The First Convention on the "One Million Signature Campaign”
Translated by Mohamad Rostami
Tuesday 13 February 2007
The first general conference regarding the campaign aimed at the elimination of discriminatory laws against women in Iran was held at one of the campaign organizers residence basement on December 14, 2006. This gathering included the main campaign organizers, the team in charge of signature collection from a variety of cities and provinces including Kermanshah, Gorgan, Zanjan, Mashad, Karaj, Tabriz, and Hamedan.
The first topic discussed in this gathering was the strengths and weaknesses of the campaign during the three months prior to the convention.
The first speaker, Ms.Rezvan Moghaddam, stated that the demand for the elimination of discriminatory laws against women in Iran has been an on going process since about one hundred years ago. She added that the recent formation of the "One Million Signatures Campaign" is the continuation of the longer term struggle. Ms. Moghaddam then proceeded to invite the next presenter, Ms. Mahleghaa Mallah, to the podium.
Ms. Mallah is the current director of the women’s society working towards the fight against environmental pollution. This institute is widely known to be Iran’s leading non-governmental organization (NGO). She has been active in the women’s rights movement for over 60 years.
Ms. Mallah started with a description of the details of the events prompting her to focus on the women rights effort in Iran: “I was only 11 years old when at a party; I overheard a female relative of mine make a statement regarding women being perpetually oppressed due to our own inherent weakness. That statement resulted in my resolution to disprove her belief in women’s inherent weakness". Ms. Malleh, a grand-daughter of Bibi Khaanom Estaraabaadi, referred to the activities associated with the implementation of women’s rights, which have been there since the establishment of the Constitution in Iran and stated: " At that time my grandmother had stated in her book titled “On Men’s Defects” that those whose views only aim to deny women of their basic rights are not men, but beasts".
"Why legislation?" was the subject matter of the first panel discussion. This panel was chaired by Ms. Parisa Kakai. During the course of the panel, Ms. Khadijeh Moghaddam talked about the significance of the need for fundamental changes in the legal system. She addressed the view that maintains it futile to make any attempt at changing the legal system regarding the women’s situation prior to addressing the vast current class differences in our society. Ms. Kakai dispelled this theory as follows: "Legislative attempts to change the current laws will first and foremost affect the living conditions of women within the lower levels of the society. Note that currently, middle-class women have managed to improve their situation at least in their own home environments". She added: "Regardless of their social status, however, all women in Iran are constantly exposed to suppression and legal constraints due to current gender inequality in the legal system".
Ms. Moghaddam stated that transformation of the group fighting to abolish discriminatory laws against women is only the first step. This movement should be followed by putting efforts in culturally preparing the masses of people towards the enforcement of the new reformed and equal rights for women.
Next the subject of Ms. Nahid Keshavarz’s talk was the comparison between the issue regarding changes in the children custody laws in Iran versus the legalization of abortion in France. She stated that in 1973, women in France managed to abolish the law regarding the banning of abortion (known as 1920 Act). In April 1971, a group of women proceeded to rally in support of the condemnation of the ban on abortion. This effort included the signing of a manifesto objecting the ban of abortion by 343 women majority of them popular celebrities in the fields of literature, cinema, and theater.
The demands included the free choice of contraceptives, sexual education, and abolishment of the 1920 legislation and called for legal defence for women tried for issues related to abortion. Ms. Keshavarz pointed out that French activists stood by the defendants in the courts of law and added: "Following the trial sessions in the courts and the wide news coverage by the media, millions of the French people in the most far-reaching areas were informed of the movement and realized that the greatest celebrities of their nation were completely against the anti-abortion legislation and stood by the abortion defendants. Publication of hundreds of articles in the press and the broadcasting of several TV programs on abortion issues stimulated French women of all social classes to be unified against the 1920 legislation on abortion and to participate in the campaign."
Referring to the attempts made in Iran regarding reform in the "child custody" legislation, she stated: "A careful review or study of these attempts demonstrates the richness of our shared and common experiences. Thus, women, regardless of geographical differences and intellectual makeup, can share and make use of our common goals. "Once again, as soon as the topic of legislative changes is brought up there are some people who make attempts to stop the campaign. Their reasoning is that this is the brain child of superficial liberal thinkers and pronounce our endeavors doomed to fail." This was the introduction to a discussion titled "The feminist’ diverse inclinations and their commitment to the changes in legislation.” presented by Ms. Sonya Ghaffari.
