The Women’s Movement in a Game of ’Snakes and Ladders’

By: Parvin Ardalan

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Three women are standing side by side locked arm in arm and shouting. They are among those women who, at the beginning of the cold winter of 1357, transformed International Women’s Day into a day of protest with their shouting. Afterwards their arms came unlocked and their cries dried up in their throats, but their image was recorded and remains with us, and under it a slogan has been traced: "We did not carry out the revolution in order to move backwards".

They were protesting against two things: firstly, a compulsory dress code; and secondly, the repeal of the Family Protection Act. Yet both of these things came about, and we did indeed move backwards.
Thirty years have now passed from that day marking International Women’s Day and since we stood on the threshold of the victory of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Thirty years have passed since the time that the first joys of Iranian women were mixed with their first widespread protests and since we came to understand and know the tragedy of defeat on the brink of victory. The Family Protection Act was repealed and the cries were silenced.

The Family Protection Act was drawn up by a lawyer by the name of Mehrangiz Manouchehrian, who was the first female senator in the Iranian parliament. She was not merely just a lawyer but rather had a tremendous command of the materials of the law. She was both a feminist and a conscious opponent of legal discrimination against women; she was both in power and capable of raising women’s issues while in power; she was both the founder of a non-governmental organization by the name of "The Association for Women Lawyers", and a social activists; and moreover, by virtue of winning the International Prize for Human Rights, she achieved international recognition. Meanwhile, the years during which she was active also saw women’s entry into the public sphere. It was a time when women first experienced what it was like to enter the political sphere as representatives in parliament; and for this very reason the entry of women into the public sphere had an extremely close relationship with the achievement of women’s rights, and at this time women’s organizations and publishers were also active.

This, however, was not enough. On the one hand, the religious authorities did not approve of her outline for the proposed family bill, and her bill was not debated publicly by parliament; and on the other hand, the modern religious state which was also engaged in confrontation with the religious authorities was bent on a show of force, even as it lacked the requisite courage to stand up to the religious jurists. Manouchehrian’s project was therefore set aside, however ultimately through another effort, women managed to get the government of the time to consider the bill in parliament and by taking into account the views of modernist religious jurists, to promulgate a law under the name of the Family Protection Act in 1967 (1346). In any case, a step forward had been taken; however the discourse on women’s rights was only at the beginning of the road of its transformation into a public and socially broad discourse.

The fact that the law was in advanced as compared with the culture of the society, meant that it was still possible to make further progressive adjustments to it. Thus three years later a number of amendments were made to the law; for example: although it appeared to be impossible to abolish polygamy and despite of all the various pressures to remove the man’s right to take an additional wife, it was nonetheless possible to make this right conditional upon the first wife’s permission. This progressive trend came to a halt with the Islamic Revolution. The Family Protection Act was rescinded and women’s situation returned to how it had been around forty years earlier 1934 (1313). The law now conformed to the culture of its day! If it was not in conformity, then the previous law would not have been given up so easily.

Last year, a draft law with the title "Family Protection Bill" was once again considered by the judicial branch and was introduced into parliament with the addition of a number of clauses by the Ahmadinejad government. The difference between this bill and the previous bill lies in the fact that the current bill is in truth a "Family Protection Bill" in the sense of "Protection for the Patriarchal Family", and not the family in its common meaning, or in the sense of a family that is based on the concept of equality. It seeks to entrench the patriarchal family in Iranian society, whereas the earlier bill paid attention to the rights of women within the family. In that bill, the modern religious Pahlavi state showed itself to be the defender of women against traditionalist clerics. The current government of Iran has also manifested its opposition to traditionalist clerics in certain clauses, but as far as women are concerned, this government is not the defender of women’s rights but wants to be the protector of women, by picturing the father and the husband as protecting shadows over the wife and child. The riddle of the matter lies in the fact that this time some women have consulted the clerics in order to obtain their support, even though it is not obvious that the culture of today’s clerics is any more advanced than the culture of today’s government or that it meets the needs of the time.

In spite of careful action on the part of the government and simultaneous suppression of the women’s rights movement, after the “Family Protection Bill” was proposed, it met with a wave of opposition from many women. A coalition of activists and groups from the women’s movement was formed against the proposed bill. The activists of the One Million Signatures Campaign began a wide-ranging effort to subject the bill to significant scrutiny, including publication of critical articles, the organization of seminars, and the distribution of leaflets. Shirin Ebadi threatened a sit-in, an anti-bill alliance took shape, and activists from the women’s movement went to see their representatives in the parliament. Eventually the sponsors of the legislation were forced to withdraw the clauses proposed by the government from the bill. What was the result? The very same bill remained on the legislative agenda, but as the result of the protest a man who wishes to take an additional wife could once again only do so with the permission of the first wife, rather than a man with sufficient financial means being allowed to take additional wives simply with the permission of a court and without the permission of his first wife. Yet the ability to take a second wife at all was not removed from the law; therefore the coalition accomplished nothing more than the prevention of a step backwards.

