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12/16/06 Bookmark and Share
Iran's Women's Rights Movement and the One Million Signatures Campaign

By Nayereh Tohidi / November 2006

Women: The Bearers of the Good News and the Beacons of Hope

In the midst of all the horrible and worrisome news of violence, war and massacres coming from the Middle East these days, it is news about women whose humane creativity, civic movements, and life-promoting and peace-seeking activities that bring hope for the future of this bloody and turbulent region. One example is the news of the Palestinian, Israeli and Lebanese women who have come together to promote dialogue and negotiation in an effort to end the prolonged wars and conflicts by finding a just and practical solution.


Nayereh Tohidi

Today, there is an unyielding atmosphere prevailing in Iran, the Middle East and the international arena—an atmosphere of militarism, violence and repression. An atmosphere that strengthens the spirit of militarism, perpetuates the cycle of violence, and produces violent and militant images of men and women, strengthening in turn the brutal culture of patriarchy and victimization of women and children. In spite of it, Middle Eastern women and activists have not surrendered to this atmosphere of fear. They have not wavered in their determination to seek novel, more effective and efficient methods to improve their legal and social status through a process of trial and error. These efforts surely will impact their societies and status of men as well as women positively.

Among the most hopeful efforts are the creative initiatives taken by Iranian women’s rights activists. The women’s movement in Iran is comprised of diverse groups, various activities and tactics. Some are engaged in organizing anti-violence workshops and anti-war activities as “Zanan Solh” (Women of Peace); some focus on feminist consciousness raising and egalitarian cultural production through print journals such as “Zanan” and “Hoquq-e Zanan,” some are doing this through internet journals such as Zanestan http://www.herlandmag.org  “Hastia Andish ; Kannon-e Zanan Iran http://www.irwomen.com, “Meydan and the Women’s Committee of the Office to Foster Unity and the Alumni Organization of Iran (Advare Tahkime Vahdat, Sazemane Daneshamookhtegane Iran)—both student organizations—. One of the most recent initiatives seeks “Change for Equality” (“Barabary ); through the collection of one million signatures demanding changes to discriminatory laws against women in Iran.

Pragmatic Realism

The “One Million Signatures” campaign, which is designed to help reform discriminatory laws, resulted from and is a continuation of the women’s peaceful gatherings on the 12th of June in 2005 and 2006 that ended by violent attacks of the police and security forces. From both tactical and strategic points of view, this latest campaign is in line with an envisioned future where powers, opportunities and social goods are not divided based on gender differences or sexual orientation. Primarily initiated by the younger generation of women’s rights activists, this campaign seems to be turning into a point of convergence among many groups and individual activists in different parts of Iran. This campaign seems to have surpassed ideological, sectarian and religious boundaries and limitations. Instead of seeking grand ideals and abstract solutions to women’s problems, it is struggling on to achieve defined and tangible goals through practical means and methods. This movement has distanced itself from the more prevalent masculine and elitist perceptions that assume only a handful of avant-garde intellectuals, having discovered the “Whole Truth” are the sole proprietors of solutions, who through personal sacrifice would impart the knowledge, bring freedom and ‘save the souls of the ignorant and oppressed masses.’

The aim and strategy of this campaign rests on direct contact between the activists and ordinary women that would involve two-way conversation, dialogue, understanding, negotiation and education. In this model, the activist or the intellectual moves beyond the concept and framework of the one who knows it all and does it all expert and becomes one of the many thousands of active participants, involved in the process of change. The final achievement of this movement results directly from this process of dialectical interaction. Here the civil society activist does not bear all the costs associated with the effort, and ordinary people are no longer passive or silent spectators.

By employing door-to-door and face-to-face educational strategy, the One Million Signatures Campaign will teach our activists a lot about social realities on the ground. In light of these teachings, instead of throwing themselves in the harms way and carrying the brunt of reform costs, separate from people, the women’s movement’s activists will be able to have a wider and more practical impact in unison with people, one that is accompanied by pressure from people and their full participation. In return more will share the cost, and more people and forces will have a stake in the outcome. This wise and creative move will finally add to the depth and breadth of the reforms.

As evident from the writings of the activists in this campaign, unlike political parties, the women’s movement has neither the intention of over-throwing the government, nor of seizing the state power. They reach beyond governments and aim at transforming the dominant cultural, social, economical, and political relations to achieve greater equality. Women’s struggle in today’s Iran is primarily a cultural and legal one, which is fought in a historical context rather than a battlefield. This struggle starts inside the homes (in the kitchens, bedrooms, and living rooms) and flows and spreads through workplaces (factories, workshops and offices), schools and universities, mosques, synagogues, and churches, streets and alleys, taxis and buses, stores and restaurants, parks, stadiums and recreation sites, parliaments and courtrooms, and reaches the general public through educational texts, books, newspapers and magazines, games and toys, poems, stories and lyrics, movies, radio and television programs, the internet, and everywhere and anywhere that gender dynamics are present and social relations between men and women exist.

