Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani
The “One Million Signature Campaign”: Face- to- face, Street- to- street
Translated by: Shole Irani
Thursday 29 March 2007
In this article, I would like to briefly review the activities surrounding the One Million Signature Campaign, a number of reasons why it was chosen as the current strategy, and the way it relates to the ongoing women’s movement in Iran. In the process, a number of issues such as the need to recreate public spaces, importance of various forms of street action, centrality of young woman activists, and some of the qualitative achievements of the campaign are explored. I hope that it will generate discussion which would certainly help us enrich our understanding of the strategies and means to advance the Iranian women’s struggle for justice and equality.
Women’s collective identity, unlike other social groups, does not emerge from any particular “place”. Whereas universities provide collective identity to students, factories and mines help the emergence of workers’ identities, and localities are influential in shaping the awareness of local activists, women (in the most general sense) do not enjoy any natural social space for interaction and dialogue. It is therefore understandable that women need the development of their own civic associations and organizations more than other social groups.
In fact, place is one of the most important factors that shape the identity of different social groups, one that women hardly enjoy. Consequently, women have to constantly create and reclaim their public spaces. Perhaps, it is for this reason that during the past one hundred years, Iranian women, probably more than other social groups, have attempted to create various collective institutions such as associations, circles, gatherings, and dowrehs (whether in traditional or modern forms).
However, such created civic organizations - especially the modern feminine ones- need “spaces” for movement and expression of their demands. Otherwise they cannot survive or develop, i.e. cannot bring women out of their island-like social presence and encourage their participation in modern women’s associations and social activities. It is urban spaces such as streets, neighborhoods, and other public spaces that modern civic institutions depend on for their survival and growth.
Traditional women’s gatherings, such as parties, dowreh, family gatherings, and the like are in a sense a continuation of domestic spaces and as such they lack social dynamism and impact. On the other hand, modern women’s organizations depend on engaging and participating in spaces and relations that have helped them emerge in the first place. Otherwise, they risk becoming socially irrelevant or paralyzed.
Sharing the urban space
Many women (for numerous reasons and obstacles) are unable to filter out “our” message from the flood of patriarchal propaganda. It is, therefore, up to “us” to seek them out in various urban spaces, whether streets or other public spaces. It seems that the time has passed when “the author of the message” commanded singular authority and it is now the receivers, the audiences, who have the first word.
Both in the real and the virtual (cyber) worlds, it is the audience who hold the true power in leading the direction of the debates, by the virtue of choosing to ignore or listen to a message. As such, “message providers” now have to search in all corners of the city for their intended audience. The audience no longer comes after the messengers, since there are too many messages and messengers out there (incidentally, it is clearly more challenging to establish social relations in the real world as opposed to forming networks online).
Thus, it is appropriate to “reclaim” our share of the public space by adopting a street strategy. Contrary to what some have claimed, the street strategy is not a revolutionary means. Rather, it is a peaceful direct approach to interact with various women’s groups, who have no other spaces of their own than certain public spaces, and it is a suitable method for the contemporary circumstances of our society.
Street Strategy: different modes of emergence
Street strategy, which is a peaceful and gradual process to change cultural values and to make urban space more effective, materializes in various forms. For example, while the June 2nd public rally was a direct form of street action (e.g. demonstration against discriminatory laws), it was continued through the One Million Signatures Campaign, again against such laws. This affords us the opportunity for face to face interactions with people on the streets, on the buses, the Metro, their work places, sports arenas, religious ceremonies, beauty salons, and finally their homes, to collect their signatures.
Street action can also take the form of “street theaters” that can take place in city parks or crowded neighborhoods. As an effective type of street action, such plays are in fact among the more reliable and attractive tools for presenting women’s challenges in their daily lives in a simple and popular language and on a more public scale.
