WWHR’s Interview with Sussan Tahmasebi of the One Million Signatures Campaign
WHAT IS IN A SIGNATURE?
Sunday 24 May 2009
WHAT IS IN A SIGNATURE?
Interview with Sussan Tahmasebi of the “One Million Signatures Campaign” seeking to change the discriminatory laws in Iran.
Depends, of course, on the text you are about to sign and the laws you are subject to. It may mean the payment of your utility bill or your freedom to work, to travel; well it could be your life you are signing away. Let’s say you are an Iranian woman signing your marriage contract. It means once you get married, you will become a second class citizen, who does not have the right to work without her husband’s consent, who can not have legal guardianship of her child, nor the right to divorce. In Iran, the country with the highest rate of literacy in the region, where 65% of university students are women, where women are present in all aspects of life, there is a paradox between women′s status socially and women′s status in the law, says Sussan Tahmasebi, a founding member of the One Million Signatures Campaign.
In 2005 women of Iran staged a successful protest in front of the Tehran University demanding equal rights. The day was declared Day of Solidarity for Iranian Women. On its anniversary they tried to hold another peaceful demonstration but were dispersed by security forces, 70 people were arrested. Women decided to change course and a few months later launched the One Million Signature Campaign that aims to bring the laws in line with international human rights standards. Today, in Iran women can join the movement for equality by signing the petition and claim their right to life; there sure is a lot in a signature.
Sussan explains that the Iranian law is based on Sharia that has progressive jurisprudence, yet is very conservative when it comes to women′s rights. "When we talk to young women, we see that a lot of them can′t believe that their legal rights are so limited.” That is until they come in contact with the law…
The famous One Million Signature Campaign that was started on 27 August 2006 is not only working to change discriminatory laws but is also writing herstory as women of Iran come together and share their realities. Campaign activists who go through a workshop getting background on the law, also learn how to engage in discussion with the public, how to invite them to take action. Basic tools of the campaign are the website, which has been filtered 20 times, and the little pamphlets that explain why the laws need to be changed. Campaign is not given media coverage and campaigners don’t have access to tools like public conferences or meetings. Face to face approach of the campaign is not only a vital method but also its very essence. Sussan explains, "You don′t have a specific target group, you go and engage whoever is out there. It′s very exciting in that sense. Iranian women′s rights activists always talked about having a public presence. And the campaign is the first and the only major effort where it′s point of impact is the public sphere."
“I have been waiting for you!”
The campaign that was started with 54 people on a street is continuing in busses, metros, shopping malls, homes, streets and mountain tops in 15 different provinces of Iran. Sussan says “We’ve trained 1.000 people that we know of, actually more, because there are a lot of people active that we don’t even know about. People started organizing on the internet to go for group signature collection drives, going to different parts of the city. In the mountains north of Tehran they collected 600 signatures in one day, which is a lot.” After a few visits to one site, campaigners start to be greeted by people who say “I have been looking, waiting for you!" They got signatures from colleagues of parliamentarians who were strictly opposed to the campaign. A woman in hicab signed the petition while her husband looked on and she told the campaigner “My husband can’t sign because he is a judge in charge of a case against your friends.” As Sussan says the campaign has supporters in the homes of the people who are trying to stop the campaign. “Even when you talk to the judges or when you are in detention being interrogated they say we agree. I think they just wish somebody else had done the campaign. I think everybody understands that our society has advanced so much that the laws just no longer correspond with the realities of our society. There is a lot of sympathy for our cause even from those you never expect.”
