Democratic culture

A campaign for equality


Democratic culture
by Ali Akbar Mahdi

Changing laws and rules in any society requires a great deal of skill, energy, resources, and dedication from the public to achieve a desired outcome. Yet, these necessary ingredients are effective only if public demand for change is accompanied by state support. In a traditional, restrictive social structure that is governed by a theocratic structure, it is not easy to change religiously embedded, traditionally grounded, and politically defended laws. In such a society, those who work for change are considered a serious threat to the state; thus, every means is used to suppress them.

Since its inception, the Islamic Republic has rode the wave of “mass politics” – a wave generated during the revolutionary process that toppled the Pahlavi regime. While it has demonstrated its ability to be organized and well disciplined in policy execution, the regime still employs “mass mobilization” as a major tactic to both delegitimize and intimidate the domestic opposition to its political-ideological postures.

Confronted with such a political environment and the realities of a religiously-based gender regime, Iranian feminists have had to think hard about how to confront unequal laws imposed on their lives. In the past, secular women activists, using old tactics of mass demonstrations to confront imposed restrictions by the revolutionary government, were crushed by street mobs and club-wielding zealots. Consequently, women activists were forced to find less dangerous means of expressing their dissatisfaction and opposing restrictions imposed on their identity, public appearance, occupations, and educational choices.

As women gained a sense of direction in the newly established order, individualized and diffused tactics were adopted in the form of dress, make-up, selection of music, etc. to assert their autonomy in the face of a faceless, enigmatic identity imposed from above. Women sought opportunities to expand government limits and develop pathways for self-growth and self-expression. As the war with Iraq ended and the regime transitioned to a post-war era, women looked for a new space of their own, not only across the public landscape, but also in the private domain.

A new wave of activism for gender equality introduced women to sports, non-governmental organizations, literary circles, political organizations, and various educational opportunities previously closed to women. The election of Mohammad Khatami as President in 1977 ushered in a new era in which civil society organizations emerged; the music and film industry experimented with new ideas and fresh perspectives; and, women began to participate in a variety of previously restricted roles.

Finding itself in a new environment, the women’s movement had to look for new tactics and strategies compatible to the narrow avenues available within a theocratic system. Under such circumstances, the movement found success galvanizing support around grievances affecting a broad array of the female population—not simply single constituency issues. Given that women comprise nearly half of the Iranian population, relying on group identity and grievances offered a smart approach to building solidarity and mobilization. Issues such as custody for children, the right to divorce, legal equality, and opposition to violence against women were as important to secular, educated middle-class women as to poor, conservative, and working women. In fact, these issues for the latter were no less important than concerns with bread-and-butter issues.

Recognizing the importance of core issues affecting women, and the diversity of views, ideologies, and politics within the gender, women activists began to organize around grievances affecting all women, regardless of their religious, ideological, ethnic, and social class backgrounds. This shift in strategy posits two important distinctions that women activists have inevitably embraced. First, while they do not represent all women in the society, they must deal with issues affecting all women. Secondly, their efforts in changing gender relations and family laws are not unrelated to other social change efforts and activities. In an exclusionary and repressive political system, they could not afford isolation from the other protest movements. Therefore, they regarded the alliance with other progressive movements in society essential to the viability of the women’s rights project, especially the democratization movement.

The Campaign for “One Million Signatures Demanding Changes to Discriminatory Laws”
After numerous demonstrations protesting unequal gender laws and typical signature collection campaigns for encouraging the government to make Iran a state party to the UN Women’s Conventions, secular women activists realized that repeated state disruptions of their peaceful public demonstrations demanded a change of tactic. In August, 2006, the “Campaign for One Million Signatures Demanding Changes to Discriminatory Laws” (The Campaign hereafter) was launched.

Since its inception, the Campaign has been consistent in challenging oppressive laws and restrictive conditions of women and has achieved recognition from youth, student, worker, human rights, and civil society activists both inside and outside of the country. The activists working with the Campaign believe in women agency and participation in decision making, especially as they relate to a woman’s right to child custody, marriage and divorce terms, inheritance allocation, resistance to male aggression, and so on. Community issues related to a woman’s life are to be decided through negotiations and deliberations by its members, both males and females, rather than distant bodies unfamiliar with a woman’s needs and concerns. Relegating such issues to traditions set in the past denies women agency, community, and input in their own lives, especially in the context of contemporary civil society. The Campaign’s activists believe that even acceptable traditions and moral codes are to be subject to adaptation to new situations and the free consensus of citizens – a feature of modernity and democratic tradition. The goals of the Campaign include:

• changing discriminatory gender laws, • the Empowerment of women in society, • the development of a critical gender consciousness, and • dealing with the sources of the social and legal discrimination women are subjected to — both in public and private domains.

The initiative is guided by a broad strategy of bringing about changes in laws affecting women, resisting discrimination in the public sphere, and promoting individuality in the private domain. Campaign activities are varied, and include both practical and consciousness/knowledge-raising works. Practical activities include non-violent resistance to exclusionary practices in public domain, offering legal assistance to women in distressed situations, capacity and confidence building amongst women, and defending imprisoned activists. Cultural activities include research on laws affecting women’s well-being, group discussions and public debates, media works, networking, and advocacy. Together, these efforts help transform discriminatory gender relations in public and private arenas and improve the conditions for women participation and leadership in decision-making.

