Iranian Women’s Fight for Equality

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Parvin Ardalan is a leading woman’s rights activist, writer and journalist from Iran. She was awarded the Olof Palme Prize in 2007 for her struggle for equal rights for men and women, but was denied to leave the country. One and a half year later she was finally able to go to Sweden to receive the prize. On the 6th of October she attended a conference about international solidarity within the feminist movement in Stockholm. This is the speech she held:

It’s my pleasure to be here to explain about what women activists in Iran are doing and to share our experiences in this way. Of course we learn from each other, for instances in the One million Signatures Campaign we learned from our sisters in Morocco. And then our siteres in Afghanistan learned from us, and so this process it continues. I would like to start to talk about some methods used by women activists in Iran: Horizontal working, decentralization of power, and consciousness rising.

Horizontal working:
In societies like Iran the hierarchical way of working and dividing responsibilities is not limited to political and governmental institutions.
This character has a fundamental impact even on personal relationships and sometimes even grassroots organizations that intend to work differently.

Therefore, we in different women’s groups and organizations should frequently put our behaviors, thinking and practices to the test.
For example in our different activities among women activists in Iran we observed how many of us were practicing what we were challenging. We took advantage of the different advantages we had.
For instance one used her age and experiences, another used her education level, a third one used her urban and middle class position and so on. That is why we needed to develop workshops and group discussions in order to discuss these issues constantly.

Decentralisation of power:
By avoiding accumulating (put together) all the information, important connections, experiences to one or few people, we had two intentions:
1.We help each other to grow and gain new skills
2. We will also reduce our weakness, because when everything is dependent on one or a few people, everything will also disappear suddenly when that person disappear for any reason, especially in our unsecure society.

That is why overlapping of experiences and decentralization of power always come together. By advocating for shared responsibilities we try to overlap our resources, knowledge and experiences.

Consciousness rising:
Face to face meeting with women and men from different groups. A special kind of Street theaters to see how people interact.
These methods show how we not only challenge the legal system, but also how we confront people and their cultural patriarchal values on a daily basis.

These three characteristics; challenging the hierarchical way of working, meeting people face to face, and consciousness raising forced us not only to demand equal treatment from the law or government, but also the fact that we had to try to put them in practice ourselves.

And in this case with documentation/writing/interviewing. In doing so we try to highlight women activities and not let those experiences and actions get lost and become invisible as they always do.

Law or the legal system:
Those were the methods used by women activists…now I would like to talk about one of the issues that women activists dealt with; the law or the legal system and how we use these methods.

Some of the injust laws that women rights activist dealt with are:

Family law: like divorce, marriage, inheritance, number of the partners.

Criminal law: like criminal age of criminal responsibility law hejab , Diyeh - Blood Money- Laws that support honor killings

Civil law : Citizenship Marriage - In our country, Iran, according to the existing Law, is to satisfy the "condition of the father’s consent".

Divorce: According to the law, divorce is the exclusive right of a man, and a man can divorce his wife whenever he pleases.

Number of partners: Among other cases of inequality in the present marriage law is the discussion of the number of partners. That is, multiple wives for men; in such a way that a man can have 4 aghdi (permanently married) wives and infinite sighehi (temporarily married) wives.

Age of criminal responsibility: The age of criminal responsibility for girls is 9 lunar years (8 years and nine months) and for boys is 15 lunar years (14 years and 6 months). Thus if a 9-year-old girl committed a crime, she will be treated just as an adult would be treated with all the penal laws (even execution) applicable to her.

Citizenship: Citizenship is an important legal issue. According to the law of Iran, the citizenship of a woman does not transfer to her child.

Diyeh - Blood Money: In Iranian law a woman’s life is considered to be worth half that of a man. For example, if a brother and sister are hit by a car on the street, and both have both legs broken, the compensation that the brother receives, is double that of his sister.

Inheritance: According to civil law, after the death of the father and mother, sons receive 2 times as much in inheritance as daughters.

