Campaign to Change the Discriminatory Laws in Iran – Case Study

This case study presents the “One Million Signatures for the Repeal of Discriminatory Laws” campaign which was a feminist action in Iran which begun in 2006. The campaign aimed ultimately at achieving equal rights for women. For this, the campaign founders planed to collect one million signatures from Iranian citizens, calling for change. Although the campaign was not limited to collecting signatures, this became the main activity for which “One Million Signatures” campaign was known.

The campaign in Iran was drafted following a similar campaign that occurred in Morocco. It was launched after three major protests of the Iranian women’s movement in Tehran, the capital city of Iran. The first protest was held on the eve of the presidential election in June 2005 and could successfully end because of the political context obliging the regime not to raise any further political dissatisfaction among the society members in order to reach a high voting turnout. The second protest was the gathering on 8th of march 2005, the International Women’s Day, which was suppressed by the regime. The third protest was held on the first anniversary of the first protest and was also suppressed by the government: it led to the arrest of over 70 activists.

Based on the statement of the third protest, which featured the same demands that Iranian women had requested since one hundred years, different groups and individuals came together to begin a new action with a wider social scope . So two months after the last protest, the “One Million Signatures for the Repeal of Discriminatory Laws” campaign was introduced by different groups of the women’s movement on August 27,The campaign tipped on face-to-face conversations throughout the society in order to raise awareness about the discriminatory laws, collect signatures, and increase the pressure on lawmakers to approve an equal legislation. Although the founders of the campaign considered the campaign to be an effort without end date for changing the discriminatory law against women in Iran, the campaign was practically over by 2009.

Campaign principles
The “One Million Signatures” campaign’s demands and principles of work were regulated by three different published documents:

  1. The statement of the campaign (to be signed) featured a short explanation of the problem, meaning legal discriminations against women in Iran including some concrete examples. The statement was meant to be signed by campaign supporters. As well, they could highlight which law they found the most urgent to be changed.
  2. The plan of the campaign included:
    ● (a) the goals of the campaign explained in more details, such as “collective participation”, “familiarity with the society”, “giving voice to the voiceless women” and “growth of awareness”. It also highlighted in the document, that the campaign aimed to gather support from a wide range of society members, so that the women’s movement would be able to show that the call for change was not limited to a restricted group of women of a specific religious beliefs or social class.
    ● (b) the methodological approach: it was foreseen that campaign activists would go door to door in the neighbourhoods where they came from, not only in Tehran but as well in other cities and towns, in order to talk with people in different public places such as buses, parks, hospitals, gyms or even religious building such as mosques, etc.
    ● (c) training of volunteers: it was also foreseen that volunteers training will be necessary for the sake of the campaign. A volunteers team was in charge of the documentation of the training, meetings and experiences gathered during the campaign to ensure continuity with the future activists. Additionally a team of volunteers was in charge of counting and digitalizing the signatures gathered by the campaign.
    ● (d) statement that the campaign was not against Islam: the plan of the campaign highlighted that it was not against Islam, as this is the origin for the country law. It was mentioned that the members of the campaign believe in a more contemporary Islam promoting more equality between men and women. This point was particularly crucial because of Islamic and traditional beliefs of the majority in the country. It was also believed that this statement could decrease the security threats from authorities or institutions.
  3. The booklet of “The Impact of laws on women’s lives.”: this booklet explained comprehensively and one by one the discriminatory law articles and argued the reasons for necessity of change. The articles covered following: marriage age, divorce, custody, granting of nationality to child, blood money, inheritance, testimony, access to senior management positions, age of criminal responsibility, honour killings, stoning sentences and forced hijab.

Strategies and Methodologies
1- The main strategy of the campaign was to use face to face conversations with people, especially but not only women, inside houses and in the public sphere as a methodological approach for the campaign implementation. Considering the online and offline censorship applied by the Iranian regime to enforce silence, this methodology was central. It resulted in a lot of discussions about the key topic and related issues during family gatherings or at places where discussions on serious matters traditionally did not occur.
2- In order to outreach a lot of young people, the campaign needed to gain access to universities, therefore the campaign invited students of universities to volunteer. Through this, the campaign did not only build a good supporters’ network but it also created a positive linkage of the women’s movement with the student movement.
3- The campaign successfully attracted together women activists with diverse backgrounds, thus it considered activists with religious backgrounds as a potential asset, as they could eventually support in negotiating with religious leaders in the informal religious capital of Iran, Qom. The founders of the campaign believed that by gaining support or at least, approval from these leaders, the change could occur much faster and easier.
4- The campaign members were not organised following any form of traditional leadership. The founders of the campaign liked that anyone who joined the campaign could be able to represent the campaign. In this way, the campaign had a better chance to become vaster and decentralized from Tehran where it was launched.
5- The campaign aimed to reach women in rural areas not only to receive their support but also to convey the message that rural people are the only ones who can talk about their own problems.
6- The campaign did not accept any financial aid from organisations inside or outside the country, in order to reduce risks for the participants and volunteers. It was expected that all costs be paid from the money that activists themselves or people who liked the cause would donate voluntarily to the campaign.

