labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
janeiro/ junho 2016 - janvier/juillet 2016


Iranian feminists and transnational contestations

Halleh Ghorashi ; Rezvan Moghaddam




This paper focuses on the different ways in which Iranian women have been active around women’s issues inside and outside of Iran. By presenting the development and challenges of the Iranian Women Studies Foundation (IWSF) in diaspora over more than 25 years and its (dis)connections with women’s activists inside Iran, this paper will reveal various sites of contestation in transnational space.  Inside Iran and in the diaspora, Iranian women activists share a passion for women’s rights. However these activists have been situated in very different contexts over the past decades. For many Iranian women activists active in IWSF and living in diaspora, memories of a suppressive regime are decisive in their feminist positioning. For Iranian women inside Iran it is their struggle within an Islamic framework which shapes their activism. This article presents and analyses various lines of connection, conflict, and change between activities inside and outside Iran over nearly 30 years.  

Key-words: IWSF, women´ rights, activism



Since the mid twentieth century, there have been various waves of Iranian emigration. The most significant happened after the Iranian revolution of 1979. Compared to other diaspora groups such as the several thousand year old Jewish diaspora, the existence of an Iranian diaspora is quite recent. The number of Iranians residing outside Iran–either in exile or as migrants–before the revolution of 1979 was estimated to be somewhere in the tens of thousands. Since the revolution, this number has reached into the millions. There is no exact number for the Iranian diaspora, but speculations are that it is around 4 to 5 million.

The largest number of this group is located in the United States, mainly in the state of California. Many refer to Southern California as the second Iran. Los Angeles is often referred to as ‘Irangeles’ (Kelly and Friedlander, 1993) and ‘Tehrangles’. In the nearly four decades since the revolution, the Iranian diaspora has not only increased in number, but is active, visible, and diverse. In fields such as academia, politics, journalism, and the arts, this diaspora has staked a highly visible claim internationally. In spite of this international presence, it seems that there are few (known) transnational visible fora that bring this diaspora together.

Iranian diaspora connections are often limited to the boundaries of the nation state or region in which one resides. There have been incidental and sometimes even explosive connections among nationally located Iranian diaspora and those located in Iran in the wake of particular events, such as the Bam earthquake in 2003 (Ghorashi & Boersma 2009) and the election protests of 2009 which is referred to as the “Green movement”. Nevertheless, Iranian transnational networks that connect the Iranian diaspora mutually and with Iran are rare. There are some exceptions in this regards when it comes to human rights organizations, yet the most sustainable and visible transnational network within the Iranian diaspora has been and continues to be the Iranian Women Studies Foundation (IWSF).

Since 1990, the aim of the IWSF has been to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas on issues related to Iranian women through a yearly conference. The first IWSF conference was held in 1990 in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the United States. Since then, the foundation has organized annual conferences on women’s issues all over the world. Every year hundreds of Iranian women residing in various countries attend this three-day conference.

The conference has taken place in various cities, primarily in the United States and Canada (i.e., Los Angeles, Berkeley, Denver), but later in European cities as well (i.e., Paris, Stockholm, London, Berlin). The program of the conference consists of lectures, discussions, cultural presentations, and informal gatherings. Depending on the theme of the conference, activists from Iran or from its diaspora as well as well-known non-Iranian feminists are invited to speak.

The aim of this article to show the developments and challenges faced by IWSF and situate the network within the ongoing discussion on diaspora positioning, transnational networks, and power. In terms of positioning IWSF, it is important to provide some context of the changing possibilities for transnational contact following the Iranian revolution, the background of the initiators of IWSF, and the development of the women’s movement in Iran. Before doing that we would like to provide the theoretical lens that we will use in this article.


Diasporic transnational condition and power

The diasporic condition is about creating chains of networks worldwide, based upon a constructed sense of (cultural) sameness in background (Vertovec and Cohen, 2002). The meanings attributed to this ‘common’ identity, however, are anything but static and homogeneous. Rather, they are diverse, heterogeneous, multi-layered and dynamic, because of their contextual and situational characters. Many studies have shown that the meaning attributed by minority groups within a particular diaspora group to this notion of sameness in relation to ‘the homeland’ is often quite different from that constructed by the majority (Al-Rasheed, 1994; McAuliffe, 2007; Srebreny, 2000).

It is precisely the multi-layered and dynamic character of diasporic networks that offers the possibility to enrich individual members of these networks in a variety of ways. Because a network is never complete or absolutely stable — there is a variation in the way people are related to each other — there can be (groups of) people within a network that are unaware of one another. Brokers, or network entrepreneurs, are very important in building bridges from one place in the network to another (Burt, 2005). In what they call the ‘diaspora effect’, Kilduff and Corley (1999) show that in many ways diasporas have an influence on the nations they have left behind.

