When five professional Iranian women from different walks of life came together as part of a panel discussion held in Vienna recently, they refuted the negative image of women as passive members of the Iranian society.
Titled "Women in Iran Today - Caught between Tradition and Participation", the event - presented by Austria's foreign ministry and hosted by Vienna's Diplomatic Academy - was an endeavour to get Iranian women to talk about their life in Iran today.
The two-day programme, which included the screening of documentaries, a public discussion and an Iranian book fair, also provided an opportunity for Iranians living outside their homeland to learn about the country from those living there.
While addressing an eager audience, the women - Chista Yasrebi, Firouzeh Saber, Shahla Lahiji, Ameneh Shirafkan and Anahid Torabi - did not deny that like elsewhere in the world they too face harassment and persecution. But, they also pointed out that the women's rights movement in Iran is well organized and that the human rights campaign has fanned out across the country.
Most women in Iran remain under enormous economic and cultural pressures but they are facing the hardships with courage. "Whip lashes and six months in prison do not threaten us any more," said Shahla Lahiji, 65, founder of Roshangaran, Iran's first publishing house that produces books by and about women.
Lahiji was one of 19 writers to be imprisoned in 2000. In 2001, she was sentenced to over three years' imprisonment on charges of acting against national security and for propaganda against the Islamic system. Despite these problems, she has never once wanted to live anywhere other than Iran.
A graduate in sociology from the Open University of London, Lahiji disarmed the Vienna audience with a witty wrap up of the state of women and literature in her country. When asked where she draws the courage to speak the way she does, Lahiji said that perhaps it is her "old age" that has made her fearless.
However, Lahiji was not "old" when she started Roshangaran in 1983. And her vocal support of women's rights for decades has brought her into conflict with the authorities more than once. While many Iranian intellectuals have left the country, Lahiji is admired for having stayed on in Iran where she continues to publish and write.
"Lahiji is a great role model for young Iranian women aspiring for a profession in publishing," said Dr Jaleh Lackner-Gohari of the Austrian Iranian Society, a co-organizer of the event along with ProFrau (For Women).
Today, the number of female publishers has increased to more than 400, thanks to pioneers like Lahiji. On the sidelines of the symposium, Lahiji had spread out a rich display of books published by Roshangaran, including the English translations of three titles by Chista Yasrebi, the irrepressible playwright and professor of psychology. Of course, Yasrebi, who was part of the discussion, was happy that Lahiji had made sure that her work reached out to a wider readership.
In 'The Bride's Hotel', a play by Yasrebi, a woman says that she is afraid of darkness, loneliness and even herself. "Don't be silly! You are not alone. I am with you. We will go somewhere together," consoles her female friend. "No. We can go nowhere together. Everyone will curse us if we are not accompanied by a man. We will get neither a room in a hotel, nor a ticket for the bus. We are not allowed to sit in a park," is the lament of Yasrebi's female protagonist.
Realizing that it is impossible to do much about the lack of political and legal freedom in Iran, Lahiji works with women to help them seek economic and cultural independence. This, according to her, is a slow and long process but it is a non-confrontational one.
Lahiji does not like the idea of hostility between men and women. Both have to learn to change their attitude towards life, she said, adding that today, women in Iran are less attracted to marriage and prefer to take up a profession.
But this desire for a profession is a necessity and not a fad. The rise in female employment in Iran is part of a global trend. Like elsewhere in the world, in Iran, too, more women are entering the job market to support their families. "Women entrepreneurs are not talked about but that does not mean they do not exist," said Firouzeh Saber, an employment consultant. Head of Tehran's Association of Women Entrepreneurs, Saber provided the examples of women who owned transport businesses in Iran and also of those who earned a living from driving 'women's only' taxis.
A graduate in business administration and management, Saber helps the Ministry of Interior with research and job creation plans. She has studied the role of women in higher education and conducts job creation workshops besides being the author of a book that outlines job creation methods for women.
According to the Research Ministry of Iran, 65 per cent of women graduate from universities but form only 27 per cent of the Iranian labor force. The percentage of women who are economically independent is only 14 per cent. Saber's job includes identifying the potential of women entrepreneurs and helping them convert their creative abilities into assets.
"I am amazed at the sense of humor and courage of the speakers," said Dr Edith Binderhofer, an Austrian historian who was part of the audience. Binderhofer's work questions the stereotyped image that exists in the West of women in the East. In 'The Sky in My Country Has a Different Colour: Conversations With Asian Women in Vienna', she concludes that while western women are legally stronger than men are, eastern women are stronger socially.
Despite all the odds, women in Iran are the most educated in the Muslim world. It is ironical but true that the rate of literacy amongst women there soared after Iran's religious revolution in 1979. Before the revolution, 35 per cent of women were literate. Today, the figure has risen to 70 per cent. During the secular rule of the Shah about a third of the university students were women, now the percentage of female university graduates is 65 per cent.
The Shah was liberal and a majority of Iranians looked upon a university education as a corrupting and westernizing influence on their women. After his fall, however, conservative families felt more comfortable about allowing their women to attend university and take up jobs.
It is the huge tide of self-made female professionals - who turned their back on the kitchen to participate in the revolution against the Shah - who flood the job market today, despite the lack of institutional support. Already politicized by the revolution, women were later empowered during the reform era of former president Mohammed Khatami between 1997 and 2005. Over 600 non-governmental organizations were formed to promote and encourage respect for women's rights during that period.
Concluded Lahiji, with a smile, "Under the circumstances, we can only go forward."