In the name of the Coalition instead of the Campaign*
By: Parvin Ardalan
Saturday 22 August 2009
Translated by: Parastou H.
A month has passed since a coalition of some activists and groups involved in the women’s movement have started working under the heading “the Coalition of the women around the elections.” What compels me to write about this is not to express my critique of, or views on the Coalition, nor to write about my reasons for not participating in it. This is something I will write about elsewhere. Rather, I write to clarify the relationship of the Campaign with this Coalition, regardless of whether I agree or disagree with it.
As an activist involved in the One Million Signatures Campaign, what is questionable and unclear to me is the nature of the relationship between the Campaign and the perspective of the coordinators and organizers of this Coalition on this. Those extending an invitation to this Coalition have attempted, whether purposefully or not, to portray the Campaign as being in line with the Coalition, or as the next stage or transition of the Campaign to a Coalition, or as an organization or group within the Coalition. I draw the attention of those interested to a few such indicators.
The Campaign in the Coalition
In the first press conference of the Coalition, Ms. Parvin Bakhtiarnejad, who reported on the conference for the on-line publication Roozonline writes: “Ms. Farzaneh Taheri, representing the One Million Signatures Campaign, announced that ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is one of the women’s movements primary demands.”
Question: is the Campaign an organization or group that it would elect a representative?
Ms. Maryam Mohammadi, a reporter for Radio Zamaneh in an interview with Shahla Lahiji asks her: “Ms. Lahiji, among the foundations and organizations that have signed onto the statement, the One Million Signature Campaign in Qom is present, but the Campaign as a whole is not. Does this mean that the One Million Signatures Campaign as a collective entity does not endorse this statement?” And Ms. Lahiji says in response: “No, the members of the Campaign in Tehran were all present. It could just be that their names were omitted. But all of its members were present. Most likely, their names will appear later.”
This raises the question: Are all the members of the Campaign limited to the ones who are in the Coalition? Is this the view of a real group or a real person?
The saga continues. In an interview with Radio Farda, in response to a question by Ms. Shafigh, Minoo Mortazi says: “To limit the women’s movement to the Campaign or to limit the movement’s demands to a single one is to minimize the women’s movement. Further, the leaders of the Campaign have signed the statement and the least and greatest of their demands is the elimination of all forms of discrimination….”
Again the question is: Do the first individuals to sign the statement, or to use Ms. Mortazi’s expression, the leaders of the Campaign, have the right to impose their own views on or set the agenda for the whole of the Campaign? Is the Campaign a political movement such that the views of its leaders, even concerning another Coalition with goals different than those of the Campaign, would prevail?
And, comparing the two movements – the Campaign and the Coalition - and reducing the Campaign to “a demand of the women’s movement,” without taking into consideration the relationship of the two movements, the characteristics of the demands, or the manner of attaining them, is a political simplification of the sort that would consider the greatest or most exacting demands to be the most important or most political.
Most interesting are the opinions of Mansoureh Shojaee with respect to the organizers of this Coalition. In an interview with the program “Today’s Woman/VOA,” by referring to the gathering in 1384 before the University of Tehran and in the environment of the elections, but skipping over 22 Khordad 1385, reaches the conclusion that the product of those gatherings and the election platform was the birth of the One Million Signatures Campaign and the product of the Campaign has been learning civil activism and how to place one’s demands, through popular channels, before the law makers.
With this introduction, she continues: “the Campaign prepared the women’s movement to gain experience in relation to their demands. With the opportunity presented by the elections, some women’s groups started to think that in light of the pressures that have been on the Campaign over the past 4 years, considering the arrests and other pressures, we now have to come up with a new movement and a new tactic, we now have to put forth our demands with a new tactic and new awareness. We did not enter the elections to ultimately stand behind Karoobi or Moussavi. We took advantage of this space to present our demands – a space in which all societal forces are sensitive, and when sensitivity has been raised, people grasp the message. When all of our members are under pressure, we have to find new ways to discuss our demands.”
This the question: As she suggests, do we have to accept that the Coalition is the continuation of the One Million Signatures Campaign? Do we have to thank the Coalition that for the sake of those “under pressure” they present the demands to the candidates and probably as “representatives” of the Campaign?