One innovative approach of the Campaign is the deliberate attempt to identify “roads less traveled” by pursuing adaptive tactics and looking for emerging opportunities rooted in the daily experiences of women— whether a soccer game, a significant international convention, or an unfortunate imprisonment of an activist. In each case, avoiding impatient and emotional reactions, campaign activists are ready to brain storm, pull ranks together, and mobilize resources according to their goals and objectives. They have adopted tactical means that yield greater public support and accomplish broader outcomes. Using new technologies, the Campaign has placed itself on the global network and remains an active participant in the virtual world. Campaign’s webpage (//, though filtered and blocked by the state regularly, moves from one proxy to another transmitting the latest campaign activities and developments.

Strictly confined to constructive social and legal changes, the Campaign avoids ideology from within and without. Allowing ideological concerns to shape its strategy and tactics, it would succumb to the challenges that have crippled past women activism. Campaign activists realize the diversity of views, needs, and conditions both among themselves and women activists of other orientations. With this understanding, they are willing to support changes that improve the status of all women, regardless of their religious and political views, and are willing to work with female Muslim activists to the extent that such alliance will result in changes in laws affecting women’s lives.

Along with the Muslim reformists, who advocate the re-interpretation of Sharia laws regarding women, the Campaign activists have been able to force the state to accommodate a few issues of concern to women, albeit both in mild and often belated manner. These “Muslim feminists,” a term most avoid using for themselves, have realized the depth of inequalities embedded in religious injunctions and are demanding a women-friendlier interpretation of those laws. They also find themselves embattled with both family patriarchs and an entrenched conservative religious establishment that remains oblivious to their concerns. Both religious and secular activist women oppose the state policy of leaving a woman’s fate solely in the hands of “learned” men whose reference point is a different time and place in history.

Campaign activists have tried hard to avoid elitism — a crippling feature of past women activism in Iran. The current women activism dispels the old image of the women movement as an elitist effort distant from ordinary citizens. During the Pahlavi period, most political activists, whether liberal, conservative, or radical, dismissed women’s efforts for social change for two reasons. First, they considered them as a part of the state agenda, thus not genuine and worthy of attention.

Given the state’s close relationship with the United States, efforts in integration of women in the labor force were seen as a service to the imperialist-capitalist agenda in Iran. Second, political activists regarded feminist ideas as misguided actions of well-to-do women disconnected from the reality of the masses. Even today, Islamic reformists often express similar doubts about activism of secular women as Western-originated and irrelevant to the vast majority of women throughout the country – a charge proven wrong by the developments in the past two decades.

A cursory survey of changes in the past decade and a half shows that secular women activists’ concerns resonate with the public and often force politicians and state ideologues to respond, either by accommodating or trying to find ideological justifications for the discriminatory laws and practices supported by the state. Criticism of the discriminatory treatment of women in custody, inheritance, retribution, and witness laws has penetrated popular culture and dominates themes and topics of art, literature, and media.

Many issues raised by these women in the first and a half decade of the revolution are now part of daily debates among religious reformists, intellectuals, journalists, educators, liberal clerics, and politicians. To gain public support and win votes in elections, most politicians, including current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, attempt to incorporate these concerns in their agenda and make forward-looking pre-election promises on women issues.

The Campaign and Democratization
Though not focused on ideology and politics, particularly on attempts to access political office, the Campaign is inevitably engaged in politics. Its goals of changing laws and improving women’s status invite resistance from both the patriarchal power structure and the theocratic state. To avoid the traps of the political process, the Campaign has to dispel the notion that it is working as a political party. It has done so by adopting both open tactics and an inclusive strategy of democratic education.

The campaign recruits from and aims to reach all sectors of society. Its strategy to achieve its goals is “one person, one signature, one encounter, one event at the time,” thus promoting one-to-one interaction between activists and citizens in all corners of society. Activists meet with people, discuss issues, provide literature explaining laws affecting women, and encourage them to support the campaign. The idea is to gain momentum through iteration, repetition of a sequence of activities all building successively on each other; thus moving closer to the desired change. Though reformist in nature, the approach is less risky and more rewarding since it avoids spontaneity and unpredictability inherent in abrupt change.

The Campaign offers an excellent exercise in a bottom-up model of democratic change — an important aspect of the democratization education and process. Since it aims to be a broad-based grassroots movement, recruiting from all sectors of society, it will be able to communicate with and enable participation in all social strata: educated and uneducated, religious and secular, urban and rural, political and non-political, old and young, and male and female. Collecting signatures one person at the time, with personal visits and conversation with ordinary citizens, help participants to gain a close understanding of the condition of women’s lives in various settings. These encounters and interactions have a transformative effect on women’s lives and ideology by achieving the followings: a. Showcasing activism and individual participation in social movements

b. Demonstrating the underlying connection between societal laws and the specific problems faced by women in diverse communities and conditions

c. Providing a critical forum in which women may share experiences as well as measure their respective conditions in relation to the national situation, and

d. Offering support and assistance to women who might need them the most. As these contacts increase, more members are recruited, more networks are established, more consciousness raised, more literature and research are produced, and more activism and enthusiasm are generated. These interactions and iterated activities lay the foundation for a participatory culture necessary for the democratization process.

