One Million Signatures Campaign
Organizing a Movement without Changing it to an Organization
By: Homa Maddah
Saturday 22 March 2008
Translated by: SZ
The question of whether it is necessary or unnecessary to organize social movements, the methods used to do the organizing and the effects of such organizing on the effectiveness of the movement has been an ongoing discussion that movements all over the world, including movements in Iran, have always had to face. Perhaps what gives this discussion such a high degree of sensitivity is the vibrant and ever-changing nature of these movements. Social movements carve their way through the impenetrable and unrelenting strata of the society in the same manner that water springs up from the ground and carves its way through the different layers to make its way to the surface. Therefore, how can one redefine movements by restricting them with shackles and trammels? Doesn’t organizing these movements cause them to lose their grassroots, vibrant and goal-oriented nature? Doesn’t organizing a movement reduce it to the level of a bureaucracy? Won’t organizing be followed by the creation of a hierarchical power structure which is the very thing that movements try to get away from? Won’t organizing dry up the gushing spring of imagination and effusive zeal of social activists? Maybe the answer to these questions and other differences of opinion regarding the organization of social movements lies primarily in accurately defining what optimal organizing is and secondarily in the difference between organizing a movement and changing a movement into an organization.
Optimal organizing of movements
How do we define optimal organizing of social movements? To make the discussion more specific and at the same time more tangible, I would like to define the concept of optimal organizing by using the example of our own women’s movement in Iran. Women’s movement has come a long way in the years after the Revolution. During the final years of the 1980’s and a good part of the 1990’s, women got together in small numbers in private spaces. This was in some ways a continuation of the leftist tradition carried over from the 1979 Revolution. They formed nucleus groups, study circles and societies, including charitable and other types of organizations, and started reading women’s literature (not necessarily feminist), doing social work in the form of helping children or marginalized sectors of the society and engaging in activism. These small groups were often in contact with each other, although it seemed as though they were not engaged in any common activities. In the middle of this decade we are faced with the formation of women’s non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) which, by registering formally with the government continued in more or less the same manner as the previous coteries and nucleus groups, but their registering formally with the government can be taken as a sign of trying to leave the private arena behind and entering the public sphere. What is regarded by many women as the point of inception or the annunciation of the conception of the women’s movement in Iran is the ceremony held in "Shahre Ketab" building in 1999 to celebrate the International Women’s Day. What made this specific ceremony a launch pad for women’s movement in Iran was its particular characteristics, meaning firstly the presence of a large and diverse group of women and secondly moving from the private space of homes into public space. Since then the women’s movement has weathered many crises and carried out many activities culminating in the One Million Signatures Campaign project in 2006. In my opinion, what distinguishes the One Million Signatures Campaign from the previous activities of the women’s movement in Iran and makes it stand out as something more prominent, in addition to its extensiveness and acceptability, is the crystallization of the concept of optimal organizing in this movement. If we want to briefly say what organizing a movement means, we can say that the meaning of organizing is simply beginning to work on and advancing the projects similar to this campaign. But what characteristics do these projects have? Firstly, these types of projects are built on the basis of a particular and defined goal, such as the current "changing discriminatory laws" project. This goal is consistently emphasized in the statements and covenants issued by the project. The goal is clear to and well-understood by all the members participating in the project. For example, the three main documents of the Campaign (meaning the mission statement, the pamphlet named "The Effect of Laws on the Lives of Women" and the project outline) clearly state the goals of the project. Therefore, defining the goal itself and creating the documentation associated with it are considered to be the first steps in organizing a movement. In other words, when a group forms around a common project to work towards achieving a specific goal, the first step of organizing a movement is practically done. There are many examples of this involving various projects. For example, the pro-abortion movement in France began with a letter with the heading: "I’ve had an abortion" which bore the signatures of a large group of women. Other examples are the "right to vote" movements in England and then in the United States. The second step in organizing a movement can be called a "horizontal division of labor" (flat or non-hierarchical organization). Again, I want to return to the One Million Signatures Campaign. For the Tehran Campaign, this horizontal or flat division of labor, after many discussions and arguments, crystallized in the form of working in committees. Similarly, in any other city, this can take various other forms depending on the local members of the Campaign and the way the work needs to be organized. In fact, organizing by a flat division of labor takes place without one group supervising another. But in order for the groups, while maintaining their independence, not to turn into isolated islands, measures need to be taken to promote communication and exchange of information among groups. These measures could include creating coordinating committees, scheduling joint meetings, etc... The most important benefit of this flat division of labor is the efficiency which helps to accelerate the movement. This means that several actions can be pursued simultaneously and in parallel. This is something that probably wouldn’t be possible without dividing the work among smaller groups. As an added benefit, it also lets individuals to engage in their area of interest, for example art, and according to their ability and interest. For instance, you could be a member of a committee that requires less attendance in meetings and spending more time on completing individual tasks. An example of this would be the media committee or writing for the Campaign’s website. This type of division of labor allows the smooth movement of the individuals from one committee to another, the entry into and exit of individuals from committees and the definition of new projects within committees without harming the vibrancy of the movement. Therefore, in my opinion, optimal organizing has two characteristics: First, action around a "project" and second, horizontal division of work. A good example of this type of organizing (albeit not an example without any problems or deficiencies) is organizing the activities of women in Iran around the axis of the One Million Signatures Campaign. (We have to emphasize that organizing women around the Campaign by no means implies that the women’s movement belongs exclusively to the members of the Campaign or intends to ignore the work and activities of the activist groups outside of the Campaign. It only means that the Campaign has been successful in organizing a large group of women activists.) In fact, we can study this optimal organizing at two different levels: first, individual level and second, collective level. In my opinion, at the individual level, individuals gain a new individual-collective identity by organizing. This means that while keeping their individual identity (as student, mother, artist, or ……) they also find a new identity, i.e. member of the One Million Signature Campaign. This individual-collective identity is in fact the raison d’etre of social movements and challenges the individual/collective identity dilemma of the modern world. Only in movements we are faced with "individuals" who are acting as a part of a "whole" to change their society. Some of the numerous advantages of organizing social movements are: accelerating the process, more motivation to participate (because activists know that they are working towards achieving a defined goal) increasing the ability to recruit new members (again, because of a defined goal and the horizontal division of labor).
