Mahnaz Afkhami

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Mahnaz Afkhami
Personal details
Born (1941-01-14) January 14, 1941 (age 74)
Kerman, Iran
Spouse(s) Gholam Reza Afkhami
Education University of Colorado (MA)
  • Activist
  • Author
Known for

Mahnaz Afkhami (Persian: مهناز افخمی) is Founder and President of Women's Learning Partnership (WLP), the Executive Director of the Foundation for Iranian Studies[1] and the former Minister of Women's Affairs in Iran's pre-Revolution government.[2] She has lived in exile in the United States since 1979.

Having founded and headed several international non-governmental organizations focused on advancing the status of women,[3] Afkhami has been an advocate of women's rights for more than three decades.[4] She has lectured and published extensively on the international women’s movement, women's human rights, women in leadership, women and technology, the status of women in Muslim-majority societies and on women's participation in civil society-building and democratization. Her books have been translated into multiple languages and distributed internationally.[5][6]


Afkhami's activism has focused primarily on:

  • leadership and political participation;
  • gender equality;
  • the international women's movement;
  • culture and a universality of rights.

Leadership and political participation[edit]

At 17, Afkhami joined a trade union and successfully challenged a breach of her rights as a worker when an employer laid her off temporarily then rehired her to avoid paying for the vacation she had earned.[7] She credits this incident with giving her the belief that organizing could bring about social change.[citation needed]

In 1975, Afkhami was asked to join the cabinet of the Iranian government and became Minister of Women's Affairs.[2] The post had not existed in Iran before and the only other person holding such a position was Françoise Giroud in France.

In 2001, Afkhami published Leading to Choices: A Leadership Training Handbook for Women to encourage women to be leaders in their families, communities, and countries. It has been translated into 20 languages. In 2010, she published Leading to Action: A Political Participation Handbook for Women. The manuals have been used for training around the world, reaching thousands.

Afkhami and her sister Farah Abrahimi were featured in the PBS series Destination America in 2005. At the time Afkhami became Minister of Women's Affairs, her sister was a leader in the students' movement demanding the overthrow of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Gender equality[edit]

In 1969, two years after returning to Iran as a professor of literature and Chair of the Department of English at the National University of Iran, Afkhami was drawn into Iran's women's movement and founded the Association of University Women. In 1970, she became the secretary general of the Women's Organization of Iran (WOI).[8] She remained there for ten years, during which time she worked for Iranian women's rights.[7]

While Afkhami was Minister of Women's Affairs, Iran's legislation granted women equal rights as regards divorce; raised the minimum age of marriage; supported women's employment with maternity leave and childcare provision; and built upon the family laws of 1967.[7][9]

Afkhami has served as a member of Iran's High Council of Family Planning and Welfare and on the boards of trustees of Kerman University and Farah University for Women.[10] She has written that "[w]omen’s empowerment is a process, a holistic approach that involves raising consciousness, building skills and reforming unjust laws that limit women’s education, their employment, their participation in decision making and, above all, their opportunities for economic independence."[11]

Exile and involvement in the international women's movement[edit]

When Iran's Islamic Revolution began in 1979, Afkhami was at the United Nations in New York negotiating the establishment of the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW). She was charged in absentia with "Corruption on Earth and warring with God." She has never returned to Iran, living instead in exile,[12] although she has said she would like to return to help rebuild Iran if its political system changed.[13]

In 1994, she published Women in Exile, a collection of portraits of activist women in political exile.

Afkhami then joined the international women's rights movement, saying: "The conditions women have in common outrank and outvalue those that set them apart."[14] She became an advisor to Human Rights Watch and the Vice-President and Executive Director of [The Sisterhood is Global?].[15] Since then, she has written Towards Global Feminism.

Afkhami has served on a number of boards and committees of international organizations including the Steering Committee of the World Movement for Democracy (1999-2010), the International League for Human Rights (2000-2006), the Global Fund for Women (1998-2007), Gender At Work (2003-2008), Women Leaders Intercultural Forum (2010) [16] and Global Women’s Action Network for Children (2006-2009).,[17] Global Fund for Women (1998-2007),[18] International Museum of Women (2000-2014),[19] Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative (2002-2010), and Women's Human Rights Net (2000-2004).

