One Million Strong: A Campaign for Equality in Iran

One million signatures. It’s a large number to be sure, but in a country of 73 million, it may become a reality. This is what the One Million Signatures Campaign (“Change for Equality”) in Iran seeks to do.

Launched in 2006 the campaign has undertaken a mission to change discriminatory laws and secure fundamental human and social rights for women in a country that has a long history of human rights abuses. The campaign was born out of a peaceful protest on June 12th, 2006 as a continuation of the demand for equal treatment of Iranian women, and has grown into a widely publicized movement.

The social inequities in Iran are numerous and intractable. Women are marginalized by a legal system that dictates that a woman’s life is worth half that of a man’s. Yet Iranian women have not always felt the need to demand more rights. Before 1900, Iranian societal power was generally thought to be an equitable balance between male and female. However, following a Constitutional Revolution in 1906, women suddenly found their social status legally lower than that of man’s. Shortly after that revolution, the first women’s rights activists began to appear, and their numbers and force grew steadily throughout much of the 20th century, culminating in the years between 1962 and 1978. In 1963, women were awarded the right to vote and stand for public office, and they received substantially increased legal rights under the Family Protection Law of 1975. Their progress was stopped short however, with the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In that year the government leader, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown and the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, became the Supreme Leader of the country. Khomeini established an Islamic Republic, and the recent developments in women’s rights evaporated. The regime was an oppressive, conservatively religious force within Iranian society, predisposed to unequal rights for women. Within months of its founding the government repealed the Family Protection Law, imposed a strict dress code on all women, segregated beaches and sports by sex, banned married women from attending regular schools and reduced the legal marriage age for girls to 13.

This new regime rejected both “Western” (Euro-American) and “Eastern” (Soviet) models of governance, and rooted itself firmly in Sharia, or Islamic law. As a result, there is little tolerance for secularism in contemporary Iran; the government is considered a religious authority, formulating a legal doctrine in strict accordance with its interpretation of the Koran. Many rights activists advocate for a “dynamic interpretation” of these laws, which takes into account the particular circumstances and contexts in which the law is applied. However, any calls for legal reform have gone unheeded and the government has continued to impose a conservative form of law. In the years following the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, there was a proliferation of human rights movements, particularly relating to women’s rights.

On June 12th, 2006, Iranian women’s rights activists gathered in Haft-e Tir Square in Tehran, the country’s capital, to petition the government to change discriminatory laws against women. Although the protest was peaceful, it was violently broken up by police forces. The activists organized and launched the official campaign just two months later on August 27th. In subsequent years, the campaign has ardently fought for change, despite constant and often brutal opposition from the government and more conservative sectors of society.

On August 27th, 2006 the activists launched a website explaining their demands and motives. The website, we-change.org, acts as a forum for discussion and debate as well as a news site where those involved or interested in the campaign can follow its progress. Among the first documents posted are a description of the movement and its mission, an explanation of the current laws and their systematic discrimination against women, and the petition itself. In the following years the website was greatly expanded—there is now a section on the activists, including personal articles and interviews with the founders of the campaign. There is a large educational section, with articles explaining the history of women’s rights in Iran and documenting rights violations and abuses. Finally there is a news feed, replete with reports of activists being arrested and interrogated by the government.

At the original protest in June 2006, the women circulated a pamphlet outlining their grievances, taking issue with fundamental social rights—childcare, criminal responsibility, citizenship and inheritance. Under Iranian law a mother cannot legally support her child, and does not have the right to make any decisions regarding education or healthcare. She is not even allowed to buy her child a house; if she does, the father has the legal right to sell or rent it whenever he chooses. Moreover, an Iranian man is allowed four permanently married wives and an infinite amount of “temporarily married” wives; the Movement’s website claims that “a visit to the family court shows that many husbands, even at the expense of hiding it from their first wives, unjustly use this ‘right by law’.” In addition, young girls are subjected to more stringent legal doctrine, eligible for execution at the age of 8 years and nine months, in contrast to boys who are not considered legally responsible until the age of 14 years and six months. The pamphlet also discusses citizenship, which does not pass on from a mother to a child. If a woman marries an Afghan man, not an uncommon occurrence, her child is not considered Iranian, and therefore cannot legally live or go to school in Iran. Only the father’s citizenship is considered heritable.

These are the laws specifically targeted by the campaign; the activists urge the government to reconsider and modify them to afford women greater status and power in society. In addition to this goal, the campaign articulates several other objectives, including “promoting democratic action,” “paying [their] dues” through educating their fellow citizens, and promoting “collaboration and cooperation for social change.” It enumerates its methods for achieving these goals through a grassroots, community-based initiative—collecting signatures door-to-door and recruiting women on the internet and at public gathering places like parks and universities. The Campaign also holds seminars and conferences to educate the public about the legal and social inequities in Iran.

The movement emphasizes that it is neither anti-government nor anti-Islamic. It has fashioned itself as neither an opposition group nor a force for revolutionary change. Rather, it seeks to work within the existing system to create change and articulate the demands of a major segment of the Iranian population to the government. Similarly, the demand to reform and change discriminatory laws is not in contradiction to Islamic principles; rather, is in line with Iran’s international commitments. Iran is a signatory to the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights and as such, is required to eliminate all forms of discrimination.

Ultimately, social change and the elimination of injustice are not easily achieved. The true path to achievement of equality will not be paved through existing power structures or a dialogue solely with men and women in positions of power. Rather, achieving the goals of the campaign will be based largely on a strategy which seeks to raise awareness among individual women and citizens about their identity and their status within society.

Aly is a senior at Fordham College, and can be reached a akravitz@fordham.edu

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