Mobilizing Movements: An Interview with Parvin Ardalan

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Iranian women’s rights activist Parvin Ardalan. Image provided by Parvin Ardalan.



Iranian women’s rights activist and journalist Parvin Ardalan dedicates her life to first observing how systematic oppression weaves its way into the fabric of society and then organizing like-minded individuals to join her in tearing out the restricting seams.

In Iran, she fought for women’s rights—co-founding the Women’s Cultural Center, and the One Million Signatures campaign, a grassroots movement to abolish discriminatory laws against women. Ardalan won the Olof Palme Prize in 2007 and the Hellman/Hammett Award in 2010. She is a member at Swedish PEN and was the ICORN guest writer in Malmö City of Refuge from 2010 to 2012.

When she first arrived to Malmö, a post-industrial city the size of Pittsburgh, Ardalan was enchanted by its freedom and democracy. However, as an immigrant living in the city, Ardalan began to observe the inconsistencies within the nation’s narrative of acceptance and inclusion. Malmö is home to 300,000 people, half of whom are women and a third of whom have immigrant backgrounds—and yet many of those immigrant women’s stories are left untold. In 2013, Ardalan initiated a grassroots movement that strived to rewrite the city’s history to include Malmö’s immigrant population into the country’s cultural heritage. The movement Women Making Herstory confronted the core question: Why does invisibility happen?

Parvin Ardalan spoke to SampsoniaWay.org about how to organize women within a repressive regime, the forces that pushed her to Malmö, the ways in which immigrants are made invisible, and the future of activism.


Her Own Story: Organizing an Iranian Women’s Movement

You were twelve years old during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which means that you and your mother probably benefited from the women’s rights acquired during the relatively secular Pahlavi era. What does it feel like to witness that transition from freedom to oppression?

I experienced this transition as the abolishment of some small part of my personal life. Because I was twelve years old, the first change I experienced was that I had to wear a hijab at school and later in the public sphere. They told me, “as a girl so you cannot go outside and ride a bicycle,” and “you have to be careful to stay separate from other boys. You cannot play with them.” From my perspective, these changes made things a little bit different.

But actually, we didn’t care about the changes in the beginning because we knew that it was a revolution and everything was about changes during a revolution. But gradually I found myself losing some of my rights. Even before the Revolution gender equality was inadequate but it was better.

After the Revolution, some of these rights gradually disappeared. Women lost some of their family rights: For example, the loss of inheritance rights, polygamy and testimony rights which all demonstrated that because of your gender, you don’t have equal rights in the society.

I am a secular woman and I would like to keep religion separated from the government. In my opinion the womens´issues are more politically framed. When these topics are not separated the women are oppressed in the name of religion by the government. A religious government will often justify its actions with religion.

It was not as difficult to find women as it was to work freely.

When did you decide to fight and become an activist?

After the Revolution, I paid attention to what was happening around me. The changes that began with the women moved on towards political oppression and censorship.

Before I was an activist, I was a journalist. I liked being a journalist because it allowed me to write about society—social and political issues. For these reasons, I started to study journalism at university. I worked at literature and social magazines that were more political, such as the critically recognized literature magazine, Adineh.

Through my work I found other women who were also interested in women’s issues: Firstly in the journalism field with journalists at women’s magazines—such as Zanan (Women) and Jense Dovvom (The Second Sex), and then with some of the activists who had similar interests.
We started the Women’s Cultural Center, that worked with a grassroots perspective with other women.

I started to be an activist because I thought that while writing about women’s issues was very important, it was not enough. Especially in a society where everything is under the control of the government, or where it is not very easy to write. I found like-minded people and we gradually started to organize. I tried to complement my journalism with activism.

Did you find it harder to engage women who were born after the Revolution? Women who might not have known what it was like before more restrictions were placed on women?

Actually, it was not as difficult to find women as it was to work freely.

After the Revolution some of the women, in opposition had International Women’s Day. programs at their homes. They invited women into their homes and we found women through those means. It was like a kind of chain. Everybody found someone, and then those people found someone else.

In the beginning our numbers were very small and then we grew larger and larger.

