Women’s Movement into the Streets
Tuesday 29 May 2007
By: Parvin Ardalan
Translated By: Sholeh Shahrokhi
The year 2006, despite all of its conflicts and tensions, was a remarkably lively and dynamic year for us. A year in which, the rate of growth for the women’s movement rapidly increased and reached an explosive state. This was a year, in which many of the forces from the student movement and the labor unions joined hands with the women’s movement in a show of solidarity and faced serious consequences including getting beaten up, and facing detention. Many of the members of these parallel movements have become an active member of the women’s movement at present. 2006 was also the year that the Campaign for change of the discriminatory laws was born and not only impacted our social activism, but for ever changed the life of many of us.
For those of us social activists who find street politics as an important and powerful cultural medium that impacts the minds and lives of people, last year was not free of consequences and learned experiences in this vein. In reality, our collaboration with other sectors of the population and movements transcended and expanded the scope of our activities from its usual one or two small groups to cover a wide range of demands that are envisioned in the Campaign for Collection of One Million Signatures. Thus, as a result of this solidarity, a cold and murky atmosphere that had surrounded us for some time was transformed into a clear and colorful environment for activism.
The Street Politics that Govern Women’s Movement
Three major and influential achievements in the past year – the public recognition of march 8th in Park e Daneshjoo in 2006, the peaceful protest of June 12th in the Seventh-of-Tir Square, and the start of the Campaign to Collect One Million Signatures to Change Discriminatory Laws, not only deepened our understanding of our patriarchal society and its various power structures, but it raised our standards for grass-root action that comes out of the heart of the ordinary people in our communities. Furthermore, every one of these events and experiences of the past year fundamentally impacted our views about collaborations with other movements and active individuals as well as redefining our understanding of the concept of street politics and its consequents.
During the last few years, and especially since the formation of the “Mental Partnership of Women” [Hamandishiye Zanan] as a collective that came about in the aftermath of the recognition of Shirin Ebadi as the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, two major tendencies emerged from within the women’s movement and those who believed in the power of collaborative street politics. The first approach did not seek collaboration across the board, but rather they selectively sought after forming solidarity with other groups that shared a similar political stance, but applied different methods to address the same issue. The next approach belonged to those who wanted to expand the horizon and the scope of their activities in a collaborative spirit with other non-violent opposition groups in order to reach out to the people and to impact public’s culture. Clearly the dominant political and social circumstances have been also crucial in the increase or decrease of the potencies of each of these approaches. For example, the public protest of June 12th, 2006, which came about in a fortuitous time – the transitional period between the two Cabinets, magnified the climax of solidarity and collaboration among the women’s movement on a broad scale- to change the Constitution. We learned that in order to achieve non-violent civil activism, collaboration with other groups, synchronization of demands and methodologies, would strengthen the women’s movement.
March 8th, 2006: Continuation of Solidarity within Women’s Movement
In addition to the Partnership of Women (Hamandishiye Zanan), since march 8th in 2005 another collective of women’s rights activists was established to demand for the larger and more global demands of women based on the Universal Declaration of Women’s Rights. This group was named “the Supporters of the Global Women’s Movement” who sought to contribute to the cross-cultural quilt of women’s solidarity. The coalition of June 12th, 2006 that was held in Park e Daneshjoo, became the departure point for larger coalitions between similarly minded activists and women’s rights activists who believed in a broader scale of activism.
Following the coming to power of the conservative State, despite the fact that the conditions for activities became considerably more difficult for women, women’s groups and organizations were determined more than ever to over come the atmosphere of fear and militarization and to celebrate the International Women’s Day publicly and openly. The experience of June 12, 2006 that proved to be a success for the women’s movement intensified the desire to repeat the experience and to empower the movement of women in Iran. In simpler terms, we were more courageous. Both the Partnership of Women and the Global Women’s Movement decided to collaboratively organize a public protest in Park e Daneshjoo, and the news of this event was broadcasted a few days prior to the date on multiple websites.
The decision for public protest for March 8th, in an intense situation of political pressure gave a sense of security to the members of the two collectives but was not without its consequences. On the one hand, all of the registered and non-registered smaller NGOs found their place within the larger body of organizations. On the other hand, however, the members of these two groups were targeted as leaders and organizers of the actions of all the activists. After the June 12th event, many of the members of these two groups whose names were read out loud in front of Tehran University during the event, including many of the members of the Cultural Center for Women, were later summoned to court. However, this joint partnership was an intelligent move to uphold the International Women’s Day.
