The Campaign: A Unique but not an Exclusive Experience
By: Hoda Aminian
Sunday 6 April 2008
Translated by: SZ
The One Million Signatures Campaign is different from other movements and actions that have taken place previously in the arena of women’s rights in two ways:
1. Active participation of a large number of predominantly young volunteers in this movement, whereas in the past the discussion of women’s problems and issues was limited exclusively to women’s NGO’s or women’s small coteries, and such groups were highly distanced from the society.
Undoubtedly, what caused the Campaign to succeed and encouraged many people, including the youth, to join the Campaign was taking women’s issues from the level of these small coteries and elevating them to the level of the society at large. This led to publicizing the demands of the Iranian women at the domestic and international level. The current activities of the Campaign in many parts of Iran as well as its being discussed in women’s international seminars held in many countries justifies this claim. This was probably just a dream for women’s rights activists in the past. In the past, recruiting into the women’s NGO’s was limited and to a great extent the groups were quite exclusive. With the formation of the Campaign, a new wave of individuals interested in women’s issues joined this movement and in a certain way formed a new generation of feminist activists in Iran. The Campaign became a place to talk about and be active around women’s issues, with well-defined demands to pursue changing the discriminatory laws against women.
2. The second characteristic that distinguishes the Campaign from other social movements is its demand-focused nature. This important and positive characteristic has made it possible for individuals, regardless of their ideology, to join the Campaign by merely accepting the manifesto of the Campaign which contains the minimum demands of the women to achieve equality. At this point, it is necessary to distinguish between the members and activists of the Campaign. Campaign activists are individuals who have had a desire for more participation in the Campaign and have taken part in the Campaign’s training workshops. But the number of the Campaign members is far beyond the number of activists because every individual, by accepting the manifesto and registering as a signatory, will be considered a member of the Campaign. The members include a wide spectrum of individuals with diverse ideologies, gender, age, education and professions who, by only signing the manifesto, show their support for the Campaign.
Campaign - an opportunity for participation and empowerment:
It is apparent that any movement, during the process of its inception and formation, has an initial formative layer which defines its goals and policies. As the movement continues forming, new individuals join this layer and expand the framework of the movement. The higher the level of belonging and dedication is among this group, the more resilient the movement will become and it will then continue its efforts to reach its goals despite all the obstacles that it is facing. One of the ways to increase solidarity and dedication in today’s movements, particularly the women’s movement which unlike political parties or organizations does not have a defined hierarchy, is creating a sense of participation and cooperation among members. Participation entails taking part in decision making, which in addition to the satisfaction and assurance gained from taking part in planning and execution of projects, leads to the empowerment of individuals as well. Empowerment is the process through which people become aware of their true purpose, find the courage to strive for their demands and gain the necessary skills to make their goals come true.
The One Million Signatures Campaign is a clear example of the issues discussed above. This movement which started with few members in September 2006 to campaign for women’s civil rights drew a large number of volunteers after a few months. These were the volunteers who wanted to be active in the Campaign and in a certain way were considered the core of the Campaign. These volunteers can be divided into several categories:
The first group consists of individuals who consider the women’s issues an important concern in their lives and as time passes, the Campaign plays an important role in their lives as an integral activity. This group of volunteers, by increasing their level of participation in the activities of the Campaign, became members of the various committees of the Campaign and in addition to collecting signatures, participated in other activities to further the goals of the Campaign. Examples of these activities include making contact with the members of the Majles (Parliament), holding educational workshops, making contact with new volunteers and……… This group of volunteers had an effective role in furthering the causes of this movement.
The second group includes individuals who are sensitive to women’s issues, but for various reasons they restrict their participation in the Campaign to collecting signatures and attending group meetings.
Yet another group of volunteers consists of individuals who entered this social movement merely out of curiosity or because of an interest in learning about the activities of the Campaign and as time went by, they either expanded their activities or dropped out.
Of course the above categorization only applies to the individuals who wanted to be more active in the Campaign and not to all members of the Campaign. It is quite clear that the three distinct documents of the Campaign (manifesto, pamphlet and project objectives) have brought individuals together on the basis of their contents. However, in many instances, from a practical point of view, it has become necessary to make decisions and have debates regarding certain problems. Of course all of this has been done without compromising the major issues and agreed upon principles of the Campaign. These things need to be done with the full participation of the members. Considering that anyone who has signed the petition is a member of the Campaign, no change can be made to the general principles of the Campaign and no major decision regarding the Campaign can be made. The Campaign is not a political party, but each and every individual who is active in the movement is accountable to other members of the Campaign. The ability to make decisions exclusively on minor matters to find ways to further the major goals of the Campaign is delineated in its documents.
