Dr. Nina Ansary is an award-winning Iranian American author, historian, and UN Women Global Champion for Innovation. She is one of the world’s foremost experts on gender equality through history and in contemporary society. Nina is a prominent human rights advocate and has been ranked by many as one of the world’s foremost visionaries around inclusivity, equality and diversity.
Her books Anonymous Is a Woman: A Global Chronicle of Gender Inequality (Revela Press/2020) and Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of Women in Iran (Revela Press/2015) garnered multiple awards, including the 2016 International Book Award in “Women’s Issues” (Jewels of Allah) and the 2021 Benjamin Franklin Book Award in “Interior Design” and “History” (Anonymous Is a Woman). She is the Director of the World Affairs Councils of America (WACA) Global Women’s Lecture Series and the Director of the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum’s Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI).
Nina is the recipient of the 2020 Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Alumni Award, the 2019 Ellis Island Medal of Honor, the 2018 Barnard College, Columbia University Trailblazer Award, and has been recognized as one of “10 Inspirational Women (who) Should be Household Names” by The Hill, one of “Five Iranian Visionaries You Need to Know” by The New York Times and one of “14 Privileged Women to Change the World” by Marie Claire.
In this interview, I speak to Dr. Nina Ansary about the origins of gender inequality in our society, how it traces back to primitive society, and how deeply embedded gender and cultural biases are. We talk about the reality of global gender inequity in today’s world, and look at what we need to do to move to a more equitable society.
Q: How did gender inequity emerge in society?
[Nina Ansary]: To understand what we’re facing in the 21st century, we need to look back in history. It has not always been the case that women were considered inferior or subordinate to men. If you look at primitive societies, men and women were egalitarian to the extent that each gender performed specific, indispensable roles in society. Motherhood vested women with a certain amount of power and prestige, not because they were viewed as superior, but because this biological endowment was seen as a natural bridge to humanity. With the domestication of animals, and the discovery of agriculture, men were able to move from the food-gathering era into the food-producing era. Men gradually moved into the cultural and industrial lives of their communities and began taking the ‘reins’ of society, founding social systems that best served their needs over the needs of women. The myth of women’s inferiority is the product of a social system that has produced and fostered countless other inequalities, inferiorities, degradations, and discriminations. The ripple effects of the creation of these systems continue to this day – to the point where they are deeply embedded into society.
Q: How has the embedding of the myth of women’s inferiority into religious beliefs impacted society?
[Nina Ansary]: Every country is different. I was born in Iran and left when I was 12, at the cusp of the 1979 revolution. Iran is a country that, for over four decades, has by in large justified the inferior position of women through religious will, and the adherence to a hard-line interpretation of the Quran. On the one hand, women are hailed as custodians of the private sphere, as mothers, nurturers and caregivers, yet on the other hand, they are defrauded in divorce, child custody cases, and in countless other sectors in society.
Iran has an exceedingly young population. What is remarkable, is that you have a society where women born and raised in this patriarchal climate do not mirror the gender ideology advocated by the current regime, but who have a sense of empowerment. Their empowerment primarily comes from education. Women have been outnumbering men in higher education comprising 60% of university students. This in large part, fuels their empowerment and their activism. Women in Iran are quite possibly the greatest threat to the regime, they are courageous and relentless in their pursuit of justice, human rights, and freedom from oppression and make the sacrifices needed to bring about change for future generations.
Over the years, women’s rights activists in Iran have shown that they are able to come up with unconventional ways of pursuing their right to freedom and self-determination. As an example, they have boldly challenged antiquated religious traditions by reinterpreting certain passages in the Quran to show that Islam is able to evolve. In considering the crucial question of whether religion can in fact evolve and whether progressive interpretations can succeed in modernizing religious ideology, historians have compared this possibility to theological reform in Western nations. Perhaps the individual most responsible for religious reform in the West is the German Priest Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther’s criticism of abuses by the Catholic Church in his Ninety-Five Theses is a testament to the possibility of deviating from strictly adhering to that which is traditionally considered to be an eternal covenant. His revolutionary document protesting nepotism, usury, and the sale of indulgences brought about the Protestant Reformation. And in Iran’s case, the emergence of a religious philosophy that prohibits patriarchy and oppression – a responsible theology and a bold and radical questioning by women’s rights activists of what is taken to be the finite word of God.
[Vikas: And how well are we doing now in this regard, more broadly, more globally?]
[Nina Ansary]: As a collective, we tend to look at progress as being linear, especially where it concerns women’s rights. An indication of how far women have come in challenging societal barriers and systemic obstacles. This is a huge mistake and breeds complacency because we risk losing the hard-won gains. Iran and more recently Afghanistan gives us an example. In the past two decades, women and girls in Afghanistan were exposed to freedoms previously denied under Taliban rule. The right to education, employment, and political participation. And now they face widespread discrimination and abuse. With leadership and privilege comes immense responsibility. And in this case, it basically took 20 years for the US to replace the Taliban, with the Taliban. This is a backward step of epic proportions for women’s rights.
With respect to Iran, if you go back to the 3rd century, an era where Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion, women in many ways were more advanced than in some 21st-century societies. They ruled as queens over the vast Persian Empire, ran large businesses and served as commanders in the army. This is yet another example of how far we like to think we have come and yet looking back in history indicates otherwise. Furthermore, these women and countless others have been written out of history. This is why today women account for a mere 0.5% of recorded history.
Q: Can you tell us more about your research, on some of these remarkable women who have been written out of history?