Why did this come about? Was it a consequence of the coalition, or the superiority of those wings opposed to the elements of the government? Or was it the lobbying-power? Or all of these? My belief is that what makes these two periods of history similar in terms of women’s rights, aside from the role and power, both open and hidden, of governments, is the role and power of the women’s movement in publicizing the discourse of women’s rights in society. These things came to pass not with the help of those in power but rather with the help of the widespread and continuous pressure that was applied from below, which like a virus infiltrated all the limbs and extremities of society and gave a model for action in the service of change to a despairing society.

If the 1960’s and 70’s (1340s and 50s) were the decades which saw the entry of women into the public sphere and their achievement of some basic rights, the end of the 1970’s and 80’s (1350s and the 1360s) were the years in which these rights were taken back from them and women were driven from the public sphere. However the 1990s and the years since 2000 (1370s and 1380s) have been the years during which women have imposed pressure to ensure their entry back into the highest level of public sphere as well as the years which women have brought their own demands to the fore while imposing themselves on the patriarchal structures. The decade of the 1990’s (1380s) can also be termed the years of the rational, active, methodical presence of women in the public sphere pressing for their demands.
Discrimination against women has received much public attention and support from other social movements since the launch of the One Million Signatures Campaign. The One Million Signatures Campaign activists and its supporters encompass an enormous range of people including those involved in the labor or student movements, people from different social classes from housekeeper to employees, from students to professors, from amateurs of arts to artists, from social activists to human rights activists as well as lawyers, from web loggers to journalists. All of these groups have helped increase awareness and have expanded the numbers of those who advocate for women and are involved in the women’s movement.

The very obvious presence of this movement and all its activities is reflected to a great degree in the field of journalism and through writings. During these years, in addition to increased number of women web bloggers, the number of women journalists have risen from none to a few, and then to large numbers especially in social and literary fields. The progress of the women’s movement reflected through advocacy efforts for women’s rights, increased criticism of laws that discriminate against women, and continuous awareness raising activities through face-to-face strategies, has been intertwined with the increased presence of women in various fields of the media. This development has also worked to increase sensitivities within this sector to women’s issues and to infuse within the media a feminist perspective as well as elevate the role of women from mere reporters to professional journalists, even feminist journalists, at the same time, significantly increasing the quantity of the discriminatory subject matters covered by the media. In essence the women’s movement has imposed itself on the on the male-dominant structures of the media.

If today we talk about the strength of the women’s movement, we are in actuality talking about its unrelenting presence intent on continuity of this movement. Given the history of dictatorship in our society, all social movements have continually faced crackdowns and every crackdown has been accompanied by loss of supporters and activists. Therefore, it takes a long time for each movement to re-establish and start anew, to rebuild its strength, until once again it faces yet another crackdown. Crackdowns against classic movements are successful when they focus on a central and leadership positions within the movement, geographical foci, and the financial centers. Movements which are capable of broadening and sustaining their demands among the public, will be successful movements capable of defeating the inherent weaknesses mentioned earlier. The appeal of the legal demands of the One Million Signatures Campaign on one hand, and the de-centralized structure of the Campaign as a movement on the other hand, allows it to rebuild itself quickly after a crackdown and an attack. With each arrest, another activist will emerge. Even arrests and all the costs imposed on the movement of the Campaign, has assisted it in publicizing itself and its demands further. It is interesting to note that the continuity of the Campaign is not reliant on its financial resources because the movement is supported by in the first instance on its human resources.

Suppressing a movement such as the Campaign is difficult. To crackdown against it, one should tear down its continued appeal. But how? By promoting fear? Accusation of soft or hard revolution? Accusations of having relationships with foreigners and receiving financial support from them,..? These pressures and strategies can cause temporary interruptions in the activities of the Campaign; however, they cannot devastate the constancy and stability of the movement. Therefore, through use of these strategies, we can change the existing historical patterns of interaction between movements and governments—from leaps and continuous crackdowns toward continuous resistance and change. The One Million Signatures Campaign represents the essence of such a method.


Now, those three women have burst out of the frame of that picture; there are so many working to prevent loss of their gains and a move backwards. Who will be the winner in this game of Snakes and ladders?

Read the article in its original Farsi.

This article was translated through a group effort.


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