Iranian women have a long history of leadership in the country's political and social movements for change, stretching back to the 1890 Tobacco Protest, a civic movement against dictatorship and foreign interference in Iran. During the 1905 Constitutional Revolution that established an Iranian Constitution and Parliament, women’s voices became more organized, and an effort was launched to raise political awareness about women’s rights and to educate girls and women. Women’s journals and associations began to emerge.
After the Pahlavi Dynasty came to power in 1925, it strove to modernize Iran through reforms including to the educational system, female literacy and women’s active participation in public life. Women’s rights and opportunities were expanded, from groundbreaking equality in the family to political participation. First, in 1963, women were granted the right to vote and run for office. Four years later, the Family Protection Law heralded a revolution for family law, and the 1975 amendment to the law protected women's rights even more robustly, making it an unprecedented codification of women’s rights in the Middle East region. The courts adjudicated issues such as divorce, child custody, child support, and multiple marriages, whereas previous to the landmark legislation, men had had unilateral rights in these areas; in addition, the minimum age of marriage was raised from 9 to 18 for women and from 15 to 20 for men. At the same time, women occupied 24 seats in both houses of parliament and served as mayors, ministers, city council members, ambassadors, judges, and business leaders.
The 1979 Islamic Revolution obliterated these achievements and rolled back women's legal status virtually overnight. Within two months after the revolution, many articles of the Family Protection Law were repealed in practice. Women were initially forced to wear the hejab at their workplaces, and many were eventually forced out of the workplace altogether; and parks, beaches, sporting events, and other public spaces such as buses were sex-segregated. Within four years, gender segregation had expanded even to primary and secondary schools; imprisonment and fines were imposed as punishment for women who failed to follow the official dress rules; and women's legal value was reduced to half that of a man in cases requiring monetary compensation for loss of life. As Shirin Ebadi put it, “The laws, in short, turned the clock back fourteen hundred years, to...the days when stoning women for adultery and chopping off the hands of thieves were considered appropriate sentences.”
During the revolution, liberal women, albeit in limited numbers, held demonstrations against compulsory hejab and sex segregation and were outspoken in their criticism of discriminatory laws; however, in the face of violence from Islamic radicals and complacency from leftist groups, they failed to put forth a coherent and sustained movement to address gender inequality. In short, many Iranians who may have not been in favor of mandatory hejab chose to stay silent on the matter, and many leftist groups actively called on women to defer their demands for women’s rights in favor of larger, so called more important goals. As a result, many liberal-minded women were forced to flee the country, while others, many of them highly educated professional women, were forced out of the public sphere and isolated within the bounds of home. The struggle for equal rights, however, constrained and coded, continued over the ensuing decades, eventually leading to the launch of the One Million Signatures Campaign in 2006. During the three previous years, Iranian women’s rights activists had grown increasingly visible on an international level. After human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, Iranian feminists held a series of seminars on women's rights that led to an unprecedented demonstration against gender inequality in front of Tehran University on June 12, 2005. This event united over 600 male and female activists, and on the same day the next year, women’s rights activists organized another demonstration in Tehran's Haft-e Tir Square, which gained the support of both local and international human rights groups such as Amnesty International. The protesters “demand[ed] the reform of laws, especially family laws, that discriminate against women.”
Activists also distributed a pamphlet on “The Effects of Laws on Women’s Lives” across Tehran. Although the demonstration was peaceful, security forces swiftly broke it up, attacking the activists with clubs and pepper spray and arresting 70 people. “We never imagined we’d be met with so much resistance,” says one of the campaign’s founders. “Our demands were so basic.”
Two months later, on August 27, a group of 54 activists launched the One Million Signatures Campaign, meeting in the street in front of the closed doors of a Tehran charity institute, due to government restrictions on group meetings. The Campaign launched its activities as a way to demonstrate widespread grassroots support for the Iranian women’s rights movement for legal equality. This movement addresses gender discrimination in Iran's legal system through public education on women’s legal status, collecting signatures on a petition to change discriminatory laws, and putting pressure on legislators to change these laws.
The campaign’s primary goal is to dismantle discriminatory laws against women in Iran, with a wider vision of transforming the societal and cultural norms which keep these laws in place. The campaign’s leaders knew that their movement needed mass popular support in order to face the government, so they sought to accrue one million signatures on their petition for legal change. Collection of signatures also promotes cooperation between different sectors of society. This helps lay the ground for bottom-up change via public education and promotion of dialogue between diverse groups of people; it seeks to build a stronger relationship between intellectuals and ordinary people. Through this type of cooperation, the movement identifies women’s needs and amplifies their voices.
As the campaign gathered support across the country, expanding from Tehran to Tabriz, Esfahan, Hamedan, Gorgan, Zanjan, Karaj, Yazd, and Kermanshah by the end of 2006, it proved that demand for legal reform was not limited to a particular group of human rights activists but encompassed everyday people from all walks of life. Despite the regime’s censorship of the movement’s activities and writings, the campaign has effectively raised ordinary people's awareness of women’s rights, promoted the idea of societal equality, and publicized women’s demands. One example of the movement's practical achievements is its successful pressuring of Parliament to amend the inheritance law in 2008, giving women the right to inherit their husband’s property. Also in 2008, women were granted the right to equal blood money in accidents covered by insurance companies, and Parliament prevented passage of Articles 23 and 25 of the “Family Protection” bill proposed by the Ahmadinejad government in 2007, which would have enabled men to take additional wives without their first wife's consent and would have mandated that women pay a tax on their fiance's mehrieh (dowry gift).
