Exiled Iranian activist discusses struggles for women’s rights


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Photo by Firas Sattar |

Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, far left, is an exiled Iranian women’s rights activist and filmmaker. She described her experiences in prison in Iran yesterday at the Ruth Dill Johnson Crockett Building on Cook campus.


The Iranian government is seeking to jail activist Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, who has sought refuge in the U.S. for her efforts to fight for women’s rights.

The Iranian women’s rights activist, researcher, filmmaker and video journalist spoke at the Ruth Dill Johnson Crockett Building on Cook campus yesterday for her “Iranian Women’s Leadership, Cyber Resistance and Democracy” presentation.

The Institute for Women’s Leadership and the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund hosted the event to provide insight from Abbasgholizadeh, whose life and work were threatened in her home country, said Alison R. Bernstein, director at the Institute for Women’s Leadership.

Abbasgholizadeh’s movie, “Sakineh, A Symbol of State Violence,” documents the horrors Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani faced for adultery after Iran sentenced her to death by stoning.

The efforts of advocacy groups in Europe and the United States resulted in her release and Ashtiani became a symbol against the Islamic Republic’s brutality.

Abbasgholizadeh cofounded the Stop Stoning Forever Campaign and publicizes cases like Sakineh’s to advocate for women’s release from prison.

Abbasgholizadeh said she became involved in the Islamist Revolution in the ’70s while in college. She left the love of her life and married a man she did not love who was passionate about the revolution.

Many American feminist groups see marriage as an institution of oppression, but Abbasgholizadeh said Islamist feminists had a different viewpoint.

“Our marriage was an institution of service and we wanted to have children for the revolution,” she said.

In the ’70s, both the Marxist Revolution and the Islamist Revolution stirred Iranian activists. In the beginning, the leader of the Islamist Revolution promised freedom of expression and equality for men and women — including free dress for women, she said.

The Islamist Revolution eventually won because supporters had more mosques, more leadership and trust in their traditional ways, Abbasgholizadeh said. Unfortunately, after the Islamist Revolution’s victory, leaders failed to carry out their promises of equality.

The Sharia Law, enforced under the Islamist rule, abolished the progressive Family Protection Law, stripping women from many of their rights, she said.

“The battle against promiscuity and prostitution was one of the clergy’s weapons against the Shah’s regime, which turned into a key focus of the Islamic Revolution with women as the main target,” Abbasgholizadeh said. “They were forced to cover their heads, and their objections were useless.”

The Iranian government arrested Abbasgholizadeh twice for peacefully protesting violations of women’s rights. She escaped Iran in 2010 and now has asylum in the United States.

Although in exile, she still continues to defend the rights of women as director of ZananTV, an alternative online media space for women. She also produced several films on women’s rights in Iran.

Abbasgholizadeh said she pushes for more solidarity between American feminists and international feminists and believes they need to take more proactive action to defend women’s rights.

“If Americans are not worried about Iran, we should be very worried,” she said.

Lisa Hetfield, associate director at the Institute for Women’s Leadership, said the dialogue helps give students a picture of international activism.

“This event is an excellent opportunity for students to understand the larger picture — that scholars are threatened in their home countries due to their activism, ideas and work.”

Yasmeen Fahmy, a University alumna, said the United States needs to join the fight for women’s rights and believes more women could seek refuge in this country if immigration laws were more relaxed.

“We need to integrate other cultures into our country,” she said.


By Kiana Dunn

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