Washington, DC – “In some societies, laws protecting women are beyond the culture of the people. In Iran, it is the opposite,” said Sanam Anderlini, Senior Fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies and co-founder of the International Civil Action Network, speaking on a panel regarding the role of women in Iran at NIAC’s 2014 Leadership Conference.
Moderated by CCTV America Anchor, Asieh Namdar, the expert panel discussed the ups-and-downs of Iran’s women’s rights movement, the opportunities available to Iranian women in their civil rights struggle, the negative effects U.S. and international sanctions have had on Iranian women.
Starting with an overview of where Iranian women find themselves today, Anderlini pointed out the “good news” – that, after a decade of backlash, “the voice of women and the issue of women’s rights…remain part and parcel of a broader discourse [in Iran].”
“The voice of women is out there, it’s going to be the most important thing in Iran, and I wish it was this strong in Egypt, in Syria and in Libya,” said Nazila Fathi, a former correspondent for The New York Times. “Women are already empowered in Iran, education has already played its role, and my fear is more when they want to sort of banish women from the public sphere.”
Recent reversals in reproductive health policies were discussed with concern by panelists and audience alike. Not long ago, Anderlini observed, Iran has been a “model of reproductive planning, [so much so that] other countries would visit [Iran] to learn” how to implement successful birth-control programs. Nowadays, women’s basic reproductive rights are under siege. Fathi warned that recent clampdowns on civil society is a message from Iranian hardliners to the Rouhani government threatening “that inside the country, there’s not going to be any change.”
Panelists also noted that U.S. policies towards Iran – especially the sanctions — were not free of blame. Noting that sanctions have caused a serious contraction in Iran’s economy and thus limited Iranian women’s employment opportunities, Nadereh Chamlou – a former Senior Advisor to the Chief Economist at the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa Region — said, “Sanctions have been very hurtful to Iranian women and the Iranian woman’s cause.” Her diagnosis was seconded by Anderlini, who challenged U.S. policymakers to show their concern about the human rights situation in Iran by “lift[ing] the sanctions” and freeing Iranian women from the disproportionate impact of U.S. sanctions policies.
More thoughtful U.S. policies towards Iran would consider the immense changes that have occurred in Iran’s population over the past 35 years. As Anderlini noted, “a progressive, moderate population in Iran…presents an opportunity that should not be missed.”
Regardless of U.S. policies, however, the issue of women’s rights will remain a central element in Iran’s political discourse, panelists concluded. That is because, as Iran’s women long ago concluded, “[the women’s movement] is like a river, you can’t stop it.”