Inauguration of the Women’s Library and Resource Center on March 8, 2005
On March 8, International Women’s Day, this year, the Women’s Cultural Center (WCC) held a women’s only event to inaugurate the opening of its women’s library. At four in the afternoon, I descended the narrow stairs of a building in central Tehran to reach a room that was so filled with people that it was barely possible to discern the library in their midst. I had never seen so many women of such varying ages and types in one room before. It neither had the flash and glamour of a wedding party nor the drab darkness of a girls’ school gathering.
The only people who disrupted the all-female presence were the little boys among the children who are always part and parcel of a women’s only gathering. It was here that an impossible image came before my eyes – well-dressed men with children in arms in an all-male gathering – and I understood then that this gathering of women, of which I was a member, had a long path ahead. Perhaps the founding of such a women’s library is just one of the smaller steps needed to advance along that path.
The ceremony, which more resembled an intimate celebration, opened with welcoming remarks and thanks to those who had helped along the way. This was followed by a speech by Mansoureh Shojaee, the head of the library committee, who reminded those in attendance of the first public March 8 gathering five years ago at the Book City in Tehran [cf. Badjens, edition 1], and the fear and anxieties that had accompanied that event. She continued, “And then, two years ago today, when the U.S. attack on Iraq was imminent and the Women’s Cultural Center, along with other groups voiced its opposition, a commitment to peaceful and cultural action was made. It was a commitment to founding a women’s library with the hope that it can provide a space for cultural action and continued struggle against discrimination and weaknesses in the law and tradition.”
Ms. Shojaee explained how the funding for the library was obtained, “After establishing a library committee, we turned to people for financial support. However, after almost one year, we realized that the raised funds were insufficient to establish a library. We then turned to the municipality to assist us in securing a space. We were offered a place in Nasser Khosro, which we turned down because the municipality was unable to meet the framework of our demands and goals. So then we turned to international aid and a Dutch international organization offered its assistance. Through our perseverance and follow-up we were able to secure approximately 100 million tomans (120,000 US dollars) for the project. However, concerns about losing our grassroots base, about being labeled a foreign agent, and the fear of becoming conservative resulted in a majority vote decision within the Center to reject the money. We returned to volunteer help and individual support and were finally able to rent a space.”
Mansoureh Shojaee also mentioned the suspicious burning of Roshangaran Publishing House, one of the most important publishers devoted to women’s studies, when its founder Shahla Lahiji, joined the gathering. Ms. Lahiji explained that she had been attending other women’s events that day and reminded everyone of a time when International Women’s Day could not be held publicly. “Today,” she proudly stated, “this event is being held in many universities and even Islamic organizations throughout the country, and with the presence of men.” She claimed that men in Iran realize that there can be little social progress without the active presence and participation of women and that they must be with women and not against them.
The ceremony continued with the awarding of a sculpture to Homeira Moshirzadeh for her book, From Social Movement to Social Theory: History of Two Centuries of Feminism. Since Ms. Moshirzadeh could not attend, the book’s publisher Ziba Jalali of Shirazeh Publishing, accepted the award on her behalf. Additional awards were given to university students who helped the Women's Cultural Center in establishing the library.
Afterwards, Soraya Gezelayagh, a librarian and bookkeeper with thirty years experience delivered a speech. "Establishing a library is a very difficult venture,” she said. “However, it is even more difficult to keep it active, and realize the dreams and hopes that the library gave rise to at its inception. Throughout history, libraries have stood for knowledge and awareness, and much of our struggles as women have been towards achieving these objectives. We are speaking of a struggle which is neither aggressive nor violent. Rejecting these two positions, we insist on a conscious cultural and civil struggle. Culture is our only tool. The opposing side is armed with power, money, various means of communication and control of the educational system, which teaches and nurtures women’s disempowerment on a daily basis. We have none of those tools, but we have each other."
Pointing to the absence of restrictions and conditions for membership to the library, Ms. Ghezelayagh reminded the audience that books should be for everyone, because “freedom and knowledge needed each other.” Freedom without knowledge, she continued, cannot last.
After the completion of Iranian women's speeches for Iranian women, it was time to hear Kofi Annan's address to women throughout the world, which was duly read by a UN Tehran office staff member.
Then, the microphone was turned off and attendees were invited to the backyard for refreshments and live performance. The yard was filled with tea, fruit juices, and sweets. In the center was the performance area. The actors, who were university theater students, were mostly dressed in white except for one member who donned black. Those wearing white had the lives beaten out of them by the lone black-wearer. When asked about the meaning, Ghezel Hashemi, the troupe leader, stated that the piece symbolized violence against women. The subsequent performance was by Nahid Jafari, who performed a piece by Dario Fo. Finally, Roya Sahraee read a short story by Morteza Arshadi, entitled, "Revolution – Freedom" which also addressed violence against women.
By seven o'clock, after the speeches were read, honors and awards bestowed, performances staged and refreshments consumed, those who remained looked around the library and gazed at the posters, signed up for membership, and bought books.
Although the library only contains 2400 titles thus far, the Center is planning on establishing a mobile library and holding consultation workshops as well. Currently, the library and resource center offers free legal and health counseling and hopes to add other public services in the near future. The library is also soliciting and welcomes books, magazine subscriptions, and other kinds of donations [cf. Badjens front page, “The Women’s Cultural Center’s Library Support Call,” for further information].
Photographs by Raha Faridi
Translated by Mahsa Shekarloo