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Empowering Iranian Women through the One Million Signatures Campaign

Saturday 1 September 2007


By: Sussan Tahmasebi

Background:

The pursuit of equal rights by Iranian women, and the formation of the Iranian women’s movement, dates back a hundred years to the time of the Constitutional Revolution of Iran (1906). As such, it is appropriate to say that despite the fact that the political realities of each historical period certainly impacted and shaped women’s demands, these demands have been largely focused on the needs and the realities of women’s lives, rather than the quest for obtaining political power in their purest of forms. Additionally, the long history of the women’s movement in Iran, points to the fact that despite legal and social gains throughout these 100 years, the legal system even at its most progressive points in history has remained biased against women, using as justification, cultural and religious beliefs and impediments. Currently, Iran’s legal system is based on Sharia law, which was adopted upon the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Despite the fact that varying interpretations of Sharia have been offered by religious scholars, including some which could be considered as progressive and the reliance on dynamic jurisprudence which allows for the reinterpretation of Sharia law so that it is context and time specific, the Iranian legal system as concerned with women’s rights, both in terms of the penal codes and family law, fall close to conservative and traditional interpretations.

At the same time, women have made significant social gains since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. For example, women’s entrance into university is at 65% with graduation rates being higher. Women are present in positions of power, including elected offices such as the parliament (4.4% of representatives were women in the 6th and 7th Parliaments, with a 7.3% and 9.89% candidacy rate for women during these elections). Women have also been actively involved in the city council elections, with 16,4021 and 10,9587 female candidates in the 1st and 2nd sessions of these elections respectively. Iran has had a female vice president. The literacy rate for women is at 80%. And the average age of marriage has increased for both men and women to their mid twenties. These social and cultural advances by women over the past 28 years, point to serious disparities between women’s social and cultural realities and status within society as compared to their rights within the legal system.

The past few years have also witnessed the re-emergence of the Iranian women’s movement as a strong voice for justice, which has attracted both national and international attention. Perhaps the reason explaining the current strength of the women’s movement can be partly attributed to the fact that it is focused on the broad demand of equality within the legal system and under the law.

While political parties and groups have focused to some degree on women’s rights, through the introduction of legislation designed to address and rectify legal discrimination, namely efforts on the part of the reformist parliament (the 6th parliament 2000-2004), these efforts have been largely unsuccessful. The most significant effort on the part of the reformist parliament was introduction of legislation that proposed the adoption of Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women or CEDAW. While passing the parliament, and receiving much public attention, this legislation was rejected by the Guardian Council. Other legislation in favor of women has also been introduced, such as provisions that increase the legal age of marriage to 15 for girls, or custody rights for women whose children are under the age of 7, or more recently legislation that allows for the passage of women’s nationality to their children, etc., These legislative efforts have however had little impact on the overall legal status of women, and unfortunately these efforts failed to garner the broad support of women, the public, political groups and power holders, and as such have failed to raise this issue to the level of a common socio-political discourse.

The task of raising the issue of women’s rights to a broader common socio-political discourse, has however been taken up successfully by the women’s movement. In an effort to build solidarity among different groups of women, women’s rights activists made a decision to demand equality under the law and to work toward this aim despite political affiliation and leanings, in a non-partisan manner. While the result of a process of collaboration and discussion that spanned several years, this decision came to a fore in June 2005, when women’s rights activists and NGOs came together to stage a peaceful protest in front of Tehran University. Thousands of women ’s rights advocates gathered on this day to express their demand for equal rights under the law. The fact that the protest was planned close to the presidential elections was a key factor in raising the issue of women’s legal rights as a main political issue, even though political groups, reformist and conservative alike, as well as a segment of women’s rights activists have objected to and criticized the strategy of public protest by women’s groups. Still since then many women’s rights groups have launched campaigns and efforts which aim to achieve equal rights for women, and many political groups have admitted that a broad-based solution to women’s secondary status under the law must be sought.