Sussan says they have been very lucky, "Everybody supported us, especially the students and workers′ movement as they also face gender issues. But there are a lot of red lines the civil society has to adhere to as well." Activists never expected that their Campaign would become a red line when they started the effort. "We thought we were taking a civil approach, that there wouldn′t be sensitivities because we were addressing the people and also the parliament. So we never expected such resistance and certainly didn′t expect to be arrested." The first campaigner got arrested on the metro. "It was the night before the elections when it is illegal to do any publicity. So we thought it was a misunderstanding, an individual case where perhaps our friend didn′t handle the situation well. Then there were 2 more arrests. They would come to our meetings in our homes and tell us to disperse, they would call people tell them not to have meetings in their homes. Then we realized this is serious, it’s a trend, a systematic security oriented approach towards us."
Women collecting signatures: A "national security threat" that transforms the state
Why would the state consider women collecting signatures for law change a security threat? Sussan thinks it′s partly because the women staged two major protests. "Another part is I think resistance to change. You see it everywhere, in every country where you want to advocate for change on behalf of women there is huge resistance, the whole system resists." Yet they have not been branded as illegal, or accused of talking against Islam. Sussan says, "10 years ago perhaps if you talked so openly about changing some of these laws the first thing they would say to you is that you are speaking against Islam. So I see this as a positive development."
Campaigners have also been receiving recognition from the judiciary. "In the acquittal of 2 campaign members last year, the judge ruled that collecting signatures in support of a petition to change the laws is similar to collecting signatures to support a petition to have your street paved with asphalt. For us that′s a huge victory. The process of taking a civic action, mobilizing people, taking your demands to the legislator is so new that people probably don′t know how to react to it. This is a learning process both for civil society and the government, to say that citizens have a right to express their demands collectively, and we have an obligation at least to hear those demands and respond to it.”
Campaign′s transformative impact on the law makers and the public is also evidenced in the recent rebuke of the so-called Family Support Act, which aimed to narrow the limitations on polygamy whereby consent of the wife would no longer be a precondition and the only requirements would be the man′s financial means and the court′s consent. Women′s groups from all sectors, including conservative ones, were opposed to making polygamy so easy and organized against this Act and went to the parliament. "It was a victory as the parliament stepped back on something they were vey keen on and went back to the law that sets a number of conditions that are not easy to meet," says Sussan.
"We are neither secular nor religious"
Sussan emphasizes that the campaign is not against Islam, that the issues at stake have been a subject of debate by religious scholars for many years. "We stress that you can provide positive interpretations and that progressive jurisprudence requires that you interpret Sharia law according to the needs of time and present society."
In the campaign there are both religious and secular women involved. "While secular women argue that human rights are universal, religious women bring in verses from the Quran that defend human rights. But we are neither secular nor religious. Our standards are the international human rights standards and we welcome progressive interpretations of religion." Sussan explains that there are a few very progressive religious scholars who have offered very progressive interpretations of Sharia law. "But we haven’t been as effective in connecting with them, each time we tried there have been obstacles too. We are not opposed to lobbying the government either but we don’t have a lot of access."
Taking the women′s rights discourse out of the closet
Sussan says that the most important achievement of the campaign has been to take the discourse of women’s rights out of the closet, making it a very loud one. "It has always been a sensitive issue. People were afraid to talk or write about it, it’s been behind closed doors, never a public discourse. The campaign really broke that. We are not the only ones advocating for women’s rights but with the emergence of the campaign everybody started talking about it. When this parliament was elected a lot of people said we need to address discriminatory laws against women. They haven′t done very much about it, but they recognized that this is a demand and it′s something that′s going to bring them votes."
Diyeh (blood money) is another realm in which Sussan says they have had an achievement, though a minor one. "Let′s say you and your brother were in a car accident; you both broke your leg, the price you’ve been paying for your insurance and the medical costs are the same, but the compensation you get will be half of what your brother gets." The law is not changed but insurance companies have been given a directive to pay equal compensation to men and women. Another issue that is finally being addressed is inheritance. "Recently there was legislation introduced that said women should be able to inherit land from their husbands. There was some objection to it so it′s going through a whole process. But since this is specifically stated in the Quran, it′s a big accomplishment to change that."
