Right time, right strategy

Interview with women's rights activist Soheila Vahdati


Right time, right strategy
by Elham Gheytanchi

I have known Soheila Vahdati 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:

You have long been an 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 (womeniniran.net). 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.

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.

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.

(for more information on Stop Stoning Forever Campaign see English and for Persian version)

4. I know that in the “One Million Signatures Campaign” (Persin and English versions) 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 (Persian and English)? 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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Mona joon

by Hassan Kachal (not verified) on

Don't get so upset sweetie "yeh vaghti jeez mishia" :)


Have men and Women always been considerd EQUAL???

by Mona 19 (not verified) on

Women and men have been and will always be EQUAL in the sight of God. The Dawning-Place of the Light of God sheddeth its radiance upon all with the same effulgence. Verily God created women for men, and men for women.

The most beloved of people before God are the most steadfast and those who have surpassed others in their love for God, exalted be His glory….


R. Zeinol Abedin Eslaminia Does Equality mean SAMENESS??????

by Mona 19 (not verified) on

Equality between man and women does not, indeed physiologically it cannot, mean identity of functions.

In some things women excel men, for others men are better fitted than women,while in very many things the difference of sex is of no effect at all.

The differences of function are most apparent in Family life.


Humanity is like a bird....

by Mona 19 (not verified) on

Humanity is like a bird with its two wings—the one is male, the other female. Unless both wings are strong and impelled by some common force, the bird cannot fly heavenwards.

According to the spirit of this age, women must advance and fulfill their mission in all departments of life, becoming equal to men. They must be on the same level as men and enjoy equal rights.


Equality of rights for men and women is meaningless

by Zeinol Abedin Eslaminia (not verified) on

Under no law, divine or civil, can there be an absolute equality of rights for the male and female genders. If only for the innate, undeniable and well established differences in their physical anatomy (not to mention the chemical and biochemical changes that arise from their anatomical differences which would inevitably influence their mental and emotional abilities - not suggesting that one is better or worse than the other) there can never be a one-to-one equality between these two species. The fact that women go through monthly periods and bear babies is enough to place them in a different right's zone than their male counterparts. Again I am not going through the scientific evidence that an average woman is physically weaker than an average man.

The appropriate term to be used in assiginging rights to men and women is NOT EQUALITY BUT EQUIVALENCE. Put it simply, orange and apple are both wonderful and each have their own distinctive useful properties but they are not equal to each other, though both are fruits and have a number of common features. Even the animals in nature have their own separate ways of living and habits that each gender respects and obeys. So the name of the game is EQUIVALENCE NOT EQUALITY.


To Faribors Maleknasri : Stop defending the IRI

by She (not verified) on

There have been deadly clashes between the IRI forces and the people of Zahedan. These prisoners were arrested without warrant. Stop distorting the realities of Iran with your pro-IRI propaganda. No one listens to you.


Ferdowsi was certainly misogynist - like most Iranian men

by Feminist (not verified) on

Who said patriarchy is limited to Arabs? The most misogynistic men (and sometimes women) are found among the nationalists, leftists, anti-imperialists, etc. Plus, many great Persian poets, such as Ferowsi, were male chauvinists! What does that prove? That sexism cuts through nationalities, social classes and eras.


To no feminist:

by Tahirih (not verified) on

We are not feminists we are working towards establishment of human rights!
Women are human too you know! and we are working towards giving equal rights to the members of humanity.
I was appald by your poem ,you can even make a monster out of Ferdosi.just remember a woman has given birth to you ,and even if you have a deep rooted hate of your mother you should not generalize your feelings towards other members of human family.

I am glad that I did not raise my son to be like you,we need less of you and your kind and more of champions of unity and freedom .

just remember God has spoken again and has given equal rights to women and men.


God does not require your inhumanity against women

by Amir Normandi (not verified) on

How long and how far in the feature, the Islamist fundamentalists (واپسگرایان) are going to go and believe that they can continue committing crimes against women and call it Gods’ Will.
God does not require your inhumanity against women where they are the asylum for procreation (humanity).


women and dragons

by no feminist (not verified) on

Even the none arab, persian poet Ferdosi (adored by nationalists) has not been in favor of the equal rights for men and women. Women are compared to dragons in this poem !

