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10. July 2007

N. Tohidi im Gespräch © Elisabeth Kasbauer/FoG

Nayereh Tohidi talking in the Kunsthaus Vienna

Dr. Jaleh Lackner und Dr. Tohidi © Elisabeth Kasbauer/FoG

Dr. Jaleh Lackern, Women without Borders Team member and Dr. Tohidi

Nayereh Tohidi © Elisabeth Kasbauer/FoG

Free Haleh ©

One Million Signatures ... ©

“I see women as the primary agents of change in Iran”

A discussion with Dr. Nayereh Tohidi in Vienna

During Nayereh Tohidi´s stay in Vienna at the beginning of July, Women without Borders, together with a small group of journalists, had the chance to meet her and talk with her about current issues.
What does she think about the young generation? Are they the driving force, will they make a change? Does the case of Haleh Esfandiari affect her life? Would she go to Iran at the moment?

Dr. Nayereh Tohidi is professor and Chair at the Women´s Studies Department of the California State University. She is teaching in the areas of women, Islam and democracy in Muslim societies and has worked as a consultant for United Nations Organizations such as UNDP, UNICEF, and WIDER on projects concerning women, identity politics, gender and development in the Middle East and The Post-Soviet Eurasia. Her publications include Globalization, Gender and Religion: The Politics of Women’s Rights in Catholic and Muslim Contexts (Palgrave, 2001) and Women in Muslim Societies: Diversity within Unity (Lynne Rienner, 1998).

The future…

I am naively optimistic. I have the tendency to be optimistic although recently it is very hard to be optimistic, given not only the situation in Iran, but of the region as a whole, and the international situation. The wrong policies of the United States of the present administration are going to have long term negative repercussions that are going to affect everybody.

The young generation…

I see women, especially the younger generation of women and the youth in general, - half of them being female - as the primary agent of change in Iran. They are agents of change in the sense that they have been already creating some profound social changes in terms of attitudes, gender roles, sexuality, changes in terms of marriage patterns, in terms of the visibility of women in the society.
Iranian women do not fall under the submissive, victimised, obedient category that many people had the image of in the West. They are strong; they are self-confident, many of them at least. They are speaking out and speaking up and they are demanding their rights. A good example is “The one Million Signatures Campaign for Equal Rights”that they have recently waged.
The new generation is really pragmatist, materialist, similar to the younger people in many Western societies. They want tangible results of what they are doing. They are not idealist the way our generation used to be. They are not after long term ideal goals.

Times of transition …

A strange transition of situation is under way in Iran; people are demoralised in some sense, even younger ones, even students; they are demoralised in terms of ideals and leadership and specific political agenda. And on the other hand they are more assertive about what they want. They know what they want, and more importantly, they know what they do not want. They want at least: civil rights, personal freedom, social freedoms and better living conditions.

Haleh Esfandiari …

I am a bit worried of travelling back to Iran now. I worked with Haleh, know her well and respect her a lot.
Many of us, many scholars, especially those of us who are active in human rights campaigns and who are known as pro-democracy advocate scholars, got the regime’s message! That was part of the purpose of arresting Haleh and a few others; to say to people like us “do not come here”, and to say to scholars inside Iran, “do not go abroad”. They want to prevent all international and trans-national dialogue and contacts among scholars.
Ms. Esfandiari was precisely establishing such a dialogue process. This was a real contribution to the process of democracy; the creation of opportunities for intellectuals to learn from each other, to exchange ideas.
Haleh Esfandiari used to travel freely to Iran, every year several times. We were always wondering. 'Haleh, be careful.' Because her mother, who is Viennese, lives in Iran, she used to visit her at least twice a year, sometimes even more. When she went, she did not only visit her mother, but also met scholars, people who she could invite to her conferences and seminars. So, we thought, 'well, maybe they do not dare to touch someone like Haleh. Maybe they realise Haleh is not really a militant to be after overthrowing a regime.

Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, a 67 year old Iranian-American who is living in the US for 25 years, is the Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. The expert on Middle Eastern women’s issues and Iranian affairs was on her way to Teheran´s airport when masked gunmen ambushed her taxi and stole her luggage on December 30th 2006.
When she went to replace her passport, she was sent to the Intelligence Ministry for interrogation. For four months she was held under effective house arrest and repeatedly interrogated.

On May 8, security forces took her away to Evin Prison, though she has not been formally charged with any crime. Evin Prison is notorious for its harsh treatment of political prisoners; in 2003, Iranian-Canadian photo-journalist Zahra Kazemi was killed during her interrogation in that prison.

The arrest of Dr. Esfandiari has been condemned by many scholars and also the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the International Herald Tribune, and Human Rights Watch. Her colleagues from around the world fear for her health and her safety. They call on the Iranian government to correct the mistake that has been made and free Haleh at once.

The American Islamic Congress in conjunction with Ibn Khaldoun Center in Cairo, the Initiative for Inclusive Security in Washington, Freedom House and the Kuwaiti Economic Society initiated the “Free Haleh” campaign. Please click here

One Million Signatures Demanding Changes to Discriminatory Laws

Iranian women – no matter what age they are, what their profession is, where they come from – started this unique initiative in August 2006 demanding an end to discriminatory laws against women in the Iranian law.

This campaign is one of the biggest women´s campaigns the country ever had. Tens of thousands have already signed the petition. The initiators plan to hit the 1 Million edge and bring it to the parliament in the course of two years.

Please follow the link for further information and to sign the petition:


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