Our skilled and well-informed women have learned from experience that male-domination is a multi-layered system, a deep-rooted and complex establishment, which will not fundamentally change through simply change in the state. This realization should however not serve to underestimate the critical role of the state in affecting women’s status within society. A simple comparison of facts and figures related to human development indicators (and empowerment indicators) in different countries, gives us credible documentation that in societies where political and governmental structures are democratic, non-ideological and non-religious, where economy experiences healthy growth and material resources and social goods are fairly distributed, where national resources are used to create strong social welfare support systems, provide education and healthcare instead of spending much on militarism, women enjoy a longer lifespan, and better physical and emotional health. Further, women in these societies benefit from greater equality and equal rights, a higher social status, higher education levels, greater economic power, widespread social and political participation and enjoy greater safety and security from domestic violence.

The Importance of the Law and the Necessity of Laws that Guarantee Equality

The aim of the “One Million Signatures Campaign” is to change and reform laws that discriminate against women. At first glance it may appear that legal and rights issues are not the most pressing and important of concerns for the majority of the Iranian women, rather inflation, unemployment, and lack of housing are issues most women struggle with on a daily basis. But men may struggle with the latter issues as much as women do. What insults and injures women, simply because they are women, and makes them more vulnerable, is the existence of discriminatory laws that in many cases degrade women and reduce them to second class citizens and place values on them which are half those of men. Experienced and active women know only too well that having equal legal rights may not be a sufficient solution to women’s problems, but still they recognize that equality under the law is indeed a necessity. Without legal support, any attempt by women for self-empowerment, civil society-building, or cultural production and creative activity in the social and domestic arenas, will be blocked by limitations and hurdles. This point is underscored when one notes that many laws governing family, sexuality and gender relations in Iran lag behind modern changes, new attitudes, and new realities in Iran of today.

The Local-Global Interplay

The innovative and courageous method employed by the activists involved in the “One Million Signatures Campaign,” is not only well-rooted in the specific historical, cultural, religious, and geopolitical realities of Iran, but it is also in step with the most progressive and current discourses, laws and universal values. Furthermore, the aims of this campaign are respected and in line with values and goals espoused by international institutions such as the United Nations and well respected international human rights organizations. Iranian activists are not following some abstract theory in defining and developing their strategy for change; rather they are basing these strategies on the available resources as well as tangible, concrete, and immediate realities. This choice of strategy demonstrates their understanding and knowledge of the daily-ness of women’s struggle, feminist theories and principles, and also of their involvement, connection and cooperation with trans-national feminist organizations in the region and beyond. These women understand that lofty goals will be difficult to achieve under the present repressive atmosphere, as such they have chosen to utilize deliberate and practical methods, with a persistent approach in-line with a woman-centered and feminist approach to culture-building.

Today, Iranian women’s rights activists are armed with lessons learned form women’s struggles around the world as well as those learned from the history and the experiences of their mothers and grandmothers in Iran. They have resolved not to take a passive approach, one that relies on the support of the West or promises of salvation through bombs and mortal-shells. Nor have they taken defensive stand in favor of the ruling patriarchy because of its defiance to the West. Rather they are taking practical steps toward democracy and equal rights, demarcating the women’s movement from both the native Islamist and Western imperial patriarchies. Likewise, they are not pinning their hopes on national political groups and parties that only give credence to women and their issues at election time or during political turmoil. These women are not waiting passively for the politicians’ promised “communist ideal” or the “secular democracy” or the “Islamic democracy,” as a means to guaranteeing them their human rights. Instead these women feel compelled to organize and network among themselves, and in a culture building exercise, grow in their self-confidence, and help get rid of superstitious beliefs and unhealthy and violent sexual prejudices that plague both men and women.

The Traditional-Modern Interplay

One of the special characteristics of the “One Million Signatures Campaign” may be the fact that in its creative course, this effort takes advantage of indigenous or traditional approaches that are familiar in Iran’s context as well as the latest modern international technologies offered by the information age. On the one hand, in order to gather signatures the campaign relies on collecting signatures through the “face-to-face” and “alley-to-alley” methods. This method that can offer the highest quality of human communication and connection and can produce a wealth of social capital, is reminder of ‘petitioning,’ a well-known tactic in Iran’s repertoire of civic and political struggles. On the other hand, by using the internet and virtual spaces such as websites and web-logs, the process of collecting signatures and networking is expedited. Furthermore, their distribution of educational pamphlets on the law to the general public on the streets would enhance the mutual but ephemeral face-to-face experience.

