Iran: One Million Signatures to End Discrimination

Mon, Jul 23, 2007


Voices Unabridged / By Abigail Somma

These days, when most people talk about Iran, the focus is on its nuclear program. But for a group of determined Iranian women, there’s a more pressing issue at hand. Since June 2006, human rights activists have been campaigning tirelessly for something that continues to elude Iranian women: equal rights.

The One Million Signatures Campaign or Change for Equality, started as a grassroots movement to collect a million signatures demanding the Iranian government change laws that discriminate against women. Among the women’s many complaints: under Iranian law a 9-year-old girl can be tried for an adult crime, whereas the age for a boy is 15; a man can serve as a witness to a crime while a woman cannot; women are prohibited to be financial guardians of their children while men are free to practice polygamy and divorce their wives at will; and the legal age for a father to marry off his daughter is 13, although he can seek permission from courts if he wants her to marry earlier.

The situation for women in Iran is somewhat paradoxical and has changed throughout its history. Currently, although women’s rights are constricted, many women have also been afforded high levels of education and professional opportunity. Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi wrote in a recent article, “One of the most impressive facets of Iranian social life is that women comprise 65% of university students, making Iranian women more educated than their male compatriots. With their high level of education, it is no surprise that Iranian women are dissatisfied with the subjugation of their rights.”

The Iranian women’s movement has been active for many years, but on June 12th, 2005, the seeds of the current campaign took root. A large demonstration for legal equality took place outside of Tehran University with more than a thousand protesters. The women vowed to push ahead if the government remained unresponsive. A year later, on June 12, 2006, an anniversary demonstration was held, reiterating calls for equal legal rights in marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and other areas. Police broke up this protest with pepper gas and batons and many of the women activists were beaten and arrested. Refusing to back down, they officially began the One Million Signatures Campaign.

The campaign began as an organic movement of women activists taking to the streets and approaching strangers with information and a petition. “They go almost door to door and wherever women are gathered,” says Mahnaz Afkhami, President of the Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace in Washington, DC. Afkhami, who was also a minister in the Iranian government prior to the 1979 revolution, explains that the campaign is unique because it not only includes elements of advocacy, but also education and sharing of experience. “Where women sign on, it’s fine, but if they don’t sign on, they still are given the information so they will be familiar with the goals and have a chance to think about it and possibly to consider supporting.”

From its home-grown beginnings, the movement evolved into a more mobilized, international effort with an official website where people from all over the world can receive updates and sign the petition. Activists also tapped into support from the large Iranian diaspora. Afkhami says that it was agreed “the movement would be first launched inside and allowed to completely gain the trust of the people and then there will be the support of the international community so that the government could not just go ahead and say that this was a Western plot or anything like that.” She also notes that it is helpful that international support comes from the Global South and not just the West.

However, while activists have been successful in getting their campaign off the ground, the domestic climate has become increasingly difficult for them to operate within. In recent months, there has been a widespread crackdown against civil society, and scores of women activists have been arrested and interrogated. Hadi Ghaemi from Human Rights Watch says, “The government is definitely coming out much more forcefully against independent activists in the past couple of months. It seems to be an attempt by President Ahmadinejad to silence dissent and criticism of his administration, and to consolidate power.” In addition to pressuring activists, the government also recently detained a high profile Iranian-American scholar, Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, and is increasingly pressuring women who deviate from the conservative Islamic style of dress. Sources told the Washington Post, it is “one of the toughest crackdowns since the 1979 revolution.”

Meanwhile, in a controversial move, a year ago the Bush administration announced a $75 million fund to support civil society organizations within Iran, which many think is actually contributing to the crackdown. Afkhami and Ghaemi agree that no money has actually reached any organizations within Iran. Afkami explains that it is not even possible to transfer money from the U.S within Iran and she referred to the move as “a matter of propaganda and loud mouthed-sloganeering” on the part of the Bush administration. Ghaemi comments that it has been the “perfect justification for the government’s policies.”

Even though climate for activism has become constricted, there still may be reason for optimism. Since the campaign’s launch in August 2006, activists have collected an estimated 500,000 signatures. Ghaemi says he thinks the increased pressure will actually inspire them to fight harder. “Because the issues they have put on the table are of such critical importance to Iranian women, we are actually seeing support for them broaden among the political ruling elite,” he says. For her part, Afkhami acknowledges that the goals will be difficult to achieve due to the need for major overhaul in the Iranian legal structure, and although the recent government pressure may increase solidarity, it could also be a problem. “As far as courage and steadfastness go, the women certainly have it,” she says, “But if brute force gets to a certain level, then it will make it very difficult to continue.”

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

Quotables – Human Rights

"We must pose the question: why is it that the denial of the most rudimentary rights to civil treatment for women is always based on some fundamental point of culture? Is this culture real, or is it a fetish that is used to maintain some economic, social, or simply psychological privilege?" - A Vision of Gender in Culture

"Women's status in society has become the standard by which humanity's progress toward civility and peace can be measured." - Architects for Peace

"The crass infringement of women's rights we see in the Muslim world has more to do with power, patriarchy, and misuse of religion as political weapon than with religion properly understood as individual faith." - Gender Apartheid, Cultural Relativism, and Women's Human Rights

"Rights and empowerment are interconnected: unless a substantial number of women in a community come to believe that they have rights and demand to exercise them, right remains an abstraction." - Faith and Freedom

Quotables – Iran Women’s Movement

"Now, when I look back [on the work of the WOI], it seems to me that our main mistake was not that we did not do other things which we should have done. Our main mistake was that we created conditions in which the contradictions related to modernity, progress, equality, and human rights, especially women’s rights, increased and the reaction to our work put perhaps too much pressure on the country’s social fabric." - Fate of the family protection law

"Iran’s One Million Signatures Campaign for the Reform of Discriminatory Laws is an extraordinary phenomenon. It is democratic, nonhierarchical, open, and evolving in a polity that is none of those things." - Iranian Women’s One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality: The Inside Story, Foreword

At the time of her execution, [Ms. Parsay] wrote one of the most moving letters to her children. And in that she expressed the same courage and the same steadfast belief in her principles that she had followed all of her life. And that was that: I’m a doctor. I know what it means to die, that takes only a minute. I’m not afraid of that. What I’m afraid of is to be pressured into denying 50 years of service to women. - Executed But Not Forgotten

“Prostitution was the code word for activism during the early part of the revolution” - I Was Iran's Last Woman Minister