Interview with Sara Loghmani
The Campaign for One Million Signatures: A Grassroots Effort
Saturday 6 January 2007
A grassroots movement to collect one million signatures to support equal rights for women and protest discriminatory laws began on an August afternoon when Iranian women rights advocates, writers, student activists, and journalists gathered in Tehran for a seminar, “The Effects of Laws on the Lives of Women.”
Over 200 attendees of this seminar were blocked by police from entering the building which was supposed to host them, so they continued their meeting in the street. Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi spoke to a crowd while activists distributed brochures and pamphlets in the streets. Many of these same activists had attended a peaceful demonstration two months earlier which was also forcibly broken up by police. Some participating men and women (including activist Mousavi Khoinie) were arrested. The August seminar was supposed to be the next step in a popular movement to reform discriminatory legislation in Iran.
On that day, on the street, with police blocking the way into the building, a decision was made to boost the movement’s activities. The activists, who were from all over Iran, decided to travel to cities and communities outside Tehran to educate people on discriminatory laws and this grassroots movement to change them. The Campaign for One Million Signatures for Equal Rights for Women will give women a voice in these issues which affect them. According to a quarterly report by campaign organizer Parvin Ardalan, volunteers already had gathered almost 100,000 by early December.
Sima Loghmani, an organizer of the campaign, speaks about this grassroots effort in a short interview.
What conditions have led to the creation of this campaign? What needs are being met by this campaign?
For years, activists in the Iranian women’s rights movement have tried convey that women, despite their socioeconomic differences, share many of the same problems. Women in Iran have been treated unjustly over the course of history, and have had to fight for basic rights – to vote or to receive an education, for example.
Today Iranian women face many dire problems. Perhaps the most tangible of these problems are discriminatory laws. Many such laws are enshrined in the civil code, family law, the penal code, and even the constitution. The Campaign for One Million Signatures demonstrates that the women’s rights movement does not belong to any particular group or class of women or to educated and urban women, but that it belongs to all Iranian women. When any woman—regardless of ethnicity, religion, social and economic class or level of education—experiences legal problems, she faces the same set of laws. The laws relating to divorce, child custody, inheritance, blood money, the right to travel abroad, the right to continue one’s education, and the right to work apply to all women regardless of their socioeconomic status. And all of these laws treat women in a discriminatory manner, unequal to men.
Unfortunately, when a woman is confronted with these unjust laws—for example, in order to gain custody of her child—she faces so many seemingly impossible bureaucratic barriers and obstacles in the justice system that too often she relents under the pressure and frustration. The dilemmas created by the discriminatory laws for women throughout the years are so pervasive and painful that they can no longer be ignored.
This call for justice has taken place, and is taking place, in various forms. However, an approach of changing the laws through a large group effort (in this case, by protesting in front of Tehran University) began on June 12, 2005. On that day, people assembled to protest the legislators’ general attitude towards women in current law. From a legal standpoint, these women want to have rights outside of their roles as mothers, wives, and caretakers. They believe that the laws are oblivious to their very humanity. In fact, protesters repeated throughout that day: “The enactment of just laws is the first of many demands.”
On June 15, 2006, at the one-year anniversary of the first gathering, another protest took place. On that day, those assembled demanded their rights to divorce, child custody, travel abroad, inheritance, blood money, as well as their right to choose their residence. They also demanded that the weight and value of a woman’s testimony in a court of law be made equal to that of a man and that a child’s citizenship be allowed to be derived from the mother’s citizenship. At present, under Iranian law, a child’s citizenship can be derived only from the father’s citizenship.
Unfortunately, the protest resulted in violent confrontation with police and the arrest of many protestors. However, the protestors asserted that, until they achieve their just demands, they will continue their peaceful struggle, now in the form of the Campaign for One Million Signatures, to change laws discriminatory towards women.
What is the focus of this campaign?
The goal of the Campaign for One Million Signatures is to promote awareness, raise consciousness, and facilitate communication among women and men from all backgrounds. The campaign’s staff has been going door to door to speak with women face-to-face. This method allows campaigners to discuss existing legal problems with women and to personally invite others who desire change to join them. Therefore, the composition of campaign members changes from day to day. This fluidity is a key feature of this campaign. Those involved in this campaign are trying to raise awareness among women of the rights they do and do not have and encourage women to take action to maintain their current rights as well as attain new ones. Women and men must struggle, be united, be of one heart and mind, and pay the necessary price to achieve equality in society. In sum, they must hold themselves responsible and rely on each other.