The Campaign is not a group or party or faction or organization
The One Million Signatures Campaign to change discriminatory laws, as its name suggests, is a movement seeking a space to express demands for specific legal rights and to bring changes to the laws through the collection of signatures and through face-to-face interaction. The initial signers, of whom I was one, were 54 individuals with different political, ideological and intellectual leanings, and not a party or faction or…..They were only the initiators and founders of this movement and not its owners or guardians. Perhaps foreseeing the horizontal expansion of this effort – in a patriarchal society where all facets of society are controlled - and under conditions where the lifespan of a newspaper from publication to suspension does not reach a day - was not simple. And neither the women’s rights activists nor the intelligence agents expected it to continue. But it continued and carried on in its path.
But the effort to reduce the Campaign to a movement or to create a representational or decision-making structure for it has continually been expressed in various ways by some of the activists in the Campaign. When the Campaign received the Simone de Beauvoir Prize, we did not know who to send to accept it and we didn’t know what decision to make regarding whether or not to accept the monetary prize that came with it. The question came up that in principle, what should be done with regards to decision-making within the Campaign. Just to receive a prize, we needed to create a decision-making structure! What a golden opportunity for institution building in the Campaign!
Although going towards specific forms and structures could have made activism within the Campaign easier, but to the same extent it could have limited this horizontal and expandable network. And this is what happened in some instances. Some of the Campaigns in various countries and cities formed around the goals of the Campaign, but rather than to preserve the identity of a movement or campaign, they created a more structural and organizational identity, without actually having an organization in the first place. A prominent example is the participation of some in the Coalition by the name of the One Million Signatures Campaign in cities and countries such as Qom and Isfahan, Norway, Italy and Austria. In contrast, we have seen that not for opposition with the Coalition, but for structural reasons, some of the Campaigners did not incorporate the term Campaign in their work with the Coalition. Or in other instances we see that some of the Campaign activists in Isfahan have organized under the name “Group for Change for Equality in Isfahan” so that under the rubric of “Group” they are both members of the Coalition and they can issue statements on International Worker’s Day for those campaign members that have been arrested. While up until now, each statement that has been issued in defense of arrested Campaign members or addressing other issues has been issued and signed by individuals. Who ever is in agreement signs and whoever is not does not sign. And some have not announced any ownership.
Here the discussion is not about the presence or absence of Campaign members in the Coalition. Our discussion is about the results of the mixing of the identify of the Campaign and other activities that in the end will result in making vulnerable a movement whose increase in power is not beholden to its institutionalization or the increase in its campaigns, but only in spreading the quest for equality in all corners of this land in different forms. This very spreading of activist structures and its variation in an extensive network with different leanings and ideologies is the secret to the longevity of this action. Of course the Campaign can create many more groups, but the groups active in the Campaign are the ones whose activities center on achieving the Campaign’s aims. At the moment, for example, amongst the Campaign members in Tehran, we have a range of ideas and perspectives, including members who are boycotting the elections, members who are actively involved in the elections, and members who are involved in the Coalition But, can we, in the name of the Campaign adopt a policy in respect to the elections? Can we boycott the elections or endorse this or that candidate? Can we inject the Campaign into the elections?
Now, more than before, is creating a group out of the Campaign, going to attract the attention of the Intelligence Ministry—an accusation launched against some Campaign members [that they are members of an illegal organization]. At present interrogators are reluctant to claim outright that they have problems with the demands of the Campaign or its peaceful approach. Due to the continued activism of the Campaigners, even interrogators themselves cannot deny that the laws are discriminatory. The arrest of at least 60 Campaign members has provided Campaign activists an opportunity to engage in face-to-face interaction with Campaign members, and it has had its effect. So now they have to find another instrument for repression. Now those newly accused in the Campaign are required to name groups and organizations in their interrogations and have to be subject to intense interrogations intended for the intelligence ministry to document and build evidence to support the claim that the Campaign is tied to a political group or an organization, rather than a headless network of individuals. In this way, Campaign members can be charged under Articles 498 and 499 of the Islamic Penal Code. The charge of membership in an illegal organization can work as an ax, with which the roots of this grassroots movement are striked.
