Brown Bag Summary

September 10, 2008

Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Iran

Prof. Afsaneh Najmabadi
Professor of History and of Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Harvard University 

Prof. Afsaneh Najmabadi’s brown bag lectured used a recent dramatic event in Iran to discuss both the women’s movement and also the larger political scene in Iran. On Sunday September 7, 2008, a group of Iranian women, representing a broad spectrum of perspectives, interest groups, and political affiliation, lobbied the Iranian parliament and successfully prevented the passage of the controversial new Iranian family law. This incident was notable for two reasons. First, this was the first instance of public lobbying as a tool to influence policy in Iran. Prof. Najmabadi explained that since the 1979 revolution there has been a conceptual divide between the concept of the ‘state’ and the ‘people.’ As a result, lobbying was seen as a derogatory process. In a dramatic break with this norm, this broad coalition of women’s movements organized and executed an American style lobbying effort to force change. Even more surprisingly, this effort was reported positively in the press. The second unique element of this incident was the ability of women to mobilize an extremely broad coalition. Traditionally women’s activism in Iran has experienced hurdles of factionalism and fracture among the diverse political opinions and religious values. In the past, attempts to mobilize a broad base focused on agreeing to and presenting the least-common-denominator. In this instance, each faction and interest group brought their own agenda and policy recommendation separately. The result was a dramatic presence in the parliament of far left public figures to far right conservative religious organizations. 

This dramatic event occurred as a result of objection to controversial articles in Iranian family law before the parliament. The legislation aimed to further diminish women’s voice in divorce proceedings and in the permission process to have a second wife. The lobbying effort succeeded in persuading the speaker of the parliament to call for the withdrawal of this legislation from the agenda and return it to committee for further review. Prof. Najmabadi concluded with the observation that the ability of these women to engage in well organized political lobbying may set a new trend in public-state discourse and may provide a successful example for other groups in Iran.