Because of the coalition between these two organizations, the International Women’s Day event became possible. However, because of the absence of organizational leadership from within and because of the brutal response of the police on that day, many of the participants were victims of violent beatings and blunt police brutality. Even a prolific figure such as Ms. Simin Behbahani was not immune to this act of violence that transformed the International Women’s Day to a day of pounding by the police.
June 12th Protest in Haft-e-Tir Square: A Day of Dissention and Discord
Although the event of the June 12th became a turning point in the collective activism of women’s rights organization, which was by and in large carried over to the turn of events at March 8th demonstration, but gradually differences in methodologies and views became more apparent. The surfacing points of discord and disagreement in two particular moments prior to March 8th, 2006 – one because of disagreement about organizational style and the other about ideological differences - ultimately pushed many out of the Partnership group.
Trial and Error of the Movement
June 12th had come out of the heart of collaboration and in the spirit of partnership. It served as a forum that made dialogue and expression of different opinions possible. The entry and exit from it was free. It had the potential to escalate and ultimately lead to a coalition for a public demonstration similar to that of June 12th and to descend back down, only to rise again as the moment beckoned. However, after the success of June 12th. the desire for authorship and leadership of the movement became so strong in many of us. Some tried to define a structure for the Partnership Coalition and make it in to a model, others tired to impose strict rules on it, and to monitor membership of its participants. They attempted to reduce the hegemonic make up of the group, even to the extent of excluding the younger generation from decision-making circles. In other words, instead of adhering to criticism from our younger friends aimed to reject their views and participation. This is a serious menace, which has always threatened the grass-root and social activism.
In addition to this, we underestimated the significance of the youth in the movement despite the fact that they carried most of the burden of activities. We were unable to believe that the June event has had as much of an impact on the younger generation, whom may have participated in smaller numbers than the rest of us, but were actively involved in the process. Thus, many of our younger friends began to criticize the exclusionary strategies of the older generation within the movement. In fact, they were quite right to do so. That was when we learned in the process of activism how tender and fragile are the ethical cords of feminism. In any event, however, when the tensions rise between two or more groups within the movement, it is best that the conflicting groups remove themselves from the core of the movement to resolve their issues without spreading it throughout the entirety of the population. However, differences of opinion like that of generational divide did harm the women’s movement.
The Second Phase occurred in the spring of 2006 and in preparations for the anniversary protest of June 12th. However, given the stifling political atmosphere that had come to dominate the country during the new government, and in light of the fierce and brutal attack on previous women’s protests like last June and March 8th events, exchanging of ideas between members proved to more difficult than before and reaching a common ground seemed impossible. To demand for a fundamental change of the Constitution (as we had pushed in previous years) seemed out of question, and instead we agreed to adopt a strategy to demand for a change in civil laws of the Constitution, as they seemed more attainable. Although, we never reached a solid agreement on methods and styles for our demands, our minimal commonality was to reform the civil codes.
In other words, we disagreed on how to approach this goal. Some thought the mere publication of our demands was sufficient, while others pushed for a public demonstration in an enclosed space. Some of us in this movement believed in a peaceful public street demonstration. Those who disagreed thought that our peaceful street style was actually a radical and revolutionary approach that could jeopardize the whole movement. We debated that social movements of all kinds need to increase their capacity and tolerance for enduring the cost associated with action, in order to push for their objectives. The recognition of the international woman’s day, we argued, was achieved precisely because of this kind of dedication and push forward.
In the end, majority of the members of the Partnership group, which had become an organized coalition although not recognized legally, did not support a peaceful street action. This was how organizations and activists who used to collaborate on their opposition to the State split into two parallel strategic lines.
The smaller group who believed in street action continued to plan for its peaceful protest. However, the aftermath of that experience proved us that in our oppositional actions, in addition to finding common grounds for our strategies, we need to understand and come to terms with our common stance and our collective willingness to endure consequences of public action. Moreover, the international women’s movement faction that was also present in the debates over what action and what demands did not support our call to a peaceful street protest. This group believed our demand for a change of the civil laws to be too liberal.
We believe that political change and social demands occur in real life not in an abstraction. Therefore, our demands for change become meaningful with respect to specific conditions and in correspondence with the actual social political environment of the time. In other words, a demand that may be deemed as liberal in one situation can be and may be quite radical in another atmosphere. In a time when majority of our very basic rights such as the marriage rights, the divorce legal codes, polygamy and so on are still a major challenge in our lives, a public protest to change these legal measures are quite radical.