Once we had the Women’s Cultural Center, we worked with issues such as violence against women, both in private and public life. We started publishing a newsletter to broadcast our opinions. We handed out this newsletter to many women that we found at the library or at other programs.

We also established a women’s library, Sedighe Dolatabadi. Through every project we found more people were interested in working with women’s issues.

When we started the Women’s Cultural Center, we didn’t have any place for ourselves. One of our colleagues had a publishing house with a room where we could have our meetings. We started with five or six women and then we grew to about fifteen women. Together we tried to buy a place for ourselves, and we called that place the Women’s Library, Sedighe Dolatabadi.

When we started the Women’s Cultural Center, we didn’t have any place for ourselves. One of our colleagues had a publishing house with a room where we could have our meetings. We started with five or six women and then we grew to about fifteen women. Together we tried to buy a place for ourselves, and we called that place the Women’s Library,Sedighe Dolatabadi.

It was a private piece of property, bought by all of us with some economic private support from Iranian women all over the world. In that way we made it more difficult for the government to seize the property.

From the newsletter, we started a website—The Iranian Feminist Tribune. We worked on this website for two years and then it was censored.
After The Iranian Feminist Tribune, we developed the first online women’s magazine, Zanestan.

From the newsletter, we started a website—The Iranian Feminist Tribune. We worked on this website for two years and then it was censored. We couldn’t find it and we couldn’t pass the block.

So after The Iranian Feminist Tribune, we started Zanestan. We worked on theis website for two years and then it was censored. After The Iranian Feminist Tribune, we developed the first online womens’ magazine, Zanestan.

One of the aims of Zanestan was to publish our studies, opinions, and articles about different women’s issues. We published news about women that could not be published in a formal magazine and newspaper, focusing on consciousness raising among women. Additionally, we used Zanestan to write about our activities at the Women’s Cultural Center—announcing our plans and welcoming anyone who had interest to come and join us.

Zanestan was published monthly, and each issue focused on a different theme, like violence, feminist opinions, and various other discussions that existed at that period in Iranian society. Every month we had a theme: One issue focused on legal rights, another issue focused on violence against women, another on marriage. Everybody wrote reports, articles, stories based around those themes.

One issue was about sigeh (temporary marriage). In Sharia law, a man has the right to marry a poor woman and he also can marry many women in this temporary, unregistered marriage. This issue caused authorities to close Zanestan.

After Zanestan was shut down, we have kept the archive of Zanestan and Iranian Feminist Tribune on the website.  We were eventually allowed to keep them up, but only on the condition that we did not add content or republish it the magazine anywhere else. But we try and protect these websites as an archive of the women’s movement in Iran.

“Very Beautiful and Very Cold”: Arriving in Malmö

  1. Timeline
  2. 1993: B.S. in Mass Communication Science, Allame Tabatabaee University
  3. 2000-2002: Worked at Fasle Zanan: A Feminist Journal. Tehran: Roshangaran (In Persian)
  4. 2004-2006: Editor of Iranian Feminists Tribune 
  5. 2006-2007: Zanestan, Iran’s first online magazine on women’s rights, is first published by the Women’s Cultural Center with Ardalan as its editor.
  6. 2006-2009: Co-organized One Million Signatures Campaign—a grassroot movement aimed at repealing discriminatory laws against women
  7. 2006-2010: Organized Change for Equality Movement
  8. 2007: Awarded Olof Palme Prize, Co-founded the Women’s Cultural Center in Tehran
  9. 2008: Authored Street Nightmare (In Persian), Edited Women and Disriminatory Laws in Iran. Polygamy (In Persian).
  10. 2009: Awarded Pen2Pen, Örebro Freedom of Expression Award, Grävseminariet i Örebro
  11. 2010: Arrives in Malmö, Sweden; Awarded the Hellman/Hammett prize, awarded The Reporters Without Borders Netizen prize
  12. 2011: Published Har Du Sett en Kvinna? Copenhagen: Smockadoll Förlag. (In Swedish)
  13. 2013:  Contributed to Sketches of Iran: A Glimpse from the Front Lines of Human Rights: International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran
  14. 2013 – 2016:  co-initiated the project leader of “100 years of immigrant womens´life and work in Malmö (Sweden)”, aka Women Making HERstory
  15. 2016-Present: Initiated the project of “Migration Memory Encounters” – this project aims at working in collaboration with several arts and civil institutions alongside migrant cultural workers

What then pushed you to Malmö in 2010?

