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Iran’s Million Signatures Campaign: A Leading Voice for Democracy

Mon, Nov 9, 2009

Press

Democracy Digest / By David Lowe

Iran’s fraudulent presidential election last summer has spawned ongoing street protests and mass demonstrations, as students, women, human rights activists, workers, and many others have mobilized to challenge the corrupt clerical and political establishment that rules the country. Radio Farda reported last week that on November 2nd, ten members of the One Million Signatures Campaign were summoned to court to face charges. Founder Parvin Ardalan told the news service that the women’s movement “has become so extensive in Iran that women’s rights activists themselves cannot control it.”

Efforts in Iran on behalf of civil rights—including women’s rights–received a boost from the political space that opened during the 2009 election campaign. As Ladan Boroumand points out in the October issue of the Journal of Democracy, “For the first time in the history of voting in the Islamic Republic, candidates found themselves forced to rewrite their platforms in response to concrete demands framed by unabashed democrats.”

But civil society activism in the Islamic Republic did not begin with the 2009 election.It was precisely three years earlier—June 12th, 2006—that a variety of groups marking Iranian Women’s Day came together in Teheran’s Haft-Tir Square to demand reform. Since that time, the One Million Signatures Campaign’s peaceful signature-gathering has been condemned as a crime against the state, and every original signatory has been sentenced to months if not years of imprisonment. And yet, despite all the harassment and persecution, the movement has thrived.

Efforts to address the problems of laws that discriminate against women date back nearly a century. But, as founding member Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani points out in the recently published “Iranian Women’s One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality: The Inside Story” (Women’s Learning Partnership), the campaign launched on June 12, 2006, “would represent a more broad based and dynamic push for reform in this area than the country had ever seen before.”

And for good reason, despite the risks the movement’s active members realized they would soon encounter. Under the Islamic Republic, women face far more than traditional forms of discrimination: a bitter reality that includes maiming, murders, and suicides caused by domestic abuse “that the law refuses to punish or restrain.” While clerical authorities sermonize about how beating women is improper according to Islamic morality, they ignore the “gigantic asymmetry” that exists under a system where women must submit to their husbands’ sexual and other demands, while men violate their obligations with impunity.

Ms. Khorasani devotes much attention to the destructive impact of the practice of polygamy to the mental well being of women and to the family more generally. This system has rendered the legal institution of marriage incapable of providing woman with secure advantages and has guaranteed that the right to an easily attainable divorce is the sole prerogative of men.

Given the legal structure that has grown up to support a system that sustains “a web of twisted, repressive relationships that taint the whole of society,” it is not difficult to see why the abolition of polygamy has become a central feature of the Million Signatures Campaign. In the absence of such reform, Ms. Khorasani contends, “there is no hope for bringing stability to families or creating space in which more humane relations between men and women can flourish.”

Marriage is undermined in other ways as well, including laws which prohibit a woman from working outside the home without her husband’s permission. Ms. Khorasani cites a 2006 study indicating that more than 80 percent of young girls consider employment outside the home more important than being homemakers, and 58 percent of mothers believe that their daughters should work outside the home. With marriage increasingly discredited among young women, it is little wonder that Iran’s marriage laws are “actually impeding the formation of new families.”

The problems created by this legal framework are compounded by the influence of the Islamic Republic’s Guardian Council of the Constitution, a twelve-member body of Islamic jurists chosen by the Supreme Leader and the Majlis (parliament). Thus, women face obstacles not only in the discriminatory nature of the laws themselves but also in their interpretation and enforcement. The more top-down the relationship between appointed officials and average citizens, “the more women and their rights are pushed to the sidelines.”

Ms. Khorasani’s account of the movement goes well beyond its description of the injustices that it seeks to reform. Much of her analysis is devoted to explaining how the movement has addressed the numerous challenges it has faced internally, such as how to limit hierarchical decision making, how best to cater to the needs of young activists, how to overcome broad ideological differences, and how to broaden support into the provinces beyond Teheran. The tone is serious and thoughtful, helping make these essays an important guide for groups in autocratically ruled societies that seek to develop effective means of democratic activism.

Early on the movement’s leaders reasoned that their most effective approach to reaching their targeted audience was not through dramatic protests but rather more “face-to-face interaction with people on sidewalks, in factories, hair salons, and sports arenas as well as in family or religious gatherings and through door-to-door signature-collection drives.” At first, the campaign and its bottom-up and non-revolutionary approach was not taken seriously by the authorities. It was, after all, seeking to attain what was considered a fanciful goal of gathering a million signatures precisely at a time when Iranian women were seemingly facing a dead end in their struggle for justice in the post-Khatemi period.

But it wasn’t long before the constant face-to-face interactions began to bear fruit, as living rooms were converted to cultural salons, their goings on sometimes broadcast through cyberspace. “It was,” Ms. Khorasani recalls, “as if Iranian society, so long infected by the lack of trust that autocracy breeds, was turning over a new leaf.” She argues that among the campaign’s greatest achievements has been the impact of the face-to-face method on the activists themselves, drawing them closer to the public as discussions about discriminatory laws go on in sites of everyday routines as signatures are collected. Such community building has the potential, to have a spillover effect on how public life is conducted throughout the society.

What has emerged from that original demonstration three-and-a-half years ago in Haft-Tir Square is a pragmatic, non-ideological, and thoroughly home grown movement, one that gives lie to the Iranian regime’s farcical attempts to smear it as being in the pay of international forces who want to use it to foment a “velvet revolution.”

Ms. Khorasani devotes one of her most interesting and thoughtful sections to the proper role of international support, what she terms “the problem of the transnationals.” She warns those struggling for women’s rights against allowing themselves to fall prey to the agenda of others, as has happened (within the country) in the past. These groups run the risk of winding up as the “parasites” of transnational groups if they become simply their followers. While the flow of ideas once ran only in one direction (i.e., from outside-in), one of the great successes of the Million Signatures Campaign has been to insure a “more reciprocal process,” one that has earned the admiration, as well as the moral support, of much of the Iranian diaspora.

The volume is the second in a series of translations brought forth by the Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP), an international organization that actively promotes the rights of women in developing societies. As the WLP’s founder and president Mahnaz Afkhami notes, “In the end, the simple courage and perseverance of women whose peaceful signature-gathering is condemned as a crime against the state reminds us that ideas and beliefs cannot be silenced.”

David E. Lowe is Vice President for Government Relations and Public Affairs at the National Endowment for Democracy

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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 – 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