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Helping hand
Giving women inside Iran a fair chance to gain their rights


December 11, 2005

Not giving platform, sharing resources and the little knowledge we have with socially committed people who operate inside Iran, albeit all their limitations and/or flaws (both intellectually and politically) is sanctioning the innocent people of Iran who have no part in their regime’s affairs.

In the context of the Iranian women’s movement, I believe that if we do not support and nourish our fellow secular and religious women inside Iran, there won’t be anyone left who will care and fight for the rights of the most dispossessed in Iran. In review of a recent gruesome report of widespread child abuse in Iran, I wonder who is going to fight for the rights of these innocent wronged children? Who’s going to challenge the Iranian authorities and set up NGOs for sheltering these children? Should secular and progressive religious female lawyers abandon the Iranian courts just because the judge is an authoritarian misogynist cleric and they have to read and use fundamentally unfair Islamic legal passages to convict paedophiles and men who commit domestic violence?

I am of this conviction that dismissing religious and censored secular women from Iran is like sanctioning the very people of Iran. It is how the US sanctioned the Iraqi people because of Saddam's regime. The international community punished the Iraqi people and innocent children for years, while its tyrannical regime was intact. It even went over there and bombed schools and hospitals in the name of ‘freeing’ them. I hate seeing it metaphorically inflicted upon Iranians, by Iranians.

I spent 3 months in Iran for my doctoral research in 2003. During this time, I saw equal number of heroic, democratic, empowering tendencies as I saw heart-shattering and demoralizing ones. I have seen street-children in Tehran, 4-5 year olds on their own in  cold winter’s nights at Vali Asr Avenue, totally dispossessed starved looking people and babies in urban Iran’s choking pollution, old men with white hair just like my own father pulling heavy trolleys in the streets (with no protection or pension), Iranian youth who are politically apathetic and many who are not only misogynist but they are racist and anti-Arab (seriously call themselves ‘Aryans’) and see as their sole goal to leave Iran for a better future abroad.

I was an eye-witness to a physical fight between an Islamist and secular woman at a female lawyers gathering in Tehran (started by the Islamist woman), and sat next to a bruised and tearful women in Police’s Forensic Clinic (Pezeshk-e Ghanooni) which I visited in Shiraz, where battered women were told to go back ‘home’ to their violators by female doctors, doctors who have no idea on how to counsel victims of violence and cannot give out any leaflets or telephone numbers of women’s shelters or NGOs (because there are no women’s shelters or NGOs in Shiraz, Iran’s third largest city), the very doctors who also conducted totally deplorable and heart-shattering ‘virginity’ tests on young women and girls upon requests by a court or a family member.

Seeing those bruised women that day in Shiraz (my mother’s hometown), who looked at me with a glimmer of hope, shattered my solid none-conformist secular dogma, it broke my heart, thinking of it even 2 years on makes me sob uncontrollably and crushes my soul. It was in the tears of those innocent women, in their heart-rending pleas in my own mother’s Shirazi accent that I re-realised that comforting, bandaging and saving these women, women who cannot immigrate to Canada or Sweden, even if I have to do it by operating in a gender-apartheid is worth it all. Of course we can do more, and we are doing more, in almost every field and outside the realm of religion too. How wonderful would it not be if we could unite in solidarity and strengthen our joint-efforts to help our fellow sisters?

It is in the backdrop of these experiences that I cannot understand why we cannot invite that unenlightened doctor (not due to her own fault) to tell us about her work in Iran's forensic medical system (under the control of the judiciary), so we can follow events in Iran and let that doctor come in contact with experts and fellow women, learn tons and go back to Shiraz with lots of new ideas and networks (where else is she going to have that chance if not with Farsi speaking emancipated Iranian feminists). But if that doctor came e.g. to the Iranian Women's Studies Foundation (IWSF) annual conferences, on her capacity as a employee of Iran’s judiciary in her head-scarf and told us about her realities in Iran, she would get slaughtered in the present climate...