[Nina Ansary]: There are thousands of women who have been written out of history. The following are just a few examples.
In the early 1900s, Lillian Gilbreth was a woman of many firsts. An American engineer and pioneer in the field of industrial-organizational psychology, she raised all 12 of her children alone after her husband passed away. Gilbreth was a woman of many “firsts” – the first woman to receive the Hoover Medal for significant public service by an engineer and the first female psychologist to be featured on a US postage stamp. During her nearly 70-year career, Gilbreth broke one societal barrier after another. She is one of the founders of industrial engineering, has advised six successive U.S. presidents and invented many of the staples we rely on in our kitchens, from refrigerator door shelves to the pedal-operated trash can.
Another remarkable woman is Marie-Sophie Germain, the 19th-century French mathematician. Her work in applied mathematics was crucial to the building of skyscrapers. Her life is a testament to her ardent perseverance in the face of systemic discrimination.
There are also countless women whose lack of recognition is in stark contrast to their male counterparts. For example, the South African activist Charlotte Maxeke was born 43 years before the revered Nelson Mandela and her accomplishments paved the way for her country’s political changes as well as its first women’s movement. She has been virtually written out of every school and university curricula.
And Lise Meitner, a 19th-century Austrian physicist, led in the discovery of nuclear fission. In 1949, her partner Dr. Otto Hahn won the Nobel Prize for their shared discovery. Lise did not. To his credit, Dr. Hahn submitted Meitner’s name to the Nobel Prize Committee ten years in a row, and every time, her name was dismissed.
There are also countless women today that remain unknown despite their accomplishments. Women like Stacy Cunningham, who in 2018 became the first female President of the New York Stock Exchange in its 226-year history; how often do we hear about her?
It’s important not only to include the names and contributions of these and other women in our history books not only for the purpose of accuracy but also because these women serve as role models for young girls. Especially given that the importance of providing role models cannot be discounted. Numerous studies including recent ones from Stanford and Harvard Universities show that young girls, by the age of six, in the U.S. feel they are less intellectually capable than boys. Why? Because when they open a history book, they are predominantly exposed to male innovators. Civil rights activists Marian Wright Edelman, has this striking quote, ‘it’s hard to be what you can’t see…’ in fact, young girls that are exposed to female mentorship and role models have a 130% more likelihood to hold leadership positions in their adult lives.
Q: Is the modern, intersectional, gender movement helping, or hindering, progress for women?
[Nina Ansary]: It is important and necessary to try to adapt and understand the changing needs of society. I grew up during an era where gender for the most part was defined as either male or female. Today, for a variety of reasons these are viewed as outdated “gender norms” and as such the boundaries of “masculinity” and “femininity” have to be redefined in the sense that having a gender identity is no longer viewed as “male” or “female.” Meaning it is more nuanced and should be left up to the individual as everyone deserves to have their identities and rights respected.
Where progress is concerned, if we are to advance and bring about meaningful change, then we need to go beyond gender equality and apply an intersectional lens as well as the pillars of diversity and inclusivity. American law professor Kimberle Crenshaw who coined the intersectional term explains that “all inequality is not created equal.” An intersectional approach shows the way that people’s social identities can overlap, creating compounding experiences of discrimination. Intersectionality centres on the voices of those experiencing overlapping, concurrent forms of oppression to understand the depths of the inequalities. For example, it is imperative for workplaces to revisit their own policies and practices not only from the lens of equity, inclusion and diversity but to also account for intersectionality. It is important to additionally highlight the fact that diversity by itself is not enough and must emphasize inclusion. Research has shown the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace, with diversity expanding innovation, creativity and productivity and inclusivity increasing employee engagement.
[Vikas: does this relate to stereotypes?]
[Nina Ansary]: Stereotypes are defined by social values, are based on observations and inferences and oftentimes originate from local cultures and traditions. At times, they can affect performance and can be limiting as well. Children, in particular, are constantly bombarded with stereotypes – messages about how they should act, behave, play, dress etc.. Although seemingly benign, these messages can be harmful, limiting and result in unconscious bias.
As parents and educators, we have a great responsibility. Nobody is born with a limited perspective. Your perspective is ingrained and learned early in life. This can spark from the seemingly inconsequential. For example, we may – with good intentions – say to a young girl, ‘girls are just as good at maths, as boys.’ – we are meaning to encourage, but it’s perpetuating the myth that mathematics comes more naturally to boys. Young minds are hugely impressionable, and we must be careful what we feed them.
We also must encourage children to be comfortable in their own skin. If we nurture that aim, we will reap the benefits as a society. Despite the challenges, I have hope for the future. I mentor and work with a lot of Gen-Zs (the demographic cohort succeeding the millennials) – they are hugely ethically driven, are ethnically and racially diverse, and view diversity as a good thing. They work smarter, they’re entrepreneurial, creative, politically engaged and socially minded. They use their voices to challenge the status quo and are embracing new notions of what gender and culture mean. It’s important to go beyond the normative framework and consistently challenge stereotypical assumptions, dispel antiquated notions of what it means to be a human being, beyond what it means to be a woman.
Q: What does legacy mean to you?
[Nina Ansary]: To have a voice, even if, in some small way, in terms of bridging our common humanity and bringing about meaningful and hopefully lasting change by raising awareness of how centuries of atrocities, injustices, harmful and discriminatory practices have had ripple effects across various sectors and as such debilitated our collective potential … then my legacy will remain intact.