As part of outreach, campaign activists talk face to face with women at their homes and public places. The campaign's “education committee” trains these activists in the legal issues the campaign focuses on, as well as methods of communicating with people and collecting signatures. “Train-the-trainer” sessions educate women's rights activists, who can go out and expand the campaign's support base by hosting training sessions of their own across the country. This informal learning approach resonates well with the country’s student movement, who help to disseminate the message of equality from within the massive university system.
The campaign’s pamphlets explain the legal issues the campaign focuses on, including equality in marriage and divorce, child custody, and family relations; the right to pass on citizenship to one's children; equality in blood money, inheritance, and giving testimony; access to leadership positions; changing the age of criminal responsibility; and banning honor killings, stonings, and compulsory hejab.
After collecting one million signatures, the campaign plans to present the petition to Parliament and lobby the legislature to enact legal change, as it has already begun doing. The campaign has continually accepted online petition signatures as a sign of mass popular support, although it will not include these signatures in its official tally.
The One Million Signatures Campaign was initially founded by 54 activists, including well-known lawyers such as Shirin Ebadi, prominent women’s rights activists and journalists such as Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, Narges Mohammadi, Parvin Ardalan, Zhila Bani Yaghoob, Fariba Davoodi Mohajer, and Bahareh Hedayat. The campaign also received quick support from celebrities including directors Tahmineh Milani, Pooran Derakhshandeh, and Rakhshan Bani Etemad, and poet Simin Behbahani.
Despite the involvement of such prominent figures, the campaign remains primarily a grassroots movement. Its founders deliberately chose to avoid a traditional hierarchical leadership model, believing that such a system “failed to create opportunities for ordinary people – meaning especially younger and lower-income women – to become involved in trying to improve unjust laws.”
As the campaign attracted new members, they built a team around the idea that “there can be many paths to the same goal and that we do not need to form an absolute consensus… in order to make progress.” The movement asks its members to agree only on a basic set of principles, thus encouraging inclusiveness and discouraging warring factions. The campaign believes that “there is no single formula for building a relationship with different groups, but [basic] principles should be respected. Audience diversity requires different formulas to build relationships.” The campaign's petition, statement of goals, and “Effects of Laws on Women’s Lives” pamphlet are the main documents on which members’ activities are based. Members are empowered to follow these principles in their own ways – for instance, by using journalism or the arts. As one of the campaign members says, “Wherever we strive to the campaign, we act in accordance with the [local] geographic and social conditions. That's why local activists must be the ones to work on [their own] campaign sites. I think the campaign has been successful in large cities such as Esfahan, Tabriz, and Rasht because of the quality of the activists in those cities.”
All activists, including both men and women, throughout the country and abroad, are able to join the campaign. The campaign is currently based in about 20 Iranian cities and ten additional countries around the world. When people wish to organize a campaign activity in their town, they contact the “cities” committee before moving forward locally. The movement encourages independence within its committees, and regional groups both contribute to the main campaign website and maintain their own sites. Small groups are empowered to make decisions on their own, and responsibilities are regularly rotated between people and groups “so that none may begin claiming a certain area as ‘her’ or ‘our’ domain.”
Since Iran’s 1979 revolution, according to Freedom House, “the country’s theocratic rulers have harshly repressed citizens’ democratic aspirations.” The unelected Supreme Leader is the highest-ranking leader in the country, holding complete control over the country's security apparatus. In a 1993 UN resolution, the General Assembly expressed its concern over “the high number of executions, cases of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the standard of the administration of justice, the absence of guarantees of due process of law, discriminatory treatment of certain groups of citizens … and restrictions on the freedom of expression, thought, opinion and the press…”
According to Freedom House, after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, “respect for political rights and individual liberties has further deteriorated, and civil society has grown ever more isolated.” In June 2009, Ahmadinejad was re-elected despite widespread charges of fraud, and Iranians rose up in protest across the country. Security forces violently repressed the demonstrations, tightened restrictions on freedom of speech, and intimidated, arrested, tortured and raped activists.
In this increasingly repressive environment, the regime views the One Million Signatures Campaign as a threat to national security. From the beginning, the state resisted the campaign, preventing its founders from holding an opening ceremony. It has blocked public conferences and seminars on women’s rights, forcing campaign members to hold sessions in their homes – although security forces have even raided home sessions and interrogated homeowners. During the post-2009 election period, One Million Signatures campaign activity has become less intense and less publicized. Nonetheless, campaign members have sought to strengthen the movement by recruiting activists who became active in the aftermath of the 2009 election. However, many women’s rights activists have left the country since June 2009, necessitating the use of the internet to maintain activist networks. According to one of the campaigners in exile, “Although the post-election violence has affected the women’s rights movement, networking has prevented the campaign from collapsing.” As human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh puts it, “While the campaign’s external activities have subsided, this movement has not been repressed.”
