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Report on the Preliminary Three-Month Activities of theOne Million Signatures Campaign

Campaign: A Matter of Life/ Parvin Ardalan

Translated by Ali G. Scotten

Saturday 10 March 2007


Since August 27, 2006, when the one million signatures campaign to change discriminatory laws in Iran blossomed in front of Raad Institute for Higher Learning on the streets, an unstoppable force has begun to forge on, not only increasing the strength of the women’s movement, but one that with each passing day spreads its roots deeper into ground making our hundred-year old hopes and dreams bloom even vividly. Those well-known members of the women’s movement who have spent their lives struggling for women’s rights are now facing new generation of youthful energy, and the unfamiliar names of an ever-increasing number of activists—all this, unbelievably, in the last three months. The campaign itself is a fertile phenomenon signaling the unleashing of hidden potential, the continuous rejuvenation of the women’s movement and its strength in bringing about change and transformation.

Although the gathering in Haft-e Tir Square on June 12, 2006 protesting the annals of discriminatory laws against women led to violence, arrest, interrogation, and possible retaliations in the future to malevolently sequester our voices and impede public support, we—indeed—did not yield. We have learned from experience that for us to have room to maneuver in our patriarchal society, we have no choice but to create it ourselves since our society’s chauvinist mentality is such that it continuously keeps us within an ever-increasing segregated circle. Therefore, we have endeavored to create a new plan and thus follow a peaceful public approach to take control of every aspect of our lives. We have modeled our campaign after our Moroccan sisters’ struggle to gain public support for our efforts. According to our own individual experiences and with an acute awareness to the variety of demands, we have acquired the idea of the One Million Signature Campaign after extensive discourse with attorneys in law, activists, and like-minded individuals in Tehran and other cities while we were constantly conscious of our imperfect conditions and restricted statutory rights as citizens of the country.

It was not easy to reach a consensus on which one of the laws the campaign should focus on. This is perhaps due to the existence of so many women’s issues in need of addressing. Some believe to rectify the divorce law is the key to other problems, others argue for a ban on polygamy; one talks about child custody reform, and the other suggests changes of the inheritance law. Obviously each one of us based on our individual economic, ethnic, social, and geographical experiences expected a certain degree of change to certain set of laws that might not have been priorities for others. Accordingly, we have stressed the need to change all the discriminatory laws in general with the intent that in the end the ‘collective intellect’ of the signers will decide what the ‘legal preference’ of the campaign in its approach to the parliament and other assemblies should be. Furthermore, this will make it clear to us what actions to take during the following stages when, with the help of legal representatives, we will submit the proposals for change in the order specified by the ‘legal preferences’ of those who have signed the petition.

In this campaign, as we aim to increase the awareness of women in our endeavor to shape our destiny, we have employed the strategy of collecting signatures so that through face-to-face dialogue with women while offering them pamphlets on “The Impact of Laws on the Lives of Women,” we would be able to internalize the need for change through a horizontal network that runs from one city to another, from one neighborhood to the next, through alleys, households, and in face to face interactions. The aim has been to infect the people—for lack of a better word—with a desire for action. In small handouts and pamphlets, we laid out in simple terms the manners in which women are discriminated against by laws regarding marriage, divorce, child custody, polygamy, the official age to be tried as an adult, citizenship rights, blood money, inheritance, legal testimony, honor killings, and other punitive measures. Additionally, we have tried to document and publish our experiences so that “sexual awareness” would not fall out of public attention. In doing so, we need to reach out to new people so that we learn and act on new ideas to help us find better ways void of violence and aggression. We also seek constructive criticism of our campaign from professionals and those who are supportive of our cause. Thus we have tried with all our ability to address our collective requests to bring about the change of laws against women through collecting one million signatures.

And now what have we gained three months after the start of the One Million Signatures Campaign to Change the Discriminatory Laws?

Patience in Reaching One Million Signatures

“How many signatures have you collected?” This is the question that we have most often encountered ever since the beginning of the campaign three months ago. It is easy to assume that in a country that, based on its last census has a population exceeding seventy million, perhaps the collection of one million signatures can be an easy task. But in reality this is not the case. The difficulty of the work was beyond our initial conception. As of now, our three hundred volunteers are so involved in collecting signatures that this task has begun to take over a significant portion of their lives. But this still is not enough. We hope to have twenty times more volunteers. This means that in each three-month period we need to recruit and train at least three hundred new volunteers, and instill in them a sense of collective identity until they are ready to participate in the campaign’s activities. The fact remains that we cannot reach our one million mark without expanding the pool of volunteers. Therefore, this process entails a lot more than one would initially assume. In the past three months we have attempted, without any previous experience in such project, to meet challenges and to launch this campaign without any supportive means.