Finally, while maintaining its independence and focus, the Campaign is not indifferent to other community-based efforts for improving the conditions of socially and economically deprived strata. Women involved in the Campaign have often partnered with workers, students, and human rights activists because all these movements represent efforts for restoring human rights of citizens. Campaigners are organized into non-governmental organizations to help address various social problems. Many have worked with people in disaster areas, AIDS patients, earthquake victims, abused children, and victims of sexual violence.

Intimidation and Suppression
News coming out of Iran daily is depressing and awfully painful! Rarely does a day pass without the news of student, women, worker, human rights, or political activists being “summoned to the court,” “arrested,” “abducted,” “fined,” or “sentenced to imprisonment and/or flogging.” Among those most targeted are women and university students involved in various campaigns demanding reform and change. In recent months, women activists involved in the Campaign have been pulled into court and handed severe punishments for their participation.

The pressure on the Campaign has been building since its activists’ encounter with government security agents, many of them club-wielding women, during a peaceful protest in Haft-eTir Square, June 2006. While a dozen participants were arrested at the time and released on bail later, more and more of them have been called into court and sentenced harshly for their participation in that event or other activities associated with the Campaign. The latest victim is Delaram Ali, a student activist involved in the Campaign, who was given 2 years and 10 months prison term and 10 lashes for her participation in last year’s protest.

Despite its peaceful, reformist, and democratic approach, the campaign has been targeted by the current administration of President Ahmadinejad. Its activities have been curtailed; its center’s office is searched and closed; its demonstrations canceled or disturbed by police; and its members have been intimidated, harassed, arrested, fined, jailed, and sentenced to long and short-term imprisonment. A further blow to the Campaign came two weeks ago in a speech from the top leadership in the country. The Campaigns’ peaceful demand to align Iranian gender laws with international conventions was rejected – a position which certainly will increase the pressure on the Campaign and its activists.

What is surprising is that the government takes pride in legal and institutional changes since 1990 – changes that were opposed by the same government in the 1980s. Most of these changes, though limited and conditional, have come as a result of efforts by women despite government restrictions and policy orientations. Arenas like sports, education, arts, literature, and sciences were made inaccessible to women in the early years of the revolutionary government. If there are some openings and opportunities in these areas now, it is exactly because of the struggle and sacrifices dearly paid for by women! To take credit for these changes and yet deny the role and importance of women activists who have been pushing for these changes since 1980 is disingenuous.

The Road Ahead
The Campaign has emerged from a circle of secular feminists who, along with some Islamic female reformists, have been able to generate what Thomas R. Rochon calls a “critical community” – a group of critical thinkers and activists who are not part of a formal organization but make a self-conscious, mutually interacting group generating sensitivity to some social problem.*

Members of the Campaign have made heroic efforts to stay afloat within a theocratic state, repressive political environment, restrictive legal structure, and conservative cultural milieu. They are courageous women who have strength and vision to see to it that their children will not be subject to discriminatory laws that have blocked their own opportunities for individual growth, social progress, and career advancement – laws that keep them in unfavorable and unwanted marriages, leave them to the whims and wishes of the males in their family and work, and treat their intelligence and inheritance half what is allotted to men.

Like all other critical communities generating social change, the Campaign has no illusion that these changes may not come about as soon as they wish. No one believes that these patriarchal laws will disappear all together soon or those determined judges and law-makers will have a change of heart overnight. Their task is a difficult one, not only because they are challenging discriminatory laws imposed on women, but also because they are challenging entrenched norms, folkways, and social rules governing social interactions at home, school, and work. They live in a society fraught with social restrictions, political red-lines, cynicism, familism, and a sort of tribalism. None of these factors generate hope for progressive social change and democratic idealism.

Yet, the task of the Campaign is to generate consciousness, expectation, demand, and mobilization for change. Once the issue becomes public and the demand for change becomes widespread, the movement will take the center stage and produce a new energy and momentum much stronger than those found among the early activists. While the goals of the Campaign are farther out, its capacity to generate change and make a difference is much closer to the pulse of these women that it has ever been before. The impact will be gradual, cumulative, tangible, and practical. The goal is to make a difference, be it changing one person’s mind at a time, winning one fellow over in a day, or forcing open a closed door in each instance.

Given the difficulties the Campaign and its activists face, it is easy to lose hope and give up the fight. However, these women have demonstrated that there is no excuse for giving up the fight just because the state is determined to stop them, or laws are invented and re-interpreted in order to limit the Campaign’s reach. The Campaign has already done its job by leaving a mark and legacy that will be hardly forgotten by the newer generation of activists looking for a more equal status in the modern global society. Comment

* See Thomas R. Rochon, Culture Moves; Ideas, Activism, and Changing Values. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Ali Akbar Mahdi is Professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in Ohio Wesleyan University. �