The Campaign and Future Political Challenges

By Kaveh Mozaffari

Saturday 15 March 2008

Translation: Pouran Saeedi

There are numerous social movements in our society striving in the framework of a civil society, first to defend the basic civil rights, then aiming to move on to broader social changes. Even though, all these movements are “Social “in character and are not intended to take political power, they are nonetheless under different kinds of pressure from the government, especially the most extreme currents. The Women’s movement, for instance including the “One Million Signatures Campaign” is one of these movements which are trying to change patriarchal conditions in Iran. Although, the Campaign’s basic objective is simply to change the discriminatory laws against women by publicizing its demand for gender equality, the hardliners consider this to be political action against the government, and so the activists are drawn unwillingly into a political confrontation with the state apparatus. In this regard, the state apparatuses in the power of hardliners, from politicized police to the security services, wish first of all to restrict the Campaign’s activities and then suppress it completely. No matter how many times the Campaign activists have declared that they are just pursuing social issues and have no intention of taking political power, the security services believe that the Campaign’s agenda may endanger the government. In fact, they’ve mistakenly assumed the Campaign to be their political opponent and have done their best to control, confront and repress it. The security service, as the brain of the operations, has tried different methods of confrontation, which can be considered as having taken place in three phases:

The first phase of confrontations was more preventive and mostly carried out by the police, trying to stop the Campaign’s meetings in the hope of slowing down the rapid expansion of the campaign. It started in September 2006 exactly when the Campaign movement commenced and continued until March of the next year. It needs to be mentioned that during this period, a number of short detentions took place and some of the Campaign activists were summoned to court in regard to the June 12th protest in Haft-e Tir Square as well.

The second phase began after the detention of 33 activists from the women’s movement and reached its peak in April 2007. At this stage, the most pressure was put on Campaign activists by detaining them while collecting signatures. The number of days in detention and the bail amount were increased. Also, a lot of effort and pressure was brought to bear to isolate the campaign from other social movements.

The third phase of confrontations started at the end of summer 2007 and has seen the most extensive pressures and continues to this day. The confrontations of this stage have been executed directly by the security forces. The pressures can be divided into four types: 1) Continuation of detentions along with the expediting of the processing of the Campaign activists’ cases. 2) Restricting further the movements of the Campaign activists and intimidating them by breaking into their houses and private space. 3) Preventing the Campaign’s expansion in provinces outside Tehran. 4) Creating a psychological battleground through the absurd accusation that the Campaign activists have relationships with armed revolutionaries or that they are plotting the velvet overthrow of the state.

In general, one should assert that the security establishment is stepping up efforts to isolate the Campaign through increasing pressure on activists. It must be said that this increase in pressure is not only to be attributed to the patriarchal nature of the hardliners in the state, but also there are other reasons: international pressures on one hand and socio-economic problems on the other hand, with elections forthcoming, have severely shaken the hardliners in power. Indeed, the threat of “military attack/economic sanction” coinciding with the intensified political competition among different currents in the government (namely between the hardliners and the moderates), have made the hardliners take more aggressive action against the social movements and increasingly militarize society in order to isolate them for fear that these movements become their rivals and weaken their power and control over society at this critical juncture. They even use this groundless fear as a pretext to suppress the social movements in the name of “peace and national security”. In such conditions, the activists need to seek new ways to mitigate the adverse effects of the government’s actions. The imminent election in March seems to be a good opportunity for them to take advantage of a less restricted political atmosphere.

Based on previous experience, one can reason that usually at election time, the rival political groups inside the government, by relaxing the political atmosphere, try to encourage people to participate in the election and obtain more votes. Of course, these relaxations of the political atmosphere do not create legitimacy for the government since they represent mere facades of political participation. But in the meantime, they provide a good opportunity to social and political groups outside the government to bring their resources together and protest against the government more extensively. One example of this was the more relaxed political environment before the presidential election in 2005. The intense competition between the political groups inside the government gave the opportunity to the groups outside the government to be more active. A number of political groups together with major social movements including students, workers and specially women were able to express their demands on a much larger scale. They were able to establish relationships with wider society and with each other and this created the opportunity for further collective mobilization. It was in this period that the “Bus Drivers Union” was able to organize workers to demand their legal rights. Also, the student movements, while accepting diversity among themselves, were able to expand their organization and go beyond the para-governmental groups (Islamic associations). At this point, the women’s movements grabbed more attention than any of the others. Their mass protest in stadium and in front of the President’s Foundation finally reached its peak on June 12th in front of Teheran University; a vast and peaceful demonstration which was able to publicize the demands of women’s movement on the largest scale ever.
Although at that time many of the political groups (either inside the government or outside of it) were pursuing their own political interests, the social activists that were not preoccupied with purely political aims, were able to pursue their social objectives more openly than at any other time. Indeed, as the political environment become less restricted and the pressure on the activists reduced, they were able to pursue their “non-political” social demands. Of course, the political groups were trying to direct them more toward political goals, but the social activists remained independent and successfully pursued their social interests. The women’s movement was not exempt and all political groups, whether the reformists inside the government or groups outside the government that advocated boycotting the election, tried to recruit the women’s movement into their ranks, but the movement stayed independent and above the political fray. As a result, they survived even after hardliners won the election and took over the government. In fact the women’s movement was able to continue its struggle effectively, one of the fruits of which was the formation of the “One Million Signature Campaign”. The struggle continues, despite the intense pressures it faces.