Reviewing the disagreements among diverse feminist groups with regard to changes in the laws, Ms. Ghaffari added: “The real practical fights of women in Iran are strikingly characterized with features that indicate women have been taking great steps in a path that they have thought is the right path, regardless of the type of campaign, liberally oriented or non-liberal. Furthermore, their measures have in no form or shape led to the aggravation of the situation of women and regression of the society. It would be a shame to pronounce a movement addressing serious demands of women from diverse classes of the society, superficial and futile. She continued: “In any case, countless number of hours should be spent; unlimited number of days should be set aside towards the implementation of the very same causes that are regarded as superficial and trivial by some.”
Volunteers from the other provinces share their stories regarding the one-million signature campaign
The second panel, moderated by Ms. Sara Loghmani, reviewed the difficulties facing the campaign in different provinces of Iran. Representatives from Gorgan, Zanjan, Hamedan, and Tabriz expressed their views and the campaign activists from Karaj, Mashad, and Kermanshah discussed the current situation of the campaign in their respective cities and provinces. This was followed by question and answer session with the attending audience. Mr. Iman Mozaffari, representing the campaign team in Gorgan, pronounced the campaign as a unifying force among journalists, NGOs, and social-political activists residing in Gorgan. Referring to the unique potentials that each of the above mentioned groups employs towards the success of the campaign, he highlighted the great driving forces in the province for the materialization of the causes of the campaign. These include measures such as allocating sections specifically on women issues in the provincial daily newspaper, building the Golestan assembly for women, and also the presence of a well-trained staff that can facilitate the process of the empowerment of the campaign volunteers in this province. In spite of the great welcome the campaign team in Gorgan has received from the local people, the team has its own concerns and issues. Their concerns include insufficiency of financial resources and an almost non-existent fundraising strategy. Lack of co-ordination and uneven distribution of responsibilities among the volunteers. Also, concerns were expressed regarding education and training and the centralization of the campaign in Tehran and poor communications and contact with the members of remote provinces.
Zanjan is also an active and organized city with regard to the campaign. Ms. Safieh Ghareh Daaghi, a member of "Taraaneh" group, stated that following a seminar on the women’s rights issues and the introduction of the "One Million Signatures Campaign" in Zanjan, 6 committees were formed in order to make plans and rally support for the campaign in this city. To this end, an office was rented, member subscriptions are issued. Regular meetings are held for the collection of signatures, and advocacy training and education in the field of legal gender inequality is promoted. Ms. Ghareh Daaghi considered financial problems as one of the main concerns in Zanjan and added: “In spite of the fact that we have formed committees at the county level in order to facilitate contact among provincial committees of Zanjan provinces and have received requests from cities like Abhar to hold workshops, to date, we have failed to organize the planned workshops mainly due to lack of financial resources. She also emphasized the importance of constant contact among campaign activists in various cities and called for a workable solution enabling members to exchange and share their experiences.
Ms. Elnaz Sardaani, a campaign activist from Tabriz, was the next panelist. She said Tabriz was the first city to have the volunteers joining the campaign following the educational workshops held in the city. She remarked that since the beginning of the campaign, in addition to collecting signatures from people in the city, they have had effective dialogues and meetings with some of the distinguished writers and renowned poets and intellectuals from Tabriz and have persuaded them to take an active part in the campaign by signing the petition and supporting the campaign. She also mentioned that the launch of a web log exclusively for the campaign purposes on the Internet, producing and distributing a bulletin among the citizens and holding monthly sessions are part of a series of activities performed by the campaigning team in Tabriz. Ms. Sardaani listed the current obstacles hindering the success of the campaign as follows: “First, there are not enough serious volunteers who can commit time and effort for the campaign and most of the tasks are shouldered by a limited number of people. Second, the NGOs in Tabriz are either too conservative or inactive regarding the women’s rights or they are not organized enough to pursue such an important campaign. Finally, Internet access and its use are not widespread enough in the provinces and thus it is difficult to coordinate and contact people for the campaign programs.
From Hamedan, Mr. Mehrdad Hamzeh, attended albeit quite late due to the severe weather conditions. He explained the current campaign situation in Hamedan as follows: “Increasing number of the campaign activists in the cities, cooperation from diverse social groups in particular the teachers and the presence of a lawyer among the campaigning team are among the strengths of the campaign in Hamedan. There is a lot of progress in the girls-only schools in the city and the housewives stand by the campaign and demonstrate their support by holding meetings at their houses towards gathering signatures.” However, the activists in Hamedan are also struggling with problems and facing challenges. Listing these challenges, he stated:” There is a shortage of information and educational feed regarding the campaign, and the only source for obtaining information for the campaign is the website and since the rate of Internet access as well as the connection speed is noticeably low, we are suffering from a considerable shortage of information. Another concern is that in the city of Hamedan and its provinces, the campaign is growing at a speed that is far beyond our handling capabilities.”