She currently serves on the Advisory Committee of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch,[20] the Board of the Foundation for Iranian Studies,[1] and the Board of Trustees for the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Culture, Islam and universality of rights[edit]

Afkhami believes that religion and feminism are not incompatible ("Women ought not to be forced to choose between freedom and God"). Nonetheless, culture and religion can be problematic in terms of women's human rights: "We must pose the question: why is it that the denial of the most rudimentary rights to civil treatment for women is always based on some fundamental point of culture? Is this culture real, or is it a fetish that is used to maintain some economic, social, or simply psychological privilege?"[21]

She has taken a stand against cultural relativism and Islamic exceptionalism, stating clearly that human rights are universal and must supersede religious frameworks: "At the center of [the] conflict is the dilemma of Muslim women’s human rights – whether Muslim women have rights because they are human beings, or whether they have rights because they are Muslim women."[22]

Iranian Women's Movement[edit]

Looking back on the changes which occurred in Iran just before the revolution, Afkhami said: “It seems to me that our main mistake was not that we did not do other things which we should have done. Our main mistake was that we created conditions in which the contradictions related to modernity, progress, equality, and human rights, especially women’s rights, increased and the reaction to our work put perhaps too much pressure on the country’s social fabric.”[23] She has publicly supported the Iranian One Million Signatures campaign to end discriminatory laws against women by promoting a book written by Iranian activist Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani.[24] She believes that the movement is a new phase within a century-long cause.[25]

Afkhami’s life and work in the women’s movement in Iran, breaking with tradition, and living in exile are the topics of the 2012 Voice of America Persian biopic.


Mahnaz Afkhami was born in Kerman, Iran in 1941, the eldest of three children. Her early childhood was spent in Kerman, Iran in a complex that housed a large extended family of Sheikhi Shi'ite Muslims. When she was 11, her mother divorced her father and they moved to the United States. She later attended the University of San Francisco and the University of Colorado in Boulder.[7]

In 1967, Mahnaz returned to Iran as a professor of literature at the National University of Iran. She worked there until 1978. Since then, she has lived in the United States, residing in Maryland with her husband, Gholam Reza Afkhami. They have a son and two grandchildren.[7]

Chronological overview[edit]

  • 2000–present  Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace
  • 1996–99  President of Sisterhood Is Global Institute
  • 1992–96  Executive Director of Sisterhood Is Global Institute
  • 1989–96  Vice-President of Sisterhood Is Global Institute
  • 1981–present  Founder and Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies
  • 1979–81  Consultant on Women and Development, Palo Alto, California
  • 1976–78  Minister for Women's Affairs, Government of Iran
  • 1970–79  Secretary General of the Women's Organization of Iran
  • 1968–70  Chairman, English Department, National University of Iran
  • 1967–68  Assistant Professor, Department of English, National University of Iran
  • 1966–67  Lecturer, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • 1965–66  Assistant Editor, Abstracts of English Studies, Boulder, Colorado


Afkhami has published a large number of articles and books, with a particular focus on women's human rights, Muslim women, as well as the Iranian women's movement.

  • 2012  Victories Over Violence: Ensuring Safety for Women and Girls (co-authored), Women's Learning Partnership, Bethesda, Maryland
  • 2010  Leading to Action: A Political Participation Handbook for Women (co-authored), Women's Learning Partnership, Bethesda, Maryland
  • 2002  Toward a Compassionate Society (editor), Women’s Learning Partnership, Bethesda, Maryland
  • 2001  Leading to Choices: A Leadership Training Handbook for Women (co-authored), Women’s Learning Partnership, Bethesda, Maryland
  • 1998  Safe and Secure: Eliminating Violence Against Women in Muslim Societies (co-authored), Sisterhood Is Global Institute, Bethesda, Maryland
  • 1997  Muslim Women and The Politics of Participation (co-edited with Erika Friedl), Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New York
  • 1996  Claiming Our Rights: A Manual for Women’s Human Rights Education in Muslim Societies (co-authored with Haleh Vaziri), Sisterhood Is Global Institute, Bethesda, Maryland
  • 1995  Faith and Freedom: Women's Human Rights in the Muslim World, Syracuse University Press and I.B. Tauris
  • 1994  Women and the Law in Iran (1967–1978) (compilation with introduction), Women's Center of the Foundation for Iranian Studies
  • 1994  Women in Exile, University Press of Virginia
  • 1994  In the Eye of the Storm: Women in Postrevolutionary Iran (edited with Erika Friedl), Syracuse University Press and I.B. Tauris
  • 1992  Iran: A PreCollegiate Handbook (with Charlotte Albright), Foundation for Iranian Studies
  • 1978  "Notes on the Curriculum and Materials for a Women's Studies Program for Iranian University Women"
     "Iran's National Plan of Action for Integration of Women in Development: Theory, Structure and Implementation"
     (manuscripts prepared for the Women's Organization of Iran Center for Research on Women, Tehran)


