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In Honor of August 27; the Third Anniversary of Campaign

Face-to-Face approach, the symbol of struggle in the One Million Signature Campaign

Interview with Ms. Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani

Wednesday 26 August 2009, by admin

Introduction: On 12 June 2006, the anniversary of the Solidarity Day of Iranian Women, a peaceful gathering of women’s groups took place at Haft-e-Tir Square in Tehran. One week prior to this gathering, the educational booklet called the "Effect of Laws on Women’s Lives" was distributed across Tehran by participating women. The booklet explained the legal discrimination that the participants in the gathering sought to change. After this gathering, which was organized to protest against the discriminatory laws, various groups of women got together to pursue the resolutions of the gathering. After three months (from June to August) conferring with each other and exchanging ideas, these women founded "The One Million Signature Campaign". This collective campaign was officially launched on 27 August 2006 in Tehran. The campaign started with a gathering of 54 people and with 118 signatures of supporters and activists of the campaign from various groups and schools of thought. Since then, and despite all the ups and downs, the number of activists and members of the campaign has been increasing steadily and the campaign has continued to grow until today. The campaign aims to collect one million signatures in support of a petition addressed to the Iranian Parliament asking for the revision and reform of current laws which discriminate against women, such as equal rights in marriage; equal rights to divorce; an end to polygamy and temporary marriage; an increase in the age of criminal responsibility to 18 for both girls and boys; rights for women to pass on nationality to their children; equal "Dieh" (compensation for bodily injury or death) between women and men; equal inheritance rights; reform of laws that reduce punishment for offenders in cases of honor killings; and equal testimony rights in courts. One of the main aims of the Campaign is to educate Iranian citizens, particularly women, about the negative impact of these discriminatory laws on the lives of women and society as a whole. Many international organizations, especially human rights organizations, have expressed their support for the Campaign. The most important and helpful type of support comes from independent human rights and women’s rights organizations around the world. The One Million Signatures Campaign has been awarded the prestigious Global Women’s Rights Award from the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF). Ms. Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, the notable Iranian journalist, women’s rights leader and community activist, answered a few questions about this campaign in an interview with CODIR.

CODIR: Beside other traditional approaches used in social movements, one of the approaches that the One Million Signature Campaign (OMSC) has taken to reach its goals, is direct dialogue with people and women in particular. Could you please explain this approach and why you chose to practice it?

Noushin Ahmadi: As you mentioned, one of the methods we use in our campaign and in other coalitions in the women’s movement, is direct dialogue and "Face-to-Face" with people. In choosing this name for this method, we were inspired by a poem written by a great equity-seeking Iranian woman, Tahereh Ghorattol-ain, who was executed for her heroic fights and her equity-seeking ideas and ideals. She writes in one of her poems: when I cast sight face-to-face / I will delineate your sorrow point-by-point, in every detail. You can see how this term (Face-to-Face) that Tahereh has left as a legacy for the generation after her matches our goals in the women’s movement. Those demands and pleas are no different from Tahereh’s humane and noble goals and fully conform with them. In response to the second part of your question, however, I have to say that in recent years, the activists of the OMSC and the defenders of equal rights in Iran, have turned to pragmatic approaches in their efforts to have the discriminatory laws changed and to draw the attention of public opinion towards the existing laws which deprive us, women, of our human and equal rights. The reason for our attention to this approach, in addition to intensification of bans and escalation of censorship of women’s news, was our significant and lasting street experience including a few peaceful gatherings in the city parks and squares. We organized and held a few gatherings and demonstrations on the city streets in Tehran in recent years, and naturally, we gained very useful and valuable experiences. It was the pursuit of this process that ultimately led us to "face-to-face dialogue with people", which is a new move in the framework of the women’s movement. Education and dialogue is aimed at action towards social changes. Now, 3 years after the launch of this pragmatic approach, it has attracted the attention of other activists in civil society and is being institutionalized. In other words, this approach is being legitimized and is finding its place beside other approaches and techniques of struggle in the country.

CODIR: Now, 3 years after establishing this approach, could you please elaborate on the characteristics and advantages of this approach for our readers?

