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Iranian Women’s One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality: The Inside Story, Foreword

Mon, Oct 26, 2009

Articles

OMSCampaignForEqualityBy Mahnaz Afkhami
In Iranian Women’s One Million Signatures: Campaign for Equality The Inside Story by Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani
Women’s Learning Partnership Translation Series

The volume you hold in your hands is the second in a series of translations launched by the Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP). The goal of the series is to make available to the widest possible audience works of importance to women that are produced in the developing world. We focus especially on those that define women’s issues, identify fields of opportunity, and chart strategies to improve women’s lives.

The present volume bears a close connection to the first, Guide to Equality in the Family in the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia). Both books offer well-researched arguments that bring together thinking on religion, human rights, and constitutional and national law with insights from the social sciences in ways that will aid the cause of reform. The Maghreb case drives home the value of raising awareness about women’s issues at both the popular and elite levels, the need for NGOs to work together, and the importance of maintaining a disciplined focus on issues of immediate concern to women. In the pages that follow, Iranian activist Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani ably shows that campaigners for women’s rights in Iran have moved beyond the basic tenets of the Maghreb campaign to advance new understandings and new methods of activism.

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. The campaign brings to mind the image of raindrops falling, forming rivulets, and then converging on an ever-larger scale until they become a river. First there is a murmur, a trickle, and then, gradually, a torrent of voices sounding together and reaching far and wide.

The genius of the movement lies in its capacity to connect its members’ thoughts and deeds in ways that adapt and change as conditions require. The context is on the one hand the clash between an Iranian civil society with a century-old record of growing sophistication and important roles for women, and on the other an archaic legal system that cannot be reconciled with the exigencies of modern life. With each passing day, the tension between these two contradictory realities ratchets up a bit, fueling a sense of urgency that may help to explain why so many in the campaign are so lucid and selfless about their struggle. It is almost as if they simply cannot afford to be any other way, given what is at stake and the gravity of the circumstances.

Noushin’s account provides a valuable case study of how to build a movement in the 21st century, not only to bring change in societies ruled by autocratic governments or influenced by radical fundamentalism, but also in the more open and tolerant societies that have yet to achieve full equality for women. As a chief reason for the campaign’s astounding success in mobilizing a powerful network, she cites the deliberate practice of constant, searching discussion among a core group of experienced activists who are also open to the views of the thousands of younger women who have thronged to become campaign activists themselves, often at considerable personal risk.

This is not to say that all the lessons Noushin cites are positive ones. She describes the ways that thirty years of revolutionary tumult, preceded by more than a decade of ideological infighting, smashed oppositional politics into often-useless shards. She then shows, however, how the founders of the One Million Signatures Campaign learned from this and managed to set aside ideological differences, avoid distractions and emphasize specific, concrete demands to attract the support of women from a variety of backgrounds and belief systems. Agreement need not be total. It can be centered on incremental changes and reforms that are thoroughly within the realm of the plausible.

This “circumstantial” or “issue-based” approach to feminism has not only won the campaign legions of supporters, but also helped it to form a nimble coalition of women’s groups. Together they were able to push back parliamentary passage of a nefarious “Family Protection Act” first proposed by President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad. The same strategy led six organizations and seven hundred individual activists to prepare a list of women’s demands for presentation to the 2009 presidential candidates. That effort mobilized many women who were unhappy with the regime’s pre-selection of candidates and the consequent lack of choice. They took advantage of the election campaign to connect with other networks and expand their own.

Their demands led the two preapproved “reform” candidates, Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi, to shift their public positions toward gender equality, moving away from the “complementarity” model for male-female relations favored by the Islamic Republic. The campaigns of both men also then vowed to support ratification of the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)—a document that Iran’s Guardian Council has condemned as “anti-Islamic.”

The diversity of women and their massive participation made their power explicit. It created a dynamic relationship between their visibility and their power—each strengthened and augmented the other. The massive demonstrations that broke out across Iran after the contested presidential election of 12 June 2009 further demonstrated the strength of the women’s network, which now seemed to work as one with the labor and student movements.

Observers noted the display of ways and means for linking seasoned activists with one another and with everyday citizens through face-to-face contacts and door-to-door campaigning. Attentive Iran-watchers also marveled at other achievements: the campaign’s robust understanding that its aim is not merely to get a million autographs but to recruit a million activists; the maturity with which the campaign has dealt with the Iranian diaspora as well as regional and international advocacy organizations; the campaign’s deft use of state-of-the-art technology to reach backers at home and abroad; the skillful marrying of ideas to actions; and finally, the “intersectionality” revealed by the campaign’s ability to integrate the women’s efforts with those of numerous men (often from student, labor, democracy, and human-rights groups). “Intersectionality” is an ideal more often praised than realized, but the One Million Signatures Campaign has shown how the thing can be done.

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. During the brief three-and-a-half years that the One Million Signatures Campaign has been in existence, every original signatory of its charter has been harassed, imprisoned, dragged into court, and sentenced to months or years of imprisonment. Many others have been subjected to similar punishment. But still the campaign grows.

The rivulets that wended their way to become a stream, and then made a rushing river, keep cascading on. The torrent flows along the long arc of history that Martin Luther King, Jr., once said bends toward justice. The sound of its waters is now so loud that all the world can hear.

Mahnaz Afkhami
Founder and President
Women’s Learning Partnership

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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

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