Laws that support honor killings: Among the discriminatory laws, one can note the law that gives a man permission to kill his wife whenever he sees her in bed with another man and the law will not punish this man. This law has allowed men to kill women.

Bearing Witness: There are some crimes women can not testify to, these include sodomy, homosexuality, and prostitution.

Other Discriminatory Laws: There are many other discriminatory laws in Iran’s legal system. In our constitution a woman is only recognised as a citizen once she is a mother (married), therefore she has no standing as an independent person in any law derived from our constitution.

1. The condition "Rajal-e siyaasi" - which has been interpreted as "man of politics" to date - appears in the conditions for becoming President. This means that a woman cannot become the country’s president.

2. Compulsory prescribed dress for women, regardless of their creed or beliefs. For example, Christian women whose religion does not require them to wear hijab will be punished for not wearing it. If they choose to dress in a way different to how authorities deem fit, they can be jailed or fined.

3. Social Security laws. Even though women pay the same amount of money for insurance as men do, their children can not benefit from their retirement pension or health insurance. This means that a mother can not provide any sort of comfort for her children after her death.

4. Stoning is the frightening punishment prescribed by our law for people who commit adultery. This punishment is usually only performed on women, because according to the law, a man can have an infinite number of temporary marriages (sigheh) and therefore can claim that the woman who he had a relationship with (provided she was single) was his temporary wife.

So what do we do in with these legal system?
Different women organisations have dealt with the legal system in different ways during different time periods:

1. One type of the Governmental organisations put their effort only on educating women of the content of the law/ without any intention to criticise or attempt to change the laws. For instance they never criticise violence against women / or so called ’domestic violence’ and of course do not care about the extended public violence that women face everyday on the streets. Most of these groups are groups who will follow the law and are governmental organisation rather than being non-governmental. These groups are decreasing.

2.The second strategy that we started to use for almost the 2 end decade after revolution was based on educating and informing women on the content of the law in order to help each and every woman to develop individual backup plans. For instance lawyers like Shirin Ebadi, Mehrang Kar and others wrote many books about these issues. The purpose was for example to tell women "if the marriage is a contract you should enter to this contract with open eyes and be aware of the rights, obligatiosn and limitations that you will have". We were advised to add some points to the existing contract in order to disarm them. For example if I wanted to get marry I add some points in regards to my right to work outside of home, or equal right at the time of divorce or custody of children in the contract.

3.The third strategy that started by one million signature was to ask for the change of the laws…so you see we move from individual tactics to ask for change in the very legal system to pleural tactics.
So to rap up this part and tie it to other feminist methods around the world our activities contain three components/ characteristics:

A. to aim to prevent or support those who were victims of the law (for instance single poor mothers who didn’t have any financial or social support) support and prevent
B. to inform and educate
C. To resist and change the dominant structures

Now I want talk about the current movement and its link to women movement - In my point of view, women movement, students’ movement, ethnics and workers movement were those who opened the way for this movement. For people who have not followed what happening in Iran, this movement came from nowhere came or as our autrity but for us this is a result of what we have working on in years. Not that I was not positively surprised but I didn’t see that as a wonder.

The other issue that is raised is the presence or lack of presence of women and women issues in regards to current movement. First of all as many of you have already seen in many you tube clips women have not only participated widely in the demonstration they also had a leading roles. The mourning mothers, the women who actively try to prevent violence and women who brought new and secular slogans into demonstration are just few examples.

One important issue regarding the physical presence of women in the demonstrations is that even in 1979 revolution women participated actively in the revolution and demonstration. But the big difference here is not only that now we had gender mixed demonstration (in contrast to 1979 that women and men were separated) but also this time we didn’t only have women’s bodies out there, women were out there with gender analysis and specific demands.

And this once again is a result of what women have done in the last 30 years. Iranian women were not only the first victim of the Islamic revolution, they were also the first struggler.

Aytollah Khomini issued a fatwa for compulsory veil two weeks after he returned to Iran. Women were the one who had the first demonstration against Aytollah Khomenins Fatwa. That is what I consider women not only the first victim of the Islamic revolution but also the first one who resist and struggle.

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