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Shahla Haeri’s documentary challenges stereotypes

Iranian film shines in LAW conference on human rights

Shahla Haeri, a CAS associate professor of anthropology and director of the women¹s studies program. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

When it comes to covering women in the Muslim world, the western media tend to focus on veiled and oppressed stereotypes, says Shahla Haeri, a College of Arts and Sciences associate professor of anthropology and director of the Women’s Studies Program

So when 47 women in nominated themselves for the country’s 2001 presidential election, Haeri, who was in her native land visiting relatives, armed herself with a camcorder and filmed Mrs. President: Women and Political Leadership in Iran. The documentary, which focuses on six candidates — all educated professional women — will be screened on Thursday, February 9, from 12:45 to 2 p.m. at the School of Law’s Barristers Hall as part of LAW’s Human Rights Week.

 “I wanted my American colleagues, students, and friends to see different images of Iranian women,” Haeri says, “to see images of articulate, self-confident, ambitious, professional women, women who are not dumb and passive — as it is invariably assumed by an overwhelming majority of Americans — just because they are veiled.”

Haeri, who moved to the United States from Iran in 1968 and has taught at BU since 1993, has written three books on the subjects of religious fundamentalism and women’s rights, including No Shame for the Sun: Lives of Professional Pakistani Women (2002).  Mrs. President, distributed by Princeton, N.J.–based Films for the Humanities and Sciences, is her only film, and it has sparked more interest than she had initially expected. Since its completion in early 2002, Mrs. President has been screened not only at several area colleges, but also at libraries and campuses from Syracuse to Tucson. Haeri shows the video to her own students so they can learn about a political reform movement that is all but ignored by the American press.

The women’s candidacies were launched as a challenge to the official interpretation of ’s constitution, which states that only rijal can run for president. In Arabic, the word rijal is plural for “men,” but it means “political elite” in Persian. Nonetheless, the exclusively male Guardian Council rejected the women’s candidacies soon after they began. Only those confirmed by the Guardian Council are allowed to begin their campaigns.

The president is theoretically the head of state in , but the Supreme Leader, who is elected by the Assembly of Experts and serves for life, is his superior and the ultimate ruler of the political establishment.

“The fact that I am a woman or I have a small or a big body does not determine my ability. It is intelligence,” says candidate Ashraf Mir-Sadiqui in the documentary. “Women can initiate many actions. [Iranian society] has to accept that we are humans before being women. . . . Gender should not be a criterion for management.”

Have women’s rights in Iranian society changed since this historic political challenge? “Their legal rights may have not changed significantly,” says Haeri, “but public consciousness has been raised considerably, and the issue of women’s candidacy for president and to all the high offices in the country — except for that of the Supreme Leader — is now a significant part of public discourse. It is covered in almost all newspapers, magazines, and journals and also spoken about in seminars and public gatherings.”

Other events for LAW’s Human Rights Week include:

 •Nancy Murray, director of Bill of Rights education at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, delivers a lecture on Tuesday, February 7, titled Human Rights and the War Against Terror: What Ever Happened to the Rule of Law? The event takes place from noon to 1 p.m. in Barristers Hall.
•On Wednesday, February 8, Harold Adams, who graduated summa cum laude from Metropolitan College’s Prison Education Program while serving 23 years of a life sentence, gives a talk titled Minimum Sentence: Life from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. in Barristers Hall. Adams (MET’01) is currently a paralegal for James Dilday (LAW’73) of the Boston law firm Grayer and Dilday.
•On Thursday, February 9, T. Jeremy Gunn (LAW’87) speaks on Human Rights or Civil Liberties? Comparing International and American Approaches to Protecting Rights of Religion and Belief. Gunn’s lecture is from 4 to 5 p.m. in LAW Room 1270.

 For a complete schedule of events, click here.