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Women & Power in Central Asia (Part 4): Roundtable On The Tajik, Afghan, and Iranian Experiences

Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi (AFP) RFE/RL's Tajik Service hosted a roundtable discussion in December about "women and power" in Tajikistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. Participants included Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi; prominent Afghan women's rights activist and parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai; and Oynihol Bobanazarova, a veteran Tajik rights advocate and director of the Open Society Institute in Tajikistan. RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari reports on the roundtable in the fourth and final part of our series on "Women & Power In Central Asia."

Prague, 28 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Shirin Ebadi, Shukria Barakzai, and Oynihol Bobanazarova all live in patriarchal societies where men enjoy more rights and women face limitations. But despite battling discrimination, conservative traditions and intimidation, all three women have managed to push for their rights -- and achieve success.

Iranian Nobel Laureate

In 2004, Ebadi became the first Iranian or Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The lawyer and rights activist says that despite threats, she refuses to be silenced.

"Fear is an instinct like hunger, whether you want it or not, it will come to you," Ebadi says. "I have twice escaped attacks miraculously and have always been threatened and have been imprisoned, so it's natural that I'm worried about this dangerous situation. But my years of experience has taught me not to let fear overwhelm my work."

Ebadi says that as a result of the struggle of freedom-loving Iranian women and men, Iranian society is gradually changing.

"In the beginning of the revolution, when they wanted to insult me they would call me 'feminist, liberal, defender of human rights,'" Ebadi says. "In Iran, 23 or 24 years ago, these words were used as insults. Fortunately, now as a result of the struggle of Iranian women -- but also men -- human rights protection has become valued."

Mirroring Afghan Society

Shukria Barakzai is a member of Afghanistan's newly elected parliament and the founder of "Aina-e Zan" (Women's Mirror), a weekly publication that focuses on women's issues. During the rule of the hard-line Taliban, Barakzai helped run underground schools for women in Afghanistan.

Barakzai says she has tried hard to give a public voice to the concerns of Afghan women.

"Our patriarchal society does not like to hear this voice, it's a voice that even Afghan politicians want to silence," Barakzai says. "But despite these problems, I and millions of other Afghan women have been successful through our tireless efforts to open a small glimpse of hope, for the future generations and for the children of Afghanistan."

Barakzai says discriminatory, pre-Islamic traditions are the worst problems facing women in Afghanistan.

"Unfortunately, these traditions are so deeply rooted among people that in some cases they are placed before the religion," Barakzai says. "People believe and practice traditions that [destroy] women; they consider women as elements whose only duty is to give birth to children. And the other problem is the patriarchal view that is prevalent in the society."

Obstacles In Tajikistan

Oynihol Bobanazarova, an outspoken rights defender, has played a key role in helping to reform the legal system in Tajikistan and in spurring the country to sign international covenants on human rights. This, in turn, has led to the complete abolition of the death penalty in Tajikistan.

In 1992, Bobanazarova was a founding member of the Democrat Party of Tajikistan. But she was later forced to leave the party when she was accused of "antigovernment activity" and criminal proceedings were started against her.

Bobanazarova says discriminatory traditions are among the main factors that prevent women from having an active role in Tajik society.

"In Tajikistan, for example in the families, they educate girls and tell them that before anything else they are women. For example, they keep girls away from discussions at home," Bobanazarova says. "To a certain degree there is also the people's mentality; we women also sometimes don't speak as experts and we consider ourselves helpless. I think if we do not start to talk as experts, as qualified individuals, as humans -- until that day, men will not take us seriously."

Areas Of Agreement

All three roundtable participants agreed that women activists and women in power should coordinate their efforts to tackle ignorance, discrimination, and economic hardship.

"The lines through which they separate secular women from Muslim women or elite and intellectual women from traditional ones, these dividing lines are harming us," Ebadi says. "The day that we forget these lines and focus only on equal rights for women like men, is the day of victory for the women of Iran and the world."

Bobanazarova says that for many Tajik women who live in poverty, economic empowerment is very important. She says women in power can play a key role.

"Women who consider themselves intelligent or women in the parliament should do their best to defend the right of Tajik women, because for 70 percent of the population, particularly women in villages, there are no possibilities for them to increase their knowledge," Bobanazarova says. "And I think one issue that is today very important for the women of Tajikistan is that their financial situation needs to be improved."

Like Ebadi, Barakzai emphasizes the importance of unity among women. But she says men also have a role to play.

"I think on the one hand, women should believe in their own rights as being equal under law to men, but men should also commit themselves to accepting women as equal partners in society," Barakzai says. "It's going to take time, but it can be done through long-term educational programs in Afghanistan and positive campaign by the press and also with the help of clerics. It requires a long-term struggle with the support of the international community. We women can overcome our problems and the [negative] view of society."

(This teleconference roundtable was hosted by RFE/RL's Tajik Service and held on 6 December 2005.)