Antonia Felix IWD 2014

Feb 28, 2015 at 12:19 PM
ImageMS. FELIX:  Good morning and welcome. I’m Antonia Felix.  I’m on the advisory board of the Women’s Freedom Forum and on behalf of the WFF, it is my pleasure and honor to welcome all of you and everyone on our distinguished panel today.  So glad that you’re here to celebrate the 103rd International Women’s Day I’d like to especially thank Congressman Steve Cohen from Tennessee and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas for making this congressional event possible today.  Many thanks to them.

The first order of business, which I’m very happy to do, is to read a special message that we received from Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. She wanted to address our very special event today with a few words and I’m going to read an excerpt from that to start things off this morning.

(reading message by Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi)

About International Women’s Day.

Back in 1911 the first International Women’s Day was commemorated in Europe where more than one million men and women attended rallies to demand women’s right to work in federal office to work and to end discrimination on the job. Since then every year on March 8, and we’re anticipating that a little bit today, we’re a little bit ahead of ourselves, more and more countries around the world have created events to build support for women’s rights in participation in the political process.International Women’s Day is a time to look back on women’s progress, to look ahead to a more gender equal world and to champion the courageous women who have refused to be silent in a face of injustice and oppression.

The Women’s Freedom Forum is a research and education organization associated with the United Nations Department of Public Information.  Launched in ’95, the Forum’s work concentrates on the Middle East with a mission to raise public awareness about women’s rights, political engagement, and empowerment in all levels of society in that region.  With events like this one, the WFF provides information to government agencies, policymakers and the public about the problems facing women, including human trafficking, illiteracy, violence and legalized discrimination that combined plague the Middle East and African region more than anywhere else.

As the latest “Freedom in the World” report reveals, in 2013 the Middle East and North Africa as a whole have the worst civil liberty scores of any region in the world.

The Women’s Freedom Forum is made up of professionals from many fields who are dedicated to social activism.  These women who have made today’s event possible include business people, like, Zahra Amanpour, academics, like Dr. Donna Hughes, Sister Louise Akers, Dr. Carol Fontaine, and Judy Patacsil. They include clergy like Linda Prendergast. They include graduate students like Soolmaz Abooali. They include philanthropists and community leaders like Barbara Forester and women’s and civil rights activist like Lynn Dykstra, who is here today.  Paula Corrado, the president of the Women’s Freedom Forum. And Mitra Samani?   And it also includes writers, like me.Our work is done through congressional briefings, conferences at the UN, and other universities and other institutions around the country, press conferences, and by producing landmark research publications, such as this annual report that documents all of the human rights abuses in Iran, a hefty volume of quite impressive information.  By publishing the works of women in one country, we seek to share that experience with women in other countries.

The most important aspect of our work is based on our access to information from inside Iran that allows us to reveal what is really happening in the sectors of Iranian society.  These sources including journalists, women’s activists, the Network of Mothers, as well as professionals from all walks of life who risk their lives in sharing information from inside a country run by a regime notorious for its brutal treatment and high execution rate of political prisoners.

It was the Network of Mothers in Iran that turned out to be one of the most effective and accurate sources of information coming out of Iranian jails.  In some cases within hours this network was able to transmit worldwide all of the news from inside the prisons.

This is one example of the power of women when united and focused on a single goal to have an impact on the world.  In this case, the network in opposing Islamic fundamentalists ruling Iran, added to the leadership’s paranoia in Tehran about their very survival.

So the reason we care so much about women’s rights is because so much depends on them. A consensus on a nation or culture’s degradation of women’s rights affects all of us on a global level and every child on the family level.

Politically, no matter how good our intentions with our UN resolutions and our national plans for action about making women partners in the political process and how they place at the negotiation table, we’re reminded again and again that we still have so far to go.

We were reminded of this just last month in Geneva, of how long — it’s going to take longer to put these great intentions into actual practice. At the UN-backed Syrian peace talks in Geneva representatives from well-established Syrian women’s groups were not given a place at that table. These women wanted their voices heard to ensure that the new political consensus that would come out of these talks are based on input from men and women.

Women and children are the majority of those who have been killed and displaced in the last three years of Syria’s civil war and these women activists wanted to help set the agenda at the talks so the needs of the victims would be addressed.  They wanted to be part of writing the institution that would guarantee equal citizenship to the Syrian people in all the diversity and affiliations and penalize all forms of description and violence against women.

They did not get in on those meetings but they are working to be heard in Geneva in 3 or 4 or 5 or whatever ensues.  One of the spokeswomen said we are lawyers and leaders, professors, we are housewives and nurses and other medical professionals, and we are 50 percent of society. If Geneva 2 doesn’t work, we will push the men who are making war to make peace.