The campaigners believe that women must be empowered and that awareness is one of the most important steps towards empowerment. Because women have more limited access to information than men, women must exchange information with each other. Up until now, exchange of information took place through the usual methods of mailing, gatherings and word-of-mouth. However, now, this information exchange is taking place person to person, face to face.
In what phase of the campaign are you?
The Campaign for One Million Signatures officially started on August 27, 2006. Our plan was to launch the campaign at the Ra’ad Residential Complex in Shahrak-e Gharb in Tehran with a large number of supporters participating in the event. Unfortunately, a few hours before the start of the rally, the permit for holding this event was withdrawn. However, the supporters were not willing to leave. Therefore, the program took place in the street. Perhaps the fact that the campaign started in the street and announced its identity and goals right there in the street was a sign of its nature and identity: that it belongs to everyone.
The campaign’s members and activists formed committees, as needed, so they could organize their tasks more efficiently. Each committee has its own specific responsibilities and areas of oversight. The media committee is charged with the responsibility of updating the campaign’s website, www.we-change.org. The volunteer coordination committee manages the supporters who join the campaign from throughout the country. This committee is responsible for communicating with those who volunteer to collect signatures. It organizes educational and training workshops for them. This committee also brings these volunteers together for them to share their experiences collecting signatures and any lessons learned. This provides the campaign’s other members and participants with the opportunity to learn from others and utilize these volunteers’ experiences at the grassroots.
The education committee is responsible for holding workshops for new volunteers. In each workshop, the education committee members seek to accomplish the following three goals: train volunteers on the legal issues discussed in the campaign’s statements (campaign lawyers are brought in for this); train volunteers in communication skills so that the campaign volunteers can effectively promote awareness and articulate campaign goals; and lastly train volunteers in planning and holding their own workshops so they can pass on the information and skills to others.
The finance committee is charged with paying the expenses incurred in printing and publishing pamphlets and statements. Since this campaign is not dependent on any domestic or foreign, governmental or non-governmental organization, the finance committee has the arduous task of finding adequate funding for the campaign to carry out its activities.
The publications committee is responsible for preparing pamphlets and other public materials. In these materials, rights and legal issues are discussed in simple terms. Whenever campaign members speak with someone who is considering signing, they hand out pamphlets so that individuals can read them and gain more knowledge and awareness.
The documentation committee is charged with the responsibility of gathering and collecting the experiences gained by individual signatories. It is also responsible for the maintenance and safekeeping of the collected signatures.
Last but not least, the public relations committee is responsible for communicating with outside groups and holding gatherings to publicize the campaign’s goals and related legal issues throughout society.
Various groups have been formed in the provinces, as well. These groups take on, more or less, the same responsibilities described above. Although these groups operate independently, we do have necessary coordination with them.
At the present time, volunteers are actively communicating and collecting signatures in many cities and villages in the provinces. These cities include Tehran, Gorgan, Tabriz, Hamedan, Amol, Zanjan, Shiraz, Isfahan, Yazd, Karaj, Marivan, Sanandaj, and others.
In all locales, volunteers are in contact with each other on a regular basis. These volunteers have formed their own groups and committees, as necessary. They participate in training workshops and continue their work very actively. In Tehran, at least one workshop is held for new volunteers every week. Communications among other cities take place through the volunteer coordination committee as well as through the campaign’s website.
Can you describe reactions of other entities to the campaign so far, for example between the campaign and women and men?
This campaign’s demands are so tangible and, in many cases, constitute such elementary needs of a human that, upon reflection, no one can be seriously opposed to them. Most signature collectors have had a friendly and sympathetic encounter with the women and men that they approached. These women and men have either asked to join the group and have become volunteers or have eagerly added their signatures to the collection. If any of them have been opposed to signing, they have not had any sharp or unexpected exchanges with the signature collectors.
You have called this plan a “campaign” or a “battle.” This plan seeks to achieve a specific short-term goal. Do you envision this being the first step towards a larger goal?
This campaign is definitely a specific “step” taken towards a larger goal. As mentioned in the beginning of this interview, in their slogans, the movement’s activists had announced, “The enactment of just laws is the first of many demands.” In order to achieve their goal of having a life free of suppression and ill treatment and until we have a society that is devoid of any kind of gender-based inequality, we have a long and difficult path ahead of us. The enactment of just laws is the first and most elementary and just demand of women.