This Campaign situates itself in different public spaces of the city in order to effectively utilize urban space and to make the traditionally masculine public domain more feminine. It is our hope that within the context of a particular objective (i.e. educating and collecting signatures), women would be able to link the problems and pains of their private lives to public spaces. In the process, women can recreate micro-public spaces for themselves and other citizens, dynamic spaces that cannot be retaken from them easily. It is through the creation of such spaces in avenues, streets, housing complexes and others that women can develop short-term communication bridges among themselves. Such bridges can appear everywhere in the city like sparks. Although they “melt into the air” as rapidly as they are created, nevertheless, they will gradually break down the stiff and masculine authority in public spaces.
The fifth generation of feminism in Iran
I have often wondered how women in my generation (now in our mid-life) who have devoted the past decade of our lives to writing, translating, speaking at public arenas, organizing conferences, and raising public awareness, as well as those women who devoted themselves to eight years of attending or sending representatives to the parliament (during the Reform period) have achieved so little. During this time, we have witnessed, with worried eyes, the demise of numerous female journalists, the rise of despair among women, and the pacification of numerous groups of young female activists. As a result, it is necessary that we go beyond just reporting the injustices and crimes, and begin taking action. For the simple reason that just reporting the extent of destitution and violence against women, writing repetitively on self-burning, drug addiction and running away by desperate women, cannot - by itself - bring about the changes demanded by women’s movement in Iran.
Fortunately, it seems that the new generation of women activists, the fifth generation of Iranian feminists, is not content with such a cycle of despair as their destiny. This new generation is dedicated to deploy creative and innovative forms of street actions in order to change the cruel and discriminatory laws that in fact support unequal treatment, domestic violence, honor killing, sexual abuse within the family, suicide and self-burning, compulsory submission (tamkeen), and hundreds other forms of abuse and tragedy. In their search for justice and equality, the new generation has adopted attractive and new forms of struggle and is trying to test and temper their ideals within the context of everyday realities and social action. They want to relate to their compatriots in a direct and face-to-face manner and consolidate their brave presence in the urban space through various forms of street action.
The auspicious hand of advocates of equal rights
“Street strategy” as a creative and independent form of action is now in the hands of the advocates of equal rights. In recent years, this peaceful approach has had numerous positive outcomes (at least for the advocates themselves). For example, the activists have been able to test theoretical analyses within the context of everyday life challenges. They have been able to stand on their own feet and to test their powers and their threshold of tolerance (in the face of pressure). They have gradually learned the appropriate forms of engaging or confronting the law enforcement apparatus. Furthermore, the activists have succeeded in creating some degree of sensitivity throughout the nation about discrimination against women in all aspects of life. And in the process, they have both educated and learned from such experiences. As a result, a refreshingly new spirit has emerged that has helped the blossoming of new strands of thought within the women’s movement. This spirit has also assisted the consolidation of women’s struggles as an “independent movement”, has helped the activists to better appreciate the real worth of friendship and comradery, and finally to a better understanding of more developed forms of street strategy or bottom-up democracy.
The ultimate manifestation of such creativity and maturity is evident in the collective and united action of women and men in the Campaign to Collect One Million Signatures to Change Discriminatory Laws. A massive and united movement of this scale (which has mainly been initiated by the younger generation of women activist), will no doubt, generate valuable lessons not only for the activists themselves, but also for observers of social movements. It is digesting such struggles that help the formation of new theories of social change.
Our hearts tell us that this approach will prevail.
To provide the genealogy of our method in the “One Million Signature Campaign,” (that is seeking face-to-face interactions in various public spaces,) it is important to recall that this method is inspired by the words of the brave poetess and campaigner for women’s equal rights, Zarrin Taj (Tahereh Qorat ul Ein*) , who wrote the following couplet more than 160 years ago:
If I see Thou, my beloved
I will explain your pain
But to see thy face,
I have become the wandering breeze
Going house-to-house, door-to-door,
Alley-to-alley, and street-to-street
* - Qorat ol-Ein (known as Zarin Taj, Fatemeh and Tahereh) was born in 1812. She was an erudite poet, philosopher and lecturer. Many of her writings have survived, including a notebook of 475 poems. She was executed by the order of Nassereddin Shah (Qajar). She was the leader of religious reformist movement in her time. She presented equal rights for women in Iran for the first time.