A year with the Campaign: Acquired Lessons from a Shift to a Horizontal Power Structure

Friday 5 October 2007

By: Jelveh Javaheri

Translated by: Sholeh Shahrokhi

We are now at the brink of the first anniversary of the One Million Signature Campaign to Change the Discriminatory Legislature [in Iran]. In the past year, at the heart of many confrontations imposed upon the activists of the Campaign in the contemporary conditions of our society, is the notion of democracy.

The One Million Signature Campaign aims to raise public awareness through direct interaction and dialogue with people. As such, this Campaign offers a new approach to bring about change from bottom-up and based on a view that as the public awareness raises so does the individual’s sensitivity toward injustice in the law, thus, becoming engaged in the struggle to make a change. In other words, the change that results from within has more potential to penetrate the public body and will not be erased easily. The necessary step in this line is to engage those who are directly affected by the injustices of the law. Public alliance is the essential remedy for this method to work.

Preservation of horizontal structure is guaranteed through redefinition of it in the process.

In the first year of experience with the Campaign we have learned that the more we distribute our activities and responsibilities across (horizontally) the wider the spread of activists who share the will to change discrimination. From the start, the Campaign has demonstrated an ability to decentralize its operation. This is a unique quality that adds to the success rate of the Campaign. The goal of the Campaign is not to round up the masses, nor is the Campaign seeking to gather devoted members. On the contrary, in the process of addressing discrimination and demanding change persons who join in become active according to their own capacities and interests, thus impacting the overall spirit of the Campaign through their own actions and ideas. Therefore, the continuation of their participation is a key to the success of this Campaign.

The decentralized approach to this Campaign has increased membership and diversity of their voices. Like any other innovation, this open-attitude in the Campaign has its consequences. The increase in diversity of ideas and variety of voices makes decision making ever more challenging. The challenge to encourage diversity of ideas while effectively moving ahead with decisions is in fact a practice in democracy.

The Right to Participate and the Right to Make a Decision

In general, social movements have a decentralized structure. The Campaign for One Million Signature is similar to in its structure to social movements, for it is a struggle with a particular goal that moves on a horizontal plain, allowing multiple ideas to enter and develop in its process. In such a system, the emphasis is on cooperation to achieve “direct democracy”, which means that power is distributed across a wide plain. In other words, this approach to collaboration allows and encourages decentralization of power so that decision-making is distributed across participating bodies, and deployment of non-bureaucratic methods are preferred. The objective is to achieve change rather than to conserve the structure of the movement.

Direct democratic approach has dominated social movements around the world since the student movement, which began in France during the 1960’s. Direct democratic approach is an alternative to its predecessor, the representative form of democracy or the “oligarchy”. In a democratic system, members are selected based on popular vote. In other words, this type of democracy is based on the official and superficial form of equality, wherein each person counts so far as her vote, and the remainder of decisions are made by the selected candidates. Therefore, in this form of democracy the emphasis is on the bureaucratic system that promotes specialization of members. The representatives are free to make decisions on behalf of the rest of the group.

On the contrary, direct democratic approach is based on equality of the votes and cooperation of the members. However, the extent of participation and the ability to make decisions are both self-regulated so it is up to each member to decide how involved she is going to be. Moreover, in direct democratic approach representation is in constant circulation so that no one becomes a permanent voice for the group.

Each person has a voice and a vote based on her level of involvement

By reviewing the basic structure and characteristics of the direct form of democracy, we can conclude that the operation of the Campaign for One Million Signature is more closely affiliated with this form of social engagement. In other words, cooperation is the right of each member not a privilege. Everyone is encouraged to join in and to participate to the best of their abilities. What remained constant in the first year of activism in this Campaign was the concern for democratic collaboration, and the standards for defining membership.

For example, some folks have expressed that the votes and decision on all accounts should include the entire scope of participants. This is in light of the fact that the level of participation varies considerably among members, so that not everyone shares the concerns and details of every aspect of the Campaign at all times. In other words, if we impose the one person, one vote rule to the Campaign, we would be imposing a dictatorship of the majority vote. Whereas the current system encourages a self-regulatory form of operation and offers a voluntarily approach to notions of personal involvement and decision-making.

In order to avoid superiority of one group of thought over the rest, the most effective approach is to ensure open dialogue between members. However, dialogue alone is not enough. Clear rules must be drawn so to strengthen the operations of the Campaign. These rules must exceed in one ideological point of view and simultaneously be in line with the ultimate objective of the Campaign for Change. In order to avoid ideological and personal interpretation of these rules, they must be stated clearly and concretely. Moreover, these rules must take into account the minority view and protect the diversity of ideas and thoughts.