Now, since once again another election is imminent, a new consideration and analysis of the situation could be very helpful in leading us to new methods for advancing the movement. Some analyses indicate that due to the tight competition between rival groups inside the government, the political atmosphere, just as in previous elections, is likely to be more open so that more people come to the polls and the elections may be legitimized by increasing voter turnout. According to this analysis, the moderates in the government would be able to get the hardliners to relax the political conditions as a sort of tactical necessity. However this is not the only possible analysis. A different approach suggests that the hardliners might try to make the atmosphere more tense to hold a tightly controlled election, regardless of how fewer voters participate. Both analyses are based on the balance of power between moderates and hardliners in the government and also on the outcome of the international disputes over Iran’s nuclear dossier. In deed, what position the powerful western countries take with regard to the nuclear issue, will have a crucial role in weakening or strengthening each side. Nonetheless it seems that none of the analyses have taken into account the possible impact of the social movements on the social and political situation.

Although, the increasing pressure on and repression of these movements have isolated them to some extent compared to last year, as a result of all these challenges they have become much more resilient, stronger and cohesive, more able to bring their members together to take their demands for civil right to the government. The activities of the women’s movement and the One Million Signatures Campaign in particular attest to this claim. Although hard line elements in the government have tried their best to put pressure on the activists and restrict their peaceful activities, the activists have learned that even in conditions of such tight surveillance by the security services, it is possible for them to continue the diffusion of their ideas and activities. They activists have internalized the idea that no improvement in social relations can be achieved without sacrifice, and in so doing have established a valuable model for social participation in Iran. In this way the One Million Signatures Campaign has been able to continue its activity and to convert much of the pressure they have been facing into an advantage for the movement, to such a point that the campaign volunteers have gradually immunized themselves against the pressures and confrontations with power and invented diverse ways for dealing with them and continuing on their path. They have created and atmosphere allowing for the growth of new forms of relations between men and women, for the introduction of activism into the private sphere of the household and the transformation of the household into the public sphere, and above all brought families, especially mothers, together, all of which has considerably strengthened the Campaign.
Thus, since another election is upon us, it is essential to have a proper evaluation of the capabilities of the social movements specially the One Million Signatures Campaign. It must be admitted that the activities of social movements in the coming months will have a determining influence in opening up the public sphere of Iranian society. Even though this activity has in no way a political objective, it is certain to have positive consequences for Iranian society. On the threshold of election, social activists ought to focus on their social demands preserving their independence from political games chicanery, so that the different groups competing in the elections are obliged to respond to their civil demands. If until now, political parties have been trying to attract mainstream by way of the social activists, either with a view to gaining votes or persuading people to boycott the election, now it is the turn of social movements to get the political groups to respond to demands for social change. In other words it is now time for social movements to publicize their ideas and demand their civil rights through influencing the media from newspapers to national radio and television (Seda o Sima). They need to act so in such a way as to gain an indirect access to media and thus to public opinion.

In conclusion, this article’s thesis is based on the presupposition that the Campaign activists over the next few months will be faced with two principal political challenges. Firstly, pressures from the police and the security services, which is the main threat, and secondly the atmosphere in which the elections will take place, something which may provide them with a good opportunity. Although, with regard to both threats and opportunities, outside factors such as political competitions within the government and international pressure will play very important roles, the way in which social movements, especially the One Million Signatures Campaign, deal with these challenges will have a formative impact on the future of the movement. At this point, preparing for mass action by adopting more flexible tactics and innovative means of protest will assist in advancing the Campaign’s ten principal demands. Clearly, resistance to pressure and patience in the face of difficulties are crucial to the continuation of the struggle.


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