It is important to point out the Participation Front, the leading reformist party, has been addressing women’s legal rights as an important issue within the Party, but women’s activism on this front has acted as a catalytic factor in elevating this debate in the party and has given women members of this political party a necessary advantage to this end.

In fact, since June 2005, Iranian society has witnessed the emergence of a discourse centered on women’s rights that has managed to seep into even the most conservative of sectors, and spans a broad segment of society, such as women’s rights activists, NGOs and civil society, academia, government, religious leaders, and the general public. Much of these accomplishments, in my opinion, can be linked to the efforts of a Campaign, which seeks to collect one million signatures with the aim of reforming laws which place women at a legal disadvantage.

This Campaign which was launched in late summer of 2007, has managed to attract the support and participation of 1000s of volunteers and supporters (nearly 1000 individuals are officially and directly involved with the Campaign and countless others are engaged in collection of signatures on their own). The Campaign is being implemented by volunteers in all the major cities across Iran.

Aims of the Campaign:

The main aims of the one million signatures campaign include: public education and awareness raising and collection of signatures asking for changes in the laws:

1) Education and raising of public awareness about women’s legal status: This activity is carried out through face-to-face outreach and education about current laws and the problems that women face within the current legal system. Volunteers are trained by a team of educators on legal issues, how to connect with the general public, as well as safety issues. They then take it upon themselves to engage in short face-to-face sessions with friends, relatives and co-workers. Or they go door-to-door in neighborhoods around the country, in community centers, on public transportation routes, such as the metro or busses, in universities, or wherever women can be found. During these face-to-face education sessions, volunteer members of the Campaign explain the current legal system to the public and highlight some of the disadvantages it creates for women and for society at large. Those interested in asking for changes in the law are offered an opportunity to sign the petition of the Campaign. To date, over 600 individuals have been trained to carryout these educational sessions. While the Campaign has adopted a decentralized management structure, the initial members of the Campaign, based largely in Tehran, formed committees, through which they carryout their activities. The education committee was one of several committees and was charged with holding educational sessions for volunteers in both Tehran and the Provinces. Much of the first few months of activity of the Campaign were spent on provision of education, and making linkages to key groups and individuals around the country. In the Provinces, members are free to pursue their activities in line with local needs and based on local resources, and as such, can organize their activities through structures and mechanisms they themselves find most effective.

2) Collection of signatures: Signatures are collected in a petition which asks for changes to the current legal codes, namely family law and the penal code. The Campaign members will finally submit the signatures to the Parliament, in the hopes that the legislature will take on the reform of some of these laws. Of course, it is hoped that expert lawyers involved in the Campaign, will work with legislators in drafting laws that fully meet the needs of women. It should be noted that the Campaign will continue its activities until it has collected one million signatures. It will not submit any signatures to the parliament until all one million have been collected. Because of a focus on training of volunteers and promoting the effort, the collection of signatures has been slow in the first months of the Campaign, but with increased activities in nearly 15 provinces, it is expected that the collection of signatures will speed up. Campaign founders believe that should all go well, they will be able to collect one million signatures in approximately 2-3 years.
The Campaign seeks to bring Iranian law in line with international human rights standards. Iran is a signatory to several UN conventions, including the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights. Based on these commitments, the government of Iran needs to take specific action in reforming laws that promote discrimination.

On the other hand, the demands of the Campaign are in no way contradictory to the foundations of Islam. In fact, the changes being demanded by this campaign have been a point of contention and debate among Islamic jurists and scholars for some time. Ayatollah Sanei’i and Ayatollah Bojnourdi, for example, have for years called for a revision and reform of laws which are discriminatory against women, and have explicitly stated that such reforms are indeed not contradictory to the tenants of Islam. Since the inception of the Campaign, a number of other key religious figures have expressed support for the demands of the Campaign. Most recently, Ayatollah Fazele Maybodi, in an interview conducted for the site of the Campaign, proclaimed that dynamic jurisprudence allows for all the legal changes demanded by the Campaign and that the changes sought by the One Million Signatures Campaign are in no way in contradiction to Islam. In a surprise development, this short interview was carried by a major reformist daily.

