Iranian Civil Society: Past, Present, and Future

May 8, 2016, Washington D.C. – The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace held a panel on Wednesday, May 4th to discuss Iranian civil society, its women’s movements, and the future of Iran’s reform movement. Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate in the Carnegie Middle East Program, moderated the panel. He was joined by panelists Masih Alinejad, journalist and social media activist; Nina Ansary, author of Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of Women in Iran; and Laura Secor, author of Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran.

Sadjadpour opened the panel by asking Secor to explain the pragmatism of modern Iranian civil society. As he put it, the Iranian revolutionaries of the 1970s wanted “a revolution without democracy”, while reform era leaders wanted “democracy without a revolution”. Secor contested that while the Iranian reform movement came out of the revolution, it did incorporate western democratic theory and other liberal ideas. Secor maintained that the reform movement’s strategy of building democratic institutions from the ground up makes it as idealistic as the revolutionary movement. An example of this was the introduction of local city councils in 1999 which aimed to create a representative governing class and reform the country’s relationship between and the state and society.

Sadjadpour then directed his attention to Nina Ansary and Masih Alinejad, both leading experts on Iran’s women’s movements. He asked Ansary to compare the Iranian women’s movements of today to those of the Khomeini era. The revolution, Ansary answered, empowered a very specific population of Iranian women. The mandatory veil and the introduction of single sex schooling empowered traditional Iranian women, by making education more accessible for families with values aligned with those of the Islamic government. She continued to speak about a new and fearless generation of women’s activists who use social media to reach out and maximize the impact of their call for equal rights.  She explained that social media has allowed her to connect with the younger generations in Iran, who are currently leading the women’s movements.

Masih Alinejad is a journalist and human rights activist, leads a Facebook page called My Stealthy Freedom, that serves as a platform for young Iranian women to share pictures of themselves without the mandatory veil. She described the existence of “two Iran[s], one through the map [and the other] on social media. I use social media to make people their own storytellers and to show the rest of the world the hidden face of Iran”. Alinejad insists that the veil represents a lack of freedom for Iranian women. Ansary agreed with Alinejad, pointing out that even Khomeini’s granddaughter has criticized the veil, stating that it has become a symbol of the oppression of the Islamic regime.

Expanding on Khomeini’s legacy, Secor said “The Khomeini era, sits as a trauma for many Iranians. A reconciliation with that time is necessary to move forward”. Since the revolution, Secor explained, Iran has seen rapid urbanization, smaller families, and an expansion of the middle class, which has led to an upswing of reform minded thinking and voting.

Sadjadpour, concluded by asking Ansary and Alinejad whether women’s reform is possible under an Islamic governing body. Ansary said that indeed, reform has already taken place in, for example, the amended inheritance laws, which allows women to inherit a larger portion of their husbands’ property and have increased female representation in parliament. Despite this progress, however, Ansary stated, “within this theocracy, full emancipation is unlikely”.  Ansary concluded by reminding the audience that “[gender inequity] is not strictly an ‘Iran problem’; this is a global epidemic”. Such thinking is essential in achieving global progress, rather than creating a divisive mentality towards the country of Iran.

Alinejad answered Sadjadpour’s question optimistically, stating that Iranian women are some of the bravest, smartest, and strongest people on the planet. “You have to believe in Iranian women”, she said. “I lost everything [during the revolution], but not hope. That’s what scares the Iranian government”.

“You don’t want to be pessimistic”, Secor added, “Iranian civil society is so alive”.

You can watch the full panel here.

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