What do we mean by universality of women's rights? Briefly, by this we mean that women should enjoy the same rights, regardless of their race, religion, culture and nationality. Depriving a woman of her freedom or equality by reference to the dominant culture, religion, or the political system in the country she lives in, or the country she was born is by no means justifiable or acceptable. Women in Islamic fundamentalist countries are deprived of many rights. They cannot travel, or work without their husband's, or father's permission. In Iran women must wear the hejab, they are segregated in society. They are stoned to death because of engaging in sexual relationships outside of marriage. The family law in almost all these countries discriminates against women. And this deprivation and oppression is justified by a false argument, that their religion or culture dictates this, so it is alright. Genital mutilation, for example, is practised in some other parts of the world, this too, is justified by the dominant tradition, and culture of the given country. The list is long. When we defend universality of women's rights, we demand to put a stop to this injustice, and to expose the defenders of it. Another example, no one, be it state, or parents has the right to deprive a girl from education, to force her to marry, or to impose upon her the traditions of a specific religion or culture, for example the hejab in the context of Islam. The rights of all girls and women should be universal, should be the same all over the world.

In the 1970s, we did not need to discuss the legitimacy, the rightness, and relevance of this concept. Every progressive human being and any women's rights activist would believe in and uphold the universality of women's rights and women's equality.

Why now in the year 2001, do we feel the need to open the debate on these basic human rights? Because for the past two decades we have been under attack from the Right, and surprisingly from sections of the Left, as well. We have been denied and deprived of our rights not only by reactionary governments in the countries we were born, but also by a considerable section of the Western academia, media, politicians, governments, and even sections of the feminist movement.

We have been told repeatedly that we have to respect our so-called culture, our so-called religion and silently and respectfully accept the fate they have assigned to us. This has been defended under the dressed-up concept of cultural relativism, and backed by the fashionable theory of postmodernism. Cultural relativism is a fancy name for racism because it justifies two sets of values, rights and privileges for human beings according to a subjective, arbitrary concept, such as culture. To put it bluntly, according to this concept, because of my birthplace, I should enjoy fewer rights relative to a woman born in England, Sweden or France. I should be content with my second-class status, because I was born in a country that is under the rule of Islam and because a reactionary, misogynist government is in power.

There are certainly different factors contributing to the rise and dominance of this racist and reactionary view, not all of the same significance and weight. In my opinion, there are two factors, which play a major role in the rise and popularity of this view.

The fall of the Soviet Union.
The coming to power of an Islamic regime in Iran.
I will try to elaborate on these two points.

The fall of the Soviet Union, that is, the defeat of state Capitalism by free market Capitalism was celebrated as a major victory for human rights. But very soon it became clear that it added to the misery of not only the majority of people in the Eastern bloc, but it also had a direct effect on the lives of many people in other parts of the world. As a result of the destruction of the old system, and an absence of a more humane, egalitarian and progressive one to supersede it, poverty, unemployment, homelessness, prostitution, trafficking of women or so-called white slavery, political corruption, ethnic wars, extreme nationalism, etc. became dominant in the entire Eastern bloc. Religion found an upper hand and as a direct and immediate result, women lost the status and rights they enjoyed before. Sexism became a dominant ideology.

What was the international effect of the fall of the Soviet Union? During the Cold War, behind the Cold War rhetoric, there existed a political and ideological balance, which had some positive effects. The UN Declaration of Human Rights, and the Geneva Convention on Refugees, for example, were the results of the existing competition, and the climate of the Cold War. If not immediately after the end of the Cold War, but 10 years later, we can clearly see the impact it has had on the lives of many. The Human Rights Declaration is not even observed in Western countries, let alone in other parts of the world.

The Geneva Convention has been made obsolete, and as a result of it, the tragedies and deaths of hundreds of people who had tried and still try to flee war, torture and lack of rights.

