If We Respond to the Needs of Women, They Will Join Us

Sunday 6 May 2007

By: Sonia Ghaffari

Translated by: Taraneh Amin

The following is the text of a speech presented at the first public meeting of the Campaign

Once more we are witnessing the efforts of the activists in the independent women’s movement to find new ways to ignite the discourse on creating changes to laws that discriminate against women. And once more, just as before, there are those who are shouting: “You superficial liberals, we have foreseen your doom!” It is amazing that every time there is a discussion on evaluation and reform of discriminatory laws against women, some immediately conclude that all the demands of this group of women are limited to merely changing some laws!! As if after the success of a project such as the One Million Signatures Campaign, which in its best case scenario will result in changes in the laws during a very conservative and closed political atmosphere, the Campaign’s activists will hug and kiss and return home to spend their remaining years retelling their story of success to future generations, who will live in a society free of gender discrimination.

This fanciful and one-sided view of a widespread and deep-rooted movement is either caused by ignoring significant historical realities, or our so-called “radical” critics have trouble accepting an independent movement that does not conform to their regulations.

Criticisms stem from multiple viewpoints: some do not perceive the change in laws as a profound cultural change, while others expect a fundamental change in economic and political structures, which are not attainable through such movements.

I do not intend to clarify here the inner thoughts of the Campaign’s activists, the complex historical backdrop against which they are making these demands, or their main objectives, since our other friends have explored these issues quite eloquently. I merely intend to demonstrate to our critics through several examples that if the objective is to change the dire condition of women, in the struggle for change in discriminatory laws we can overcome differences in our intellectual tendencies, without necessarily being too liberal.

However, I believe that these classical and cliché divisions in feminist thought and among different groups of feminists are problematic in practice and will not resolve any of our issues. As Nancy Whittier’s observations of the women’s movement over several decades corroborates: “These definitions and divisions are distorted during movements collective actions against the strong patriarchal reaction.” As we all know, in the majority of the countries around the world, the women’s movements usually take their first collective steps with the aims of changing discriminatory laws against women. Activists in other countries too have used taken petitions in their efforts at ending discrimination and obtaining justice. Going door to door to collect signatures, these activists have endured humiliation and abuse, certain in their belief that neither the legal system nor the laws were deemed as sacred and permanent and as such, they were indeed modifiable. And changing them, although grueling and excruciating, is a step towards more significant social changes.

But the interesting point is that for example in Britain, the women’s suffrage movement was predominantly a working women’s movement, the same working women that some allege would never get involved in the so-called bourgeois and liberal feminist movements for changing laws! When unions began to nominate their candidates for the parliamentary elections, women held the majority in textile unions. However, since they did not have the right to vote they did not matter. In reaction to the political parties’ hesitation on women’s right to vote, they formed their own independent movement.

There are innumerable such examples. For instance while examining the history of the women’s movements as it relates to seeking change of discriminatory laws, I came across a document relating to the socialist feminists in 1972. Reviewing this document in this context may be helpful. In a section of this document the socialist feminists clearly explain their position on the issue of reform and change to the laws. With feminine confidence and courage, they candidly declare their disagreement with the position (this romantic and fanciful slogan) that: “We should only concentrate on the ultimate goal and disregard all other changes.” On the question of “Which reforms do we fight for and how?” they suggest three standards, which demonstrate the pragmatism and realism that has distinguished feminism from other social movements. These standards were:

1. Does this reform change and improve women’s lives?
2. Does this fight for reforms empower women?
3. Does this reform change the existing balance of power?

They further clarify these standards by adding: Women are oppressed through different means and as such we are fighting for an immediate improvement to their lives. Therefore their immediate needs must be identified. When we demonstrate to other women that we are attentive to their needs, they too will join us. We believe that the sexist capitalism structure cannot act in our interests. Therefore we will use this structure against itself. Even though this strategy may be different form our ultimate goal, but these are the demands that the existing system is opposing and resisting.

These reforms are beneficial to us, since achieving them will bring confidence to women. Although reforms in and of themselves are not ends to our struggle, we must work on achieve goals which will help us feel empowered and confident. Therefore there is a need for a multi-faceted approach in the liberation of women. If we accept such an approach, we can escape the trap of prejudice and partisanship when evaluating our projects. We should not insist on a single cohesive and linear strategy, but instead should encourage and embrace alternatives and substitutes. What is imperative is that our group action should ultimately result in progress in women’s lives. Therefore we should open heartedly welcome most all activities that are done for women.

In regards to reproductive rights and laws, these socialist feminists use the example of organizing a campaign and remind us of its characteristics and positive outcomes.

What is notable here is that the authors of this social manifesto, who demand fundamental and massive changes, not only do not sabotage reformist activities such as changing of the laws, but welcome them and feel obligated to make a contribution.

Even many radical feminists that are in fundamental disagreement with the liberal theories have organized extensive struggles for changing discriminatory laws against women, such as efforts to address reproduction rights, seek confrontation with any and all manifestations of patriarchy in any shape or place as one of their strategies. What is more interesting is that in the late 70s in the United States the majority of the radical feminist organizations that were weakened in their daily struggles against the existing patriarchy, took refuge in liberal organizations and began their struggles in the more controversial and radical realms of demands for rights.

Let’s not forget that even a completely liberal movement can be quite radical considering its social background. As Eisenstein says: the issues of concern to liberal feminists, that is equal rights and engendering of social topics, require such fundamental changes that even within the most conservative limits of its strategy, in the final analysis, they challenge the system of patriarchy.

The practical struggles of women are filled with cases demonstrating that regardless of whether an action is judged liberal or non-liberal, women have chosen the right path with determination and resolve. In an objective evaluation we observe that their actions have never caused social regression or a deterioration of women’s conditions. So given these realities doesn’t’ it appear as though these criticisms and the repetition of clichéd slogans result from sources other than the desire to promote the status of women?

How can we call a movement such as the One Million Signatures Campaign that seeks to connect to women from different classes of the society, speak of our common pain, and facilitate the process of communication and listening, a superficial movement? How can we call activists who have been able to connect with thousands of people from different walks of life and all over the country elitists? Let’s remember that in our quest to achieve these so-called superficial and shallow demands, we need to talk for hours, spend many days, work for weeks, and most likely wait and suffer for years!


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