The Coalition is not the same as the Campaign or its continuation
A million signatures were to be collected, presented to the parliament and then the next phase of the Campaign was to begin. However, the closing of public spaces and the increase in arrests slowed the pace of signature collection and made it harder, but did not put a stop to it. If in one city the activity of the activists slows down, in another city it starts. If one activist buckles under pressure, another rises in another place. If achieving the one million figure seemed easy, but now seems difficult, the gradual transformation of our movement from being seen as confrontational to equality seeking is now felt. If at first we were preoccupied with establishing the priorities of the Campaign, determining our actions plans and then presenting demands to the Parliament. In the course of our actions we found that prioritizing will result in the achievement of goals only if our path is straight forward, top-down and non-participatory, but in a movement which is horizontal and fluid and where the number of actors and the nature of their activism differs from day to day, a different approach is necessary.
It is thus that in the process of collecting signatures, with the intensification of arrests, it became incumbent upon us to learn of the rights of citizens and the accused, or that when conducting educational legal workshops within the Campaign, it became necessary to address the issue of violence and its impact on the home and family compelling us to form workshops on violence; or in the face of the lack of public spaces, the need arose to expand street art as part of the “face-to-face” movement, so performances of extemporaneous street theater took form around legal topics; when we took up the study of certain laws or the impact of certain laws on society, we found it appropriate to create working groups on various topics in which we could carry out more encompassing work around the demands of the Campaign; or we created signature collection groups.
Some of the Campaign members have also become active in the Coalition, but does this mean that the Campaign is in the Coalition? The names of some of the founders of the Campaign are in the Coalition but does this mean that wherever they may be found, the Campaign can be found as well? How can a bottom-up movement that addresses the people and puts pressure on the lawmakers be likened to a top-down movement that addresses the candidates? How can we disregard feminist ethics by disregarding those Campaign members some of whom are in jail and not present to oversee things, and use the name of the Campaign to work for the Coalition?
At the same time, if the Coalition is a coalition to present the demands of some women’s rights activists to the presidential candidates, naturally, then it will end soon, whereas the action of the Campaign will continue within society. Let’s not even address the fact that candidates, in an effort to compete over women’s votes, announce programs within their platforms that are more progressive than the demands of this Coalition.
Maybe the plan is in this quick two month time-frame leading to the elections to perform last rites for the Campaign and some are working hard to use the name and accomplishments of the Campaign for personal credit and to write history. But the Campaign depends on its activists and those who sign the petition. If I, as one of the Campaign’s activists, decide one day that I do not wish to continue my activities, I can just announce that I am no longer in the Campaign. I can leave it, as many who have left and many who have come. Or if I think this movement has reached a dead-end, I can state my reasons and criticisms. But I cannot tie the Campaign’s continued existence to my own activities, and say “now this is what we have decided for the Campaign.” What bearing does forming a coalition for the purpose of taking advantage of the elections have to do with continuing the Campaign that friends are knowingly becoming a spokesperson for it?
Just as I indicated above, what one of the members of this coalition said in the program “Today’s Woman on VOA,” raised this question for me more than anything else: why is it that the activists of the Coalition haven’t transparently stated their goals? Why didn’t those who circulated the statement for the Coalition state clearly that “we intend to change the path of the campaign as a new tactic?” Why is it that in the first statement of the Coalition, some of the authors, who also comprised some of the founding members of the Campaign, such intentions were not addressed, so that those involved in the Campaign would know that such a plan is afoot?
I ask us and you: isn’t it more becoming to end the play on words and games of playing innocent? Isn’t it better to speak transparently, rather than to try to force our own agenda on others? Perhaps one of the complications and humiliations of our lives in these times and in this society has been this atmosphere of trickery and culture of “taqiyeh” [deceptions] which strives to create from us people with multiple personalities, even though our attempts to stand up to it have not been weak.
At a time when being an opportunist is viewed as logical, the peaceful, continuous and idealist activism of various movements, as well as the participatory and critical nature of these social movements works steadfastly to resist opportunism and calls for accountability. Even the power-play and fight for power of various factions within the government and ruling elite, is being faced with demands of accountability, transparency and ethics.
The concepts of transparency and ethics in collective actions, requires those who identify themselves as pragmatists, to act in-line with the values of their society, if not ahead of those values. Lack of transparency with the intent of utilizing the opportunities of the elections, lack of clarity in demands and expression of statements with multiple meanings and implications, is in fact the continuation of the same political and security games of the existing power structure. Unfortunately these games today have presented themselves as part of the demands of some of those involved in the women’s movement.
*Note: This article was written prior to the June 12th presidential elections.