposes on women – an issue that everybody is now well aware of.
Nooriala was the only one who posed on the issue of 'ideology', its etymology, its history, the Marxist approach to it, and finally the ideological nature of religion. As he himself said, he also dared to walk on a 'minefield' and discussed the ideological nature of many of the Feminist stances.
What he was saying was clearly in close relation to Mirzadegi's position in this conference. His talk brought a storm into the lecture hall. Many combatant Feminist called his words 'unsuitable and insulting'. In the next day's evaluation session, his appearance in the conference was again protested by the same people. Someone went even so far to demand the bar the participation of men in IWSF's future conferences. He was clearly paying for being Mirzadegi's husband!
Gheitanchi is also silent about those moving moments at the end of the conference when Nooriala asked for being permitted to talk and, having obtained the permission, shared the experiences he had with his father, mother and sister.
He told the conference that if you want to get rid of patriarchal ways of life, you should help those men who sympathize with your cause. By ignoring or insulting the opposite gender, you can help neither them nor yourselves. His words were so powerful and emotionally penetrating that many of the participants could not withhold their tears and gave him a standing ovation.
There was another moment in the conference's final day that should not be ignored. The tradition set by the previous conferences allows the participants of each on-going session to suggest and decide the theme of the next year's conference.
Mirzadegi suggested that the theme of the next conference be “the critical evaluation of Iranian Women's Movement, from within”. Nevertheless, Golnaz Amin was quick enough to offset this suggestion immediately by declaring that: “We have decided that the theme of the next conference should not be decided here!” This was a majestic “we” used by a woman who insists that she does not have any role in the decision-makings of the conferences and everything relevant to its activities is decided upon democratic practices.
All through the conference, we, the silent majority that we are, witnessed that Gheytanchi was acting as the representative of Golnaz Amin and her 'rough' entourage. Here again, under the disguise of an innocent reporter for Iranian.com, she tries to render a convoluted picture of a conference that will definitely be referred to as an exciting moment in the life of our movement.
What is the jest of her report? In her opinion, what were the achievements of this year's Conference? What was its contribution to the cause of the Iranian women? She is silent about all these important issues. What she is trying to do is to reduce the role of the CSDIW and Mirzadegi to a mere executive function and put aside that fundamental question she raised about the role of IWSF in our movement.
More than a week passed, and having read Gheytanchi's report in Iranian.com, I am now pondering on the past and future of our movement with a curious feeling. Is there really any sincere determination in us to solve our movement's problems and set real and realizable goals for it or are we obliged to accept that we are unable to do anything but to gather together once a year just to have fun under the pretext of an IWSF conference? Does this mean that we are all doomed to join the army of 'shopkeeper feminists'?