In this climate, postmodernism has found strength and popularity as an ideology that defends and legitimises the oppression, inequality, and injustice that are so widespread. According to this ideology, everything is relative; there is no good or bad, right or wrong, progressive or backward. Universality is irrelevant. This is the message of postmodernism - perhaps a bit oversimplified, or crude, but this is the essence of this theory.

The political, popular, offspring of postmodernism is cultural relativism, a view, which too readily is used to justify the lack of rights and the oppression of people living in Iran, Algeria, Afghanistan and the like. It is a theory that has helped the world ignore the killings in Rwanda and to shamelessly accept dictatorship and torture in the world.

What effects does it have on women? Besides general hardship, suffering, and oppression, women particularly suffer from this new set of values, especially in countries and, in the West, communities where political Islam has a stronghold. The world has ignored their fate, their lack of rights, their subjugation, their segregation, their victimisation, and their de facto slavery, under the rubric of cultural relativism. Post September 11th 2001, the focus on political Islam may have one benefit: it may highlight the barbaric regimes - such as the Islamic Republic of Iran - under which women have, and continue, to suffer.

After decades of marginalisation of Islamic movements as a political force, the coming to power of an Islamic regime in a country such as Iran, has had a major impact on the rise of Islamic movements in the region, and given birth to what is being defined as political Islam. This is not only because the Islamic Republic supported these movements vigorously, both financially and morally, but also because the Islamic Republic seemed to be the result of a popular uprising in a country which had been a main ally of the West, giving it a popular appeal.

Islamic rhetoric in the region, in countries under dictatorship, where no opposition was tolerated, where progressive, left, women's rights groups, civil rights movements, and where workers' organisations were brutally crushed, found a way to the hearts of many deprived people. The anti-imperialist rhetoric added flavour to this appeal. Outside the region, this popular, demagogic appeal, plus the real threat of terrorism by Islamic groups hanging over Western societies - which has now come to its bitter fruition - paved the way for the reinforcement of cultural relativism. Here it was mainly out of pragmatism, rather than principles, that we see the widespread acceptance of these reactionary views, regarding the attitude towards people living under Islamic laws, be it state laws, or patriarchal laws practised in Islamic communities. The case of Salman Rushdie is only one, and the most famous, example of such threat. Today, however, things are changing and there is a strong chance for women's liberation in Iran, which can profoundly effect the situation of women in the region.

Iran is undergoing profound and sweeping changes. The country is in turmoil. For the past two years, people have more openly criticised the state, the religious character of the state, demanded more rights, and challenged the religious laws. The opposition movement is gaining strength and momentum every day.

A very strong and far-reaching secular movement has been born and is growing rapidly. The Islamic Republic's leadership itself has felt the danger and is cautioning its ranks constantly.

You have to see these changes in the context of a country that has been most brutally suppressed for two decades. The crimes against humanity committed by this regime are amongst some of the most horrendous of the twentieth century. Women have played a very important role in bringing about the political upheaval we are witnessing today. One of the first suppressive measures enacted by this government was to restrict the very few rights women had. Sexual apartheid was in place after a few years of the regime's establishment. But women have fought against it. The more open opposition was crushed. But women continued their objections by defying the rules. Now, a new generation of women has begun to challenge the state more openly.

The anti-religion, anti-Islamic sentiment is very high among the population. Spirits are high, hopes are high. The future is ours.

Any changes in Iran will not only affect the lives of people living in Iran, but will have a significant impact on the region. The fall of the Islamic Republic will once again marginalise the Islamic movement in the region - both by ending the enormous financial and material help they receive from the Islamic Republic, and because an overthrown Islamic state as a result of a popular uprising will wash away all that popular and demagogic appeal that Islamic movements and rhetoric once enjoyed.

We will see not only women in Iran freed of a religious tyranny, but also witness the loosening of the Islamic grip on women in Algeria, Sudan, Egypt and Palestine. The force of secularism will not stop in Iran, it will penetrate the whole region, even Israel. The future is secular.