A campaign to change for equality, a model for unity
Translated by: Sholeh Shahrokhi
Thursday 28 December 2006
For the past 100 years, the Iranian women’s movement has made important contributions to Iran’s changing social landscape. From the publication of the first women’s journal in 1910, to the dissolution of the last independent women’s organization in 1932, Iranian women have made diverse social demands and laid the intellectual groundwork for later activists to build upon.
Today, the main objective of the women’s movement is to achieve legislative change through the promotion of a space of cooperation. Using approaches, which are inclusive and non-hierarchical, the movement can create new hopes toward lasting unity for social change. At the same time, although the will to unification is strong, collaboration has yet to be fully solidified. The rules and boundaries of collaborative work are unclear, and we are charting unfamiliar territory. Despite all this, we are certain of one thing: The Iranian women’s movement has not been disbanded.
A change from within the movement’s actors
The movement’s leadership is no longer under the exclusive control of a select few. Members of the movement have learned that they are equal partners and their efforts (or lack of) can be clearly observed in the highs and lows of women’s activism. As social and intellectual commitments strengthen, and the movement’s ethical and theoretical engagement attains more clarity, the old patterns of exclusivity and selectivity will completely give way to unity and collaboration toward common goals.
The emergence of the One Million Signature Campaign is a superior model for unity among women’s rights activists, because it allows for diverse approaches and differences of opinion. In the future, this model of collaboration, which emphasizes solidarity and consensus, may provide an alternative for other social groups such as university students or labor organizations.
The Campaign as an ideal model for unity
In 2005, women’s public protest against gendered discrimination in the Iranian Constitution before Tehran University opened a process of change within the movement. In the aftermath of Khatami’s presidential election in 1997, the growth of women’s social collaborations could be seen in the flourishing of women’s civil society organizations, the feminist-influenced publications and writings, the cinema and theater productions tackling women’s issues, and last but not least, the use of campaigns for rights advocacy and social mobilization.
The campaign to change for equality has recently entered the public discourse of women’s activism. The collection of One Million Signatures in opposition to discriminatory legislative measures against women will be presented to the Parliament with the demand to reform laws relating to inheritance, guardianship, age of criminal responsibility, marriage, and divorce, among many others. While the Campaign aims to illustrate the widespread opposition to legal discrimination and demand for comprehensive legal changes, it could also be argued that the decentralized nature of the action is directly linked to the fragmentation within the movement.
One main attribute of the Campaign lies in the absence of a central power to lead and define the activities. The contribution of every member - to collect signatures, raise awareness, inspire public discussion - is equally important and essential. By recognizing the significance of every effort –small or large- tensions within the movement are reduced, and spirits grow more exultant and hopeful.
Contributing factors to unity within the Campaign to Change for Equality
Social and intellectual support is the first important factor in joining together forces of change for equality. This factor affects the way the Campaign expands its volunteer base, many examples of which can be found in the smaller cities. For example, a person who begins as a simple signatory eventually concludes that s/he is capable of serving as a volunteer to collect signatures and hold discussions with neighbors, friends, family, and acquaintances. As the membership base grows, the Campaign benefits from this growing social and intellectual support and in turn, provides education and training to increase the capacity of activists. As they witness the direct affects of their efforts, Campaign members become encouraged to increase their participation.
The second important factor, which strengthens the Campaign’s unity, is the observation and respect for individual autonomy within the collective action. The individual finds tremendous power and freedom in the process of her activism within the Campaign. As elaborated above, the absence of a central power within the movement has brought about an atmosphere of equality and democracy to social activism, which had been previously overlooked. This respect for individual autonomy in grassroots activism creates flexibility and encourages innovation in tactics and approach.
In this Campaign, relationships between individuals are not vertically or hierarchically structured. No one works for anyone else. Each person determines the boundaries of his engagement. Individual talents and capacities are developed during the course of her involvement in the Campaign. In this way, personal experiences and individual contributions become especially important and empowering.
Communication technologies in building networks of support among members
Communication technology and the internet has made it possible for women’s activism to transcend traditional boundaries and move beyond individual engagement. Through the use of email, weblogs, and websites, the aims and activities of the Campaign have spread rapidly throughout the world at a rate previously impossible for the Iranian women’s movement.
Moreover, the ability to globally broadcast activities and restrictions in Iran has created a sense of security and empowerment for the members who would otherwise feel isolated and alone in their struggle. While solidarity in the virtual world might be viewed as less authentic, members of the Campaign have been able to broaden the scope of communication and to benefit from global as well as local support. The experience of the street demonstration in Tehran’s Haft-e-Tir Square on June 12 of this year, exemplifies the importance of the internet in both organizing an event, and communicating its aftermath.
Is there another diverging experience on the horizon?
The question still remains if a backlash is in the works. How long will this collaboration last? Are these new methods of solidarity building sustainable and long lasting?
The Campaign members must be able to preserve their shared identity and reproduce their egalitarian relationships otherwise, the risk of disassembly remains. It is possible that the efforts for justice and equality will backfire, especially if the common ground and trust between collaborators loses its strength and the sense of solidarity gives way to further fragmentation of the movement. We need to pay closer attention to the process in which members cohere in order to sustain and expand the scope of collaboration within the movement.