Empowerment of Women:

Besides the fact that the campaign aims to empower women by ensuring that they are treated equality under the law, it has served as a platform for the empowerment of volunteers (both women and men) who were in search of a venue to become socially active and work toward the creation of positive social change within their society. Since, the Campaign has adopted a bottom up approach to creation of social change and utilizes the most civil of strategies, namely public education and collection of signatures, it has managed to attract a high number of volunteers in a very short period of time. Key among these groups are young groups of women, especially university students, who have historically played a significant and important role in bridging gaps between elite groups and the general population. Because the Campaign is not centralized in its management, allowing for the adaptation of strategies to meet local needs and sensitivities, it has provided an opportunity for people to become involved in whatever means they see fit. This absence of centralized leadership, has also allowed for new leaders, largely young women, to emerge, and to become active.

The Campaign offers an opportunity to all those involved to write about their experiences and perspectives on its website. This strategy serves the double purpose of documenting the experiences of Campaign members (and to some degree the women’s movement) as well as providing opportunities for the free exchange of opinion, by young women, who had previously been denied access to such public forums. It should be noted that young men too have been very responsive to the Campaign and have eagerly joined the effort, and a men’s committee is currently active in the Campaign.

One of the most astonishing characters of the Iranian women’s movement has been the involvement and commitment of youth, a trend which is contradictory to international developments. Perhaps given their special circumstances in Iranian society this development is not hard to understand. Nearly 70% of the Iranian population is under the age of 30. Many of these young people, born at the outset or after the Islamic Revolution, came of age during the reform period, when there was great social opening and people’s participation, especially the participation of youth, was actively encouraged. These young people are educated, much more educated than previous generations. Like their society at large they struggle with the transition from tradition to modernity and have been creative in addressing the challenges that this transition has created. At the same time, more so than the generation before them, these young people are focused on individual rights and identities. Given these realities, it is very understandable that they would be likely candidates for becoming involved in initiatives that seek to improve their society and bring it in line with their own understanding about individuality, human rights and women’s rights. This is not to say that no cultural impediments to women’s progress exists among this generation of Iranians, because certainly these impediments do exist, but more than the generations before them, this new generation understands and is committed to equal rights for women and human rights in general.

Challenges:

While the Campaign has been successful in gaining the support and cooperation of intellectuals, scholars, lawyers, writers, journalists, artists, civil society organizations, women’s non governmental organizations and the student movement and is making serious inroads with respect to gaining the support and full participation of grassroots groups and the general public, it still faces challenges with respect to connecting with and lobbying with those in positions of power. There is great debate among the members of the Campaign on exactly how and whom they should connect and lobby with, and some believe that a movement such as this should maintain its distance from the political power structures. At the same time, others believe that since the Campaign is ultimately asking the power structure, namely the legislature, to address its demands, efforts to build alliances and create connections with political groups and parties, and those currently in office are a necessary step toward the eventual success of this effort.

Fortunately, the decentralized structure of the Campaign has allowed for members to act according to their own understanding of what should be done, while remaining within the broad framework of the Campaign as outlined by its petition. As such, some maintain their distance from traditional power structures while others are actively engaged in lobbying efforts to gain the support of political parties and groups in advancing the legal status of women.

Along these lines members of the Public Relations Committee of the Campaign have held several meetings with leading female reformists. These reformists, have largely been very receptive of the Campaign, and not only have many signed on to the effort, but are actively involved in collection of signatures. In fact, the Participation Front, the largest reformist party, has expressed great support for the effort and actively promotes the Campaign, but has stopped short of formally endorsing it, in an effort not to politicize the Campaign, which claims as one of its strengths avoidance of factionalism in achieving its goals. Other reformists and conservatives alike, while not officially signing onto the Campaign have agreed to take up the issue of legal reform within their organizations, political parties or in private lobbying sessions, a strategy which is not only welcomed and encouraged by Campaign members, but in line with its decentralized approach. Some of these individuals, well positioned within the political power structure, have taken it upon themselves to start lobbying and advocacy efforts with religious leaders and scholars.

