Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Firuzeh Mahmoudi, founder and executive director, United for Iran, a Bay area nonprofit that works to promote civil liberties and civil society in Iran.
1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?
One thing I’ve learned, that continues to ring true year after year, is that progress rarely occurs along a straight line. So many of us who have been inspired to enter the activist community started out with the hope that we’d experience and affect real change in our chosen issue areas quickly. However, as I recently discussed in a piece written on the 11 year anniversary of Iran’s Green Movement, the work toward progress often starts when the buzz stops, when the media loses interest and moves to the next catchy soundbite. Those of us who’ve remained in the movement and are still active today know that if we want to be truly effective, the work has to become part of our daily lives.
2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?
U4I has, from the beginning, collaborated with a network of activists and professionals both in our local Bay Area but also all over the world, so connecting remotely is part of the fabric of our organization. However, with the new way of living and working we are all adapting to during this pandemic, I have occasionally faced challenges with maintaining and fostering these critical connections with team members in a completely remote setup, as many of my fellow nonprofit leaders can attest to. On that same note, it has become more challenging reconnecting with the outside world; existing partners, new partners, and potential supporters and allies, now that in person conferences and retreats are off the table.
3. What inspires you most about your work?
Hands down, it is the people I get to work for and with every day who are a continual source of inspiration. Our work puts us face to face with stories of injustice and pain experienced by the people of Iran every day, and that can be very discouraging at times. But there is also so much to be inspired by, beginning with the incredible resilience of these people and the stories we hear about how our efforts may have helped a political prisoner or group of people in their plight.
The colleagues and organizational partners I have collaborated with for over a decade all made their way to the movement through different pathways, and their collective experiences, whether they suffered imprisonment for their activism or were forced to leave their homes, or joined the movement after being inspired to contribute from across the world, have resulted in a diverse array of perspectives that allow us to approach the issues the people of Iran face from so many different angles. I truly consider our team to be a family.
4. How does your gender identity inform your work?
As a woman leader in a movement with basic human rights and freedoms at the center, I feel that I am in a position to understand what oppression looks and feels like, especially since I’ve experienced it firsthand. I lived in Iran during my formative years, and was arrested at 16 because my hair was showing out of my scarf. I had to sign an agreement promising I would never repeat this offense and acknowledging that next time, I would receive 50 lashes—and this is just one of many stories I can tell.
Throughout the world, including in countries like Iran, we live with literally half of the country’s people (women) being oppressed and living as second class citizens. No other large group consistently has to live under such conditions. And yet in Iran, we see women continually overcoming the odds that are against them, most recently organizing to double the number of female parliament members in just one election cycle. It is this spirit in the face of such oppression that has informed so many of our projects, and will continue to do so.
5. How can philanthropy support gender equity?
It can start simple. Have more women in positions of power. In our organization, the board is 75% women and the leadership team is 50% women. We know that if we want diverse representation, it cannot be an afterthought. People bring in their values and networks to a role and, once established, it is exponentially harder to shift the culture. Let women lead and identify what they believe is critical and strategic.
Those in philanthropy, no matter how mindful, are in positions of power and it takes diligence to ensure the power in the room is shared. This means asking a lot of questions and letting those at the heart of the work lead. Find the right leaders and give them space to do their work. This means identifying the leaders at the forefront of social change, who are so often women, especially women of color, and entrusting them with the core funding necessary to make a real impact.
6. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equity movements taking us?
Although we are seeing more and more women in positions of power and influence in our movement and beyond, we are really only beginning to scratch the surface of what is possible. I am inspired by the efforts I see in the human rights world, such as the United Nations Global Solidarity Movement for Gender Equality, also known as HeForShe. I am inspired by the vibrant, bold leadership we see in this country, including members of “The Squad,” our new Vice President, and the tireless and game-changing Stacy Abrams, as well as our heroines in Iran and abroad who have put it all on the line to fight for what is right, like Nasrin Sotoudeh and Greta Thurnberg. I think the next decade will be monumental for women in our global society, and we will see more representation, more leadership, and a clear path paved for our daughters who grow up with more leaders who look like them.
But we can’t let our guard down. Currently, we are, yet again, running the risk of losing ground on issues like abortion rights. We are still seeing women being discriminated against and abused too often. Our fight continues, but we are more equipped now than ever to take it on.
More on Firuzeh Mahmoudi:
Firuzeh Mahmoudi is the founder and executive director of United for Iran, a Bay area nonprofit that works to promote civil liberties and civil society in Iran. She founded United for Iran in 2009 shortly after organizing a massive global day of action in support of millions of Iranians protesting the presidential election results. Today, U4I achieves their mission by improving human rights conditions, increasing the capacity of civil society and engaging citizens through technology with tools created through their IranCubator tech incubator. In 2017, U4I released two apps through its incubator, which assist survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, and serve as a resource on the reproductive and legal rights of Iranian women.
This interview has been minimally edited.
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