The place to be

Discussing essential needs of Iranian women today


The place to be
by Ari Siletz

“Dad, would you rather I were a boy?” The first time my daughter asked me that she was in her teens, arguing for easier curfews and a more liberal attitude towards boyfriends. What she was really asking was, “Why is my worth as a human being disproportionately tied up in my chastity?”

As I browse the program for the 19th international conference of the Iranian Women’s Studies Foundation, I see that some of the lectures and panels pose same question from different angles. For example, Sharareh Shahrokhi’s lecture topic will be, "The right to choose what to wear: an essential need for an Iranian woman or a superfluous one?"

Though the hejab topic gets top billing in Western media, Iranian women activists who live under IRI laws wonder what priority they should give the hejab relative to, say, unfair divorce laws. Does it make sense to bicker over a piece of cloth while custody of your child is threatened? On the other hand, bowing to the hejab symbol gives up turf even before the battle has begun. Gender segregation works against equitable family law.

Iran’s adultery laws are another place where justice and symbolism are at odds. Stoning cases are few and there is a moratorium on carrying out such sentences. But the very fact that adultery is a capital offense in the law books, means that in principle the IRI assumes the power to end a human life based on her sexual behavior. Moreover it has reserved its most hateful form of punishment for adultery. Stoning in its original intent is execution by collective injury at the hands of one’s own community.

Conference panelist Soheila Vahdati Bana, a leading activist against Iran’s stoning laws, has argued that the punishment affects women disproportionately. Iranian Family Law allows female child marriages, restricts a woman’s right to divorce, handicaps the mother in child custody cases, and is biased in favor of the husband in domestic abuse cases. All these factors tempt the wife to seek affection outside the marriage.

The second time I got the question from my daughter, “Dad, would you rather I were a boy,” she was no longer fighting curfews. She was wondering about gender and the nature of power and leadership as she embarked on a long period of professional training.

I don’t know where in the world she will end up living -- Iran, US, Europe Africa. But I had assumed the disadvantages of being a woman in Western cultures are fast disappearing. Both senators from my state of California are women, and a powerful California Congresswoman is the Speaker of the US House of Representatives. By comparison women in Iran are virtually deprived of a share of official power. The power and leadership question depends on which country you’re talking about, or so I thought.

Guest speakers, Soraya Fallah and Sakineh Sahebi may disagree. Conference organizer Jamileh Davoodi says these thinkers look beyond national boundaries to the more fundamental issues of Patriarchy. “There is no external or internal Patriarchy. Our borders are not different,” Davoodi paraphrases.

A year ago, I had little idea what she may be talking about. But during the Hillary Clinton campaign there was an unease in American society that told me there is something to “get” that has nothing to do with whether a woman can hold high office, and may even be unrelated to sexism as it is normally defined. I hope to find clarification by listening to these speakers’ discourse on fontierless patriarchy. Right now the feeling is vague; rather like the pause after you unknowingly invite a vegetarian to your barbecue.

While thinking globally, there may be reasons to act locally by seeking solutions in the unique context of each culture’s history and political circumstance There will be representatives from Iraq and Palestine at the conference, and one question that I hope comes up is whether it is good strategy for Iranian women to approach their problem from the global view of Islamic repression. While breaking formation has the advantage of better focus, cooperation and shared strategies have also proven very effective. For example the famous Million Signature Campaign to end gender discrimination in Iran is modelled after a political mobilization program that began in Morocco. Mitra Shodjaie will be there to discuss this groundbreaking campaign.

The conference also includes discussions on the contribution of the Internet to free speech, the new sexual risk taking patterns of urban women, and the specific needs of younger generation of Iranian women.

I’m also rooting for Partow Nooriala’s talk to be a hit. Her topic, “The necessity of shattering traditional images of women in cinema,” reflects the wisdom of the conference organizers in recognizing how art brings about social change. Naturally, there will be music, singing, and this play.