Our campaign intends to increase awareness of the problems facing women, and to build relations based on mutual trust, thus laying the groundwork for an organization to meet our collective demands. The collection of signatures is our primary goal but at the moment the energy of most members has been spent in forging local relationships and securing places to assemble. Raising awareness is a difficult process, and our members are well aware that working on this campaign entails more than just obtaining signatures. For this reason, they demonstrate more endurance than signature collectors. At the moment the campaign has (apart from our regular campaigners,) more than eighty active members in Tehran and other cities who are working simultaneously and in different levels to publicize our project. In doing so they are also discovering new ideas and potential possibilities for the movement. Because of the multifaceted nature of this movement, the process of collecting signatures takes longer than usual. On the other hand, our situation is different than, for instance the Moroccan movement, which enjoyed strong state support—that is perhaps where the beauty of such movement lies.

After collecting the signatures—from both inside and outside Iran, and excluding electronic ones—the volunteers present the forms to our data analysts. While safeguarding the data by scanning each form, this group enters the content of each form into the database for statistical analysis. According to these members many of the volunteers have not yet submitted the signatures to the database since many are waiting to reach what they feel to be a substantial number of entries. For this reason an accurate count cannot be tallied at this time. In general, however, the experience of the volunteers has been promising, especially in cities where either workshops are held or where women’s groups are active. For instance, over 1,200 signatures have already been submitted from Tabriz as well as around 700 from Gorgan. However, in regions such as Shiraz, Zanjan, Esfahan, Yazd, Hamadan, and Kurdistan, our friends are still in the process of brainstorming techniques compatible to their cities.

Assessing the Need for Establishing New Groups

A work of such vast and diverse scope as the One Million Signatures Campaign is somehow diverse and unusual. However, neither geographical borders nor means of censorship is able to separate activists from each other. Just because of its multilateral nature, it requires an open and emerging approach to encourage creativity while acting as an informational network. Nevertheless, the various groups of the campaign were actually formed with this idea in mind. The original groups were those assigned to public relations, education, documentation, publishing, financial, and e-site administration, but we soon found it necessary to recruit volunteers. “Initially we were thinking that the signatures would be the domain of the PR department, but since one of the major goals of our campaign was to spread the movement to different levels of society, we reached the conclusion that it was necessary to form a department comprised only of volunteers.” In this way the new formation was introduced to organize the activities of all the volunteers who have been helping the campaign, thus allowing the PR members to focus on introducing the movement to new groups and individuals. Another example was to document women’s experiences—which although was at first part of the archivists’ responsibilities—is now posted on our site by other members since it was later deemed necessary to create a distinct portion of the website dedicated to these diverse experiences which are by all means separate from the other group’s postings. “Face-to-face interactions were a new and somewhat difficult experience. We decided that creating a special section of the site called ‘Alley-to-Alley’ would not only speed up the process of learning, but would also encourage recording their first hand experiences.”
Our audience or others interested in our campaign can also influence the strategy of the movement. For instance, suggestions made by an artist in one of our workshops in Karaj worth considering, since art can be a useful tool in forging relationships and increasing awareness about the campaign.

Now it has been our experience that in such a network the working groups should, in addition to cooperative relationships with each other, practice a policy of checks and balances in order to ensure continuous success. As the movement progresses we are on one hand recognizing our tremendous ability to improve, on the other to assess our performances. These tasks are accomplished by the volunteer group in their follow-up training sessions. “After a month is passed from the first workshop, the volunteers are invited to attend a follow-up session. In this meeting, they will first share their experience with others, and later on after turning in their signatures, will collect the instructional handouts they need for their mission. The website administration will then post the documents on the website, after which they are returned to data archivists. This process enables us to benefit from each other’s experiences, and also allows the volunteers to remain in touch with the campaign and feel more connected with the mission. However, in each follow-up session one of the members of the education division is present to get the first hand knowledge of what the volunteers have gone through. These are usually very interesting sessions because, by meeting again and listening to one another’s experiences, each volunteer is motivated to keep on working. Such sentiments are reflected on the ‘Alley-to-Alley’ section of our website. At the moment, this group is after recruiting more volunteers from Tehran and other cities.” Also, because of the website’s important role in disseminating information, we are trying to “acquire and train new people to help us with the writing process” in order to interconnect the various groups of the campaign.

Training and Expanding Relations in Tehran and Other Cities

Ever since the beginning of the campaign, the reports of the different working groups have shown that the project is based on education, training and the forging of relationships in various sectors of society, and that the cooperation between the work groups has increased efficiency. According to the training groups it is now the ninth consecutive week in which one to three workshops have been held in Tehran: nine for females and two for male volunteers.

