The One Million Signatures Campaign: Moving beyond Elite Demands

Wednesday 2 January 2008

By: Maryam Hossienkhah

Translated by: Sussan Tahmasebi

One of the main criticisms against the Iranian women’s movement is that it advocates for the demands of elite groups and disregards the demands and needs of women at the grassroots. Critics claim that the Iranian women’s movement is an elite movement rather than a grassroots movement, and given the fact that the discourse of elite classes differ from that of the masses, ordinary women cannot participate in this movement. Women’s rights activists in recent years too have heard criticisms that claim that the demands of the women’s movement are in reality the demands of a group of Tehran-based and educated women.

The 22nd of Khordaad, 1385 (12th of June, 2006) during which a protest objecting to discriminatory laws against women and demanding reform of the law was staged in Hafte Tir Square, was a different and interesting experience. On the one hand were are the drawbacks of this protest: authorities preventing our protest from taking shape in Haft-e Tir Square, the violent attack of police against protesters and the subsequent beatings of those present in Hafte Tir Square, and the absence of some activists who for various reasons were unable to participate in the protest. On the other hand and the positive side we witnessed the participation of ordinary women in this protest. In fact these women were not members of any social group or NGO, but in unison with women’s rights activists who had organized the protest, these ordinary women demanded equal rights, suffered beatings and yes some were even arrested and taken to prison.

Perhaps one of the reasons contributing to the participation of ordinary citizens in the June 12, 2006 protest can be attributed to a broad call to action which was issued before the protest. A week prior to the protest, booklets which explained the discriminatory nature of laws and their negative impact on women’s lives were printed and 5000 copies distributed to women in Tehran who were informed about the upcoming protest and invited to take part in the effort designed to object to discriminatory laws and in demand of equal rights.

The positive reaction of women, who received the booklets and whom we spoke to on the streets, in the metro, and on busses, created much hope for the organizers of the protest. Their reaction along with the presence of ordinary citizens at the protest was so encouraging that immediately after the protest, we started to think about how to take our message to the grassroots, and to broaden our demand for reform of discriminatory laws, beyond the tight circle of elite communities, such as intellectuals, university students, professors, and women’s rights activists.

The implementation of this idea was not so simple. Despite the fact that inequities supported by and promoted in the law impacted the lives of women from all walks of life irregardless of social and economic class, amplifying the voices of those who suffer because of their gender and who object to the discriminatory nature of the law proved a challenging task. Despite the fact that women were unhappy with the status quo and current laws, the general public’s knowledge on this issue remained limited. As such it was difficult to transform this general discontent into a protest movement. On the other hand, for many of those women who do come into contact with the law and understand how damaging it can be for them, an individual solution seemed the strategy for addressing their problems. Many women in fact understand legal obstacles to be personal problems rather than general problems, and some believe that creating change is not possible, and some are unaware of the negative impact of current laws on women’s lives.

Still, the one hundred year history of the Iranian women’s movement, and the experiences of our feminist sisters around the globe have demonstrated that the first step to improving the condition of women and addressing difficulties experienced as a result of inequities, and specifically legal inequities, is to elevate the demand for change to an encompassing public demand.

As such, the One Million Signatures Campaign Demanding Changes to Discriminatory Laws incorporated an advocacy and educational effort as the main base for its program and goals. In line with this strategy, the Campaign has worked to introduce its demands within different social layers of society as a strategy to bring about changes to existing laws that discriminate against women and in turn transform the effort into a of the grassroots or a movement from below.

The distribution of educational pamphlets among the public, engaging in face-to-face discussions with the general public about the legal inequities and the collection of One Million Signatures objecting to current laws, is only one dimension of this effort. Another more important dimension of this effort has been the mobilization and organization of women themselves with a view toward expansion of the movement.

In essence, the One Million Signatures Campaign did not limit its activists to those already involved in the women’s movement or in NGOs, and in a parallel effort and beyond working to increase knowledge within society it aimed to attract activists for the Campaign from among the very people with whom it engaged with in face-to-face discussions. The work plan was simple. All those who believed in the need to change current laws about women and who have signed the Campaign’s petitions asking for reform of current laws can assist in the collection of signatures and collaborate with the Campaign after going through a 4 hour training session. Those who want to be more involved can participate in one of the Committees of the Campaign in Tehran, or like cities in other provinces those who are interested can start up working groups in their own city or province and based on specific local needs and conditions begin to work toward the goal of the campaign, through educational activities and collection of signatures.

The model of the Campaign is the first of its kind in terms of social movements and activities in our country, which has allowed for an open collective effort without bureaucratic rules to take shape and thus allowing for activists to join the effort and easily become one of its main actors.

