With Pure Hands, Infected with Efforts to Return

By: Amir Yagoubali

Thursday 6 January 2011

Translated by: Sussan Tahmasebi

Change for Equality: Only a year has passed since the strange and bewildering June of 2009. June was a month during which we constantly felt as if we had been left behind from the incidents and the developments of our society. Left behind from the marches and the sit-ins and left behind from the upheavals and the slogans. It was a June, which forced Tehran to weep, which turned into a togetherness filled with happiness and politics—all of it so unfamiliar to us. It was a time when the public realized that the streets are not just a place for passing each other by. Rather the public realized that the streets are a place where we could stop and ponder, in which we could stand and speak and not fear, where we could scream and not run, and where we could even celebrate.
The lessons of June 2009 were plenty, on which the bitterness of its final days rests with us like grey ash from a fire, forcing many of us to forget that which we had earlier witnessed on those very same streets.

But allow me to start by recalling a memory from the streets. The memory of the day when I heard that a group of Karoubi supporters were marching down Vali Asr Avenue—Tehran’s longest Avenue—and chanting “Hejab should be a choice.” For those of us who had feared being stopped on the street, who had feared being asked for explanations about the way we looked or how we were dressed, for those of us who had come to stutter out of fear, while passing those same streets, this development was unfathomable. For those of us who had grown accustomed to “social order”—enforced by force of the police—the slogan “Hejab should be a choice” was a major development. There was a kind of disorientation which took us over. We were indeed happy about the fact that someone was speaking up and requesting a just demand, not just speaking but in fact screaming out this demand through a slogan in the public and on the streets. Yet we remained weary in wondering about why it was that only the supporters of Presidential candidate Mehdi Karoubi were making such demands—supporters which were clearly lower in number than the greens [ who supported Mir Hossein Mousavi, in the Presidential race].
Our question was answered during those same days. When we found ourselves among the vast green supporters of Presidential Candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, we heard only simple slogans being chanted, such as “Ahmadi, bye bye” or “Way to go Mousavi.” The crowd resisted the more serious slogans. A group of students present in these pre election protests, near Vanak Square, tried to penetrate the circle of the green supporters of Presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi with slogans opposing the forced veiling of women. The reactions from the crowd were strange. Some greeted the slogan with silence and watched with surprise, and others protested against the slogans. In fact, those protesting the slogans or even greeting it with silence were not the religious women and men who supported Mir Hossein Mousavi, rather they were the same targets pursued by morality police vans for arrest because of poor observance of Hejab on the streets. They were the same girls who were referred to by officials as not observing proper hejab and who were usually targeted and arrested by morality police.

Those working to penetrate the crowd with slogans against forced veiling gave up their quest. Instead the slogan “we don’t want a potato government” [in response to an election ploy by Ahmadinejad during which he handed out sacks of potatoes to supporters] took over Vali Asr Avenue. What had happened? Those same people who had been the direct targets of the Social Safety programs intent on controlling women’s dress during the first term of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the very same people who continuously complained about the pressures of the government with respect to their style of dress, had preferred to forgo the opportunity to chant slogans in the pre-election era which demanded the freedom of dress and opposed forced veiling. They had focused their slogans on other issues instead. But, why was this?

Resistance in the Face of Banal Criticism

From the start of the One Million Signatures Campaign Demanding Changes to Discriminatory Laws, a group who viewed themselves as critical of this effort utilizing a variety of labels, worked to prove that the Campaign was indeed a superficial effort. These criticisms were launched against the Campaign at two levels:

One: The Campaign does not represent the issues and problems of all of society’s women. And in essence this was a Campaign to defend the rights of only a group of women.

Two: The Campaign has not utilized an appropriate strategy, even in reaching the narrow goal of addressing the demands of a particular group.

The first group, relied on criticizing the goals of the Campaign and labeled it a reformist movement which was intent on ensuring the rights of a group of women—bourgeois and elite women. This group claimed that the changing of discriminatory laws against women would only bring about superficial changes rather than underlying changes addressing the realities of society, within which repression and exploitation occur simultaneously within the larger framework of society. This group further emphasized the lack of importance of these changes in the lives of socially disadvantaged women, and claimed that the Campaign’s lack of attention to equal pay for women in lieu of their equal work, or the Campaign’s lack of attention to the role of temporary work in the lives of female workers, rendered the aims of the Campaign insufficient.