In the training workshops the volunteers receive three types of training: a general introduction to the campaign’s strategy, legal training, and familiarization with methods of personal and face to face interaction with individuals at the time of gathering names and signatures. The training group initially started its activity with only six members but gradually, with the increase in number of volunteers and new workshops and seminars sprouting up in Tehran and other cities, the group was expanded so that now five members teach in the jurisprudence subdivision and six in the communication department. “Besides the legal part of the workshops which is led by legal experts, those volunteers who are interested in teaching future volunteers can become involved in the training. They sit in one or two additional sessions to become familiar with the training methods, and in following sessions and under the supervision of more skilled trainers take part in the training until they become proficient enough to teach on their own.”

Most of the working groups participate in shaping the workshops. But the responsibility of making the workshops constructive lies in the hands of the volunteers themselves. Attracting new volunteers, whether in Tehran or in other cities, organizing volunteers for weekly training workshops for newcomers, finding venues to hold the workshops, and coordinating between the training, publishing, and website groups are all the duties of the volunteers. Training workshops in the cities are usually conducted after familiarity with the campaign has been established and one round of signature collection has been carried out. For example, in Gorgan after the recognition of the campaign by its women’s groups and the action of their women’s studies group to collect signatures, we felt the need to organize training workshops: “During the signature collection there were a lot of questions on the part of the signers, and everyone is in need of advancing their own awareness. This feeling led them to realize they are in need of training.”

With the assistance of the volunteer and training groups, a number of workshops have been conducted in various cities. The workshops in Gorgan, Hamadan and Yazd were put on by the volunteers, while those held in Tabriz and Karaj were organized by the training groups. Additionally, righteous and honorable men participate in this campaign not necessarily as supporters but as activists who by organizing all-male volunteer groups try to advance male awareness on women’s issues.

Promoting through the Barrier of Official Deadlocks

Although in the virtual world numerous obstacles exist in the form of government filtering, the existence of the internet is a great blessing that has allowed us to navigate around government policies that aim to stifle debate or censor the media. Our site has been a very successful means of communication so far that has been constantly updated every other day and enjoys an average of two thousand viewers per day. The website now includes around fifty-five articles, reports, interviews, and accounts of personal experiences, and even translated texts of women’s fight for justice in places such as Morocco, Palestine, and India. Training materials for the workshops are also posted. So our website has been an integral source of information on this great movement.

In addition, numerous sites and weblogs have played an important role in publicizing our campaign by creating links to our site and focusing on our activities. Whereas, radio channels and news websites (Voice of Germany, Radio Farda, Gooya & Shahrzad News, among others), in broadcasting the advancement of the campaign and arranging interviews with members and supporters have been influential in publicizing our efforts and furthering debates on women’s rights throughout the world. Furthermore, support from world renowned international and human rights groups and activists, and even Nobel peace prize winners, is helping to spread around the world our plea for equal rights. These supporters includes groups such as Women for Women’s Human Rights (WWHR), Women in Black, Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights, and individuals like activist/feminist Arundhati Roy, the Dalai Lama, 1976 Nobel Peace Prize winners Betty Williams & Mairead Corrigan, Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, the Costa Rican President and Nobel Laureate Oscar Arias Sanchez, Eastern Timor’s Prime Minister Jose Ramus Herta, and the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel the Argentinean Human Rights Leader.

Finding a Place in “No-Woman’s Land”

Due to a long history of government controls of our activities, and the fact that this campaign began behind closed doors, we have sought out every small opportunity to reach people and create sensitivity towards the women’s movement.

The campaign’s main problem has always been finding places to hold seminars and workshops. None of the groups benefits from a permanent meeting location. Therefore, most of the workshops are held in the homes of volunteers. Of course, this has its own problems: “In some respects, some volunteers do not feel comfortable to attend a meeting held in a private home.” In many cities most of the volunteers who are as well members of their city’s NGOs have offered their residence to hold workshops. On the other hand, just because of government’s hesitation to give permission to women’s groups, to organize seminars in public places is as well a very problematic task. Our first seminar, which was to be sponsored by the Ra’ad organization, was shut down. Only one public seminar has been held in Zanjan to introduce the campaign. This was held on November 2, 2006 with the help of the NGO Taraneh.

