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Interview with Elizabeth Else, French human rights activist and a member of the French Human Rights League.

Take Steps Towards Freedom, You will learn how to Use it

Discussions from Jelveh Javaheri, Nahid Keshavarz/ Translation by Leila Sheernejad

Sunday 18 March 2007


Sunday, December 24th 2006.

Elizabeth Else participated in some of the meetings of the campaign during her short stay in Tehran, and familiarized herself with the methods of the movement firsthand. We spoke with her about her observations of the campaign and her experiences with the French human rights movement in France.

How did you view the Campaign?
Elizabeth: In my opinion, what I see as important of any movement in any part of the world and I defend, is the desire for equal rights. Another note of importance that must be paid attention to is that when one lives in a Muslim country, the problems are more difficult. The movement that is in progress, regardless of what ideals and what shape it takes is valuable if it can take education and awareness to the public. What I saw today is very illuminating, the youth of the activists of the movement and that all of you have the maturity and capability to carry out good management of the campaign. It was very surprising for me, because at the same time that you are young, you are very seasoned and serious. From what I have seen, you are very calm, this serenity may be due to your history, but in essence this very tranquility allows you to listen to each other. Even though you may have different approaches and hold different places.

Which women’s rights movements in France, were accompanied with more public reactions?

Elizabeth: The women’s rights movement in France was never uniform and sometimes it was required to react alone. We can speak of “women’s movements” instead of “women’s movement”. Sometimes these campaigns would unite on various issues, but the most important movement that was able to create the largest alliance amongst women’s rights groups, was the fight for abortion rights and access to contraception. What was important was the efforts of lawyers such as Giselle Hilmar along with the fighting of medical physicians for abortion rights. A matter that today is disregarded. The efforts of physicians in this matter was very important and they held a high risk of losing their jobs, while the work and publications of abortion articles of those in social sciences and literature did not carry such a high risk.

In the end all these efforts resulted in the passing of legislation towards women’s right for an abortion in 1975. Ms. Simone Ville, the Minister of Health of Jiscar Destan’s Cabinet, even with the severe opposition of the extreme right which she herself was a member of, was able to get this law approved by the Parliament and Senate. At the time, most of the cabinet was representing the extreme right and this law was passed with the votes of the communists, socialists and a part of the right wing members. Discussions of abortion rights along with the efforts of various groups were able to take the entire society in a short period of time.

In the initial stages of formation of the campaign, it was faced with the criticism of a part of the “leftist” students. In their opinion, this movement is a liberal movement and the Bourgoise will attempt to divert the women’s movement with such a campaign. In their opinion, the demand to change the laws is too basic and simple of a demand, and will be a step backwards. Sexual crimes would once again be created in the framework of society and even the removal of sexual discriminatory laws would not make a tangible change in the current situation of women. Question 1: What is your opinion of this matter?

Elizabeth: Often times in these types of activities there are people that state such and such a movement is not enough and must include heftier political contents to be successful. But really what is more important. Is it not more important for the laws to be changed, result in a difference and to address the real problems of society or for us to wait for larger political modifications which are not clear when they will take place? One must not pay attention to these critics. Our message appears to be very radical and leftist on the surface, but in all practicality is protective and to the right. In reality there is not a path that would be realistic. What is important is for women to start with their real lives, for us to learn of their true pain, for the women that are on the sidelines to be heard in society and have their issues and voices be heard. Women should be spoken for on their behalf and in their stead, but efforts should be made so that they can discuss their issues themselves.

In part of the design of the campaign, it has come up where “the equality of women and men is not consistent with Islam” This statement has been faced with the “Layeek” of society. What is your opinion of this matter?

Elizabeth: In reality the experiences of other women in Islamic countries should be taken into account. If we look at the example of Malaysia, the “Sisters of Islam” advocate the idea that until now all of the interpretations of the Koran were patriarchal and a more women oriented interpretation can be done. It must be noted that most of these women are “Layeeki” and they strive towards changes in their rights and equality.

When we speak about women in Islam in France, I try to pay attention to two things. First, Islam has progressed in various types of societies. Most Muslims live in non-Arab countries. Indonesia is the largest non-Arab Muslim country. Therefore, Islam was required to adapt itself to various societies with cultures different from Arabic countries.

The claims of “Advancing Commentary” in regards to Islam face criticism that this commentary causes a delay in realizing a secular government. Would is your opinion in this matter?

Elizabeth: If you want to enter the fight for equality of rights, you have a long journey ahead of you and the commentary about a secular government is another long journey and you can’t carry these two fights in one movement at the same time together. So it better for you to choose. See if you want to work with all women or if you want to work with the minority amongst them that you are afraid of losing. You have to look at what are your main goals and how you can go about getting broad support for obtaining these goals. If you are waiting for a secular government to come and grant you your desires, then expect to wait a long time. But in my opinion you should fight for equality right now. This way, your chance of victory is higher. An important note is that equal rights will include all women.

Although it is true that the unequal laws play a larger role for poorer women, since women in the higher tiers of society have the capability and awareness to get around the laws. However, in countries that have achieved some level of success for equality, efforts should be made for the fairness to include all women.

How can one help the campaign organization without taking ownership of the organization?

Elizabeth: There is no ideal blueprint. Questions of this sort as to how one can be democratic and make organizations as well, were issues in the early stages of any movement all over the world. When we start to work, and have not bumped into any major problems, these discussions start. One must put effort so that more people participate in the decision making process, but we cannot organize any movement before its formation. In reality, when we start walking we learn how to move, seek the solutions and figure out how to make the movement more public so more can participate. One should note that in talking with people, we learn.

There is no definite solution. The only thing that is important is that even if we are forced to spend more time, we make the discussions more public and strive so that the decisions include a larger group. In some discussions, the internet is facilitating. If the issues are very clear, we should allow the organizers to be free and allow one plan for forwarding the agenda.

Here we can point out the movement of Education Without Borders for supporting families with children going to school and that are illegally living in France without documentation. This movement started with the teachers and parents of these children and later, the league of human rights and the Union of teachers joined. In every school a committee was formed and a branch of this committee formed. After two years this branch got stronger and was able to attract people who have never been active in any initiative. These people didn’t even know what a social organization is. Their problem was similar to yours where should they remain branch or should they start their own group? If we stay in the branch, there is this danger that the central organizers make some decisions. Therefore the decisions aren’t quite democratic. A person that has access to more information can make decisions. Therefore, to make the decisions democratic, the information should be available to all.

Currently this Education without Borders movement works based on the formula where the local branches make decisions for themselves and have contact to the main office. The main branch includes the founders and representatives of the local branches. All of the branches remain independent. The important thing is that the requirements are very clear and every one knows the plan to achieve the goals.

In the type of movement that you are facing, the most important things that would help you, is making your agenda clear. People that become attracted to the campaign need to learn how to address the agenda themselves. The main issue is to get people to start talking. Always remember that you are not doing something for women, but with women. Therefore, helping towards women’s’ rights means that you give them the right to knowledge so that they can defend their own civil liberties.

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