Zan o Ezhdahaa har 2 dar Khaak beh
Jahaan paak az een har 2 naapaak beh

Now the feminists start to find reasons to say " he has been thinking only about maadar-e foolaad zereh or probably was drunk while writing this poem" :-)


faribors maleknaseri, a Stupid Islamist

by Anonymus (not verified) on

Your English is so bad, and you're such a stupid propagandist for the IRI. Get a life.



by Faribors Maleknasri M.D (not verified) on

I must confess all is written in the interview, all questions, all answers short every thing is true. because other day i read about a prison in south-east Iran. they have let 2.154 prisoners go. But only one hundred of them are women. I think that is a fatal misfit. 100 women minus 2.154 gives 2.054 men. That is a clear example of unequality of women to men down there in that uncivilized part of OUR earth. since i basically do not like to bring things like: MULLAHs are bad, western democracy is good without bring even one example to back and support what i claim so I ask just be kind and acknowledge the following: *
Today: Monday January 07, 2008
Leader pardons 2,154 inmates in Sistan-Baluchestan Prov.
Zahedan, Sistan-Baluchestan Prov., Jan 7, IRNA

Iran-S. Leader-Inmates
Supreme Leader of Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei has in a decree pardoned a group of 2,154 inmates in this province on the Judiciary Chief's proposal.

The inmates, who were two thirds of inmates in the province, reunited with their family in a ceremony on Monday. 100 of the prisoners had been women.

Leadership envoy in Sistan-Baluchestan Province and Friday prayers leader of Zahedan Hojjatoleslam Abbas-Ali Soleymani told the ceremony that the Supreme Leader's grace and affection in ruling the group's pardoning and release indicates the Islamic Republic of Iran's emphasis on a fully Islamic government.

"Release of the huge number of inmates -- an unprecedented event throughout history of Sistan-Baluchestan Province -- has caused wave of happiness among families of inmates and their relatives," said Hojjatoleslam Soleymani.

Unless the women have the same rights as men the Mullahs would not leave that country. May be that nation recieves some help from its friends as USA and othes from the free world. may be as God will. Greeting


to onymous!

by Tahirih (not verified) on

Please ,what does the site you posted ,or Iraq war has to do with equality of men and women.I am against any war and I am not a Bush supporter,so please make a fair comment and do not try to agitate the responses.
Actually when women become totaly equal to men and be part of the decision making of the countries ,we will have less killing and war,because as mothers we do not want to lose our sons in wars.
What harm will come from women not having to go through forced marriage,sigheh( fahshaye sharee),child brides,stoning,back ward divorce laws,and so on.....


Women have equal rights with men upon earth

by Mona 19 (not verified) on

If woman be fully educated and granted her rights, she will attain the capacity for wonderful accomplishments and prove herself the equal of man. She is the coadjutor of man, his complement and helpmeet. Both are human; both are endowed with potentialities of intelligence and embody the virtues of humanity. In all human powers and functions they are partners and coequals.

At present in spheres of human activity woman does not manifest her natal prerogatives,owing to lack of education and opportunity. Without doubt education will establish her equality with men, and as long as women are prevented from attaining their highest possibilities, so long will men be unable to achieve the greatness which might be theirs.

With Loving Greetings,


To: Onymous, your comment is confusing..

by aaj sr (not verified) on

-The link you provided about the incident is inconclusive, so let's see the Iraqi's and other international reports before jumping to conclusion.
-What Nafici has anything to do with the above report and Wolfowitz?. Religion aside; if women as HUMAN asking for equality (no more Havoo, no more Sighe, able for custody of children, able to travel without father or husband's permision, same rights in legal system, equal rights as man but not as half a man, etc etc), freedom, as all true Iranian are looking for; what's wrong with that?
What has these issues has anything to do with "Bush Style"?


Women's Rights Bush Style

by An Onymous (not verified) on

Women's Rights Bush Style

We are seeing how our blondy Blackwater hero's in shining white armor are treating Iraqi women. ( //news.xinhuanet.com/english/2008-01/06/conte... )

While some upper class Iranian women, bored with life, are trying to teach the rest of hard working Iranian women what women rights is about, they forget that they have allied themselves with mass murderers like Wolfowitz, in the case of Azar Nafici.

Stop defending other women's rights and try to stop your own countrymen from destroying human life. You don't need to improve anything, just avoid worsening the situation, that is going to be a huge step by itself.


Allah is misogynist

by She (not verified) on

Wowen's rights and Allah's laws are incompatible. A woman is half a man according to this Arab god. Religion should remain a personal issue and out of the public sphere!


Equality of man and woman is not only possible but inevitable.

by Tahirih (not verified) on

And let it be known once more that until woman and man recognize and realize equality, social and political progress here or anywhere will not be possible. For the world of humanity consists of two parts or members: one is woman; the other is man. Until these two members are equal in strength, the oneness of humanity cannot be established, and the happiness and felicity of mankind will not be a reality. God willing, this is to be so.


Democracy shall be established in Iran when women’s rights are r

by Amir Normandi (not verified) on

Women’s rights are in line with merciful Allah. It is the merciless fundamentalists’ chauvinist that can not see that.