Zonta Club of Melbourne on Yarra Inc hosts forum on women in Iran and Afghanistan and more

The Zonta Club of Melbourne on Yarra Inc., Australia, hosted a forum on women's issues in Afghanistan and Iran and raised funds to help students from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

Forum on Women of Iran
More than 100 people attended the club's forum on women of Iran, and they raised nearly AUS$2,000 for Zonta International's overseas projects.

As Zonta International has said: "A threat to the rights of women anywhere is a threat to the rights of women everywhere. Let's lift their voices and demonstrate our support for the women in Iran and communities worldwide." That is what the club did with their forums. 

The women of Iran, from Iran, of Iranian descent and associated with the forum have been delighted that the club enabled them to have a voice to Australians, to explain their issues and to feel the solidarity of women around them. This forum helps them progress in a "bloody," necessary revolution.

The unrest in Iran appears to have started following the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested by Tehran's morality police in September 2022. Mahsa was accused of violating the country's strict rules mandating women to wear a hijab or headscarf. This incident, coupled with years of discrimination and abuse, was the final straw for many Iranians.

Schoolgirls have also demonstrated an unprecedented show of support in playgrounds and streets. Men and teenage boys have also participated in large numbers and backed the women's demands. There have been demonstrations around the world.

The forum members consisted of:

  • The forum chair was a social justice lawyer with extensive experience dealing with female Iranian asylum seekers and women's issues.
  • Iranian Women's Association has existed since the 1990s to promote issues facing Iranian women.
  • Feminista Melbourne is a group of young Iranian and Australian people dedicated to promoting the issues for Iranian women through art, which they did in the evening, explaining their arguments and actions through traditional/contemporary art and design, art on the streets and videos.
  • An Iranian asylum seeker explained why she and others have chosen to come to Australia. She also answered questions about what it was like growing up as a female in Iran, why they could not return to Iran, and why they would not take their daughters back to Iran.

The audience was awakened to the plight of women in Iran, educated about the reality of existence for women in Iran and horrified that even in Australia, asylum-seeker women were living without the basic rights Australian women have because they are denied access to citizenship.

Along with the panel, another Iranian asylum seeker shared her art to signify the horrors she had experienced in Nauru as an asylum seeker, the hopes of freedom she had and the reality of her existence now as an asylum seeker.

Kylie Moore-Gilbert joined the audience. After being detained in women's prisons in Iran, Kylie became an advocate for women in Iran and was delighted to be present. She signed copies of her book, "The Uncaged Sky."

Linking the plight of women in Iran with that of the club's previous Women in Afghanistan forum was one of the Afghanistan panel who had also spent time as a refugee in Iran.

A group of Year 11 students supported the forum. These girls had created posters and social media posts to present the forum speakers and had a dedicated question time. A Year 10 human rights class also attended. These young women were involved because the power of young women is one of the greatest assets our future world will have. The intelligence – academic and emotional, the concern and understanding of young women- has the power to help other women and address other issues across the world.

The students' involvement made them feel empowered and motivated, and hearing lived experiences awakened them to the concerns of women worldwide. An unexpected outcome was how thrilled the audience was to see the young women involved, how it gave them hope for the future and how it invigorated their interest in the issue.

That evening, the club saw the power of young women in Iran, from Iran and in Australia and how exhilarating and positive that was!

Forum on Women in Afghanistan
The club's Women in Afghanistan forum took place on International Literacy Day to celebrate the fact that Australian women are among the most educated in the world. However, this opportunity also brings a responsibility to support women in Afghanistan who are struggling with restrictions on their rights and education. They are forbidden from attending school and face limitations in their employment. Speaking out against this can result in torture and abuse. Additionally, there has been an increase in child and early marriages, which is a major concern for Zonta.

During the forum, the club learned about women in Afghanistan and their past and present lives. Importantly, they met a group of incredible, highly educated women who are working to support other women in Afghanistan:

  • The forum chair is a barrister and former president of the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties (Liberty Victoria). She advocates for human rights, has degrees in law and arts and is a master of humanitarian action.
  • F. A. fled Afghanistan with her family when she was seven; she grew up as a refugee in Pakistan and Iran before arriving in Australia. She has a Ph.D. in diplomacy and international relations and two master's degrees. She is an expert in diplomatic negotiations and peace settlements. She is an advocate for the rights of women and girls and vulnerable ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
  • A.M. holds master of law degrees in international humanitarian law, human rights and international criminal law. She co-founded a legal campaign assisting vulnerable Afghans at the risk of persecution and advocating accountability for victims of atrocity crimes in Afghanistan. She has worked on humanitarian and human rights-related projects in close collaboration with Afghanistan's justice institutions.
  • K.E. is a lawyer who worked in the department of justice in Kabul, Afghanistan. She has always encouraged other women to seek greater independence and education in Afghanistan.
  • B. is from Afghanistan and holds a bachelor of computer science. She is a woman and social rights activist. After the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in 2021 and realizing the need to support young Afghan female students and women, she began working for women and girls in Afghanistan to help them stand against the oppressive Taliban regime and have some continued education.

Each of these women, along with many other Afghan women around the world, is making a difference in the situation for women in Afghanistan. They support other women, other like-minded groups and their families to survive and maintain hope that their lives and opportunities will improve.

UN Women stated on 15 August 2021 that with the full participation of women and girls in all aspects of society, there is a chance of achieving lasting peace, stability and economic development in Afghanistan. The club believes we must continue to elevate the voices of Afghan women.

All proceeds from the evening went to support women in Afghanistan.

Following the forum, other organizations and businesses requested that the club hold more forums for their members and staff, which they plan to do. A school also requested that the girls be informed about the situation of girls in Afghanistan. A.M. was able to talk about the village she came from and the situation of girls there now. The girls wrote letters of support and thanked A.M. for opening their eyes to the problem.

Aiding students from non-English backgrounds
For 25 years, the club has continued its Friday Night School event to help students from non-English speaking backgrounds, particularly recently arrived migrant and refugee students. Each Friday evening during term time, more than 300 students meet at St Ignatius Parish Hall in Richmond and participate in the program.

About AUS$1,000 has been awarded to Friday Night School for 2023, and another $1,000 will be awarded to Friday Night School in 2024, thanks to the generosity of Bendigo Bank, Windsor Branch, which gave the club money to put towards a local community project.

Friday Night School is a peer-to-peer learning model, which means that students from the participating schools help the students with their studies. Tutors' assistance extends from VCE-level subjects, such as Maths Methods, to helping prep students recognize their letters and word sounds. Many Friday Night School students have achieved impressive VCE results, continuing their studies at university and other further education institutions.

Since its inception, Friday Night School has evolved to include a scholarship and bursary program, FSN Online (particularly relevant during the COVID-19 lockdown), Wednesday Night Tutoring, the FNS Reading Program, an adult literacy group, an annual camp and an end-of-the-year party.

The club's small project award will specifically be used to help continue funding the adult literacy group. This program mainly educates migrant women. Qualified teachers provide one-to-one tuition to parents while their children are doing Friday Night School. Very often, they need more education in their home country and language. They are desperate for their children to do well at school but must comprehend the system and teaching. The women are often the family's primary caregivers and income earners. Helping them with English pays back and improves opportunities for themselves and their families. They also become very driven to provide better opportunities for their girls.

The adult literacy classes fit the club's effort to build a better world for women and girls. The English for Parents program allows women to participate in the opportunity to learn English, which empowers them in Australian society, helps them comprehend their children's education and gives them access to education themselves. It also helps with job seeking.