Here is the contact infor for the conference.



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more from Ari Siletz

Domestic Violence within Iranian Families

by Javaneh's teacher (not verified) on


for my teacher !

by javaneh29 on

Thank you so much for your help and advice with my english spelling. I am not perfect I agree and I have a little trouble sometimes. I  appreciate your kindness in pointing these errors out to me.

You accuse me of trying to make Iranian womens situation less desperate than it is with my mention of DV in the UK. Hmmm ...I think you have misunderstood the point I was trying, perhaps badly, to make. Anyway  why would i want to do that? the situation for women in Iran is intolerable. The women in Iran must be among the worlds most controlled women. This control is top down, led and condoned by the Government. At the moment the phlight of women in Iran seems a little hopeless.

I was merely pointing out that DV exists in other countries too. And that women were subject to control measures in the west also. The  suppression of women by men has been a universal issue since time and memorial. The UK, have only recently put robust  law in place to protect women... this is a fact, not a figment of my imagination.

Ari thanks for the info re Homicide rates. In 2002 the UK was begining to get on board with the 'zero tolerance' campaign. I hope the figures have decreased since then.

 A little story: In 1995 I visited Hollowway womens prison on a professional matter ( not as an inmate!) and met a women who had been imprisoned for the premeditatéd murder of her husband. I spent about 30 mins with her and she told me that she had been the victim of DV all her married life, almost 15 yrs. Her husband had put her in hospital on countless occassions, broken ribs, jaw, cheek and collar bone. He had burnt her with cigarettes and tortured her, threatned to kill her and other members of her family if she sought help and worst of all she lost a pregnancy at 7 months because he had beaten her. She was seen by hospital staff and police numerous times but no one took up the issue because she was too frightened to agree that she had abused. When they asked she said nothing out of  fear of what her husband would do to her. She knew that the law would not protect her sufficiently. She saw his death as the only way her situation could end.She had tried to kill herself many times.  Im not saying that this murder is justified but it is understandable and demonstrates that DV was tolerated and this was only 10 yrs back.

By the way after a few yrs in prison and vigorous campaigning, she was released from custody on the grounds that she was not of 'sane mind' at the time she committed the offence!! Was she really mad or a victim of the crueltly she had suffered at the hands of her misogonistic ( thanks J's teacher) husband?



To Ari

by Javaneh's teacher (not verified) on

The incidents of domestic violence in the UK and other Western societies, and Tories' hesitation at spending money on programs to deal with this issue, do not mean that they are "tolerant" of domestic violence. The Iranian society, on the other hand, is quite tolerant of violence on women and children within the family, to the extent of considering it an inevitable norm. And I am not speaking of Northern Tehran.

Ari Siletz

For Javaneh's teacher

by Ari Siletz on

Here are some US Department of Justice stats on victims of violence. 

For homicides, intimate partners committed —

  • 30% of homicides of females.
  • 5% of homicides of males.

This 2002 BBC News article says, "One-third of all murders in England and Wales are classed as "domestic incidents."

Some official tolerance the problem is reflected in the article mentioning that the conservative Tories are only just now  (2002) getting on board with their own programs to deal with the issue.

Ari Siletz

For Nazy

by Ari Siletz on

Your statement, "I think it is almost entirely in the hands of parents and particularly mothers to raise children who will work to improve conditions in favor of justice worldwide," suggests a rich topic for future conferences on Iranian women. I hope you bring up the idea in tomorrow's gathering. Besides exploring long term "underground" strategies for social change, the talk may lead to some digging into how the responsibilites of motherhood have had both positive and negative impacts on the status of women. 


Domestic violence

by Javaneh's teacher (not verified) on

Domestic violence "tolerated" in UK less than 5 years ago? I don't think so. Don't try to diminish Western societies in order to make women's situation in Iran look a bit better. Also, you need to read more and improve your English. It's Misogyny not "mysogyny", Suppression not "Supresion", the West not "the west" and World War not "world war".