While more advocacy and lobbying is needed to advance the goals of the Campaign and ensure that legal remedies in addressing women’s status are comprehensive, the Campaign has acted as a catalytic force in promoting open discussion among political groups and power holders about women’s legal rights. Of course, the emergence of this discourse can be attributed to efforts by a broad-base of women’s rights supporters, whether governmental, conservative, reformist, or non-governmental. But, unlike the past, where women’s rights were the subject of private discussions and private lobbying efforts—mostly with men in positions of power—in the past year we have witnessed the emergence of this discourse as a public one. This accomplishment can be attributed in large part to the Campaign, and among friend and foe, the urgency of addressing of women’s legal status has had an impact on political as well as social discourse in Iran.

For example, in a recent meeting with Rafsanjani, the former President of Iran and currently the head of the powerful Expediency Council, conservative women demanded changes to existing laws, namely they asked for equal dieh or blood money for women, the financial compensation which is paid in cases of bodily injury or death. At present the compensation for women is set at half that of men. Rafsanjani in an unexpected declaration urged the Parliament to take up the issue but also threatened that if the issue was not appropriately addressed by MPs that the Expediency Council would work to address this legal disparity. Ayatollah Khamenei the Supreme Leader of Iran, also in a meeting with conservative women on the occasion of the birth of Fatemeh the daughter of the Prophet, claimed that the current interpretation of Sharia, as it appears in the form of Iranian law, does not constitute the last word on the subject and that religious scholars should take up the issue with a view toward addressing these disparities. While the issue of women’s rights had been taken up in private with key decision makers, the public nature of these discussions indicates a turning point with respect to the discourse on women’s rights, the reform of which had previously been publicly dismissed on grounds that these laws were based in an unchanging and unyielding Islam. These public declarations can appropriately be claimed as a victory of the Campaign and other women’s rights groups.

While a broad discussion on women’s rights, especially among power holders is extremely important, and an accomplishment all women’s rights activists can be proud of, the issue of how laws will be changed to meet women’s needs remains a grey area. While Campaign members have also had meetings with conservative and reformist women in positions of power and some religious scholars and are working to hold meetings with Grand Ayatollahs who are progressive in their view toward women’s rights, much more outreach and advocacy must be carried out along these lines, specifically outreach to the more conservative sectors, law makers as well as judges and judiciary officials. In fact, women’s rights activists and Campaign members should remain vigilant about efforts to reform laws, with a view to ensuring that reformed laws are in line with international human rights standards, do indeed fully address women’s needs and realities, and are not just band-aid measures. As such, lobbying activities with a view toward influencing the process of legal reform should be pursued more aggressively by Campaign members. Of course, this effort can be carried out directly by Campaign activists or indirectly through collaboration and discussions with reformist and conservative women and political groups advocating for changes in women’s legal status.

In conclusion, perhaps it is appropriate to address one significant debate in Iran, which seeks to assess whether a true women’s movement exists. From the perspective of someone fully engaged in this effort, I have to confirm that not only does a women’s movement exist, but as evidenced through the impact of the One Million Signatures Campaign, it promises to create positive social change through the employment of civil means, and the building of broad alliances around issues of great relevance to Iranian society and specifically to Iranian women.

Note: this article has been adapted from a speech given at the "Women and Societies in Transition Conference" in April 2007, Brussels, Belgium. The Conference was a program implemented as part of a series of exchanges between women from Iran, Morocco, Turkey and Belgium. The participants in these exchanges represented civil society, government, the legal field and academia. The program was implemented by Amazone, a Belgian women’s NGO www.amazone.be, and was designed to offer an opportunity to participants from these four countries to engage in the sharing of information and experience in advancing women’s status in society. A similar event was held in Iran, in November 2006, during which the members of the Campaign had an opportunity to hold a private meeting with participants from Turkey, Morocco and Belgium. The author served as the coordinator of the event in Iran. A shorter version of this article was also printed in Farsi in Zanestan, online publication <[www.zanestan.net->; www.zanestan.net]>.

 

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