The Irreversibility of the Statement

One of the rules of the Campaign is that our mission statement is unchangeable. Although the specific demands of the Campaign can and will change, since no social movement can say the final word, however, the ultimate objective of this Campaign that is to change discriminatory laws in our country is a constant. It may be that many would argue for other priorities than a legislative revision, or that there are other more important laws in the Constitution that require revision. For example, the notion of freedom of covering (instead of compulsory Hejab) was one of the issues that many raised as a critique of the Campaign. However, just as there are multiple ways to address social concerns, there are many ways to demand equality and change. On the other hand, every social movement , especially when based on wide range of ideas and collaborations, requires a common ground to unite the voices. The preservation of this unity throughout the progressing life of the Campaign is a necessity.

In this Campaign, all the different voices have agreed on the common statement. Thus, our faithfulness to the approved commonality is a further insurance against the rise of any one particular viewpoint or ideology over the rest. Moreover, since numerous people have read and signed the statement that unites and shapes the movements of the Campaign (it is public), no one can use it as a platform to gain momentum for their own political agenda. While there is room for critique within the framework of the Campaign, if anyone’s critique is fundamentally against the demands and the objectives of this movement, they could start an alternative approach. After much debate, we learned that in order to allow room to expand our demands we need to begin with the common goal of the majority as a base for our collective demands.

Anyone can join the Campaign

Another rule of the Campaign is that as long as they are Iranians, anyone can join by signing the statement and can begin to collect signatures. In other word, it is not relevant for the members to come from similarly minded ideologies or religious background, so long as they are Iranians and can agree to the general framework of this Campaign they can join. Once again, based on this open approach to membership we have prevented an imposition of one ideology over the rest.

This rule became an evident part of our work from the beginning. Much debate went on as to deciding who should or could join the collective. Some members were concerned that the open-door policy might endanger the movement of the group and distract us from our ultimate objectives, that having too many views might become unproductive in the end. We ultimately agreed, however, that the consistencies of our mission statement and our objectives will prevent people to radically change the goals of this movement. Moreover, we decided that individuals would join the Campaign not organizations and groups. Now, a year into this Campaign, we can argue that despite the concerns of many this collective effort has not derailed from its original and intended path.

Horizontal power distribution as a principle

Another feature of this effort is to maintain a horizontal structure and system of relations across membership. The selection of this rule is the result of a women’s perspective that dominates this Campaign as well as the experiences and critiques we each brought in from our earlier organizational work. Although this rule has been discussed several times in our meetings and our writings, the need for dedication to this rule was not as strongly felt as the events around the arrest of 33 women activists in March 3, 2007 occurred. At that point, when many of our Campaign members were arrested the value of horizontal structure in our group became most apparent as the work of the Campaign and the dissemination of the news did not stop.

While in the hierarchical structure one can not expand his/her own involvement and can not delegate more power to the members below her rank, in this system everyone can move in to fill in the gaps and to continue the work at hand. Also, the duration of appointment for each person at any given task is kept short, so that responsibilities circulate among members. This is another way to make sure no one idea or person becomes more powerful in the process.

Decisions made on small-scale and detailed level

One of the characteristics of the grass-root operation and democratic collaborations is to make decisions on detailed and minute matters. In movements similar to the Campaign where there is a diversity of ideas and viewpoints it is important to avoid imposition of grand ideas over the rest. Hegemonic domination of ideas over the rest will impact the process of decision-making within the movement thus impacting the totality of the movement, itself. In other words, it is best to make decisions on particular and minor issues instead of pre-setting a general policy for the whole movement.

In the Campaign we make decisions of two different kinds. One is the general decisions on a grand scale which effect the entire Campaign, then there are smaller action-oriented decisions on a small scale. In the beginning people joined the Campaign based on large-scale decisions that were made to set the groundwork for the Campaign. Foundational rules and the mission statement were among these general decisions that we all agreed upon, which made a clear stance once and for all. In this process members made certain that while our minimal commonalities became the basis for reaching an agreement on these general rules, diversity of viewpoints and ideas would be preserved and reflected in the Campaign. All the decisions that have to do with specific activism aspect of this Campaign, such as when and where to hold a meeting, how to collect signatures and so on, are therefore decided upon in a localized settings so not to impact the whole Campaign. For example, if it is decided that members hold a meeting in Tehran to discuss specific issues it needs not to follow nor impact the Campaign in other cities. Another good example of faithfulness to diversity of ideas and views is identifiable on the Campaign’s website, where a range of ideas are broadcasted and debated. The presence of opposing ideas are so prevalent in the site that frequently members with religious ideologies complain that there are too many secular views, while the secular members complain about the reverse.

Dialogue: an important factor for the exchange of information

One of the prerequisites for collaborative work is a mutual sense of responsibility and devotion to the work. On the other hand, the participants need adequate information in order to become invested in the effort and to share the responsibilities. This is why the mechanisms and methods for disseminating information and ensuring communicational lines remain open become of outmost importance in the Campaign. However, the question remains as to how can we ensure access to information within the Campaign?