Transformation of a movement into an organization
But what is the difference between organizing a movement and changing a movement into an organization? As much as I believe in organizing a movement, I equally believe that we have to resist changing it into an organization. How is a movement transformed into an organization? I think this transformation occurs when a movement loses its vibrancy and stimulation, when members are stripped of their individual identities, when hierarchies are propagated and promoted, and when human beings are no longer regarded as living beings with emotions and sentiments but as tools to achieve a goal, however worthwhile the goal might be. The transformation of a movement into an organization is a lengthy and imperceptible process. All movements face this danger. How can we resist this transformation? In my view, the first step is resisting the propagation of the hierarchy of a power structure or trying to gain an instinctive position in it. I say "propagation of the hierarchy of a power structure" because I believe that in a world of hierarchies, even movements are not devoid of hierarchies. Hierarchies are created at any time and any place and because they are so deep-seated in our subconscious and our upbringing, they are very hard to resist, but resisting them is not impossible. Hierarchies that are created because of the amount of experience, the level of education, the length of time present on the scene or even having a space for holding meetings are among examples that come to mind. Hierarchies that are created because of having connections or more financial resources or knowing a foreign language also distance us further from an organized movement and push us closer to an organization. I would like to give an example to make the matter a little clearer. I had a friend who, because of her extensive connections, regularly took part in conferences and workshops at home and abroad. One day I told her that in my opinion she had not embarked on a good course of action. She asked why. I said firstly because you don’t bring us any souvenirs from your trips! She pointed at the chocolate on the table and said: "But I have!" I told her that I don’t feel that she has brought back anything new for the women’s movement after each of her absences. The fact of the matter was that our friend would not present to the group any new information or knowledge that she might have gained during her meetings and trips. In fact, she was not using the exclusive opportunities that she had to benefit or empower the group. She empowered herself and fomented a power struggle among other individuals, but did not try to empower the rest of the group. She asked me for my opinion as to what she should do. I said first you should share your connections with the rest of the group. If you have friends all over the world, why don’t you introduce the rest of the group to them? Secondly, you should feel responsible towards the group and after each trip, schedule a meeting to share with them what you have learned during that trip. I want to say that of course there are ways to resist the propagation of the different kinds of hierarchies, but they are hard. However, if we embark on the path of resisting hierarchies, we will enter a new and amazing sphere full of opportunities which we have been deprived of so far by a modern patriarchal society; this is perhaps what is called "sisterhood." How should we resist the propagation of hierarchies? In my opinion, practical methods are resisting the cult of personalities and trying to break that up. Practical methods are sharing knowledge and information with others and putting a damper on selfish desires to place oneself in a position above one’s friends and colleagues. If we do not today resist the temptation of "hierarchy" which manifests itself in different forms such as the superiority of being theoretic over not being non-theoretic, having experience over not having experience, etc., we will turn our movement into an organization which propagates the very same power relations which we aimed to resist. Therefore, there is a duty that we have as social activists every moment that we are engaged in social activities which compels us to resist the propagation of a hierarchy or power structure in our social movement. If we have more experience, it is our "duty" to share it with others. If we have more information, sharing it with others is our "duty." If we see that a friend is tense or distressed or we know that she has a problem, it is our "duty" to console her and since our movement cannot benefit from her for the time being, we should just let her be for a while. If we have good self-confidence, it is our "duty" to saw the seeds of self-confidence in everyone’s hearts by encouraging them. If …….. Otherwise our movement will be transformed into an organization and we will be nothing more than robots without any imagination acting as slaves serving the organization.
Practical organizing, such as what has taken place with the One Million Signatures Campaign is not of course without its problems and shortcomings. But what’s important is to persistently strive for optimal organizing. We should not - just because we find this type of organizing hard - tire of it, stop dialogue, discussions and endeavors and revert back to a previous stage in our movement, meaning the nucleus groups and coteries. Neither should we pursue creating an organization instead of organizing our movement.