The second group, disregarding the aims of the Campaign, criticized its approach, and claimed that relying on the government in realizing the goals of the Campaign was a mistake. This group believed that advocacy and lobbying would not result in social change. Rather than focusing on the process of the Campaign which rested on raising public awareness, this group reduced the efforts of the Campaign to its end results of engaging with the Parliament through submission of signatures on a petition demanding the change of discriminatory laws. By dismissing this final step of the Campaign, this group dismissed all that the Campaign sought to achieve.

In response to these criticisms the Campaign activists have worked steadfastly to emphasize the Campaign’s social nature, and introduce it as an effort that would bring about a change in public opinion with respect to women’s rights, rather than a possible change in the laws.
Campaign activists were intent on demonstrating that the approach of the Campaign, its path and strategy, were the basis on which the changes in the law would come about. They emphasized the face to face exchanges and discussions with the public, the creation of an atmosphere for discussion about discriminatory laws, and in the end the creation of social pressure from the grassroots they argued would ensure changes in the law. As such, from the perspective of Campaign activists, the Campaign was viewed as a group effort to inform the public about their forgotten rights, and to work toward change in the laws by increasing public pressure on policy makers. The public pressure would be a natural result of the increased awareness of society.

That Which Changed and That Which Remained the Same

If we accept that the period between June 12, 2009 and June 12, 2010 was witness to the most important and the greatest changes experienced by Iranian society over the last two decades, and if we can demonstrate that these developments have displaced the political direction of Iranian society and have impacted the lives of the Iranian public, and in the end have brought about deep changes to the sphere of Iranian’s lives, then we are able to speak about a “condition of change.” A situation of change, in which the Campaign and its activists, have managed to move forward, albeit calmly.

Such a substantial transformation, which has been able to alter the perspectives of Iranian society with respect to what takes place in their surroundings, has been able to create new bonds between different groups opposed to the government—groups which in the past had stood in opposition to one another—who, have in the end, spoken about the specific demands of a large number of people. These demands have now come together and are being pursued in a larger and more encompassing manner. Without a doubt these changes have impacted the Campaign and the larger women’s movement as well.

In other words, if we examine the tools and strategies employed by the Campaign, we realize that because of the strategies it employs, the Campaign is connected to society and to the public, and on the other hand, the Campaign, because of its demands, is forced at this point in time, to stand in opposition to the government.

If we accept that in the last year, if not the past five years, the placement of groups within the various levels of the state has experienced change and on the other hand Iranian society has experienced a change in perspective with respect to the structure of the state—meaning that it has grown less trusting of the state—and with the increased repression and crackdowns against its demands by the state, society’s demands and behavior too has changed, then we have to accept that we can no longer pursue the same old goals and utilize the same strategies to achieve our goals.

In other words, both sectors involved in the process of changing discriminatory laws in Iran have experienced change. The public is no longer the same public of a few years ago and the state is no longer the same state that we had addressed over the past few years. On the one hand, the demands of a large sector of society have experienced change—they have expanded and because of the presence of the people on the streets and the ensuing and clear crackdowns and repression, these demands have become more extreme. On the other hand, the state fears these multiple demands put on it by the public. As such, the state has begun to demonstrate less flexibility and has taken an offensive approach toward these demands. This trend can easily be observed in the new policies adopted by the state regarding forced hejab (forced veiling) and segregation of the sexes to name a few, which just happen to be focused primarily on women.

The Demand of Law from a Government Unobservant of the Rule of Law

An important issue put forth by reformists during the presidential elections, is now of importance for us as well, but in a different manner. All throughout the elections reformists warned us about the possibility of election fraud. This was indeed a simple possibility. But what happens after elections are rigged and a particular candidates name emerges from the ballot box? How can you ensure the general and basic public trust which is a necessity for political participation?

Now the same question, but under different circumstances, has emerged for Campaign activists. How can change of laws have meaning within a system that had over the last year been accused of “trickery,” “lying,” “corruption,” and most importantly “lack of observance of the law.” In essence how can you gain the public’s trust for social participation in an effort that rests on the law, in a system that does not adhere to the law?

