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World: Forum Examines Advances For Women, Focuses On Muslim Societies

Women lining up to vote in Afghanistan recently (epa) Some 2,000 women's rights activists gathered in Bangkok on 27-30 October for the Association for Women's Rights in Development's (AWID) 10th international forum. The agenda of the triennial event included assessing advances for women over the past decade and obstacles to progress, as well as to focus on the potential for female participation in predominantly Muslim societies.

Mahnaz Afkhami, a member of the international advisory committee that helped organize the Bangkok forum, shed light on the AWID event in an interview with Radio Farda.

"We know what it is that we want to do," Afkhami said. "We know what it is that women at the grass roots and at the grass tops level have in mind for women. The problem is: How do you make it happen? This conference is bringing the conceptual to the pragmatic level -- how do you actually do it."

Afkhami expressed optimism about advances for women since the United Nations held its last major conference on women's issues in Beijing in 1995. Their political participation around the world has increased, she said, and is codified in 70 percent of the world. Such codification includes mandatory quotas for female candidates imposed on political parties and the setting aside of specific numbers of legislative seats for women, she said. Afkhami described those measures as a form of "affirmative action" that ensures that women are active in management and leadership. "This is important in pushing forward the agenda that women have in mind in terms of bringing about change," she told Radio Farda.

A minister of women's affairs in pre-revolutionary Iran, Afkhami now heads the Women's Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace, an organization that works toward women's empowerment in 18 countries and three continents. Women's political participation is particularly noticeable in Norway and Sweden, Afkhami said, but remains low in countries with Muslim majorities.

Focus On The Middle East

The Middle East was a particular focus of the October forum, Afkhami told Radio Farda. "We have had the mission at this particular conference to make sure that women from Muslim majority countries, especially from the Middle East [and] North Africa, have a role and participate; because they had not as much a role [in the past]," Afkhami said. "They have not participated in international conferences in large numbers or in dialogues. It is important to give them the opportunities both to exchange among themselves experiences and challenges and successes, and also to connect with the international community and women from other parts of the world." She touted the opportunities that the Bangkok forum provided, noting that Iranian delegates had a chance to meet with their Egyptian or Jordanian counterparts.

Afkhami called religious fundamentalism a deep-rooted problem in the Middle East, and said it is connected with the use of religion for political purposes and as a reaction to modernity and change. "In Muslim majority countries, unfortunately, we have more of a problem it seems right now, because so many governments are using religion as a way of appeasing the people and so many opposition movements, instead of pushing for democracy and human rights, are pushing for regression and reaction," she told Radio Farda. "So unfortunately we have a case where both official governmental entities are leaning toward conservatism as well as the opposition forces, which are usually progressive forces. Unfortunately many of them are extremists and fundamentalists forces."

She stressed that fundamentalism is not confined to Islamic states, and can be seen in Christian and Jewish countries as well. That is why the exchange of ideas at the Bangkok forum is so important, Afkhami said.

Iranian Particulars

Afkhami added that she finds events in Iran "very worrisome." "Civil-society activism is being discouraged, and the new proclamations about lack of outlets for progressive forces or progressive-leaning forces to talk about feminism, to talk about human rights, to talk about democracy is very negative," she said. "It's something that we are all looking at with a great deal of anxiety, and we are hoping that it will not go further in term of affecting the activism of women and democratic forces in the country."

Afkhami also expressed concerns over Iran's future under President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, a hard-liner who appears to be pursuing a revival of the strictures of the immediate postrevolutionary era. She argued that the population's awareness of its rights cannot be reversed, and warned that an absence of political outlets could contribute to the possibility of conflict and violence. "I hope that this will not happen," Afkhami said, "but there seems to be no outlet for a modern civil society to show itself without having to fight. So it is a very difficult and negative development."

(By Radio Farda's Fatemeh Aman and RFE/RL Iran analyst Bill Samii.)

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RFE/RL Iran Report

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