7- Although the campaign itself was regarded as a political action, it was internally decided that the activists or campaign members were not allowed to act politically for or against any group or individuals.

Challenges, Disputes, Mistakes
The “One Million Signatures for the Repeal of Discriminatory Laws” campaign was very sensitive for Iranian authorities from the very beginning, partly because the campaign was launched by about 50 prominent women activists from Iran who were challenging the authorities in many ways due to their activism. The demands and the strategies of the campaign were also seen as a potential “threat” by the government as it opened up discussions and debating among people whereas the government is used to extremely control the freedom of expression.
The opening ceremony of the campaign was supposed to be held in an cultural building on Sunday, August 27, 2006 in Tehran but was cancelled on short notice because the security authorities required the managers of the building to close the doors to the activists. Challenges and interferences were not limited to the opening ceremony: the activists of the campaign experienced a severe crack down over the campaign progress
using a diverse pressuring ways. Activists were exposed to threat of arrest, arrests, interrogations, torture, pressure onto own families, rejected access to public buildings or cafés for holding their meetings (which pushed them to having meetings inside private houses resulting in further attacks from the security authorities), wrongfully jail condemnations, whip and forced exile.
More than 50 activists of the campaign were arrested exclusively because of their activities within the campaign, tens of them were prevented from entering or continuing in their higher education studies, while others were stopped from leaving the country as their passports were confiscated.
Iran received calls from the international community at several occasions during the campaign progress to stop the harassment and persecution of activists. Anyway the oppressions intensified after the controversial presidential election of 2009. Although highly controlled context made it particularly challenging for the campaign activities to go onto the streets, talk to people, collect signatures, hold meetings, and archiving signatures, it became almost impossible for activists to remain safely in the country from 2009 onwards. Some chose to go for a voluntarily exile, others remained and kept silent until the situation would eventually turn better.

However, the harsh reaction of the government was not the only crippling factor: internal disputes among the main activists of the campaign made it hard to work together too. Although the activists tried to put their personal disputes aside for the sake of the campaign, the situation was particularly challenging for younger activists joining the campaign, as they felt like having to take a side.
Another challenge came up due to the horizontal leadership structure of the campaign. Although the campaign activists did not want to reproduce vertical traditional leadership model, it was challenging for some not to see themselves or to act as leaders or guardians of the campaign. The internal challenges remained until now mainly untold although some of the campaign members believe that unfolding the internal problems could help younger generations of activists not to reproduce similar mistakes.
Probably one of the biggest mistakes of the campaign was that the founders of the campaign put all their eggs in one basket: feminist activists from different groups and backgrounds came together to make the campaign happen, but they also let the campaign become much bigger than what they could handle. This resulted in the women’s movement to be swallowed by the campaign itself. The campaign became soon almost equivalent to the women’s movement. As a consequence, those who did not see themselves as members or activists of the campaign were left out from the women’s movement and were seen as outsiders.
An important experience
Was the “One Million Signatures for the Repeal of Discriminatory Laws” campaign a mistake of Iranian women’s movement? Absolutely not. Perhaps its activists have not yet found the courage and momentum to talk clearly about the mistakes, but it does not mean that the campaign did not have any achievements. The campaign was not only an outstanding experience for Iranian women’s movement to get to know its own power and difficulties as well as the society’s. It was a great learning moment for the whole civil society of Iran on how hard but yet so important it is to stand together for a cause, to resist the outside pressure and to refrain from inside fractures and/or to resolve them.
The campaign managed to extend the network of the women’s movement beyond the main cities of the country. Before the campaign, the women’s movement of Iran used to be elitist and remained at hands of some few activists concentrated in Tehran and a few other towns of Iran. Gatherings were attended by the same persons over and over. Thanks to the campaign, the movement grew to different and much smaller cities such as Hamedan, Gorgan, Zanjan, Karaj, Yazd and Kermanshaah.

Although the campaign never could pass the first phase of collecting one million signatures to go to the second phase of pressuring the lawmakers to change the law, it did raise awareness about the discriminatory laws against women. In a period of particularly restrictive censorship and suppression, the campaign was one of the rare voices still available in and for the society.
The founders of the campaign announced that the campaign could gather “hundreds of thousands” signatures by 2009, but there are unfortunately no evidence for such a number. Beyond this quantification, the campaign founders may eventually find the courage to talk openly about the disputes that raised and to give access to the younger generation about their achievements and defeats, so that they would eventually build their future civic actions upon them.

This case study was developed by Maryam Mirza for the Centre for Training and
Consultancy (CTC).

Photo from Human Rights Watch website: