Women and Power in Central Asia (Part IV)
Monday, January 23, 2006 2:20 PM

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.

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."

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."

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."

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."


Cited in: "Women and Power in Central Asia, Part IV: Roundtable on the Tajik, Afghan, and Iranian Experiences", RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, 29 December 2005.

Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. http://www.rferl.org.