The main challenge of the One Million Signatures Campaign, given the current circumstances, lies in this very point. How can we get the public to participate in such an effort when the outcome of the effort is indeed so uncertain?

Relinquishing the Goals, In Appreciation of the Strategies

Given the current circumstances what part of the Campaign is still defendable? The goals of the Campaign or the strategies it created and placed at the disposal of the women’s movement and even other social movements?

Regarding the goals of the Campaign, while activists in this effort could always justify the need to change laws, they could not demonstrate that such an effort would necessarily be possible through a demand directed at the government. Activists could demonstrate well that these laws play an important part in the daily lives of Iranian women, and that in essence the domination of men and patriarchy is guaranteed through these laws, allowing them to conduct themselves as they please without any worry from the legal system. Activists continually responded to criticisms launched at the Campaign about approaches which reduce women’s problems regardless of their root causes to legal discrimination. In response to this criticism they have stressed that the lower status of women in society is reinforced by their legal position and through legal discrimination. Campaign activists could indeed prove the importance of their goal, but were unable to prove that the approach taken, meaning addressing the government for change in the laws, could lead to actual changes in the law. This was the case because on the other side of this equation existed a government which had failed to demonstrate even the least amount of flexibility. In fact, the government had consistently demonstrated rigidity. In this case, those who argued that being a reformist was not the main issue at hand, rather the issue was whether or not the system was open to reform, were indeed in the right.

What is still salvageable with respect to the Campaign, is not where it has been successful, rather it is exactly the point on which it has been unsuccessful. What the Campaign can leave behind and what can continue within the Campaign, despite the unrealized dream of change in discriminatory laws, is its strategy. In fact the Campaign’s strategy of connecting with the public and of raising awareness has been its true goal—a goal which has lost necessary focus due to the increasing pressures and crackdowns. The face to face discussions with ordinary citizens, has been the one defendable approach and aim of the Campaign from the start, and especially in the face of criticisms. This is what we have been trying to accomplish from the start. This is what we have consistently claimed when we insisted that the Campaign has sought to change the laws that exist within society. In fact, we did not mean that we wanted to change laws written on a piece of paper which can be ignored by judges who rely on their uncontested powers of judgment.

What the Campaign can salvage is the desire by the public to write the law. What the Campaign can salvage is the desire to disregard the patriarchal law, which is lags far behind our culture of our society. What the Campaign can salvage is the desire to disregard the law, when the law is not just. When the law does not correspond to our needs, then that means that it does not work for us. What is alive in the Campaign, what still breaths within the Campaign, is the story of the daily suffering of women who are entrapped and victimized by the discriminatory laws. What remains alive in the Campaign is the process of creation of hope and the capacity to change these laws, or at least the will to resist these laws and prevent their recreation. While the possibility of reforming something that is not open to reform does not exist, the only thing that can be changed is the awaiting perspectives of the public who don’t adhere to or demand the laws they desire. The One Million Signatures Campaign can be the Campaign of millions of women who refuse to marry, who refuse to bear children and who refuse to depend on laws, which continue to be discriminatory.

Let me return once more to the days of street protests and what I had discussed earlier. To the time when Iranian women could go to the streets to yell out their demands, but didn’t.

Why is it that the women and girls who were the most significant social group involved in the post election protests, came to the streets without taking a position on their own situation as women. Some may point to this development and claim it to be victory in the larger political context and as such view the development in a positive light worth praise. For women’s rights activists however this issue remains of the utmost importance and they wonder why it is that women came out and conquered the streets without leaving a trace of evidence pointing to fact that they came to the streets with awareness about their own status in society, with sensitivity about their gendered states> This is exactly the same point, which makes a return to the Campaign meaningful—the need to work toward the revival of women’s demands, on the streets, from street to street.

***Note this article was published on our website in Farsi as part of a special edited volume entitled: “Again from those Same Streets.” The Volume was intended to mark the Day of Solidarity of Iranian women, June 12, 2010 which happened to coincide with the first anniversary of the disputed Presidential elections. This collection included essay, interviews and writings by Campaign and women’s rights activists, who examined the situation of the women’s movement in general and the Campaign in particular vis-à-vis the green movement and provided analysis on the future of the Campaign given the changed political and social climate of Iran following the protests to the disputed presidential elections in June 2009.


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