Nazy Kaviani

Women's Role

by Nazy Kaviani on

Dear Ari:

I don't think people sufficiently appreciate or stress women's roles in raising children who are free of sexist prejudices and behavior perpetuating and exacerbating gender injustice. I think it is almost entirely in the hands of parents and particularly mothers to raise children who will work to improve conditions in favor of justice worldwide.

I never had any daughters, and I have missed them all my life (notice the plural form!). I would have liked to have had daughters in addition to my two sons whom hopefully I have raised to deeply like and respect women as their equals in life. I remember once when we lived in Iran someone asked my older son who was 11 at the time: "Why does your mother work?" And he replied: "Because she can."

I am very excited for the gathering in Berkeley this weekend. Certainly I'll be there to listen and learn. The Sepideh Khosrowjah play is also a treat I wouldn't mind seeing again!


Mysogony or madness?

by javaneh29 on

Is it mysogony or madness? That is the question. And whose madness is it anyway .......?

 Supresion of women is a universal phenomena. Look back in history at anywhere in the world and you will find the suppression or control of women has existed or still exists in some shape or form. It is not exclusive to Iran although its presence there is extreme and unrelenting.

You dont need to look too far back in history  in the west to see the evidence that  these forms of  control of women by men took.  In the UK for example: labotomy ( removal of part of the brain by surgery) was still sanctioned by the UK medical profession and the Government until the 1960's. This was a procedure used upon 'uninhibited' women  to control their sexual urges! UK law has only recently taken the issue of domestic violence seriously. Less than 5 years ago, domestic violence was tolerated and kept behind closed doors, with little legal recourse. There are many examples, countless work place grievences and injustices, victims of rape and abuse in the British courts.

In the west things had  to change because the value of woman in society was forced to change. In the UK, the only place I have a sound knowledge of, the 2nd world war played a major part in that change and women had to learn how to look after themselves through employment with men away at war. their contribution to the war effort is well evidenced. This was of course before the advent of  social benefits. Now girls receive the same education as boys from 3 yrs old and have have equal opportunity to higher education, and well paid employment in all professional areas. If they flunk out at school they can turn to state benifits and manage if not a good quality of life, at least to survive.

Not all women in Iran  have the same opportunites as we know. What choices do many of them have except a good marriage. If they are lucky they might find love there too. I dont thnk women seek solace in the arms of another outside of their marriage because  they are let down by the inadaquaces of law. That is something they choose to do perhaps because there is no love or respect in their marriage I cant guess at that .....However it can not be argued that most women have less than a few choices in Iran except marriage and their expectation of marriage and view of it might be different now  to what it was only 30 yrs ago. The inequities that are fundimental and deep rooted in Iranian culture and law remain because women are not allowed to step outside the role allocated to them. If they do they are subject to extreme, barbaric and inhuman retribution such as stoning for adultery for example. On a lesser scale they are humiliated or worse because their rusari has slipped and they show their hair. What is this?  Its not as simple as that I know. It is a complex and multi dimensional  issue.

The control of women by men is worse now under the IRI than it ever was. Segregation is becoming ridiculous .. a woman only park with 18ft iron barriers indeed and with talk of future plan to separate men and women in the work place etc. How far will this go? And what chance do women have to gain anythng near equality in these circumstances?

The prevalence of mental illness must be high there although i doubt that it is well documented. Some view mental illness or madness as an escape from reality ... an involuntary or perhaps sometimes not,  preference to the realities of life.

But who does the madness really belong to ?Is it  the madness of men who are so insecure that they have to control everything about their women. Is it madness of women  or is it just badly disguised mysogony??????

I think given the right to choose  women would make good choices about how they dress and live their lives. Most women want love and respect in their lives, a happy marriage, a loving relationship. So why do men seek control of them in these extreme forms?   What are they afraid of?