We argue that this effect is multi-sided, meaning that the people who remain can also have an effect on members of the diaspora. This multi-sided effect becomes particularly visible when a transnational network is oriented towards civil society and democratic issues. In that case, the challenge is to invest in the democratic competencies that are required to engage with different positionalities and ideas. Developing competencies on these issues is challenging both for the residents in a non-democratic structure like Iran and in a diaspora with an ideological anti-regime agenda.

These challenges take on a new dimension in an era characterized by what Castells (1996) calls the rise of the network society. The traditional one-directional working of power (in terms of coercive power) has transformed to a more invisible and multi-dimensional working of power. Power is now to defined more in the sense of a ‘rhizome’, as Deleuze and Guattari (1972) describe the postmodern condition (see also Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 3). A rhizome has neither direction nor a single source: a rhizome is a ‘botanical term for a root system that spreads across the ground (as in bamboo) rather than downwards, and grows from several points rather than a single tap root’ (Ashcroft et al., 2000: 207).

Unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states.… It is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion.… The tree is filiation but the rhizome is alliance…the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 21, 25)

In terms of human connections, the rhizomatic network describes the decentralized, distributed patterns of organizations. That is not to say that there are no rules and restrictions within these rhizomatic networks, but that the authority and control over migration, transnationalism and diaspora become more distributed and ‘networked’.

Networks are not neutral phenomena. Recent studies offer useful insights into the (hidden) power in network structures (Cross and Parker, 2004). Network analysis builds upon the idea of social capital, which explains how people do better (that is, are more powerful) because they are somehow better connected with other people. Social capital is the sum of resources, actual or virtual, that increases if an individual becomes connected to networks of more or less institutionalized (durable) relationships (Bourdieu, 1990; Burt, 2005; Ibarra et al., 2005; Putnam, 1993). In this way, social capital is linked to one’s identity, not so much in terms of one’s roots but in terms of one’s rhizomatic, networked connections.


Iranians and transnational shifted connectedness

In spite of its initial ideals of freedom and equality, the Iranian revolution of 1979 quickly became oppressive of both its political opposition and women. The first half of the 1980s can be considered as one of the most oppressive periods in the recent history of Iran. In that same period, the war with Iraq (1980-1988) began. In addition to the political oppression of the revolutionary regime, the war led to the closing of national borders for several years. By the time the borders reopened in the mid 1980s, a large number of Iranians had been smuggled across and had had started new lives elsewhere.

The physical opening of the Iranian borders did not result in much more trans-border movement either physically or virtually. During those years the image of the new Iran was so negative that it was almost impossible for Iranians to obtain travel visas from any western country even if they were able to acquire legal travel documents from the Iranian regime. The result was that a large number of Iranians left Iran either with illegal exit documents or with illegitimate entry documents. In addition, its isolation meant that Iran was initially left behind much of the rest of the world in terms of technological developments.

 However, we need to note that this level of isolation changed drastically once the internet became available. From the turn of the century the online transnational activities of Iranians across the world was rather significant (Graham and Khosravi 2002; Alinejad 2015). Yet, in those years, the war, the regime, and the isolation of Iran, resulted in a kind of “forced” physical and virtual separation from the rest of the world. This had undeniable effects on the Iranians who left Iran and the ones who stayed.

In the 1980s, the nation state significantly limited the transnational space for activism in Iran. In those years of isolation and suppression, activists in Iran did not have much access to the world beyond their limited locality. Limitations were eased in the years following the end of the Iran-Iraq war, however only for a few. In that period, the publication of newspapers and magazines was monopolized by people with connections to the ruling power. This was also the case for academic publications, individuals with any associations to the political opposition were blocked from publication and women activists were marginalized.

 By the end of the 1990s, the borders of the nation state started to open up both physically and virtually.  By then, access to developing transnational spaces enabled new possibilities for local protest to become more empowered. Transnational space meant opening up a new world for women activists who felt limited for years in their rather closed local environment. Access to the Internet and limited cell phone availability created a great chance for communications (for women’s rights activists, as one example) within and outside Iran (Rahimi & Gheytanchi 2008). Yet, this opening of transnational space also had limiting aspects for Iran’s local protest movements.

The limitations were partly a result of the deep gap between local Iranian activists and the Iranian diaspora resulting from the “forced” years of separation during the 1980s. Hatred of the Iranian regime for years served as the binding factor for a rather heterogeneous Iranian diaspora. For women, anger against the regime was political as well as gender-related because of gender-specific violence. Hatred and anger towards the Iranian regime long remained an essential part of diasporic identity.

Iranians inside Iran, however, struggled in many ways to improve their positions within the limiting space of the Islamic republic. Women activists initiated and continued various activities in their struggle against patriarchal culture and for equality. For two decades women’s rights activists gathered in small houses, organized cultural meetings, formed cooperatives and charitable funds, discussed books and analysed the world news (Ahmadi Khorasani 2012). Towards the end of the 1990s, these and other activities resulted in the formation of a limited form of civil society within the context of political reformist movement in Iran. NGOs started their struggle to become independent of the state, and activists started to claim, although with fear, as much as space possible to express their ideas.