Because each individual’s measure of activity in a collective action setting indicates her level of participation, according to the above categorization, the members of the first group who are called active members have the highest measure of activity in the Campaign. Therefore, these members justifiably have the right to take part in decision-making. Taking part in decision-making in turn increases self-confidence in new members and helps in the process of empowerment. In fact, in a way, this acts as an antithesis to the establishment of a pyramidal structure for the Campaign. To boost the sense of empowerment in individuals and to give them the ability to make good decisions and in fact to "practice equality in action", it is essential that all activists have access to accurate news and information. Under the current conditions, because of the pressures and restrictions that the Campaign is facing, it does not have access to any free media to disseminate information. This is a very important matter. In fact, it is necessary to establish a strong communications network to exchange information so that a complete cycle of information dissemination exists which can enable the members to stay informed if they so desire. The existence of a communications network will also instill a heuristic experience in individuals so that when necessary, they can actualize their ideals and by making use of other people’s experience, they can make good decisions. This, in a way, will prevent the establishment of a pyramid model of information/power.
One of the ways of achieving this participation and delegating duties as well as facilitating the day to day activities of the Campaign was the establishment of various but fluid committees. Each committee, as a workgroup, based on the scope of the activities that it has defined for itself - which are changeable and fluid - assumes a certain part of the responsibilities to achieve the goals of the Campaign. Members of each committee take part in the decision-making within their committee. Information is transmitted to members through committees. Various committees are also in reciprocal communication with one another. This process is probably a unique experience for social activists, at least in Iran. This is because the existence of these committees and the communication among them creates a vibrant democratic movement and prevents the creation of a hierarchy of power and responsibilities, which in turn increases the security of each individual member involved in this collective action. The formation of some committees is also varied due to their function, operational processes or expansion of the scope of their activities. For example, the media committee has been formed because of the role it plays in disseminating the news or publishing the writings of the Campaign activists in Tehran, the documentation committee because of its activities in collecting signatures, the volunteers committee because of its involvement with the Campaign volunteers, or the workshops and training committee for training volunteers in Tehran, and so forth. There is minimally a basic structure for every new volunteer to fit into so that she won’t be lost when she first joins. She can then choose her desired committee based on her interests or even initiate a new work group or committee. Because the Campaign is a robust movement, the new individuals who wish to have a role beyond collecting signatures need to have access to a specified source. But, for example, in the case of the arts committee, because of the diversity of the members of the Campaign, there may several or many clusters or groups working in parallel. The existence of these clusters leads to further growth and blossoming of the Campaign. The Campaign will only stop growing if we ignore its vibrancy and fluidity and impose a human ceiling and somehow obstruct the movement. Of course, it is quite apparent that the activities of the committees have no more legitimacy than the activities and demands of each individual member of the Campaign outside of the committees. The establishment of these committees has merely been a way to accelerate and facilitate the advancement of the goals of the Campaign. It is also important to note that the formation of committees in this manner is what we have experienced with the Campaign in Tehran, and other methods may be employed in other cities and of course this has been shown in practice as well.
So far every effort has been made to create a democratic structure and prevent the creation of an organization with centralized power. This has been done through increasing the number of committees or workgroups which function as subsets of these committees to promote participation and democratic dissemination of information. If this process is implemented properly in practice, it can make the movement less vulnerable by creating a sense of devotion and hope in activists and giving them an opportunity to practice equality in action.
One of the other opportunities that the Campaign activists gain by joining this movement is association and socialization with diverse individuals who in one way or another are concerned with women’s issues. This distinct opportunity has given the individuals who have common interests and ideas to form study groups, various friendship circles, etc... One cannot deny the role of these circles and nucleus groups in promoting the growth of individual capacities. It cannot be disputed that the practical weight of each of these nucleus groups differs from others. Each of these nucleus groups has formed around a certain axis and cannot necessarily be a representation of the Campaign at a smaller scale. Therefore, even though it is only natural that these study groups and friendship circles come into existence, we have to be aware that these nucleus groups cannot and should not play the role of committees. Committees consist of individuals with different beliefs and ideologies but these individuals become members of committees based on their capabilities and the goals of the Campaign. If the nucleus groups try to play the role of committees, many of the positive and vibrant aspects of the Campaign which were discussed above, will be lost. Additionally, each nucleus group, even though it may adhere to the three main documents of the Campaign, depending on its weight or activities, may create circumstances or make decisions that will basically divert the movement from its horizontal path. What’s even more important is that without communicating with other members, once again women’s issues will be relegated to the limited coteries and small study groups of the past. This would mean history repeating itself by delivering us another blow.
The One Million Signatures Campaign, as a unique experience in the history of the struggles of women in Iran, by propounding its minimum demands, has been able to attract many individuals regardless of geography or ideology. This is done so that we may strive for equal opportunities for participation and empowerment of all members of the society in an environment free of the usual status quo of power relations. This is an experience that not only the like of which has not existed before, but we can probably never create a similar paradigm with the same characteristics again. Constructive critique of the movement from within will certainly provide the background for its continuation with a favorable and meaningful perspective.