The creative juxtaposition of direct contact and interaction between activists and the general public on the one hand and virtual connections through the internet, works to reduce the gap between the real and virtual spaces. This would strengthen the progression and social and cultural dynamic of this campaign in particular and the women’s movement in general. It should be noted that one of the negative side effects of the internet, particularly web-logging is the potential for the individualization and the creation of isolated islands within civil society. If a large number of activists limit themselves to virtual spaces and virtual connections, overtime they may lose their ability to communicate and debate in actual spaces and the real world. Social energy and capital will in this situation be used for isolated and self-centered efforts with a limited sphere of effectiveness, which in the long run will not work to strengthen civil activism such as the women’s movement. However, positive and deliberate use of the internet in creative combination with traditional methods carried out in the public space and real realms, can bring about the most effective and altering outcome.

Neither Elitism, nor Populism

The last point I would like to address is the negative perception of the role of the elites, which seems to be somewhat evident in the writings of some of the campaign members. This viewpoint, and the lack of active participation of elites and experts may in fact be a point of weakness rather than strength for the campaign. In their description of the strategy of the campaign, some campaign members have praised this campaign for staying away from the elites, from lobbying, and any top-down efforts. They have valued only the merit of the followings: “bottom-up approach; from people’s homes to the street; and from streets to homes; from virtual spaces to actual spaces; etc.” But I believe while these are indeed part of the strengths of this campaign, they can be much more effective if combined by participation and support of the members of the elites and experts as well.

We do not want to be elitist, but we do not need to be populist and anti-elite either. We need both the grassroots or bottom-up and the top-down efforts to change the law in favor of women’s rights. It will not serve our purpose to devalue or appear hostile to those experts or elite members who work on some top-down projects toward reform. All these efforts can be indeed complimentary. Social, cultural and political struggles from around the world have owed much of their success to the cooperation, deliberation and coordination carried out by elites and experts (even at times these included some members of the ruling elites) alongside the masses and grassroots organizations of the civil society. Obviously, efforts at reform led solely by experts and elites who do not sufficiently involve and acknowledge the role of the people should be avoided. Likewise, grassroots efforts at reform can reach their goals when they succeed in bringing along increasing number of elite members and experts. Lobbying, negotiation and advocacy, while may be beyond the capability or inclination of some of the activists involved in the campaign, are nevertheless indispensable tools and strategies for ensuring the continuation of this effort and achievement of its goals. It is the dialectical interaction, cooperation and convergence between the elites and the people that will ultimately bring about change.

Just as slavery was once considered a natural and even divinely ordered phenomenon, but today belongs to a dark and embarrassing chapter of history, the era of patriarchy and sexism (in modern as well as traditional pre-modern forms) will come to an end sooner or later. Today, we are confronted with those who are still trying to justify male-domination and perpetuate patriarchy and violence against women by resorting to patriarchal constructs of religion and male-centered interpretations of scriptures as some religious proponents of slavery did in the past. But the women’s movements and global feminism, despite its young age, have made important inroads in many realms of culture and society. Purposeful convergence of diverse groups of women at both grassroots and elite levels can only expedite the process of change toward equality, justice and peace.

I eagerly anticipate progress for this movement from which I am sure I can learn new ideas and rethink my own theories and understandings of feminist strategies and tactics. I shall do my share to support this effort at the regional, international, and trans-national levels. This campaign is an important part of the rights-seeking, civil, humanitarian and timely movement of Iranian women that deserve all the support at national and international levels. Even if this campaign does not result directly and immediately in the changing of laws, the process involved in it, in and of itself, is positive. This campaign is already contributing to feminist culture-building, the configuration of a common identity among many activists, and the enlightenment and consciousness raising about women’s rights in the society at large.


This article originally written in Persian (Farsi) by Nayereh Tohidi appeared in a number of women’s sites in Iran. This English version has been translated by Taraneh Amin and edited by Sussan Tahmasebi and Nayereh Tohidi. It wa first published by http://www.we-change.org.

Nayereh Tohidi, Ph.D., is Professor and Chair of the Women’s Studies Department at California State University, Northridge and Research Associate at the Center for Near Eastern Studies at UCLA

 

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