Interview with Simin Behbahani by Mansoureh Shojaee
"The Million Signature Campaign is an Ultimatum"
Sunday 17 December 2006
Simin Behbahani is Iran’s greatest living woman poet and an outspoken supporter of women’s rights. Her mother, Fakhr ol-Ozma Arghun, was an active member of the Iranian women’s movement in the 1920s and 1930s. She was one of the founders of the Patriotic Women’s Association (Jamiyat-e Nesvan-e Vatankhah) and chief editor of the newspaper, Ayandey-e Iran (Future of Iran).
During World War II, at the age of 14, Ms. Behbahani composed a poem addressed to the Iranian people, which opened with the line, Ay Mellat Faghir! [This impoverished nation!].
A longtime and active member of the Iranian Writers’ Association, she delivered a famous speech to the Association in 1980, protesting the first draft of the post-revolutionary Constitution and rollbacks on women’ civil and penal rights, which was later published in Jomhuri Magazine.
In recent years, Ms. Behbahani has been an unwavering presence in women’s public and street gatherings. During the interview, she spoke animatedly about her efforts to support social reform and her views about the Million Signatures Campaign to Change Discriminatory Laws Against Women
Q: Ms. Behbahani, you were one of the first supporters of this campaign. How do you see this movement?
A: To me, this campaign is an ultimatum to those people who question women’s social actions to achieve legal equality. This action will prove that the struggle for women’s equality is peaceful, uncompromising, and broad-based. This campaign is a way to show that we are not alone, and that many people around the country support this just cause.
This campaign has its roots in the 7th Tir Square women’s gathering for women’s legal equality. At the same time, this renewed and broadened effort to eliminate discrimination moves beyond the 7th Tir Square fallout and the violence that was perpetrated on the participants.
Q: The police physically attacked the 7th Tir Square gathering on June 12 and arrested some 70 people. How do you view those events?
A: I was in Canada when it happened. I heard that the peaceful gathering had been attacked and that people had been beaten and taken into custody. There were even reports that I had also been beaten, as if I’m supposed to get beaten in every gathering! [Along with numerous other participants, Ms. Behbahani was attacked by the police in an earlier women’s gathering on March 8 International Women’s Day.] I wish I had been there so that I could be with you all.
These women were fighting for their rights and did not deserve to get beaten. They will continue until they secure their full rights. We, women will get our rights, no matter what.
Q: At the time, some people condemned the organizers because of the violence, when in fact our actions and demands were about the elimination of violence. What do you make of these accusations?
A: I have been to most of your gatherings. I have witnessed women coming together in peace. They have never insulted anyone. They have stated their demands with the utmost respect and calm. It is the men sitting silently when their mothers, daughters, and sisters are met with violence and foul language who should feel shame.
But these women have not remained silent, and have continued to pursue their legal and human demands through peaceful means, such as this campaign.
As for those who accuse us of leading people to violence, they have clearly never attended these gatherings. Otherwise, they would never make such accusations.
Q: The main purpose of the Million Signature Campaign is to connect with a larger social base, increase awareness through rights education, and collect signatures. Which one do you see as more important?
A: The most important of the three is to collect signatures because public consensus on this issue will be emphasized and highlighted.
Q: Members of this campaign stress the face-to-face approach to broaden communication with local communities. The campaign aims to do more than set up a website and ask people to click on the link.
A: On the other hand, the internet is important and other websites should be used extensively. If the main objective is to show solidarity with the people, then the internet is rapid and far-reaching. It has the potential to reach a million people at a much faster pace.
Q: The internet is one of the tools we are using and people can visit www.we-change.org to show their support and submit their signatures. But the main objective is to collect signatures on the paper petition forms. This will be especially important as we travel to smaller cities and in the future, more geographically remote places.
A: I can foresee a woman living in a remote village, having learned about this campaign, to ask friends and relatives to sign for her on the internet. During the signature campaign to protest the Sivand Dam project, many people who had no access to the internet signed on. They asked others with internet access to sign their names because this was an important issue for them.
Q: How hopeful are you that this campaign and social mobilization effort will succeed in reaching people?
A: Seeing these women, especially the younger ones, I am sure that they will succeed in collecting the necessary signatures. Women, who take it upon themselves to defend the rights of other women, will no doubt succeed. It will take time, but it’s important not to lose hope and to support each other.
Q: What do you say to those who think that such campaigns are of no use?
A: You do what you can, and don’t worry about what you can’t control. I’m sorry to see so much hopelessness in our society. I personally fall prey to feelings of hopelessness as well. But we should continue working - whether it is through the pen or through social action. I’m very hopeful for the One Million Signature Campaign. We have witnessed change in women’s status over the past century of women’s struggles. These changes are a result of women’s public demands and struggles for equal rights. No effort is without its impact.
Q: Would you like to say anything to members of the campaign?
A: Tell the younger ones, especially, to be generous and kind. When they approach people, they should be patient and open. Women are mothers, sisters, wives, lovers, and friends, and they must continue the long struggle with solicitude and kindness. I congratulate and thank them for their efforts and continue to stand beside them.
A: We also thank you for your support. Your presence is a source of warmth, hope, and pride.