The reception by the new activists choosing to join the Campaign was far beyond the expectation of the Campaign founders. Since its inception, women from different social groups from around the country have joined the Campaign and work towards its aims. The effort of these ordinary women who have joined the Campaign since its inception is not less in its quality or its results (in terms success with respect to collection of signatures) than experienced women’s rights activists or Campaign founders.

The interesting point is that among these new activists you find women from different social groups, including elite women and those from urban areas and big cities, women from the south of Tehran and in the provinces, even women from small cities. Involved in this Campaign are employed women as well as housewives. Women with secular leanings too can be found among these activists, as well as religious women, members of prayer groups, and teachers of the Qoran. Young female university students work shoulder to shoulder with older women who sign the petition and work toward a better future for their children and grandchildren. There are university professors who write about the Campaign, and introduce it to their students, working in concert with illiterate women who sign the petition with an imprint of their finger, instead of a signature.

In fact, one could easily claim that in contradiction to the clichés which claimed the demands of the women’s movement were essentially luxuries and not popular, a claim which over the years had turned into a truth, the One Million Signatures Campaign has demonstrated that if we venture beyond the tight circle of intellectuals and social activists and with easy to understand language speak about our demands with the public, the broadness and popularity of these demands will quickly surface and become clear.

The most important point here which must receive due attention are the strategies employed by the Campaign. To make the demand for legal change an encompassing and popular demand has been a main goal of the women’s movement for years. Of course the major obstacles to realizing it goals of popular support for the women’s movement have been the lack of public platforms and limited resources available to women’s rights activists. These obstacles we assumed would take years to overcome and as such, many of us limited our efforts to raising awareness among the middle class within society. We had hoped that through this strategy we would be able to create multiple connections necessary for expansion of our efforts to other segments of society.

But the Campaign illuminated a new path. The Campaign hoped to be able to slowly attract individuals who had reached a certain level of understanding about the need for legal equality between men and women, and whom did not have a solution for achieving their goals. Through this strategy the Campaign worked to reach different layers of society with its message of equality.

It is important to highlight an important point that acts as guide for the activities of the Campaign. Within the Campaign, no one sets priorities and no one is a leader. As such, activists are free to adopt strategies which work for them. These guiding principles are unique to the Campaign. Other efforts which aimed to reach beyond the Capital city of Tehran into the provinces and into grassroots communities had been stifled because of these same challenges. Recognizing these issues, Campaign founders initiated a discussion with other activists in the provinces and by utilizing participatory strategies sought to move forward with the effort in a collective manner.

Another major factor contributing to the growth of the Campaign is the decision not to identify priorities. In the beginning there was much discussion on which laws to identify as priorities or whether we should pick certain laws to address over others. In the end, the founders of the Campaign decided that identification of priorities and "most important" laws needing reform, by a group of approximately 60 women, living in Tehran, the Capital of Iran, who are all educated and come from middle class backgrounds, would not necessarily be representative of the needs and priorities of all Iranian women. If in fact we believe that the need to change and reform discriminatory laws is broadly felt by Iranian women as whole, then this small group must not take it upon themselves to identify priorities. Instead we should allow those who sign the petition to identify their own priorities. As such, in the petition form we provided the option for each person who signs to identify their own priorities with respect to laws that they felt should be reformed by legislators first.

As such, it was not the demands put forth by the One Million Signatures Campaign that allowed it to grow so broadly, because these demands have been expressed by Iranian women since the Constitutional Revolution in 1906. This time, however, it was the strategies employed by the Campaign that allowed for it to move into new circles and penetrate the grassroots. These include: the different approaches taken toward expressing our demands, or the face-to-face educational strategy; active recruitment of new activists to the Campaign; training provided to new activists joining our effort; and the participatory and horizontal approach to management of the Campaign and implementation of its goals.

By relying on these same strategies, activists are provided an opportunity to introduce the Campaign to women who are struggling on a daily basis with the impact of discriminatory laws on their lives. All public spaces are utilized by activists to reach out to a broader audience, including busses, the streets, universities, prayer meetings and family gatherings and parties. Despite the success of these strategies, we need to keep in mind that still there is a need to address theoretical issues related to the Campaign and the women’s movement. We need to take advantage of the knowledge and expertise of intellectuals and scholars within the women’s movement, with a view toward addressing challenges and shortcomings within the Campaign. The Campaign can thrive only when it relies on the power of the people who struggle for equality, but it must while also rely on the insights of scholars to assist in analyzing its strengths and developing new strategies and approaches designed to achieve goals.

This article was presented in the first public meeting of Campaign activists and then subsequently published in Farsi on Zanestan, the webzine of the Women’s Cultural Center.


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