Backlashes robbing women of their mobility
Nevertheless, Sussan says they have also seen a lot of policies infringing upon women′s gains and accomplishments. "In Iran you always have the discourse of equity versus equality. Equity and justice differentiates between men and women, saying they have different roles, responsibilities and rights. In the last 4 years with the election of conservatives, our policies are very much geared towards equity as opposed to equality. First thing that happened with the election of Mr. Ahmadinejad was the change in the name of the Center for Women′s Participation to the Center for Women and Families, which means the adoption of policies that promote the role of women in the family. You define women′s rights based on her role within the family then it becomes very difficult to address issues that correspond with her roles outside the family."
Sussan stresses that if measures to support women do not go far enough then they end up working against women. "They adopted child-care polices for women with children to have a shorter work week, which is very good. In practice though this may mean that women won′t get hired; instead of giving time off employers prefer to hire men. How do you deal with sexual harassment for instance, if you are not defining policies based on women′s participation in social life or the work place? It becomes very problematic especially in a society like Iran where women really are present in social life and in the work force."
Sussan explains that other policy measures like morality police, social safety program that have been implemented in the last few years work to push women back into the homes. Educational quotas are one such example. In some areas of study, a 50-50 gender quota has been implemented for university entrance. Currently 65% of university students in Iran are women, which Sussan says is a fact everybody refers to when they talk of women′s progress in Iran. With this quota women who pass the rigorous entrance exam may not get accepted but a less qualified man will be admitted to University instead. Further limiting women′s access to quality education is a legislation introduced a few months ago which forces female students to go to universities in their hometown. A woman who scores very high in the exams is still supposed to go to a university in the provinces though the better universities are based in Tehran.
"The rate of education and participation of female students especially in universities that are not based in their hometowns was one of the significant accomplishments of the Islamic revolution. Families that would probably not even allow their daughters to go to university had trust in the system after the revolution, so they allowed their daughters to go to universities in other cities. It′s a huge and valuable experience for these young women to experience life apart from their family, because they may never have the opportunity to live an independent life again. The quota and the new legislation is robbing them of valuable life experiences and further eroding the accomplishments of women, restricting their mobility." The legislation is not yet passed; faced with strong protest from the students and women′s rights activists, an addition was made that says if women get permission from their husbands or fathers then they can go to universities outside their province.
"Morality vans" to combat enemies of state
Rising global conservatism coupled with the rhetoric of Iran being the "axis of evil" increased the pressure against civil society in Iran. "Attempts to punish our government brought a backlash against us, because now they could say you are doing what the other governments want you to do, you are endangering national security. The threat of war led to a very security oriented environment where it becomes very hard to object to anything. Also the increasing isolation of our government means that we too are isolated. When we suffer economically, our civil society suffers because a lot of our civil society is built on volunteer force and if you don′t have a job then you are not going to spend that extra time on volunteer work."
The discourse of morality used to violate women′s human rights is on the rise in Iran as well. Sussan says women were always seen as the gatekeepers of morality, but the pressure is increasing. "We have the reemergence of morality police. During the reform period we didn′t have the presence of morality police on the street, it started under the guise of the social safety program, the most visible aspect of which is the controlling of people′s cloths. Women’s clothes have to be Islamic, but what is the standard, what is inappropriate, what is too short? So it is based on the individual police, it′s arbitrary and it’s very constraining for women.” Sussan says even though she tends to dress covered, she doesn′t want to walk past a morality van. “It inflicts this fear in me of not knowing what′s going to happen once I walk out. It makes you wonder if you are breaking some sort of unspoken rule that someone has created, not a social rule of course." Despite these pressures Sussan says women and especially young women have maintained their presence on the street and in public spaces.
Campaigning behind bars
To date 47 campaign activists have been arrested and or detained. Sussan says there are periods when there is less and more pressure on the campaigners, for instance around March 8, June 12th and August 27th there is more pressure. The reasons for arrests vary from collection of signatures to hosting of meetings to writing on our website, but the charges are usually vaguely worded security charges, such as endangering national security or spreading propaganda against the state.