Noushin Ahmadi: One of the numerous positive and gratifying characteristics of this pragmatic philosophy is, in fact, acceleration in evolving openness in the public atmosphere of society, that is, expediting the process of pluralism and more openness in the tight texture of social relations. The diverse experience of the past 30 years has shown that opening of the public space in society could not be achieved only through philosophical and cognitive discussions in small circles. It could not transform the complex and wide-ranging texture of the public domain. Such universal philosophical anecdotes are usually repeated again and again in response to ontological mysteries and queries, and have nothing to do with everyday life. Therefore, these discussions fall short of making a change in the social texture and objective associations in society. In fact, such philosophical dialogues, without penetrating the texture of the daily life of people, and being far from social practice, cannot have any practical impact on the situation of our women. Therefore, under the current circumstances in Iran, any pluralism or openness in our social and legal relations will have to go through the "practice" gate. This means a transformation in the shape and structure of struggle. It means not getting stuck in repeating dialogues that regrettably have become clich�d because they have become disconnected from the everyday life of people.

CODIR: Changing the discriminatory laws against women, which is one of the main demands of the Campaign, certainly involves legal work and requires legal expertise. How did you manage to integrate this aspect of work with the "Face-to-Face" approach? How have these two aspects of work interacted with each other?

Noushin Ahmadi: Before I answer this question which might spark sensitivity, I have to state quite clearly that I by no means oppose the legal and expert arguments of lawyers. Quite the opposite, I totally agree with that. The professional and expert activity of lawyers is an important part of the social struggle of women. This is true not only in Iran, but also in a majority of countries around the world in which women’s movements have had successful accomplishments. However, the problem started when in Iran, due to certain conditions � which is not possible to elaborate on in this short interview � the professional and expert work of lawyers dominated all the facets of women’s struggle. As a result, other non-specialized methods and approaches in civil activism, which are really vital in any social movement, did not get a chance to manifest themselves.

CODIR: How, and with which mechanisms were these restrictions and restraints imposed? Did the lawyers prevent the expansion of the activities of the women’s movement, or were there other reasons?

Noushin Ahmadi: You see, lawyers were by no means the barrier. On the contrary, in my opinion, their presence, efforts, resistance and struggle was very valuable and useful - although it usually did not extend beyond the professional and specialized scope of their work. However, our hands were really tied in Iran and we were limited, because in the area of critiquing the discriminatory laws discussions about "law" and "rights" had become a highly specialized domain and highly professional in nature. Criticizing in this area was inevitably limited to the positive and effective circle of a specific group of legal experts. It was no one’s fault. Alright, in this specialized and narrow sphere, criticizing the laws could not be expanded and publicized across society. It looked like only the lawyers could step into this area. Hence, the laws were criticized and challenged by only a small portion of the society. The active organizations that opposed the laws were structured in a hierarchal or pyramid form, at the top of which, unavoidably, sat a lawyer.

This hierarchal form existed in Iran through the history of women’s legal struggles, since the legal battle of Mehranguiz Manuchehrian (about 50 years ago). This form dominated over all the legal movements and protests of women up until the launch of OMSC. In fact, half a century ago, at the time when Dr. Mehranguiz Manuchehrian was active, this pyramid form was considered a new, effective and successful form in women’s legal battles. However, up until the launch of OMSC, the one-dimensional and old fashioned nature of this model became a barrier in public critique of the laws. In other words, since this model had cast a shadow over the public aspect of the women’s legal movement, inadvertently it was preventing the challenge of the laws by the women’s movement. Change was necessary to allow the movement to become a public and widespread one and to advance as a means for the broad mobilization and participation of women. The dominance of this structure over the social and civil struggles of women, despite its positive and lasting function, had not only restricted the fight for changing or reforming the law and legal rights into the hands of a few elite women, but its structural limitations did not allow the broad participation of the young generations both in terms of age and social privileges. The youth did not even show an interest in joining these small hierarchal structures and working with them. Fortunately, with the introduction of OMSC and utilizing the "Face-to-Face" method, as a result generalizing the protest against the laws across the general public, the dominance of this form of legal struggle was over and it became just one option beside other models. This success has freed the energy and potential of the women’s movement and attracted the young generation to legal protests more than ever. It will also have a profound impact on critiquing and discarding the traditional beliefs of activists. It can convince many activists that if the laws are for all people, then all people should have the right to participate in overturning and reforming them. It will let the judgment of activists about the fairness or unfairness of these laws be voiced and heard by public opinion and by the authorities. It should be noted that a significant part of this victory is undoubtedly the result of the democratic and collective work and viewpoint of lawyers working in the Campaign (such as Shirin Ebadi, Mehranguiz Kaar�). In fact, it was due to their commitment and devotion to the demands of their country that women eventually broke the dominance of their expert merits in this process.

