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Funding and Movement Building in Iran

Monday 14 July 2008


Homa Maddah, a founding member of the One Million Signatures Campaign and a young women’s rights activist has been interviewed by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) for their Friday File. The interview conducted by AWID appears below.

By Rochelle Jones

AWID: What is your involvement with women’s rights in Iran?

When I was 19, I joined the Women’s Cultural Centre in Tehran. It was an
important women’s NGO, and a great chance for me to work with well known
feminists like Parvin Ardalan -,journalist and Olaf Palmer prize winner and
other great women of three generations, of which I belonged to the youngest
generation! At that time we did a sort of cultural advocacy for women’s
rights. We published pamphlets about rights deficiencies and about violence
against women.

We also cooperated with other women’s organisations and groups through a
network that began with Shirin Ebadi’s suggestion after she won the Nobel
Peace Prize. Then in June 2005 we decided to organise a demonstration
against unequal laws. Since then, June 12 is identified by women’s rights
activists in Iran as their national day of solidarity against laws which
discriminate against women. In 2006 the peaceful demonstration was broken
up violently and resulted in 70 arrests. After that, we launched the "One
Million Signature Campaign" (www.we-change.org) to continue our goals.

All these years I have worked as a volunteer in women’s rights activities.
I have also written and translated articles for different websites. At the
moment I am an MA student at Tehran university and my activities are
focused on the One Million Signature Campaign.

AWID: Tell us about funding for women’s rights in Iran?

I believe that organisational funding in Iran is unique and not necessarily
very important for women’s rights activists in two ways:

Firstly, most women’s rights activists work as volunteers - they do not
earn money from their activities in advocating women’s rights. They usually
have other jobs such as journalists, writers, teachers or housewives. I
heard many times from my friends in other countries (especially in the MENA
region) that their activities are their jobs, but in Iran it is not like
this.

Secondly, the government of Iran is really sensitive to "receiving money
from outside of Iran". I think you need to ask for the Foreign Ministry’s
permission because they are suspicious about the source of the money and
the purpose of it. The government usually condemn activists in Iran to be a
part of a larger plan to undermine the structures of the Islamic Republic of
Iran.

So as a result funding in Iran is limited to personal philanthropy and
secret funding (either from well-meaning persons or the activists
themselves). In addition, it is not organised, meaning whenever we need
money we collect it, but we do not have a plan for it. By calling it
"unique" I mean it is organised in other ways in Iran (at least in parts of
women’s movement, if not all of it!). By saying also that funding is "not
important", I mean that we usually do not receive money from organisation
and from outside Iran and it is our policy because of the special situation
in Iran.

I should emphasise that I talk on behalf of my group - we advocate equal
rights and our expenses are limited to: publishing pamphlets and booklets;
website registration fees; travel and renting places for our meetings.

AWID: The fact that most women’s rights activism is unpaid must have a huge
impact on the capacity of activists to work. Despite this - Iranian women
are still very engaged in activism! How do women find the time - and how
are their families supportive of this ’extra’ work?

Many of the women who are engaged in women’s rights activities work part
time or at home. Many of them are part time journalists and translators, so
their time is flexible and they can manage. However, I am sometimes
surprised by their energy and capacities - especially in the case of 30-40
year old mothers! I should add to this point that the majority of activists
in Iran are young students, so they usually live with and are dependant on
the family.

In terms of support from families, there are different trends. Many
activists come from families with a history or background in political
movements, for example, their parents (or husbands) were engaged in the
1979 Islamic Revolution. So consequently these families are usually (not
always!) sympathetic and supportive. The husbands take care of the little
children and the parents understand their young daughters. I think the
activists from religious families have the most complicated situation
because there are many interpretations of Islam and usually an activist’s
interpretation does not fit with their parents’ view.

AWID: You mentioned that because funding is mostly from individuals and
often secret, it is not very organised. Do you have any ideas as to how
this could be better organised to benefit women’s activism in Iran?

Yes, I think funding in Iran is somehow like charity work: if you need
money, you will go and ask for it. You do not get the donor engaged in the
process of your activities, they just give you the money. I think we should
get donors more engaged in our work. Even if they are not interested in
taking part in our activities, we should give them a detailed report about
how their money has been spent. For example, "We have published 3000
booklets with your money and distributed them in twelve districts of ....
We can do it every month".

In the case of collecting money from activists, I think we need a detailed
plan about spending, which is difficult in Iran because sometimes you can
publish something, and sometimes you cannot! Sometimes you can organise a
meeting, sometimes you cannot.

AWID: What do you mean by a ’detailed plan’?

It is a kind of (impossible) wish in Iran, because you cannot even count on
tomorrow’s situation. But I think despite this, we should have a plan about
what we want to do in different times and stick to it as much as we can,
even if only 20% of the time. We usually collect money for special events
or publishing, for example: about 2 months ago my friends wanted to publish
a collection of articles about ’polygamy in Iran’. They estimated the
expenditure and made sure that they could publish it (we usually cannot
receive permission for publishing from the government so you have to do it
in a semi-illegal way and with higher costs!). Then they came to a meeting
and asked for help. One says "I can pay for 20". The other "I can pay for
50" and so they understand that they can, for example, publish 1000. By a
"detailed plan" I mean that we should collect the money for "publications"
at the beginning of the year and then disburse it little by little. Even if
we could not publish anything in that specific year, we could spend the
money in a different way. It is hard in Iran but I think we should start
something like it.

AWID: Does mobilisation in the MENA region play an important role in your
activism?

Yes - The rise of women’s movements in the region helps us a lot for two
reasons. Firstly because our situations are very similar to each other: our
laws, our social practices, even our governments and the Ulema. So we learn
a lot from each other. For example, our One Million Signature Campaign was
inspired by the One Million Signature Campaign in Morocco. Secondly,
changes made by governments in the region push our government to do
something because they are in close contact and have a close relationship.

AWID: Because of the unique and informal funding situation, do you think
that Iranian women’s groups are more reliant on links with international
feminist movements to help advocate for equality and rights? How can these
links be strengthened?

Yes. Links with international groups and movements outside Iran are mainly
a source of support and advocacy for us. For example, as you know there
have been many arrests in Iran and we hope that with our links with
international movements, we can help our friends in prison. International
links are not a source of funding.

To tell the truth, these links are very new and few. In the past, most of
the links with feminist organisations and movements were through Iranian
women living abroad or in exile (there are a lot of them in different
countries!). Our relationship with abroad was kind of one-way. In my case,
I have translated many (about 20) articles, but I had never thought of
writing something because I did not have the courage and I believed there
was nothing important going on in Iran compared to other MENA countries!
Now we have the courage and we know the importance of these kind of
relations.

Because of the situation in Iran, I think strengthening these links need a
lot of hard work. We cannot organise a meeting in Tehran, and sometimes we
cannot even organise at international meetings! So I think that using the
internet and being aware of what is going on around you is the best way to
strengthen these links at the moment.

 

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