An investment in women is an investment in societies, says Sussan Tahmasebi, co-founder and director of the International Civil Society Action Network and a 2011 recipient of the Human Rights Watch Alison Des Forge Award for Extraordinary Activism.
Tahmasebi, who is also a founding member of the One Million Signatures campaign, was at UCLA on March 7, the eve of the 101st annual International Women’s Day, to speak about “Revolution, Reform and Repression: Challenges to Women’s Inclusion and Equality in the Middle East and North Africa.” Her visit marked the “reinvigoration of an annual International Women’s Day lecture here at UCLA,” said Gail Kligman, a sociology professor and director of the Center for Europe and Eurasian Studies, who co-organized the event with Ellen DuBois, a professor in the Department of History.
In her talk, which was presented by UCLA’s Office of Faculty Development and Diversity and Center for the Study of Women and sponsored by UCLA's International Institute and Center for Near Eastern Studies, Tahmasebi outlined some of the changing demographic, social and political realities of the Middle East, noting that despite women’s involvement with evoking change through revolution, they are now being told by their male counterparts that “’you need to go home and you need to tend to your duties as a woman and as a wife.’”
But women aren’t taking that advice, she said.
“They’re fighting back and they’re trying to maintain the space that was created for them — or that they created themselves — because of these revolutions.”
Tahmasebi spoke about the relationship between religion and equal rights in the region, and how discrimination against women continues to be justified. She also discussed some of the challenges related to a weak or non-existent civil society, appropriate methods of international intervention, and the how important media and access to media is in the effort to tell women’s stories.
A long-time advocate for bettering the lives of women and children, Tahmasebi worked for several non-profit organizations in the United States before getting involved in the Middle East and North Africa.
She said that her activity in the region started in 1999 while she was in between jobs.
“I thought this was the only chance I’d have to go to Iran,” she said. “I’d planned to stay for three months, but it was during the reform period. Things were so exciting and happening so fast, and people were coming together and starting NGOs and organizations and trying to improve their society. It was so amazing to me, and just such an exciting time to be in Iran, that I just kept extending my stay.”
Her stay lasted for more than a decade and her impact has been powerful.
Today, she and her colleagues are working to build the capacity of groups in the Middle East through peer exchanges, network building, solidarity and communities of practice that allow organizations to share experiences and learn from one another.
She says it’s important to talk about women’s issues and work together to improve the status of women around the globe, not only on International Women’s Day, but all year round.
“Women are 50 percent of the world’s population, so they’re important,” she said. “Women are systematically discriminated against, whether it’s the East or the West. They’re denied opportunities to live their lives and to work toward their own prosperity, so it’s critical that if we’re concerned about human rights and we’re concerned about the state of the world that we also concern ourselves with women’s well-being. When women’s situations improve, so do the situations of their countries. Women’s status is a marked development indicator. When women are educated, it increases the opportunities for children to be educated. When women have access to health care, that’s an indicator that society’s health care improves. They have multiple effects. Whenever we invest in women, we are investing in communities."