Despite the changes in Iran, the gap between Iranians inside and outside remained wide in the 1990s. On the one hand, the diaspora’s memory of a suppressive situation in Iran made them suspicious of any kind of activism from within the country. On the other hand, Iranian activists inside felt ignored and distrusted the judgment of those living in the diaspora because they believed that this group had been away too long and was too far away to know the true situation. This mutual distance and distrust hindered contacts for some time.

In this paper we will show how and why these positions have changed over time. To do so, we start with a very short history of the women’s movement in Iran; elaborate on activities inside and outside Iran; and describe the shifting patterns of transnational connections over the past decade.


Iranian Women: Symbol of Modernity and Islam


Pahlavi era (1925-1979)

In 1936 Reza Shah started with his modernization plan for Iran with  Iranian women as its symbol. These plans had paradoxical outcomes. It created some opportunities for women, like access to university education and job opportunities (Esfandiari 1997). But by the mid-1930s all independent women’s groups and journals were banned by the government (Najmabadi 1991). In the 1960s Mohammad Reza Shah followed the modernization policies of his father, which resulted in some legal benefits for women such as the right to vote (1963).

The Family Protection Law of 1967, which offered increased protection in cases of divorce and custody of their children, was revised to offer free abortion on demand (1974), a ban on pol­ygyny, and the right to alimony after divorce (1976).

Yet, under Mohammad Reza Shah’s rule all independent women’s organizations were abolished and a new organization came into existence. It was called the Women’s Organization of Iran (hereafter WOI), directly linked to the state. Despite its dependency to the state, the WOI played some role in promoting women’s rights in those years (Najmabadi 1991, 62-63). The women’s movement prior to the revolution was one of the reasons for the considerable participation of women in the revolution and their social, intellectual, and political involvement in those years.


Women as the symbol of Islamic Iran

Women played an important role in the protests against the regime. The images of thousands of women with their children shouting slogans against the Pahlavi regime in the streets of Iranian cities surprised many people around the world. However, a month after the overthrow of the Pahlavi regime, women were marching again. This time the marches were against policies of the new rulers such as compulsory veiling. Religious leaders who praised women for their participation in the revolution (Esfandiari 1994) now asked women to return to their homes.

 All the demonstrations and protests did not prevent the new regime from gradually restricting women’s freedom. Compulsory veiling was the first step and women’s legal position worsened from the first months after the revolution (Sanasarian 1982; Nashat 1983; Reeves 1989).

“It took about forty years for secular feminists of the Pahlavi era to change the family law from the Civil Code of 1936 to the Family Protection Law of 1975. In 1979, it took Ayatollah Khomeini one speech to demolish the Family Protection Law in a single blast” (Paidar 1996, 64).

The size, the variety and the continuity of protests against the new restrictions of women was massive showing that women encouraged to leave the home to join the revolution were not willing to go back again (Moghadam 2003; Paidar 1996).

“As a result, in the past fifteen years, Iranian women, more than any other time in the 20th century, became aware of fundamental and important issues regarding their gender and reacted accordingly” (Kar 1995, 662).

The participation in the revolution and the space created afterwards led to questioning various ideas. It was no longer taken for granted that women should stay at home as housewives and mothers and not take part in public decision-making. Women obtained a taste of freedom to decide about political, social, cultural, and sexual aspects of their lives. The general picture of gender relations, in which women were attributed only a passive role regarding social and cultural developments, changed in this period. Women from different backgrounds took part in decision-making, both within political parties and at social and cultural gatherings.


Women’s voices from inside Iran

Participating in the revolution and becoming politically active made many women aware of the importance of decision-making and about their rights as women (Ghorashi 1996). Many leftist activists, for example, who did not call themselves feminists during the revolution, had become strong advocates of women’s rights later, either inside or outside Iran (Ghorashi 2003). These strong secular feminists transferred their political passion partly into a passion for feminism.

 However there was a difference between those who remained and those who left Iran. During the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, the Iranian Islamic framework made it impossible for secular feminists to express their secular identity openly. Secular and religious activists worked side-by-side in Iran to voice their protest against the anti-women policies of the Islamic republic (for an overview of Islamic women’s movement in Iran see Moghadam 2002).  

The initiatives and activities of women activists in Iran with different convictions included the following: the magazine Zanan (women); Women’s Committee founded in 2002; the Women’s Cultural Center founded in 2000 and officially registered as NGO in 2001;  women’s magazines such as Jens-e Dovom (Second Sex) and Fasl-e Zanan (the season of Women) (See for elaborate analysis of Zanan, Najmabadi 1998 and Mir-Hosseini 1996a). Their activities included: celebrations of International Woman’s Day on 8th of March each year, seminars and conferences regarding such issues as “the killing of street women,” “Afghan women in exile (in Iran),” “Domestic violence”, and the publication of a Newsletter “Nameye Zan.”