As a great example, to just stay with them for a moment, an example of women’s perseverance in these struggles.  Twenty Syrian women met with their Bosnian counterparts after that for a dialogue in Sarajevo in this month. It was organized by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. This meeting helped the Syrian women learn from the Bosnian women’s experience of being excluded from the peacemaker negotiations of 1995 and the consequences of they’re not being included in that process.  The continued marginalization of women and minorities.  With a lot of common ground to share, these survivors are learning from each other in hopes that when they Syrian women do get a place at the peace table they will be even better prepared to call for agendas that will positively affect all Syrians, especially women and children.

And around the world, the effect of limited women’s rights has an impact on the societies that the next generation will be leading.  Unless we find more ways to support and empower women as leaders, these crippling effects will continue.  These poor civil liberties include discriminatory laws against women, such as those in Iran that include, just for a couple of examples, the fact that women are more easily accused and convicted of adultery in Iran.  An offense that is punishable by death by stoning, because men can easily claim that they were lawfully married to the other women in what they call a temporary marriage. Iranian women, cannot of multiple spouses, temporary or otherwise, so they cannot evade conviction or execution for adultery like men can and so often do.Perhaps the most dramatic example of how women are degraded in Iran and how the discrimination is really encoded into the law of the land, is the fact that the life of a woman is technically considered worth one half of that of a man when it comes to what they call blood money in the justice system.

Families of murder victims are given a financial compensation, or blood money, from the murderer’s family.  If a woman is murdered, her family receives one half of the amount of blood money that would have been given by a man’s family.

So that intrinsic, the death of the, to put in mildly, second-class citizen status of women in Iran is something that we’re all desperate to change.

So with the election of Rouhani as President of Iran, there may have been a few women’s rights activists inside that country who held out a little bit of hope that there may be less pressure on them.  Maybe they didn’t expect that Article 115 of the Constitution that prevents them from running for president, didn’t expect that to be revoked right away.

But even if a fraction of the moderation that Rouhani claimed to represent was true, or would be true, maybe there would be fewer arrests and deaths, executions, imprisons, instead of the hundreds that go on.  But that has not been the case.  In 2013 alone, 25 women were executed in Iran’s prisons.

So this event today with our distinguished panelists and all of you, proves to the fearless women in Iran and in Syria and throughout the Middle East and North Africa that we know about the struggle and the mindsets behind it.  We know that expanding freedom in any corner of the world means starting with the rights of women, including their right to lead.

So before we hear from our first panelist, I’d like to mention that we may be hearing from one or two additional members of Congress who would stop in, if they would be so kind and to have a time.  Just to let you know I may interpret again after a speaker or two to make that quick announcement.

So now you have the biographies of our panelists, I’m not going to take the time to read those because you are very well informed on who they are.


Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee stepped in for a moment and hoped to say a word but then she had to go back because she has an amendment on the floor.  But I just wanted to recognize her once again for her long time support of Women’s Freedom Forum.  She has been a major supporter for decades and made, again, this event possible for us today.  So we appreciate her trying to step in, even though she only had maybe one minute.  But she’s with us in spirit and some of her staff are here.  So thank you for being here.


MS. FELIX:  Well, this is a point when we were going to have a little musical interlude. I haven’t had the opportunity to meet her before this morning before we got started.  This is Paran Amirinazari.  She’s a music student at my alma mater, University of Wisconsin in Madison.  We are so glad to have her with us today.  She came up with a brief piece that she’d like to play.  She has a way of tying it into International Women’s Day.  So it’s a real pleasure to introduce Ms. Paran Amirnazari.

MS. AMIRNAZARI:  I’m very happy to be here.  I’ve chosen to play an excerpt, which is a shorter version of a movement from JS Bach’s D minor partita.  I’ll play an excerpt from the final movement, the Chaconne.  Now this particular movement stands out from all of Bach’s solo work for violin which he has six total pieces.  The Chaconne stands out particularly because if its length, its emotional content and its emotional affect.  And it is hypothesized that all of these factors are because he was away traveling, at that time in the 1700s composers traveled a lot, and when he returned home he found his wife had passed away and he had composed a Chaconne and it continues to be an incredible piece of music that has been written for many different instruments for piano and it’s incredibly effective.  Another thing that I learned recently is I think Bach’s birthday is around the Iranian New Year. (Applause.)(A performance by Paran Amir Nazari on the violin.)

MS. FELIX:  What a brilliant choice!  We hear and we feel the heart racing aspect of struggle and the deep sorrow of a minor key and that relentless friction and there’s so much beauty in it, like we know the beauty of the importance of this of any struggle and of the outcomes that we know will come.  Thank you so much for taking us there.  Thank you.

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