Before I came to Sweden and after the activities that we had at the Women’s Cultural Center, I was one of the co-founders in another movement called the One Million Signatures Campaign. . It was a campaign for human and women’s rights in Iran. Our demand was equal rights for both women and men in Iran, in terms of a marriage settlement, divorce, criminal law, or inheritance law. By collecting signatures, we invited many women and men to this campaign and we established a website under the name, “change for equality,”. We organized this campaign with other female and male activists to invite people to come and sign a petition. We worked on this campaign for about five years.

Since I was one of the cofounders of both the Women’s Cultural Center and the One Million Signatures campaign I was arrested and sentenced, like so many other women and men.

For my activities in the Women’s Culture Center and for my activities in the One Million Signatures campaign I was awarded the Oolof Palme Prize in Sweden. I was invited to go to Sweden to receive the prize in 2007, but when I wanted to leave the country to accept the award I was given travel ban. So I couldn’t leave the country for two years.

The authorities took my passport, and when they returned it I was once again invited to go to Sweden to receive the prize. But when I went to Sweden, there was an uprising reacting against the Presidential election in Iran. Many people were arrested and fled the country. So at the time, I thought it would be better if I stayed a little longer.

I then applied for the ICORN Network, the International City of Refuge for the writers, as a guest writer. I was with ICORN for two years as a guest writer at the Malmö City of Refuge. And now I’m living in Sweden.

But as your stay lengthens you can begin to undress the conditions, the system, the society, the politics.

What was your first impression of Malmö? What is your relationship to this country?

In the beginning, when I came to Sweden, everything was very beautiful, and actually very cold. Everything was interesting because I was writing to a democratic audience. I thought everybody was free. But eventually I realized that the meaning of freedom is different. In Sweden I have the opportunity to work and write more freely. But as your stay lengthens you can begin to undress the conditions, the system, the society and the politics.

Making the Invisible Visible: One Hundred Years of Immigrant Women’s History

  1. Since 2013 the project “Women 100” (One Hundred Years of Immigrant Women‘s Life and Work in Malmö) – or “Women Making History,” has strived to make the immigrant women’s lives and work visible in Malmö, Sweden. Using various different methods in order to visualize and unfold the untold stories of immigrant women in Malmö, the aim was not to limit the project to ending up in a box of collected stories, but to involve the storytellers in the processes of participation.The endeavor was initiated by Feminist Dialog, Malmö Stad, Malmö Museum and went on to include Malmö University, ABF, Malmö City Archive, the civil society, the women organizations, networks and individuals.

The project Women 100 aims to unpack one hundred years of immigrant women’s experiences in Malmö. What was your role within the project?

I was the co-initiator and the project manager. I decided to stay in Malmö, which is the third largest city in Sweden with a population of over 300,000. Half of Malmö’s population is female, and one third of this population has an immigrant background—about thirty-three percent.

In the beginning when I came to Malmö, I asked many questions. It was a process of questioning the realities of the society. Malmö was once an industrial city. Many factories were established here and many women came to work in these factories.

It really was a discussion. Me and some of my friends established an organization—-an NGO called Feminist Dialog. We started to contact museums, because the city’s museums should have a history of the city, but we didn’t find anything. They accepted the idea and I started to work with them. And through Feminist Dialog and the discussion we started developing the project of 100 Years of Immigrant Women in Malmö. I suggested our project to the cultural department of Malmö and the Museum of Malmö.

There was also some research about the situation of women in Malmö and about the role of immigrant women in the economic history of Sweden. Through all of this I arrived the question: O.K. Where are the immigrant women in Malmö? Why are they invisible? I was an activist, and I wanted to work at a grassroots level, not at a research or academic level.

As a result, we started with that question. The museum accepted the idea and I started to work with the museum. We invited other people from the civil society, from local universities, from various other organizations and different parts of the cities to come together to discuss these matters. And eventually we realized that we had to rewrite the history of Malmö.

We started in 2013 at the Malmö Museum and the project concluded in 2016.