Who's going to set up that women’s shelter in Shiraz if not that doctor? What are battered women going to do until the day someone stages a revolution and overnight turns Iran into a democracy with a full functioning civil society? Where are the guarantees for her until that day? Don’t we want our doctors to gain skills and knowledge about counselling victims of violence? What are battered women going to do in Shiraz in the meanwhile? What should doctors, lawyers, lecturers, social workers, journalists, teachers, students who want to help their people do inside Iran? Who’s going to rebuild Iran, who is going to change Iran if not they with a bit of our support?

When I visited Zanan women's magazine’s hidden office in Tehran (they have been attacked continuously by conservative zealots), I saw with my own eyes how their journalists spent half their time giving legal advice to battered and wronged women who have no where else to turn to (in the capital of Iran). This is how acute the situation is in Iran.

I cannot understand why we who are outside Iran are laughed at when we want to project and analyse both the very *few* positive as well the *many* gruesome Iranian realities to the outside world and help raise awareness about it inside Iran? I repeat the many, the many gruesome and totally unacceptable realities, realities which make our hearts ache and our souls crushed.

No one’s saying Iran is a rose garden, it is in fact the very opposite. I don’t understand why we can’t lend a helping hand to people inside the hell-fires of a potential rose-garden who want to save the very dispossessed people I mentioned above (e.g. the journalists at Zanan or activists who work in NGOs, or lecturers and students)? Why do we punish religious women who care? Why do we ridicule secular women who see religious people (not torturers) as equal human beings with an inherent human dignity and wish to work with them?

All we do is throw flowers on secular none-conformist heroes and stones on all things Islamic and inside Iran’s borders? We must not sanction/ discipline the Iranian people for the crimes their leaders have committed (see again comparison with the Iraq sanctions). By this I do not mean we only look for empancipatory solutions in the realm of religion or in a gender-apartheid, on the very contrary we who live in democratic societies should peacefully transmit other alternatives, pacifist secular solutions. Definitely! That’s what I personally do, my own framework is secular pacifist feminism.

I think it's time after 26 years of sanctions to cooperate with our fellow socially committed people who work and live within hell-fires. For instance, attending the IWSF conferences has done wonders for me. It was there I met openly gay and proud Iranian women for the very first time and it is one of the happiest and most empowering experiences of my life, not mentioning allowing me to make friends with Iranian women who are amongst the most socially committed in the world, it has also taught me countless things I could have never learnt in a classroom. I would like to see more women having positive experiences from meetings and projects with fellow feminists, not just because they are secular or atheists, but because they have an egalitarian consciousness and care. We must truly see them as equal and reciprocate the respect and hope they have in us.

I will end this note with an anecdote, I interviewed a very senior woman in the Presidential Office for Women's Participation in Tehran about Iran’s international obligations to human rights treaties. Right in the middle of the interview she winked at me to turn off my tape-recorder, and said "of course we don't want to have any reservations to CEDAW (UN’s Convention Against All Types of Discrimination Against Women), this is what we are fighting for in Iran". She looked just like one of my ultra-religious Hezbollahi teachers who I used to dread at elementary school in Shiraz, but in the past 26 years these religious women have changed, and many of them (those who work outside their homes) want what we want now.

Hence, let's give women inside Iran (despite all their possible flaws) a fair chance to gain something from their meetings with us, and we from meeting with them (despite all our possible flaws). They are our fellow human beings, our sisters.

All human beings are in truth akin, all in creation share one origin...
When fate allots a member pangs and pains,
No ease for other members then remains...
If, unperturbed, another's grief canst scan, thou are not worthy of the name of human
Saadi Shirazi, 13th century AD Persian poet

Golbarg Bashi is a PhD student in the area of human rights in Iran at Bristol University, UK. She holds a BA (Hons) in Middle Eastern Studies (Manchester University), and an MSc in Women's Studies (Bristol University). She has lived and travelled extensively around the world (Europe, US, Egypt, Jordan, Iran, India and Japan), and speaks Farsi, English and Swedish fluently. Her scholarly interests are in women, gender, Islam, the Middle East and press relations. Visit

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Golbarg Bashi

* Iranian Women's Studies Foundation
UN’s Convention Against All Types of Discrimination Against Women




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