Thursday, March 19, 2009

Warning Against Project for "Training" Iranian Women

I just received an email urging participation in something called the "Iranian Women's Political Leadership Project." Now if this project were being initiated inside Iran or even if it were a transnational and independent project by and for Iranian women, then one could perhaps be enthusiastic. Unfortunately, none of this is the case, and unless unsuspecting Iranian women are warned about the nature of this project, they may risk great harm to themselves and their various campaigns for justice and social change.

According to the three page project summary document I received, the "Iranian Women's Political Leadership Project" or IWPLP as it calls itself, "stems directly from – and builds on – the connections within Iran of Dr. Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, IWPL Project Director, who has been a leader of the women’s movement in Iran, served a member of the Iranian Parliament, and is now a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston."

Haghighatjoo, who never misses an opportunity to stick "Dr." in front of her name, was at one moment an admirable and inspirational figure inside Iran. But this post is not about her as a person but about the project she is directing, so I won't get into her past or present.

At a time when Iranian activists have explicitly rejected foreign funded interference both to maintain their independence and to protect themselves from governmental accusations of being directed from the outside, this project dangerously and publicly claims that it will hold on-line and US-based "training of trainers" who "will conduct similar trainings in Iran with at least 100 Iranian women."

The distance learning courses proposed by this project include "Fostering the rule of law and judicial procedures: how women can gain access and fair
treatment in Iran" and "Understanding and influencing the legislative process in Iran." More than anything, such courses are insulting, since women inside Iran not only know their legislative process better than some folks sitting in Boston, but women in Iran have also been at the forefront of attempting to lobby and impact the legislative process.

Most shocking among these proposed courses, however, is a class entitled "Conflict resolution in a transitional state." What, exactly, is "transitional" in Iran at the moment? Why are they applying a term most often used to describe post-invasion Iraq and Afghanistan in a context relating to Iran? Do they know something we don't?

Along these same lines, the project summary says that they will create an "interactive website" to facilitate sharing information "on women’s political participation from all over the world, international organizations, and women’s issues during pre and post conflict situations." Again, what is the story about pre and post conflict situations? What eventual conflict are they preparing these women for? Perhaps a better question to ask is what eventual conflict are they preparing for, period.

The project summary also notes that the website will make available "all of the materials we develop as part of the NED training, plus blogs, chat-rooms, readings, and discussions." This is indeed the first and only time that NED is mentioned in the summary. The rest of the proposal refers to the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at UMASS Boston, where the project will presumably be housed.

This adds yet another dangerous dimension to the project since it will likely lure the participation of Iranian women using the cover of the university. While most seasoned activists in Iran are now accustomed to reading between the lines and fully investigating projects before joining in, younger and more vulnerable groups of women may fall for ill-conceived and misleading projects such as this at great cost to their credibility and safety upon return to Iran.

I know for my part, I will try to get this information out to as many Iran-based activists as possible. For those who work hard to maintain their independence, I think they deserve the fair warning.