It was really a collaboration between the people of Malmö, the Museum, and the university. In this collaboration, we tried to incorporate more women in the project. For this reason we talked about our project as a movement or a process. Women Making Herstory wasn’t exactly a project because in the process we found each other and in the process more women became involved.

In the first phase of the project we established an exhibition at the Malmö Museum that is now permanent. We called it “Women Making Herstory”; it’s a wall covered in the stories of the immigrant women in this city anchored to a timeline.

Besides these activities, we had seminars, workshops, and various other activities which confronted the central question: Why does invisibility happen?

We used different activities—drawing cartoons, making postcards, or talking about memories, or writing down the stories about the migration̦—to engage the public. These activities were documented in both English and Swedish language newsletters and published on an online exhibition—Women Making Herstory.

Parvin Ardalan at Women Making History Exhibit at the Malmö Museum. Image via ICORN

In the end, we published all of the activities not just as a report, but also an analysis within a book called Women Making Herstory. And through this process we not only documented some of the city’s stories, but also documented the discussion around the question of why women are invisible. As the project became more public, we began to impact many more groups—many men and women—by getting them focused on women and migration in a different way.

I am happy now that after three years, we are starting to see a lot of projects that focuses on migration issues—especially those that focus on women.

What challenges do female immigrants encounter that their male counterparts do not?

Because my previous work was more focused on women’s issues, it was more natural for me to think more about women’s rights. But in many migration stories you will see that more male migrants came to Malmö than women. As a result, most of these stories only talk about these women in relation to the men—as wives, mothers, or sisters. Sometimes women become invisible in the historical narratives.

We chose to focus on migration issues that highlight women’s stories and issues. But that doesn’t mean that a history confronting men’s migration is not necessary. Maybe somebody else will come and focus on the role of male migrants. If we, at the beginning, had decided to focus on both the men and the women, then the project would be too broad and very difficult to accomplish. And because immigrant women are more invisible than immigrant men there was more history to uncover when telling the women’s stories.

In the end, our three-year long project about women is not enough.

Deepening the Immigrant Narrative

It’s very easy to talk about somebody using these stereotypes, and much harder to accurately cover the individuality of each experience.

In Malmö how much interaction is there between the immigrant populations and the Swedish people?

In the public sphere, I think there is more interaction. If you go to the center of the city and in other parts we can see that there is a social interaction. But within the institutional walls there is more ”whiteness”.

Do you feel that journalists cover the experiences of Malmö’s immigrants and refugee population accurately?

According to the project that we did, I can say yes—mostly. What we found through the project was that the stereotypes about immigrants and immigrant women dictate the portrayal more than the reality of their situation. It’s very easy to talk about somebody using these stereotypes, and much harder to accurately cover the individual and her/ his experience. Journalists have a lot of responsibility when covering people. And we see that some of journalists rely on stereotypes. That clichéd work is more prevalent.

I cannot say that all the newspapers are like that, but a good portion of the coverage is not careful. For example, sometimes journalists do not examine the reasons why there is a great wave of refugees—they do not discuss the weapons industry, the war, climate change, and the political climate both here and there.

Instead they just write about the immigrants coming to Europe as a problem—an issue to be solved. Onus is put on the individual and the groups of people who arrive. Which means that then we talk about migration issues in a very closed way—perfectly structured like a box. But the main reason for the migration, or what’s happening in this process, remains untold.

Many expect that immigrant women in particular do not have enough education to be employable. But in general, when we talk with women, their greatest issues arise from a lack of information. Yet people assume that because they do not speak the language, these immigrant women are only good for cleaning. These jobs are not necessarily bad or good—I don’t want to make judgements about the work. My point is to explain that labelling people means that you cannot see the complete story.

This way of looking sometimes dictates which pictures and pieces are published. Everything could be accurate on some level—but it’s in a different form of coverage.

Are different immigrant populations treated differently on the basis of where they are coming from, their heritage? Do the different groups of immigrants regard one another differently?

The hierarchy between the 170 countries is different. The power dynamics are different as well. The racism exists based on skin color: people with dark coloured skin are racially discriminated against more often than other immigrants.