Moreover, even if we agreed that these demands are liberal, are we to disregard them and do all that we cannot to get involved in a protest against them so to avoid being accused of liberalism? Is no action better than acting in opposition? In the end, this group too (the Supporters of an International Women’s Movement), like the Partnership group, voted against a street protest in Haft-e Tir Square.
Like all of our social experiences, this process too became very educational for all of us in action. While collaborations with both the Partnership group and the International group helped us to connect and to learn about each other’s objectives and points of view, after these debates and discussions we learned, that in order to continue the process of action, we needed to collaborate with the similar minds, since fundamental differences like these would result to inaction for all of us. Sometimes it is just not possible to find a common denominator.
Individual Legitimacy and Collective Accord
In the end, a few of us from each side of the debate decided to carry on with the plans for a peaceful public demonstration. This time, we each entered as an individual and on our personal accord. Free from our group affiliation, we both carried the burden of enduring consequences for our public protest, but were free from the limitations imposed by the organization. We knew that the price for our individual decision to act publicly was high, since our identities were recognized and we lacked the legitimacy and support of our larger collective. On the other hand, our personal commitment to this action moved us beyond the limits of the existing syndicate and organized movement (students, journalists, writers, etc.). We began to act independently and with awareness about the consequences of our involvement. We found our legitimacy no in our desire for martyrdom but in the support we received in the two thousand signatures that appeared under our Call To Action.
The peaceful protest on Haft-e Tir, despite all the beatings and all the brutalities that brought us, gave our demands a real and authentic base. Despite all the efforts to diminish its power, this event became a turning point for the movement and many solid friendships began to emerge because of it between people who later on became permanent members of the Campaign.
In other words, the immense support that emerged on Haft-e Tir Square, proved us that the objectives of the March 8th protest was not forgotten. On the contrary, those who showed up on June 12th, had come there on their own accord and in order to have their demands heard. This event became a beginning for a new wave of long-term solidarity and collaboration between students, labor unions, and the women’s movement.
One Million Signature Campaign: A Major Performance for a Minimal Demand
To work in an environment of low tolerance, demands for diverse strategic approaches and creative new and different methodologies to prolong the process of action. Thus, in different situations various approaches may be used.
Although the peaceful protest on June 12th. 2006 was met with brute force and severe beatings it also had a sweet outcome in the end. We had learned from the experiences of Moroccan women not to limit our activities and objectives to organizing a short-term protest, but to plan long term. While we never had the chance to demand our objectives publicly, we decided to increase our effort for raising public awareness about our demands. In addition, we became more eager to express our demands on the street and publicly, even if it is the most minimal format for action.
This another collective gathered to realize their common demands for change. Since the June event of 2006, we began to act with memberships extending over onto different and parallel social organizations, who had expressed their solidarity with our protest in Haft-e Tir. Thus, a fluid new movement was born.
People joined this movement not as members of an NGO but as individual participants in this fluid movement. The experiences since last June (2006) has shown that individual participants find more freedom to act, because they are not bound to the decisions of an organization, and they do not have to pay the price for some one else’s decision or actions. Rather, each person participates on his/her own accord and to the degree she is willing to endure the consequences of her action. Moreover, the movement as it has emerged out of the Campaign does not come to a stop by arresting and silencing one or two of the members. Because of the adoption of a “face-to-face” approach, the demands of the Campaign have entered the homes of many, thus has prepared many families for the consequences of action. All the while, the methods and strategy for change is peaceful and of civil protest.
While the first half of 2006 were days of disbelief and disappointment, the second half of the year because of the success of the Campaign, brought a new beam of light to the movement. In addition to a slough of support received from individuals outside of the country, more than 100,000 of people, artists, social, political and cultural figures and various local and domestic groups and organizations have signed the petition of this Campaign.
A movement that had begun with the work of the women’s movement and the students has now grown to include people from diverse social strata and on a grass-root plain. Finally, the public solidarity and support that we have received from the Partnership of Women and many other women in the reformist groups shows us that the outreach of this fluid Campaign can have effects on a vast range of population. This Campaign is successful because it remains free of ideological and sectarian dogmatism that bounds people and their freedom to think for themselves. Within the fluid structure of the Campaign individuals have their own independent views.
This article was first published in Nameye Zan (Women’s Letters): the internal newsletter of The Women’s Cultural Center, No. 5. The Farsi version of this article was posted on this site on April 22, 2007.