So far, over 50 members have been arrested for their involvement in the campaign, while hundreds more have had their passports revoked or have been barred from the education system. The government has shut the campaign’s website down dozens of times, and many members who are not incarcerated are under constant surveillance. Campaign members have been sentenced to imprisonment, flogging, and deportation on charges such as acting against national security, propaganda against the state, and disturbing public opinion. The UN Secretary General's March 2011 report on human rights in Iran highlighted state retribution against members of the One Million Signatures Campaign. Furthermore, a March 2011Human Rights Watch statement describes how “security forces and judiciary officials routinely have subjected female activists to threats, harassment, interrogations, and imprisonment…”
The movement aims to “back its demands with a…popular following powerful enough to make lawmakers take notice and begin discussing…legal reform with representatives from the women’s rights movement.” The campaign believes that the current laws do not reflect today's social norms, and so they must be reformed. By educating women and obtaining their signatures, the campaign reaches beyond feminist advocates to make every person who signs the petition a member of the movement. According to Mahnaz Afkhami, former minister of women's affairs in Iran prior to the revolution and founder and president of the Women's Learning Partnership, “The campaign brings to mind the image of raindrops falling, forming rivulets, and then converging on an ever-larger scale until they become a river. First there is a murmur, a trickle, and then, gradually, a torrent of voices sounding together and reaching far and wide.”
As such, its primary target is Iranian lawmakers, but it also focuses on reaching a wide, general audience as both a means to exert pressure on lawmakers and as a means to raise the awareness of society at large. The campaign approaches potential signees in spaces traditionally reserved for women, such as homes, but also parks, universities, production centers, factories, health centers, religious gatherings, sports centers, and public transportation centers.
However, the campaign is not biased towards women only; since the start of its activities, men and women have cooperated together to promote the concept of societal equality. Furthermore, in order to reach diverse sectors of society, including religious groups, the campaign declares that its demands do not conflict with Islam; rather, they seek legal reform based on a dynamic interpretation of sharia law. As one campaign member says, “Most of the women campaigners are Muslims. They always say: We believe in Islam; we are just challenging these laws and saying these laws are not suitable for now'." In fact, the campaign has cited such reputable Islamic leaders as Ayatollah Yousef Sanei and Ayatollah Bojnourdi, who support reforms to discriminatory laws. The campaign also follows the tradition of ijtehad – using independent reasoning in a religious interpretation of the Qur'an – and sunnah (the practices of Mohammed, Islam's prophet), which allows religious leaders to adapt religious rules to societal changes.
The movement has kept its message apolitical, casting its demands within the framework of Iran's existing laws without announcing opposition to the state's political foundations. Simultaneously, the campaign maintains its independence by not receiving funding from any governmental, domestic, or international organization. While it has tried to establish that as such, it poses no threat to the state, the campaign has still been suppressed by security forces, like other peaceful social movements. Indeed, according to prominent women's rights activist Parvin Ardalan, due to Iran's closed political environment, social movements such as this are often politicized, even against their will.
The campaign's objective, according to member Fariba Davoodi Mohajer, “was to go from local to regional networking, and from there on to international networking.” As such, the One Million Signatures Campaign has built networks with more narrowly defined women’s rights groups such as the Campaign Against Stoning. Parvin Ardalan says, “The concept of equality increased our sensitivity to inequality in diverse areas… it was the common point between us and students, minorities, and even workers’ movements…” During the 2009 presidential campaign, for example, the movement rallied together over 40 women’s and human rights groups in a coalition that persuaded all the presidential candidates to state their positions on women’s issues – a significant first in Iranian politics. Furthermore, during the post-2009 presidential election unrest, the campaigners created a support network to help detainees’ families, especially women, by accompanying families to prisons, joining protests in front of prisons, and educating protesters about citizens’ rights.
During the following two years, many of the campaign activists had to leave the country, but continued to publicize human rights violations in Iran through the media, civic associations, and international organizations. As one activist says, “The outside world gives us new capabilities. Freedom of expression and the associated opportunities have enabled us to be active and serve as the voice of activists in Iran.” Furthermore, cooperation between these recent exiles and longtime Iranian expatriates has created solidarity between different groups of women in Iran and abroad and enabled them to appeal to the international community more directly.
On a global level, the support of Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi has also played a crucial role in giving the movement an international profile, while international human rights activists like the Dalai Lama have also expressed their support for the movement. For their work, various members of the campaign have received international recognition, including the 2007 Olof Palme Prize, the 2008 Reporters Without Borders/Deutsche Welle award, the 2009 Simone De Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom, the 2009 Feminist Majority Foundation Global Women’s Rights Award, and the 2009 Glamour Women of the Year Award.
By the end of 2009, though the petition’s signatures had not been officially counted, it was estimated that the campaign had collected hundreds of thousands of signatures.
“We feel we achieved a great deal, even though we are faced with security charges,” says a co-founder of the campaign. “No one is afraid to talk about more rights for women anymore. This is a big achievement.”
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