One of the best ways to maintain communication and dissemination of information within the Campaign is through open and direct dialogue. In the education brochure that has been prepared for the use of the volunteers and the public there is a strong emphasis on “face-to-face” methodology for training as an effort to increase communication and dialogue. The kind of intimacy and sympathetic relationship that is developed during the course of dialogue helps people relate and understand the complexities of the topic of discussion. In other words, without dialogue and dynamic interaction, introduction of dry statistics and abstracted ideas will have no more of a result than a mere formal reaction. In some cases when the individual had signed the petition based on these dry and formal reports, they never internalize the magnitude of what they had signed to support and why.

In short, the more fluid the information we disseminate to people, the more meaningful and the more personal their impact. By opening the door to dialogue we can lend an ear to listen to the pain and suffering of the very person’s whose support we seek and for the improvement of their lives we work. This attitude of open dialogue is not exclusive between the signature collectors and the public but it is an approach that has become central in the development of the Campaign as a practical method for communications from within the group.

The rotation of responsibilities

In addition to dialogue and direct communication, members and activists of the Campaign have recognized and agreed that the responsibilities of various aspects of the Campaign need to rotate between members. The core argument is that whatever responsibility we each take on, it is on behalf of the whole Campaign and not based on our individual taste or views. On the other hand, there are many who are hesitant to take a more proactive role in the Campaign. By rotating responsibilities, we achieve multiple goals at the same time.

First we can create a welcoming environment for all members to take various roles and to become active. One of the reasons that people refrain from taking on a responsibility is the lengthy duration of these tasks. By rotating the jobs, we can ensure that no one person is stock in their job. Moreover, the longer one remains in a position the more specialized she becomes in that role. The more knowledge one attains from any job the more power she/he might acquire. In order to circulate power along a horizontal plain and among the members, the Campaign participants rotate their responsibilities. Finally, by circulating members on different tasks, we are able to incorporate a larger range of opinions and views into our overall Campaign.

Transmission of experiences as an effective method for indirect supervision

One of the more effective mechanisms for ensuring quality of performance is implicit supervision. In the Campaign in order to achieve quality control, we encourage transmission of personal experiences through dialogue and communication among members. Unlike traditional methods in social movements, in this Campaign the group is not lead by the individuals. Rather there is a consistent effort to transmit individual experiences and knowledge to the group. For example when the responsibilities are shifting from person to the next, all the previous experiences and accumulated knowledge will be passed on to the new arrival. Moreover during the initial transitional period volunteers are trained and oriented about procedural the details and achievements of the past. This transitional training in effect works as a mode of quality assurance.

In the past, many of the younger women’s rights activists felt a distance between themselves and the older generation of women’s movement. By insisting on passing on the information and experiences of the earlier times, we aim to close the generational gap within the Campaign. Although in recent years we have witnessed the publication of numerous books and their role in repairing the rupture in women’s movement in Iran, there is still a wealth of personal experiences and information that could be passed on in the course of the Campaign from person to person.

Sharing experiences and dissemination of knowledge is a radically different stance than to strive to dominate a particular viewpoint as the hegemonic view of the entire Campaign. One of the characteristics of Tehran as the capital city of Iran has been its persistent hegemonic culture over the rest of the country and the representational role it takes on behalf of the rest of the nation. This is not just the dominant perception in the capital, but majority of the cities in Iran hold this view about the richness and depth of experiences and possibilities in Tehran. While the ubiquity of this view is embedded in the historical reputation of movement in the capital, there is no reason for the experiences and the lessons learned from these social movements to be kept exclusively for the city, or else imposed onto the rest of the country. In large cities like Tehran where is a larger range of resources available to the residents, there has been a wider range of possibilities for social engagement. Thus more power has been granted to the activists in the city.

However, if we use the applied methods and successful approaches achieved in Tehran as a base to communicate experiences and information with the rest that may or may not be picked up by the local members, we can debunk this power dynamic between the cities. Therefore, the many workshops that have been organized throughout the country have offered detailed information about our experiences in the capital as an example (not the sole model) of our challenges and group achievements, while working closely with the locals to develop a practical model of their own.

In other words, taken as such, the transmission of experiences is not only a way to avoid representational role of one faction over the rest, but it also ensures the persistence of diversity of ideas and models throughout. This diversity of innovation and creative approaches to social movement grants us a more powerful position in the whole. On the other hand dissemination of information and open dialogue encourages horizontal power distribution and can increase the possibility for engagement of a wider range of activists.

In the end, I want to point out that what I have summarized here is the general approach that the Campaign has adopted for its movement. However, it is never guaranteed that our objective for a more democratic and all-inclusive approach is practiced at all times. Primarily because as long as there is a huge discrepancy of powers, we continue to work from the bottom-up and on the margins. However, the horizontal disbursement of power and refusal to adhere to traditional hierarchies within the Campaign has opened up possibilities for greater involvement and wider range of viewpoints in this process. The success and failures of the ideas and practices of the Campaign directly correspond individual engagement of the members.

Read this article in its original Farsi.


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