The One Million Signatures Campaign: Promoting an Encompassing Discourse on Women’s Rights
Wednesday 5 December 2007
By: Zara Amjadian
Translated by: Roja Bandari
Today’s world is full of contradictions. Maybe this abundance of contradiction is a bi-product of the undemocratic nature of societies like ours. The day that the voters were faced with a choice between Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Rafsanjani for presidency, I was thinking to myself which one of the two candidates will do something to create a better environment for women’s rights activists and which of the two will remember women -as half of the country’s population- when it comes to drafting major policies. Which of the two will create opportunities to grant women their rights?
More than two years have passed since those days. As we had never expected anything from people in power, we continued our work solely by relying on ourselves. Through the challenging processes of activism and teamwork, we did everything we could from holding workshops, seminars, and gatherings to launching the “One Million Signatures Campaign.” Talking to our fellow Iranian women was difficult and it took audacity and boldness. As a result of living under authoritarian patriarchal systems, many women had forgotten their rights and could not imagine striving to gain those rights. Their most common reaction was hopelessness and disappointment with the “power structure.” A power structure that had ignored the demands of the people and had forced upon them anything it had deemed in line with its own welfare.
But now strange things are happening. I read in the news that the head of the Expediency Council has said, “the parliament members can propose a bill for equality of men and women’s Dieh (monetary compensation for injury or death) as a bill in the parliament. If the bill is not passed by the parliament, or if it is vetoed by the Guardian Council, they can take further action in the Expediency Council”. In other news, we heard that the Conservative Women of the parliament along with the Women’s Social and Cultural Committee have prepared a revision to some parts of the civil law that relates to women’s rights and family law -including equality in inheritance and Dieh- and will present the revisions to the Supreme Leader. Furthermore, recently on women’s day, Reformist Women sent an open letter to the parliament members and asked them to include equality of Dieh in their agenda.
What has happened? Groups that are viewed as political opponents have agreed on demanding equality of Dieh for a man and a woman, which is also a demand of the One Million Signatures Campaign. One year ago, women’s rights activists were imprisoned and went on trial for voicing these same demands and even now they are convicted to jail and lashings! This is a demand that many silent women -those whose voices are heard by no one- imagine to as unattainable. We know that this silence is not a sign of women’s approval of this inequality.
Two outlooks on the state of affairs:
First outlook: One point of view claims that the tireless efforts of activists has finally come to fruition after years of work in publicizing women’s issues and especially during the past two years of organizing gatherings and campaigns, taking action in websites and women’s weblogs and after paying the price for voicing these rightful demands. With innovative approaches like the “face-to-face” method in the One Million Signatures Campaign, women’s movements have succeeded in bringing the demands of women to the table even at the top levels of the hierarchy of political power and have turned these demands into the political discourse of the day.
Second Outlook: Another point of view states that the emergence of conversations about these demands among holders of political power is a political game played by the parties in order to attract people’s votes and win the elections. In societies where elections are held, “advertising” plays a significant role and all political parties will use advertising in order to gain victory. But there is another point here. Women’s issues have always been treated in a vague and general way when it came to political campaigns. The idea of changing the law in favor of equality for women has rarely been brought up by a candidate or a political party. In Khordad of 1384 (June of 2005) women took advantage of the opportunity provided due to elections and expressed their legal demands and organized a gathering in front of Tehran University. But this time, it’s the candidates and parties and the people in power who have come to women. The emergence of the discourse of legal equality in the political and official language of the government and specifically the demand for equality in Dieh, expressed by political parties with differing ideologies, can create a new identity for each of these parties. In the game of power, it is important who can say “I caused this change,” since that group will then be able to establish its legitimacy by claiming that they have gained a victory for the people. Everyone knows that in today’s world, power without legitimacy can’t survive. This is why, although sometimes controversial, calling a victory one’s own is crucial for securing political legitimacy and political capital.
Forming an identity in the process of social activism
A social movement like the women’s movement pursues goals intended to bring about social change and continuously documents these goals and its demands. But how important is it for a social movement that an action or outcome is recorded in their name rather than someone else’s?
Identity is a truly important issue for every movement and must not be brushed away and trivialized. But what social movements call their identity needs to be considered carefully. The identity of a social movement is not a characteristic of the activists but a social process. Identity is neither a constant characteristic nor a pre-determined concept; on the contrary, it is exactly in the process of activism that feelings of ownership and belonging [and thus identity] get stronger or weaker. Specific feelings of belonging are shaped in the process of internalizing the goals of the movement. Therefore, it’s not a predefined identity that determines the goals of the activists , rather, the activists come together for a mutual goal and along the path of working for those goals, through a collective feeling of belonging and internalizing those values and mutual goals, an identity is formed. It is possible that the objectives of the movement are achieved through means other than the movement or through other people. This should not hurt the movement since the goal has not been undermined. In fact, it should make the activists more hopeful since their objective was fulfilled.
From this point of view, the One Million Signatures Campaign defines its identity in the path that the activists tread on the way to their goal (a change in discriminatory laws). In other words, this movement has manifested its identity in its goals. One of the goals of this campaign is to enable and nurture civil participation through a method of “face-to-face” dialogue in order to fulfill legal demands clearly specified in the campaign’s petition. A change in the law is not the only goal of this campaign. Rather, a change in the culture and promotion of new practices is also among the goals of the campaign and thus related to the identity of this movement. This campaign has a significant potential in introducing and promoting new topics in the public discourse and considers this a first step to creating change. The activists believe that any change in women’s issues requires women’s conscious effort in making their objections and voices heard in the public sphere. Therefore, a priority of this campaign is its ability to sensitize the public, political and social activists, and the legislatures to women’s issues.
The activists are not merely hoping to change public opinion, but also aim to change the legislatures’ viewpoints and values. Their success depends on both affecting the people at the grassroots level as well as prominent figures within society. These two groups are related and influence each other.
With persistence in this path, The One Million Signatures Campaign can demonstrate that women’s demands are serious and that change is necessary. Through the 10 months since the initiation of this campaign, many men and women have participated in this movement. The resilience of these activists when in prison, and their determination in continuing this path, even after arrests and jail sentences, all proves that these women are adamant about these demands and unwavering in pursuing their goal.
Political parties have entered the arena
The dynamic atmosphere that has been created for discussion about women’s rights has caused all the political parties to emphasize the need to change women’s conditions for the very first time. This might be an indication that Iranian women have succeeded in raising the issue of women’s rights among the highest levels of the pyramid of power. If the political parties have reached a level of maturity where they realize they must be mindful of civil demands, and thus have chosen women’s legal demands as a political slogan, this should be welcomed by women’s rights activists.
A few years ago, through Children’s Rights Support, Shirin Ebadi successfully raised the issue of children’s rights in the parliament by drawing media attention to child abuse and pursuing the case of Aryan Golshani and organizing the small rally that was held after her funeral. As a result, a woman is now permitted to maintain custody of her child until the age of seven. Does this woman care if it was Shirin Ebadi who caused this new law to pass in the parliament or if it was the legislators themselves who thought about it? Even many of the younger women’s rights activists are not aware of most of the extensive work done in the past for the smallest of improvements in women’s rights. It doesn’t make much difference who wants to work for changing or amending the law in favor of equality. In the end, the victor is the woman who has suffered all her life. The winner is the patient Iranian woman whose back is broken under the weight of these unjust laws.