By the turn of the century there was an increase in collaborations between secular and Islamic women activists on various fora. Articles in the magazine Zanan were written by Shirin Ebadi and Mehrangiz Kar. Shirin Ebadi is the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 2004 and Mehrangiz Kar is a lawyer living in those years in Iran who is now living in abroad because of her medical condition (for more see Mir-Hosseini 1996b and Najmabadi 1998). Both authored a number of  articles informing women of  their legal rights. Since then there have been many collaborations on women’s issues by women activists from different backgrounds, the most significant example is the “One Million Signatures Campaign” (initiated in August 2006), which we will elaborate on later.   

The activities and changes that have taken place in Iran prove that women have claimed their space through tireless struggles on a variety of fronts. That said, many members of the Iranian diaspora did not witness these changes because they left Iran during the 1980s: the years characterized by many as “the dark years of suppression.”

As mentioned earlier, the fact that the physical and virtual borders of Iran were closed during that time resulted in limited communication between activists abroad and activists within Iran. As a result diaspora Iranians were not quite aware of the developments in Iran. The memories of those years of suppression remained vivid in the minds of diaspora Iranians. They could not imagine that there had been any changes. It was this image of Iran as ultimately suppressive that held sway over the Iranian diaspora and influenced their understanding of the changes in Iran. In order to understand this particular diasporic positioning, we elaborate on the situation in the 1980s in the following section.


Remembering the Revolution

During 1979–1981, the two years following the revolution of 1979 that are often referred to as “the spring of freedom,” a number of political groups came into existence. At that time those groups were permitted by law. These groups advanced a wide range of ideologies, including forms of Marxism, Islamism, liberalism, and women’s rights. Both the extent of the freedom enjoyed during these years and the opportunity for political involvement meant that Iranian women were extensively participating in the political changes of their country for the first time.

After the revolution, scenes in the streets changed drastically. This was especially true in front of the University of Tehran. Bookshops were filled with books that were previously illegal. In front of these shops, stands displayed newly printed books, tapes of revolutionary music, and a multitude of newspapers from diverse political groups. In front of almost every stand a group of people discussed political issues and plans for the future of the country. Men and woman of all ages and classes took part in passionate debates. One of the women living in diaspora explains this period beautifully:

“My sister told me once: ‘history has given us an intensive course’, and she was right. When I look back, I see that the intensity of the events then was so great that you felt as if those events happened in thirty years: those years were so intense. Those were great years, and I always look forward to having another time like that.”

Those years of freedom were beautiful, but they did not last. Years full of hope and optimism changed to years full of fear and emptiness: a period called “the years of suppression” by many. In the first months after the revolution, various political groups began clashing. Although people were free to demonstrate and discuss in the streets, disagreements gradually took on more virulent forms. Occasional violent confrontations led to a decisive change of power in June 1981. From that time onwards, brutal and bloody scenes dominated the streets of Iran, especially in Tehran.

Those who opposed the Islamists in power remember those days and the years that followed as hell, while the first years of the revolution were associated with paradise. The symbolic use of paradise and hell to describe those events may seem somewhat exaggerated; however, this is the way many activists remember those years. This change from years of activity and possibility to years of silence, fear, and passivity had a strong psychological impact on women. Many expressed feelings of depression: saying they felt dead or lost.

These earlier experiences of many women now in diaspora affected them in diverse ways. For many, new ideals replaced old political ideals. These new ideals include the wish to make at least a small contribution to changing the world. For this reason most Iranian women in diaspora are quite active in human, women, and children’s rights issues. It is those memories of the years of suppression in Iran and the urge for activism in the present that characterizes the majority of Iranian women in diaspora and it is from this context that their reaction to activism in Iran can be understood.

Shared political pasts could have served as a possible binding factor between Iranian women activists inside and outside Iran. Instead it is the years of separation during the 1980s that have dominated the interactions between the two. Even though both groups of activists claim women’s rights and feminism as their driving force, this assumed communality has not been enough for a healthy interaction between the two. In the following part I will illustrate this by presenting the case of a transnational Iranian women’s organization in which, over the past decade, the tensions between the activists inside and outside have been central.


Iranian Women’s Studies Foundation (IWSF)

As mentioned above one of the most significant activities organized by Iranian women are the annual transnational conferences of IWSF (, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in July 2014.  The themes of the IWSF conferences, the programs, and the location change each year. What has remained consistent is the passion of the organizers and the great tension between diverse points of views on women’s issues.

Since the first conferences there have been several incidents in which activists from Iran were verbally attacked by some of those living in the diaspora. These attacks were mainly based on (ideological, political) positions taken but were also partly due to the fact that those participants from Iran were wearing headscarves. In addition, there has been a growing gap between activists and scholars during IWSF conferences.