  1. ^ a b "Staff | Foundation for Iranian Studies". Bethesda, MD, USA: Foundation for Iranian Studies. Archived from the original on 2012-11-17. Retrieved 2013-03-09. 
  2. ^ a b Jecks, Nicki (August 19, 2009). "'I Was Iran's Last Minister'". BBC World Service. Retrieved April 22, 2010. 
  3. ^ Hill, Mary Ann (April 5, 2005). "International Women’s Rights Advocate Mahnaz Afkhami to Speak at Wellesley College April 6". Wellesley College Office for Public Affairs. Retrieved April 22, 2010. 
  4. ^ Latham, Judith (June 11, 2008). "Women’s Learning Partnership’s Goal Is to Empower Women, Says President of the Organization". VOA News. Retrieved April 22, 2010. 
  5. ^ "Mahnaz Afkhami - Iran". World People's Blog. Retrieved 2010-04-23. 
  6. ^ "Leading To Choices Manuals". Women's Learning Partnership. Retrieved 2010-04-23. 
  7. ^ a b c d e Afkhami, Gholam Reza (2003). Zanun-e Iran, 1357-1342: Mosahebeh ba Mahnaz Afkhami (Women, State, and Society in Iran 1963-1978: An Interview with Mahnaz Afkhami). Bethesda, MD: Foundation for Iranian Studies. 
  8. ^ Hansen, Liane (August 23, 2009). "Executed But Not Forgotten: Iran's Farrokhroo Parsay". NPR. Retrieved April 22, 2010. 
  9. ^ Ahmadi Khorasani, Noushin (October 14, 2008). "The Fate of the Family Protection Law". The Feminist School. Retrieved April 22, 2010. 
  10. ^ "Special Meeting of Women Ministers of Culture: Keynote Speaker Biography". Special Meeting of Women Ministers of Culture - Reykjavik 2005. Retrieved 2010-04-22. 
  11. ^ Freedom leads to empowerment
  12. ^ Afkhami, Mahnaz (1994). Women In Exile. The University Press of Virginia. ISBN 978-0-8139-1543-2. 
  13. ^ "Destination America: Mahnaz Afkhami & Farah Ebrahimi: Iran". PBS. October 1, 2005. Retrieved April 23, 2010. 
  14. ^
  15. ^ "About The Sisterhood Is Global Institute". Sisterhood Is Global Institute. Retrieved 2010-04-22. 
  16. ^ "Women Leaders Intercultural Forum Addresses Global Security". Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative (2002-2010). October 26, 2006. Retrieved April 22, 2010. 
  17. ^ "The Global Women's Action Network for Children". Children's Defense Fund. Retrieved 2010-04-22. 
  18. ^ "Global Fund for Women - Consejeras". Global Fund for Women. Retrieved 2010-04-22. [dead link]
  19. ^ "Global Council - International Museum of Women". International Museum of Women. Retrieved 2010-04-22. 
  20. ^ "Human Rights Watch: Board of Directors". Human Rights Watch. Retrieved 2010-04-22. 
  21. ^ A Vision of Gender in Culture
  22. ^ Faith and Freedom: Women's Human Rights in the Muslim World. See also A Vision of Gender in Culture, At the Crossroads of Tradition and Modernity and Cultural Relativism and Women's Human Rights.
  23. ^
  24. ^ Latham, Judith (December 11, 2009). "Iranian Women Campaign to End Discriminatory Laws Against Them". VOA News. Retrieved April 23, 2010. 
  25. ^ Askary, Hooman (November 16, 2011). "Fighting for Women’s Rights: An Interview with Mahnaz Afkhami". Arseh sevom civil society NGO website. Retrieved December 7, 2011. 

External links[edit]