Shahla Lahiji:

Signature Drives are the Most Civic of Activities

Interview By: Mihandokht Mesbah

Sunday 10 December 2006

“Change for Equality: One Million Signatures Demanding Changes to Discriminatory Laws” is a campaign implemented by a large number of women’s rights activists, which aims to ask for changes in laws that discriminate against women, through a signature collection drive. The Campaign was officially launched in Tehran this summer, and has begun activities in several provinces since. The persistence of activists involved in the Campaign and their use of creative and multiple strategies for establishing ties with the grassroots in an effort to explain the goals of the Campaign, has transformed this effort into one that promises real impact. Deutsche Welle has conducted an interview with Ms. Shahla Lahiji, the Director of Roshangaran Publishing about the Campaign and its efforts thus far.

DW: You are one of the supporters of the Campaign for collection of signatures to change discriminatory laws against women. What do you see as the vision of such a project? Do you believe the environment conducive for the achievement of such goals?

Shahla Lahiji: The term campaign and how it is defined in the dictionary is frightening for me. Perhaps the term campaign in this case refers to the debate, challenges and exchanges which have to take place among the general public in the form of a discussion. In terms of seeing a vision, I believe this effort is intended to find the truth and accept a vision of whether society is actually ready for the changes that are being demanded or not. I think that this effort is the most civil of efforts designed to bring about change in line with social demands.

DW: As far as you are aware, has there been any progress with respect to this effort?

Shahla Lahiji: Certainly! Unexpectedly certain groups and individuals have expressed interest in joining this effort, which as far as I was concerned this reaction from these groups was unimaginable. Traditional families, with strong religious beliefs, who understand the fact that they are living in a modern world, recognize that a modern existence requires new rules. This is because traditional social relations, for which these laws were established, no longer exist. The legal status of women, even those living in the most traditional of families, who are employed, have an income and are full partners in carrying and handling the economic burdens of the family, must be re-examined with a new perspective. I should add that this current discourse which calls for women to sit at home and bear male children and receive payment for their motherly duties, was a discourse put forth many, many years ago, by a certain person in Germany, where your radio is broadcast from, and is not a new discussion. What we are trying to say is that women’s participation, in economic, social and political sectors needs to be addressed in the context of their civil demands.

DW: You pointed to the objections that traditional families have to current laws. What are the most significant objections expressed by this sector of society?

Shahla Lahiji: Recently, in a traditional family with whose children I have a working relationship, the mother of the family complained about discriminatory laws. Specifically, she objected to the fact that despite having raised her children and the difficulties she has faced in this respect, with the death of her husband, her financial security is now at the mercy of her children, who may or may not treat her fairly. The law does not provide direction nor protection for the situation of such women. This woman’s share, who lived for sixty years with her husband, and saw him through difficult financial times, to a relatively wealthy economic status, is a very small share, which is not considerable at all. This very respectable woman complained that she wanted to know where she stood, what her rights were, and what was her share and reward for the difficulties she had endured throughout her life? She explained that “today her children refer to the laws and explain to her that her share was what she has already received in her joint life with her husband, and of none of their father’s possessions belong to her. You see, it used to be that the place of a mother or grandmother in the family used to be very important and strong. Based on tradition, rather than law, women in these situations were well cared for and had a strong position in the family and the tribe, and based on these traditions, no was discriminated against. But today lives are spent in 40 or 50 meter apartments and the family has transitioned from a hierarchical and vertical power structure to a horizontal and more equal power structure. No takes responsibility for the well being and welfare of other members of the family. With these changes and transitions in Iranian society, the change of laws are absolutely necessary. In this Campaign, I am asking others if they also feel that there exist such shortcomings in the law. If people agree with our assessment, and we are able to reach one million people and get there signatures in support of changes to the laws, can we claim that possibly there are five million who feel that these changes are necessary? In that case, the question of how to reach the law-makers with this message becomes the main issue.

DW: It seems that there is a two-way exchange that takes place between the activists involved in the campaign and the general public, where each engages in discussions about their lives and daily realities, which the Campaign members then reflect. The question which remains is how exactly are these activists engaged in the collection of signatures and how exactly does this two-way exchange take place? Do those collecting signatures go door-to-door, do they hold workshops, or do they go to communities and community centers?

Shahla Lahiji: We use all the resources and strategies you mention. We don’t target one particular group or social class in our efforts. We look at this effort in the context of sustainable development. We don’t consider this effort one that purely addresses women’s issues and concerns. Rather, we consider that if we want to enter the process of and promote the concept of sustainable development one of the strategies in this respect includes addressing and eliminating discrimination between the sexes. Men too have to demand these changes as much as women do. In fact, often we rely on men to pass on the message of the campaign to women.

DW: Given these explanations, do you believe that this issue has reached beyond elite and progressive groups in society?

Shahla Lahiji: The elite don’t have problems. With the information and awareness they have, they can take a stand against these laws, whether it is through their financial means or their social position. For example, do you think that husbands are willing or fearless enough, to prevent the travel of women with important positions in government who must travel on official state business? These are the problems that socio-economically disadvantaged women have to contend with. These groups of women cannot protect themselves financially and because of lack of education or other resources they can’t protect themselves legally or even express their demands. If you take a look at my mother’s marriage certificate, for example, you would imagine that she lived in an European country. She managed to secure many of her rights in the form of a marriage contract, because she was aware, she was educated and she was familiar with the laws of other countries. She managed to work with the same set of laws and limitation, to obtain her rights. In fact, here it is the women from socio-economically disadvantaged groups who suffer the most, because elite women with social position and proximity to power have the power and resources to defend their rights.

DW: What I was trying to ask was whether the activities of this campaign go beyond elite groups and intellectuals?

Shahla Lahiji: Well! If our friends are not able to reach the groups that should logically be targeted by this Campaign, this inability is directly related to the shortcomings our society faces with respect to information sharing and communication mechanisms—a society which lacks political parties and groups and NGOs have faced limitation. I should add that I joke in this respect and say that GNGOS exist, meaning organizations with dependency and relationships with government. Additionally, there is a lack of media sources at our disposal, and many of our civil activities are faced with these shortcomings. We want this effort to be carried out in a free civil framework with no limitations. Decision makers need to understand that they should address this civil movement with violence. But if they do not allow this peaceful and calm effort to continue, then we have to think of other strategies.

DW: Do you know how many signatures have been collected thus far?

Shahla Lahiji: They have told me that 20,000 signatures have been collected so far, which in my opinion, given the short period since the inception of this effort, is remarkable.

DW: Many thanks to Ms. Lahiji for this interview.


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