It depends on age, nationality, gender, and at what period of time you arrive and where you settle. There are a lot of intersectional issues.

In Women Making Herstory project you also include the voices of the Roma people. What led you to decide on including them?

The Roma are one of the minority groups in Sweden. The Swedish government has identified five minority groups that are discriminated against more than others and one of them is Roma.

After the first exhibition, a woman who was a Roma activist approached us and asked us why we didn’t mention so much about the Roma. We acknowledged her and together we covered the Roma in our exhibition and in our workshops.

Are there any women’s stories that really stood out to you?

There are many important stories. And I can’t just talk about one because they are all very important. There is no emblematic example.

The only thing that I can say is that we have to accept the diversity of people and we have to figure out how we can connect with each other. We cannot separate, we cannot ignore, and we cannot exclude people because of their race, religion, or their ages. The important thing is to accept these kinds of differences in order to build tolerance.

Taking the Movement Outside of Malmö

Why do you think some people support the Swedish Democratic Party?

Of course I think there is a backlash. We talk about this backlash with the women in Women Making Herstory. I remember that at the beginning of the project some of the women told me they were “luxury immigrants” because they felt very welcome to this society and country. But nowadays it is not like that.

All of the blame is laid on the people who have lost everything. These are the people who have lost houses, their communities, their children. Yet, if something happens people point at the migrants and say they are the problem. It’s much easier.

These days, many immigrants are not welcome to this country. I think that one of the reasons is for economic reasons. Historically, the periods in which Sweden was very welcoming towards immigrants were when the country needed workers for the industrial sectors. Now the Swedish economy has changed and Sweden is less industrial than it was in the past.

Many things have happened that have led to economic problems and unemployment. Most of the time the blame for these issues are laid at the feet of the immigrants. If there is some crisis in the society, people automatically think it is because of the arrival of immigrants.

Now we’re seeing a right-wing, neoliberal debut all over the world. When Trump announced his candidacy, many people said that he would never become President. Yet, as the result of the election demonstrates, there are people living all over the world who want a leader like Trump. Neoliberal policies have such an impact on the economy—both structurally and socially: They reduce a lot of benefits for a lot of the people.

When a situation worsens, no one places blame on the problem of the economic policies. Instead, most of the problems are blamed on the immigrants and a poor economy is blamed on migration issues. The blame is not justified, but people only look at the first, most visible issue in front of them. Nobody talks about the reasons that led to the migration issues.

Why? What was the reason, what was the root of this crisis?

All of the blame is laid on the people who have lost everything. These are the people who have lost houses, their communities, their children. Yet, if something happens people point at the migrants and say they are the problem. It’s much easier.

And I think the people who support the Swedish Democratic Party think that the Swedes should come first and that these foreigners are going to destroy the country. I think the Swedish Democratic Party is like a mini Trump. However, they are increasing in numbers, which means there are a lot of people who support them. This is the real threat to the democratic society in a very near future.

As an activist, the power of the resistance is strong. In Malmö, there are many Swedish Democratic Party supporters—-but there are also many against them.

What kind of feedback did you receive for your project?

The feedback was very good. One of the most important results was an increase of activism on campus. One of the universities in Sweden in Växjö is using the book for teaching about grassroots activism. Most of the time we think of academics and activism as separate, however we tried to make a connection between the institutional—like museum or university—to a grassroots movement. This kind of combination of work is very important. We tried to show that if we wanted to focus on just one issue we had to use make connections between all aspects of Malmö’s society.

Now many women involved with the project ask that we continue with this work because it was not just a project, but a creation of a network. We plan on continuing with this process by developing activities with the women not only within Malmö, but with other cities in Sweden, and encouraging them to use this rewriting of history as a model to rewrite the history of Sweden—and beyond.

Do you feel optimistic about the future of women’s rights, immigrant’s rights, and for the human right’s movement?

Now women and many movements around the world are mobilizing themselves for their rights.

I’m optimistic as an activist.

But otherwise, destructive power structures can make you pessimistic about everything in society: There are the existing military activities and increasing violence. As much as we want to work, we need more power and solidarity. We need more energy to work on thinking and rethinking the the past and the future. I think through collective action we will obtain more energy for change.

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