This gap has grown because most of the Iranian scholars living outside Iran have begun to notice the activities and the space created in Iran as a new opening and as a result started to write about Islamic feminism (see for an overview Moghadam 2002). Some of the Iranian activists living in diaspora did not appreciate the position taken by the scholars. After presenting their work some scholars were openly attacked, labelled as postmodernist and marginalized by the activists, this tension has grown, and every year there has been a new occasion for conflict in the conference, which has been most explosive during the year of the 25th anniversary in 2014 which we elaborate later, starting now with some of earlier incidents (based on personal observations of both authors during various IWSF conferences).

During the 2003 IWSF conference in London, the earlier mentioned Mehrangiz Kar, a famous lawyer and women’s right activist who became famous for her books and articles on women’s rights in Iran, was nominated for the conference’s Woman of the Year award. Kar was considered one of the most important voices of opposition inside Iran during the 1990s. Yet, this recognition did not prevent critics from raising their voices loudly when Kar was awarded the “Woman of the Year” prize in 2003. The position of Kar as a secular feminist was not as clear in those years as it became once she left Iran in 2001 for medical treatment. Kar has been under attack by the regime for her vocal critical support for women’s rights. A diaspora activist with a strong political leftist views told one of the authors of this paper in a personal conversation:

“I was one of the women who shouted at Ms. Kar in that conference and I feel so ashamed, knowing now about her work and dedication to women’s rights.”

Yet, there were also counter voices at the 2003 conference. One of young women participants stated that her reason to be part of the women’s movement was the work of Mehrangiz Kar. She went on to say that these women working in Iran had gone to prison for their activities. Nayereh Tavakoli (a scholar and activist in Iran) was one of the invitees from Iran for IWSF in London. She was shocked by the way that some of the Iranians living outside reacted to her presence:

“The interaction of the audience was, more or less, affected by the few numbers of people who behaved and talked like Berlin Conference guys. They condemned everything. For example, they condemned local music, which was performed by a group of women; they condemned the film Women’s Prison, by Manijeh Hekmat, and accused her of propagating the benefits of Islamic regime. I tried to present my lecture with irony and succeeded to attract the audience so much that no one dared to raise any objection immediately, but on the last day of the conference, one of them attacked me indirectly by saying to the chairwoman: ‘please, when you invite people from Iran to give lectures, invite those who have no high positions in the government, so that they can be comfortable in attacking the regime.’ That was quite humiliating because I was the only person invited from Iran, and it meant that I was a hypocrite and was afraid to talk about my ideas. When I saw that not one of the organizers or the chairwoman defended me, I left the session to show my resentment. Later I heard that a friend mentioned this point to the organizers, and the chairwoman raised the issue on the plenary session. Yet, it is important to note that there were many women in the audience who appreciated my presence and our activities given the difficult situation in Iran (see also Ghorashi & Tavakoli 2006).”

These types of incidents, frictions between activists and scholars, uneasiness, even distrust, between activists from Iran and from the diaspora have been consistently present during IWSF conferences. However the Berlin event, mentioned in the previous quote, created a new incentive for reflection both in the diaspora and in Iran. The Berlin Conference was organized by the German Green Party and Heinrich Boel Stiftung in 2000 with the title “Iran after elections” which led to heavy clashes between the invited intellectuals from Iran and members of the Iranian diaspora (for more see Ghorashi & Tavakoli 2006).  

Among the participants of the conference who came from Iran were human rights activists, journalists, and writers who were sentenced and imprisoned for participation in the conference upon their return. In Iran, activists were shocked by the lack of knowledge about life in Iran and the level of disrespect that respected public intellectuals had received from the Iranian diaspora. The Iranian regime showed the clash during the conference on national television and started a vocal campaign against political activists outside Iran. Yet, this incident also resulted in many discussions inside and outside Iran. These discussions, in turn, led to reflections on the positions held by many members of the Iranian diaspora. The price was high, but this incident alerted the diaspora to changes inside Iran and some factions began to re-evaluate their previous positions as a result.

Since the end of 1990s, the changing political sphere in Iran, encouraged or simply tolerated by the reformists in power such as ex-president Khatami, contributed to a limited physical and an active virtual openness towards the rest of the world. Many in the west became hopeful of the possibility of fulfilling Khatami’s promise of a “dialogue between the civilizations” and watched patiently for political change in Iran.In this period a transnational virtual space, fuelled by satellite TV and the Internet, became increasingly important for local actions. In spite of growing and intensive use of the Internet and satellite TV, government pressure was overwhelmingly present. Islamic Guards could and would enter people’s homes to destroy satellite dishes. But the next day people would by a new one. This kind of pressure (although in a less frequent manner) is still present in Iran.