Against all odds the prisons have provided the activists both with new ground to spread the word and an experience of further training. Sussan explains how prisons have made things more tangible for the campaigners. "We learned from female inmates, many of whom are the true and most extreme victims of discriminatory laws. Like the women who were married off at an early age without their consent, couldn′t get divorced, were afraid to loose custody of the kids and resorted to crimes as a way of escaping their lives, some even have killed their husbands. The female inmates knew about the Campaign. They would say to imprisoned Campaign activists: you are the ones trying to change the laws, and they made it easier for our colleagues in prison." Activists worked to improve the prison conditions and also succeeded in securing the release of a couple of women on death row. "Now we are less afraid of going to prison. We know it′s hard but we know what to expect. Unfortunately this is the price we have to pay for the change, but for us it is a temporary situation, for the rest of the women in prison it′s not temporary, and for some prison may even be better than their previous life."
One of the international recognitions of the campaign has been the 2009 Simone de Beauvoir Award. "It′s a great honor. To be recognized for things that we think are important was a huge accomplishment: We don′t have one particular leader around whom this movement is built. This is a citizens′ effort where women engage with other women. There is a grassroots nature to our movement." The Award also had a monetary prize but the campaigners decided not to accept it. The campaign doesn′t accept funding from any organization or government. All the funding comes from membership dues or contributions of individuals who support them. "This is something we can be really proud of, everybody in the campaign works as a volunteer. Trust is very important when you engage in conversations with the public. They all ask who are you working for? Who set you up to do this? It′s very empowering to say we are working for ourselves and in something we believe in and we don′t get money from anybody. These booklets we give you we printed them ourselves and you can contribute too. Here are the effects of laws and our demands."
A campaign with no end
The campaign activists are moving towards coalition building across different ideologies. "It′s a difficult task. How do you put aside political beliefs and ideologies to work together on women′s issues?" The campaign has religious and conservative women, secular, political and nonpolitical women, "but we don′t have everyone," says Sussan. "It′s a huge first step but we have a long way to go. We got a lot of support from different groups but our way is unique. We struggled a lot on how to get our message out without being too political or fractional."
We could not learn how many signatures have been collected. "We are not telling yet, but we will announce the numbers soon. It will probably take many years to reach a million. Initially we thought it would take us 2-3 years then we′d present it to the parliament, we′d work with lawyers, help draft new legislation. If we had all sorts of resources and freedom and the press maybe then we could have done it. But really we go out and engage in a conversation and it takes 20 minutes to explain everything. So of course that face to face contact and that signature is very valuable." As Sussan says, changing people′s cultures and thinking is taking a long time.
Building on each other′s gains
The campaign has received a lot of solidarity from international women′s rights activists and groups. "Especially from Turkey because WWHR-New Ways always supported us, there were so many people signing the petition for International support or petitions in support of our imprisoned colleagues from Turkey; it was really interesting for me to see that they care about what′s going on in Iran. We really appreciate the solidarity and support we get especially from people in the region. Because you know our problems and we know yours, you know the dynamics of what it′s like to work in an Islamic, politically charged context in the Middle East and how important it is for us to build on each other′s gains. This is a shared experience of how we deal with common issues and problems. It was really heart warming to see that the women of Turkey supported us so much."
The campaigners welcome the solidarity and support first and foremost from women′s and also human rights groups and networks. Sussan says, "We are not an opposition group, so the wording of the support should not be political or inflammatory. Most people know this and have done a wonderful job, been sensitive and really helpful.” This experience has led to a new development within the movement. "This reemerging civil society and our international connections are very new. We got so much international support that we now realize we need to create a situation where we can provide support for our sisters in other countries as well. It′s difficult because we have a language barrier but this consciousness is emerging within. I think this is a huge development."