Campaign Strategies and Tactics
Next, the strategies and methodologies applied to the “One Million Signature Campaign” were reviewed; this panel was chaired by Ms. Zara Amjadian. Strategies adopted by women in the regional countries were the subject of Ms. Homa Maddah’s discussion. Categorizing the efforts made by women internationally for transformation of laws, she stated: “During the first wave, women approached a close cooperation and collaboration in tandem with other movements. Good examples are the movements in Algeria and Egypt. In the second phase, they turned to broad nationwide coalitions at home. “ "Women’s movement in Iran has greatly benefited from the experiences of other women in the region in terms of both strategy and methodology". She added: “The campaign in Iran is the result of a nationwide coalition in the country and has full capabilities to accommodate new groups and ideologies.” She continued: “The One Million Signature Campaign employs a variety of strategies. For instance, similar to the 12 June 2006 public protest, it takes to the streets for direct action, as well as holding educational workshops throughout the year. It also takes the women rights issues all the way to the public arenas such as the Metro, and at the university level, it also holds Internet forums on the necessity of changes regarding gender equality.” With regard to the notion that the women’s movement is an elitist phenomenon, Ms. Maryam Hossein Khaah pointed out the influence and advancement of the campaign surpassing way beyond a narrowly defined class or group. She also mentioned some of the striking features of the campaign as follows: being gradual and progressive, the volunteers and activists of the campaign not being limited to the members of the NGOs and activists in the field of women’s rights issues, recruiting new forces from the addressees of the campaign, avoidance of enforced tutelage and prioritizing the methods and tactics of the campaign for the members. She continued: "In fact it was not the demands embedded in the campaign that could be taken to the society and form awareness and build a consciousness (as these demands have always been required since the establishment of the 1906 Constitution), rather this time the methods adopted were somewhat different. The tactics used to present the demands, the organization of the forces; the inclusive quality and the horizontality of the hierarchy in the organization of the campaign have all been based on and centered around the involvement of all classes within our society."
Ms. Jelveh Javaaheri focused on the methods to achieve the causes of the campaign. She stressed that since the beginning of the formation of the campaign, there has been a flexible and decentralized system of networking within the campaign. She explained: “Once we apply a decentralized approach in the networks of the campaign, individuals and groups are exposed to a wider range of choices. They can form their own groups in which their favorite policies and initiatives can be incorporated with ease. In case they are interested, they can also join other existing groups.” In her opinion, these groups can include pre-existing groups. They can easily function as an independent entity while working in conjunction with other groups. This way, after a while, the central group’s role is diminished and its responsibilities and authority will be distributed among the other subgroups. Thus, the campaign will comprise many independent and multiplied groups and cores both in theory and practice. Ms. Javaheri added: “The new voluntary recruits joining the campaign should think about how to interact effectively within the campaign and choose the most effective method for successful communication. In doing so, there should be numerous meetings and members should get involved in interactions so that each individual finds their own work partners in accordance to their own individualized styles and methods of campaign practice. She emphasized that this campaign is open and receptive and the only thing which is common among all the members and groups is the original petition (manifesto). Thus, the original petition (manifesto) can be used as a vehicle towards our own development as well as providing a means for joining our efforts in a synergetic fashion towards a long term goal.”
At the end of each of the panels, the participants studied and considered the issues and points made by the panelists and presented their own proposals towards the resolution of the problems. Formation of a committee to handle issues regarding design of communal web logs on the Internet was among the suggestions that were incorporated in the final agenda of the campaign. A handout regarding the performance of the campaign including a financial statement was distributed among the members.
During the conference, due to shortage of space and resources, a large number of the participants had to stand in order to follow the lectures and discussions. The members of the “One Million Signatures Campaign” had originally intended to hold their regular meetings and sessions in a public conference hall in Tehran (so that more and more people could be acquainted with the goals pursued in the campaign). However, all the efforts made towards this end for the four months prior to the start of the campaign, proved it impossible to obtain permit for such a conference in any of the public conference halls in the city. The inauguration ceremony of the campaign that had been scheduled to be held in the auditorium of one of the non-governmental organizations was canceled following a mandate by the disciplinary police. Therefore, because of the significance of such public meetings for the advancement of the campaign and the fulfillment of its causes, this very conference was sponsored and held by the private and thus limited individual support of the members.