However, information from inside enabled many women in the diaspora to actively spread the “voice inside” to the broader world. Activists did their best to mobilize international human rights organizations and media to protest the situation in Iran. Some of these actions were more effective than others, yet the fact that activists inside felt that they had active allies outside Iran was a great achievement in and of itself. These transnational connections proved to be quite sustainable even after the serious backlash in 2004 when hardliners won the parliamentary election and Ahmadinejad became president in 2005. In spite of the severe and systemic suppression of civil society in Iran following this period, it seemed impossible to ban and control transnational space completely using the limited resources of one nation state. For example the relative fluidity of cyberspace makes it a powerful medium for transnational connections in support of local protest. In addition, once local activists have used transnational space for their actions, it becomes harder for the state to suppress it. It is this aspect of transnational space which gives local protest hope. Thus, despite the limited space for activism in Iran, many have tried to find different ways to subvert the suppression and escape the constraits.


IWSF 2005/2007/2014: standing for the principles?

IWSF conferences have always been a collaboration of the organization’s director, Ms. Golnaz Amin, and the local committees where the conference is organized. Iranian women activists who are members of these local committees use their resources and network to fundraise and recruit volunteers. Local committees have a very intensive year before the conference and have relative freedom in the choices the make in terms of speakers, panel discussion and other aspects of the conference (art and music).

As director, Amin has the power to overrule certain decisions. The single directorship of Amin has been criticized for years, while her leadership has also been praised for keeping such a challenging network going for so long. In 2005 a disagreement between Amin and the local committee led to a high level of conflict which resulted in the resignation of the local committee after months of investment. In an interview on 11 August 2010, Shahin Nawaee (a former advisor to Amin) referred to this conflict as a “conflict of principles”. She commented that “IWSF never asks the presenters of the conferences about their beliefs, but generally aims to represent the values of a progressive Iranian women’s movement and to be a platform for various ideas’.[1]

Nawaee, claimed that Amin’s proposal to invite the son of Zahra Kazemi, the Iranian-Canadian journalist who had recently been killed while imprisoned in Iran was rejected by members of the local committee because they did not want to jeopardise possible trips to Iran. However members of the local committee rebutted that they did not want to make the conference too political and wanted, instead, to focus on scholarly work related to women’s issues (for more on the 2005 conference see Ghorashi & Tavakloi 2006). In any case the conflict started when Amin (after consultation with Nawaee) insisted on her proposal, which resulted in the resignation of a majority of the local committee. Nawaee praised this decision, calling it “standing for IWSF principles”.

The next public conflict occurred during the Washington D.C. conference of 2007. The local committee chose an anti-war focus, opposing the Bush administration and the consequences of conflict for women in Iran. Amin and her advisors (Nawaee and Hayedeh Daragahi) disagreed, yet in this case the local committee was able to push their agenda through after some minor adjustments. Nawaee criticized Amin for not “standing for IWSF principles as she did in Vienna.” (see note 1). This episode shows that there is a certain assumption of what the principles of IWSF should and that the leader of the organization should be unwavering in support for these principles. Nawaee’s criticism demonstrates the expectation that the director of IWSF  be forceful when necessary. However, in the same interview the reason for the resignations of the two advisors (Nawaee and Daragahi) is revealed:

“There is a need for a clearer structure for IWSF […] They [the advisors – our addition] believe that if there is no principle structure and practice of IWSF, the foundation in its present form will not be capable of dealing with upcoming crises. This is especially true since the Islamic Republic has its focus on this foundation and is waiting for an opportunity to undermine it. From the democratic angle, a foundation in which one person dictates, changes, or vetoes whatever s/he wants is extremely undemocratic” (see note 3).”

This line of argument took on a more dramatic aspect with the next major IWSF conflict in 2014. By then Amin had been broadly criticized as undemocratic and the organizational structure as lacking transparency. As we have shown, there are two rather contradictory expectations of the director of IWSF: a) standing firm on perceived principles and overruling local decisions that appear to challenge those principles, and b) taking a consultative and democratic approach. After elaborating on the events surrounding the Orange County, California conference of 2014, we will analyse these – what we referred to as - contradictory expectations of IWSF structure and its director.

What happened in 2014 was communicated to the outside world as a lack of transparency and communication from Amin, which led to an imposition of her decisions on the local committee. There is no mention of a content-related disagreement. Rather, the conflict is seen as structural (single leadership of IWSF and lack of transparency) with issues of power at stake (based on the interviews with one of the members of local committee, Ms. Amani and some others:  and,(last visited:  22th of June 2016).

A disturbing aspect of this crisis was that a respected scholar and women rights activist and member of the local committee, Elahe Amani, had to be transferred to hospital after a stress related attack. Following this, the local committee resigned quite close to the date of the conference and some of the members of the committee decided to organize a shadow conference in San Diego. What was supposed to be a celebration of 25th anniversary of IWSF became a painful realisation that the confrontations of Iranians inside and outside of Iran was not the main source of crisis for IWSF, but the variety of ideas and visions within the community of Iranian women activists in diaspora was. Differing notions concerning relationships with Iranian activists in Iran and, primarily, conflicts among the organization and its leadership proved to be the greatest threat to the sustainability of IWSF.


