Happy Women’s History Month! Originating in 1981 when Congress passed Pub. L. 97-28 which authorized and requested the President to proclaim the week beginning March 7, 1982 as “Women’s History Week,” and after being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project, in 1987, Congress passed Pub. L. 100-9 which designated the month of March 1987 as “Women’s History Month.” Between 1988 and 1994, Congress passed additional resolutions requesting and authorizing the President to proclaim March of each year as Women’s History Month. Since 1995, presidents have issued a series of annual proclamations designating the month of March as “Women’s History Month.” Learn more at womenshistorymonth.gov.
We’re kicking off the month by sharing an excerpt of The Other Side of Silence: A Memoir of Exile, Iran, and the Global Women’s Movement by Mahnaz Afkhami.
When Mahnaz Afkhami picked up the phone in a New York hotel room early one morning in November 1978, she learned she could never go home again: she had been declared an apostate and enemy of the Iranian Revolution and was now on its death list. Afkhami, Iran’s first minister for women’s affairs, began to rebuild her life in the United States, becoming an architect of the women’s movement in the Global South. Along the way, she encountered familial, cultural, political, and organizational hurdles that threatened to derail her quest to empower women and change the very structure of human relations.
A skilled storyteller who has spent her life in two worlds, Mahnaz Afkhami shares her unexpected and meteoric rise from unassuming English professor to a champion of women’s rights in Iran; the clash between Western feminists and those from the Global South; and the challenges of international women’s rights work during the so-called war on terror. Her journey through exile shows what it takes to launch and sustain a worldwide grassroots movement: funding, an ever-expanding network, conferences, education, and decades of hard work requiring individuals and organizations to persevere despite ongoing wars, humanitarian disasters, and climate change. Told with humor, honesty, and compassion, Afkhami’s remarkable story illuminates the possibility of bringing opportunity and choice to women across the world.
The Women of Kerman
Although I spent only my first eleven years in the small desert city of Kerman where I was born, its light and scorched landscape still pervade my memories. I need only to close my eyes to feel the heat of blinding sunlight on my lids, see the thick gray-green leaves of pistachio trees, and hear the trickling of water—a symbol of sacred beauty.
It was not unusual for our extended family of grandparents, parents, children, aunts, uncles, and cousins to drive out in a jeep caravan across the desert to an oasis miles away where we threw down carpets next to a narrow stream we called pahnab (ironically, “wide waters”). There we drank wine and a variety of fruit drinks and sang melodies to the sound of Iran’s most popular stringed instrument, the tar. On those evenings we felt no contradiction between being proud descendants of Shaykhi Muslim religious leaders and drinking, singing, and dancing together on a desert outing.
The women in my father’s family, my aunts and cousins, owned land in their own right and retained that ownership after marriage. They managed their property, handled the workers, dealt with agricultural issues, bought what was needed, and sold what they grew on their land. This area of Iran was still patriarchal and rather feudal, and class in this case trumped gender.
My father’s mother, Shah Jan, a descendant of a Qajar prince who had ruled the province of Kerman, was the unquestioned authority in a large household that was spread over several buildings. The andaroon (inner house) was where we lived as a family, while the birouni (outer house) was where the men entertained, and where my grandfather, Mokhtar-ul-Molk, conducted business and dealt with the concerns of the villagers who came to deliver goods, provide reports, or share their troubles. Every morning the household members came to Shah Jan in the andaroon to offer their salutations and receive guidance, whether requested, desired, or not. My grandmother spoke softly as she puffed on her hookah, with her printed chador around her shoulders and a white scarf carefully pinned under her chin, showing her parted gray hair.2 From this command center she presided over the household and made decisions that affected the lives of many in the villages.
My maternal grandmother, Tooba Naficy, also came from a respected family, but the Naficys were not landowners. They were intellectuals, interested in books and learning; a cousin had been chosen as tutor by Reza Shah for his son, the crown prince. Tooba was a restless young woman who read any book within reach, from The Sermons of Sheikh Mohammad to A Thousand and One Nights. She was also beautiful, and at eighteen she married a distant cousin. Her curiosity then led her to the Baha’i faith, and when she converted, her husband’s family forced him to divorce her. Tooba moved to her own house and was allowed custody of her daughter on one condition: that she not raise her as a Baha’i. Although she passed on her values and love of learning to my mother, Ferdows, and later to us children, she did not promote her religion. Tooba set up her tailoring business at her house in Kerman, where she brought up my mother and trained and employed many young women who worked for her in the rooms around the small courtyard. In her life as a convert and a single working mother, Tooba was decades ahead of her time.
These formative role models—one an aristocrat who presided over a large household, the other a rebel who forged her own path—had an incredible impact on my view of what a woman could do. Their quite different ways of gaining and exercising independence and power remain with me to this day.
Mahnaz Afkhami was born in Kerman, Iran. She is the founder and president of Women’s Learning Partnership, executive director of the Foundation for Iranian Studies, and former minister for women’s affairs in Iran.