The time frame for the completion of the first phase of the campaign has been set for two years. However, as long as one million signatures have not been collected, the campaign’s members will continue their work.
Once one million signatures have been collected, we will enter the second phase of our plan. This means that a group of legal experts will draft the laws intended to replace the current, unjust laws in the form of a bill. Then, this bill, along with the collected signatures, will be forwarded to legislators. These demands will be followed in by other demands. In this phase of the struggle, we are focusing on ensuring that these immediate demands of one million Iranians bear fruit. This campaign’s activists are composed of individuals with diverse political, religious, and social views.
In terms of their impact on your work, do you view these differences positively or have such socio-political differences or divisions made your work more difficult?
We definitely view these differences as positive because the campaign’s demands and goals do not take into account the demands and goals of any one particular group or social class. The discriminatory laws affect all women, be they Turk or Gilaki, Baluchi or Kurd, Sunni or Shiite, literate or illiterate, young or old, rich or poor. All women suffer equally from injustice and discrimination. As a result, the campaign has little opposition among people.
The large numbers and the diversity of the campaign’s supporters and activists have legitimized the campaign and inspired people to listen to the campaign’s message. Also, that fact that a diversity of individuals, backgrounds, viewpoints and long-term perspectives on women’s issues has reached agreement on the need for equal and just laws for women is inspiring. Also unique is a campaign in which a large number of individuals cooperate regularly, in a coordinated fashion, within a relatively long time frame. This has all been without precedent at least in the last decade of the women’s rights movement in Iran.
In your opinion, what have been the effects of this campaign’s activities in furthering the cause of Iranian women for gaining equality? Also, what have been the effects of this campaign’s activities socially, culturally, as well as legally and politically (in terms of official encounters with the government)?
This depends on how we view the effects. If by this you mean effecting change from bottom up and from the grassroots, then my answer is that the effects have been definitely positive. Even if the campaign ends abruptly for some reason, it will still have made a positive impact on certain sectors of society—however small they may be. If the campaign continues, these effects will be larger and will reach various sectors of society. What we have in mind, more than any thing else, is to make people sensitive to gender issues as they are evaluating existing laws that are discriminatory towards women. If society is sensitive to these discriminatory laws and can see that it can change them, then this is the biggest and most important effect, as well as the most important step that will have been taken.
However, if by effect you mean immediate changes in the law, then the answer is definitely negative.
Whether legislators revisit the laws or not, the role and effect of this campaign will be undeniable. In this campaign, not only have activists influenced women at various levels of society, but the activists themselves will have been influenced by society, as well.
Understanding the roles and issues of women in Iranian society is important to any movement. This campaign presents women’s rights activists with a great opportunity to get to know and understand the roles and issues of women in Iranian society and the diversity of ideas, viewpoints, sufferings, and concerns among these women in various levels and sectors of society. This will be no small accomplishment.
In reality, in this campaign, we are all learning. We are learning where we are and how we can go forward and do so in a better way. The influence of this campaign on the activists themselves is undeniable.
After reaching its goal, will this campaign move in a different direction or spread out further?
Without a doubt, this campaign is the product of small alliances and group activities from which the women’s rights activists have learned in the last decade. On the one hand, in the course of their alliances and joint small-scale activities, the women’s rights activists have discovered the power inherent in group activities. On the other hand, they have recognized the deficiencies and problems arising from such alliances.
In the course of the experiences they have gained in the past, especially during the June 12th assembly in Haft-e Tir Square, these activists have realized that they are an extremely isolated group in society and that it is women themselves who will be the main supporters of this movement. In the course of undertaking a series of different activities, they have recognized where the problems lie in their group endeavors, where their alliances’ weaknesses lie, and where these alliances can be strengthened. They have realized that they must turn to and rely upon women’s own power within society in a more serious way and, by attaching less importance to appearances, put their faith in this power.
This campaign is the product of past experiences and future hopes of individuals who are experiencing it and who take part in civic-minded activities. This is the impetus behind the campaign so far. How this campaign will move forward in the future will depend on each and every person who is active in it, as well as those who have shaped this campaign and who have seen their dreams in it. It will be those very same people who will determine how this campaign continues.