Back to Iran

In the meantime, the women’s movement in Iran had been flourishing. For nearly a decade before 2005, the majority of women activists focused their efforts on non-governmental organizations. After 2005, the Ahmadinejad administration made civil society activities quite impossible. In response, the activists turned their efforts to campaigns. One of most well-known campaigns is “One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality”, which aimed to collect signatures to demand an end to discriminatory laws against women.

 This campaign against existing family law used different methods varying from face-to-face efforts to gain signatures, to writing articles, sending postcards, letters, emails, and text messages to the parliament to express concerns with and opposition to anti-women laws. These activities are ongoing in Iran. In addition to campaigns, many new groups and initiatives were formed focusing on women’s rights. These included Feminist School (feminist website), Women’s Coalition (Hamgaraee), Women’s Cultural Center, as well as human rights oriented groups. There are two significant achievements that are worth mentioning in relation to women’s movement in these years.

1)   Women’s rights activists opted for the non-violent strategy of dialogue, focusing on the choice for “neither ideological nor anti-ideology”. This made the movement quite inclusive towards different ideas and backgrounds and helped the campaigns to be focused on women’s rights from all possible angles, which made them more effective.

2)   They adapted a horizontal structure in the management of campaigns which was quite different than the earlier vertical/hierarchical leadership models. This meant safeguarding the process of decision making through in-depth discussions and voting. It also meant that nobody was inferior to another, a new member of the campaign was as entitled to engage as its initial founders. The movement’s leadership model can be described as “collective leadership”.[2]

The political context has been quite crucial in the women’s movement in Iran. Before each election, an opening in tolerance for public discussions provided an opportunity for activists to work with more focus and determination. Different groups often joined forces to pursue their demands.  In 2009, activists from various backgrounds created a demand-driven coalition named “Hamgaraee” (literally convergence, referred to in English as Women’s Coalition) which put essential issues on the agenda for the presidential election of 2009.[3]

 “The Women’s Coalition” used all feasible means to present their demands to the presidential candidates. Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, a women’s rights activist who had participated as a representative of The Women’s Coalition in the presidential debate stated:

 “For the first time in Iranian history, the demands of women to the presidential candidates are one of the main topics, with three of the four candidates expressing their program on women’s issues” (Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh,2009:web)

In spite of many achievements, women’s rights activists in Iran were under constant attack by the hardliners in power. All the gatherings and campaigns (including peaceful demonstrations) were forcefully broken up and participants were confronted with suppression and prosecution. Because of that many women’s rights and human rights activists left Iran to seek refuge. Many of them have continued their activities outside Iran and become a source of connections between activists inside and outside Iran. 


Discussion and Conclusion

Somewhat surprisingly, comparing the developments in Iranian women’s activities inside and outside the country shows that much can be learned from Iran’s women’s movement in terms of democratic and inclusive forms of coalition forming and horizontal forms of leadership in order to enable a sustainable and rhizomatically networked movement in a turbulent and suppressive society.

Inside Iran, women achieved a combination of democratic structure (horizontal and collective leadership) and culture (diversity inclusive environment). The non-hierarchical structure and inclusive nature of the movement has been argued to have been the foundation for the Green movement of 2009.[4]  The Green movement began during the presidential campaigning in the spring of 2009 and transformed into a general protest movement in the wake of the voting, with demands for the annulment of what was referred to as a fraudulent election and the removal of Ahmadinejad as the re-elected president.

It is not the aim of this article to provide an elaborate account on the Green movement, but it is noteworthy to mention that during the Green movement the twitter hashtag, #iranelections was in Twitter’s top 5 “trending topics” (Alinejad 2015). In that period

 “[…] the use of social media became central to the emerging narrative about the potential for revolution or social change” (Alexanian 2011: 425 in Alinejad 2015: 245/246).

In our theoretical discussion in the beginning of the paper we argued that multi-layered and dynamic diasporic networks have the potential to enrich individual members of these networks in a variety of ways. To do so they need to invest in the democratic competencies that are required to engage with difference and inclusive leadership. The earlier mentioned ‘diaspora effect’ (Kilduff and Corley’s 1999) was clearly present in the ways Iranian women activists refer to the importance of and inspiration gained from transnational connections with diaspora via the internet in terms of gaining knowledge and sharing experiences. A thirst for knowledge and connection with the world has been crucial in the activism of women in Iran. However the face to face experiences of those women in diaspora are often far from positive and inspiring as we have described above. For that reason we argue that ‘mutual effect’ requires openness.

While diaspora activists involved with IWSF were struggling to define democratic culture and structure for the organization, women activists in Iran were enacting those visions through their actions and the structure of the movement. This achievement could partly be described as a source of survival under an authoritarian system. Collective leadership makes the movement less vulnerable to suppression when there no single leader can be identified. Being inclusive to difference and shaping cross-ideological campaigns makes the movement and support for it stronger in dire times. Achieving these conditions is not a given, but is instead a long term struggle of generations of Iranian women meeting, reflecting, and learning from past lessons.