In light of these difficulties we are careful not to miss on any opportunities to get the word out. For instance, the commemoration in honor of Dr. Shahla Lahiji, held in the Peka Institute by the Women’s Cultural Center, was a good opportunity to introduce the campaign to others. The Unicef’s meeting on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women provided an excellent opportunity for us so that during its Q&A session we were able to familiarize others with the grassroot nature of our campaign. Other examples include the meeting of the Women’s Studies group of the Iranian Sociological Society, and the monthly session of the Society of Women Against Environmental Pollution. The meeting of members of an NGO group called “Volunteer Activists” with women activists from Turkey, Belgium and Morocco (November 20, 2006) was an excellent chance for the members of our campaign to introduce the movement and exchange ideas with other advocates as well.

Alley to Alley: Building Confidence and Gaining Strength

Collecting signatures through face-to-face contact has instilled in the volunteers a sense of confidence in their ability and power to promote change. Volunteers and others interested in our campaign have felt compelled to share their experiences on the “Alley-to-Alley” section of our website, and thus provide encouragement to others. We hear from Khadije after a workshop in Tabriz that she “becomes stronger day by day” and that the campaign is becoming “her entire life.” “It teaches you to overcome stress,” says Nasim, and the act of collecting signatures by itself “has multiplied my energy”. It has given so much confidence to Sachli that she is even prepared to discuss the campaign with those ridiculing her. And it has given Zahra the confidence to approach people in the gym and convince otherwise apathetic people to sign her forms.

In addition, the alley-to-alley experience has introduced us to a new world of women we may not have known before. We may have recognized some of the signers as neighbors, or encountered them on the street, at the metro, or on the bus, but until we sat down with them to get their signatures we did not really know them. They can be every woman: that illiterate woman who enthusiastically puts an x mark next to her name, or the college security guard with the sulking face who was reminded of her child of divorce and presented Mehrnoush with her one million dollar smile, or the one who recognizes her own five year struggle for the right to divorce and signs Elnaz’es papers, the other one who plays “A Common Season in Women’s lives” on the stage, or that who complains to Nasim of her polygamist husband, the other one who is happy to sign so that her daughters can enjoys far better futures than herself, or even the panhandler who to Taraneh’s complete surprise reads the letter to the end and leaves her signature at the bottom.

By now more than twenty accounts of alley-to-alley experiences have been posted on our website. In addition hundreds of oral narratives are being recorded through writing workshops that have been created to encourage people to write down their experiences and preserve our oral history. Initially, the data analysts passed out specific notebooks to campaign members and other interested people for recording their experiences. These notebooks are yet to be collected.

Financial Independence

The One Million Signatures Campaign, contrary to the activities of other projects that throughout their life depend on either their own financial holdings or those of other organizations, does not rely on the government or any international entity for financial support. In that case, how are the expenses of the campaign covered?
The financial group began its work on July 23, 2006. The starting capital was covered by the membership dues of the original members. In addition, some of the members and interested individuals have donated significantly to the campaign whose names will be announced in the near future. It is imperative to emphasize that all the donations and membership dues are utilized toward the campaign; to document every amount, volunteers are asked to present donors with contribution slips and provide them with donation receipts in return.

All of the project members are active in collecting financial assistance. Also covered by membership dues and donations are the costs for publishing of our pamphlets and obtaining supplies. Based on the findings of the financial group, it is predicted that the expenses of the campaign for the next two years will reach around 50 million Tomans (over $50,000). This is a large burden for the campaign’s members to cover. For this reason the financial group will try in the future through organizing concerts, art shows, and various exhibitions to raise funds.

So far around 1.5 million Tomans ($1,500) has been collected through donations and membership dues of which about 900 Tomans was spent on printing costs, paper and other supplies. This is all in addition to travel costs, which come out of the pockets of each campaign member.

Therefore, the campaign has not only put a strain on the lives of the volunteers and members but has also been a burden to their pocketbooks. The expenses have been shouldered by individual members and each person has helped to the best of her financial ability. What gives them inspiration is the increasing awareness in daily lives of men and women, and the growth of a collective identity among the campaign members that is also spreading to others. This all brings us hope in fulfilling our goals and gives meaning to our lives.

As we have tried to convey in this report, the One Million Signatures Campaign to Change the Discriminatory Laws is an enormous and complex effort facing many problems. These difficulties will be gradually lessened by the efforts of each individual who joins the movement, and will help us to face a brighter future.

If you would like to be a part of this movement and further the efforts to improve Iranian women’s lives, please contact us at

forequality@gmail.com.
November 26, 2006

END NOTES

The Third Month Report of the Working Groups (Shahrivar and Azar, 1385).

ibid.

ibid.

ibid.

Report of the Training Workshop in Gorgan

The Third Month Report of the Working Groups (Shahrivar and Azar, 1385).

ibid.

http://www.weforchange.net/spip.php?article194

 

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