Although most first generation Iranian women in diaspora have struggled for democracy, life in democratic societies did not provide the contextual pressure to rethink their positions and actions in order to become more inclusive and democratic. From the observations of the IWSF dynamic, we could argue that in diasporic networks such as IWSF, democratic ideals are often used as a point of argument in conflicts but not necessarily brought into practice. The ongoing discussions about the organizational structure of IWSF and its leadership often include contradictory demands and mainly lack a constructive foundation for sustainable implementation. In addition, there seems to have been ongoing and vocal disrespect of activists from Iran by diasporic women participants at IWSF conferences. Although the participants of IWSF conferences have become increasingly inclusive when it comes to the achievements of the women’s movement in Iran, incidents of disrespect and insult have continued. During the IWSF conference in Berkeley in 2008, one of the activists involved in the “One Million Signature” campaign presented a paper. During her talk she elaborated on the process of campaign and said:

“We go to as many households as possible (even in villages) and explain about women’s rights and then ask people to sign the list of rights we have on paper for the campaign. If we could use the words of a mullah [clergy] to prove the importance of women’s rights and get support for it, we would do it. We would use all means necessary.”

After this talk one of the women from the audience started shouting, saying, “I will spit on the face of someone who would talk to a mullah.” Many of participants condemned this rude remark openly but the damage was done. The speaker did not say another word during the entire conference (based on personal observations during the IWSF Berkley conference 2008).

Another example was when Rezvan Moghaddam (one of the initiators of the same campaign) tried to provide some extra information about the campaign during another IWSF conference. She met strong opposition from the public and decided to stop because the atmosphere had become unpleasant. But some women insisted on hearing more about the campaign from an activist from Iran so they planned a special session. Half of the conference attended that session.

This incident showed the distance between the women inside and outside Iran and the lack of knowledge of the diaspora concerning the movement in Iran. It also showed the lack of respect and tolerance for the women’s movement in Iran on the part of a considerable group of activists attending IWSF conferences. In addition, after the IWSF conference in Amersfoort in 2011, many young Iranian men and women who were part of the “One Million Signature” campaign stated that they would never return to any IWSF conference (personal conversations during IWSF Amersfoort conference 2011).

In spite of these conflicts among IWSF members and incidents during IWSF conference, it is important to emphasize the undeniable impact of IWSF, as a women’s progressive network, in keeping Iranian women’s struggle for equality and justice on the agenda both inside and outside Iran. Nevertheless, as we have argued above, IWSF can learn from the Iranian women’s movement to rethink their level of inclusion (thinking about standing for principles), the level of solidarity (proposing paradoxical demands on IWSF director of being a firm leader and a democrat at the same time), and the level of democratic structure (by adapting horizontal leadership and transparency).

 Many of the initiators of the activities and campaigns in Iran are now living in different countries in the west. There is thus a chance to include them at IWSF and learn from their valuable experiences during the past decades of women’s movement in Iran. They have been looking at IWSF during their years of activism in Iran as a source of inspiration.



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Halleh Ghorashi is professor of Diversity and Integration in the Department Sociology at the Faculty of Social Sciences, VU Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She is also Visiting Professor at the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice, University of the Free State, South Africa.  She is the author and co-author of several books and has published many articles on topics such as identity, diasporic positioning and cultural diversity both inside and outside organizations. Her most recent international publication is the edited volume, Muslim Diaspora in the West: Negotiating Gender, Home and Belonging (together with H. Moghissi, eds., Ashgate 2010. email:((,

Rezvan Moghaddam  is a PhD candidate at FU Berlin in the field of gender studies and has been a guest scholars researcher at VU Amsterdam from February 2015 till August 2016. She has been an active member of Iranian women’s movement and has set up various associations, groups and committees to empower women on issues of peace, environment, health and gender. She has published numerous articles, participated in conferences, seminars and international gatherings, where she has presented papers on women’s issues. Her PhD research is about the role of new media on women’s movement in Iran. email:(




[1] Excerpts from the interview with Shahin Nawaee in Persian (translation is ours):, last visited: 30th of June 2016.

[2] See Abasgholizadeh’s interview with Iranian women activists on this issue: and,and Gheytanchi’s piece:Iran Analysis: Leadership in the Green Movement, Entries in One Million Signatures Campaign (1), January 28, 2010:, last visited: 30th of June 201

[3] See for more following articles in Persian:;;;, last visited: 30th of June 2016.

[4] See Persian article by Mansoureh Shojaee with titled: Women’s movement a model for democracy: and Mitra Shojaee’s interview with feminist scholar Nayereh Tohidi and some Iranian women activists: /a-5176886, last visited: 22th of June 2016.



labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
janeiro/ junho 2016 - janvier/juillet 2016