CODIR: Within the open and plural relations that currently exist in Iran’s women’s movement, diverse political and ideological orientations coexist, the reflection of which is naturally observed in the Campaign. Ms. Ahmadi, does the Campaign engage in ideological encounters and challenges during its activities? Has this ever created problems for the Campaign and its activists?

Noushin Ahmadi: This question is again one of those that may spark sensitivity. Answering questions of this nature is truly difficult for me. Yet, to speak of my own experience in order to answer your question, I have to say that in the past twenty years, we thought that generalizing and repeating clich�d terms in debates, such as laicism, secularism, socialism, humanism and suchlike, could free our social relations from the dominance of all kinds of "red lines" and violence, making it more moderate and institutionalized. However, an institutionalized society can only exercise and enjoy institutionalization through its objective relations in everyday life, not by repeating slogans that have now become stories of despair.

Now we are witnessing that the young generation of the women’s movement, relying on its real life experiences, has decided to distance itself from abstract debates. It seeks to consciously lift itself to the lively current of daily life, pay attention to pragmatic philosophy and put this course to test with self-esteem and full preparation. In fact, the young activists of women’s movement, in the Campaign alliance and other alliances, having this tool (Face-to-Face approach), will knock on the people’s doors in the cities and towns of their residence. They use any opportunity and chance they get, at the market and on the streets, in taxi and on the bus, in student dormitories, in residential buildings, and at any place in their daily life that they can, to have a dialogue with citizens and to get them involved in this breath-taking civil struggle. We have all experienced time after time that the core discussion and interaction of the activists with citizens is mainly free from any type of religious-ideological argument and largely hinges around expressing common pains and problems. In fact, instead of creating contradictory and challenging situations by engaging in ideological debates, and discussing whether "left" or "Islamic" or "nationalist" ideology" or even the "human rights" ideological argument could solve women’s issues better, the women’s movement has now promoted itself to engage in the challenges of resolving everyday problems of women. In other words, it has returned the women’s movement to where it belongs in principle. Therefore, instead of taking shelter behind political and religious-ideological lines, it moves beyond those borders and cliches. It has also consciously changed its dialogue to common pain dialogue in the daily life of people. In this way, it has aimed for a profound � yet gradual - reform and openness in the cultural and social texture of the society.

The common problems of Iranian women are tied to tangible matters of everyday life, the solutions of which are non-ideological and earthly. That is why discussion and the exchange of ideas with our citizens about the necessity to change and reform the discriminatory laws inevitably draws in the very context of life, the institutional nature of relations, and departs from over-the-top stories and perfectionist and absolutist discussions. Even the experience of some of the Campaign activists at the time they were arrested (when they debated with the police) shows that they, too, did not engage in religious-ideological challenges and discussions when confronted with the equity- and right-seeking detained activists. Rather, they mostly argue that collecting signatures and surveying people is a political venture and directed by the US. I would like to emphasize that even police officers and sergeants do not engage in ideological discussions although this does not apply of course to court sessions in which they bring up Sharia laws and Islamic principles. However, revolutionary court is not part of the daily life, but it is a place for the ideological debates by the holders of power.

Security and intelligence authorities have repeatedly emphasized this point during the hearings that they have no problem with the demands of the Campaign. The clear meaning of this statement is that they do not see the demands of women to be in eternal contradiction with Islamic principles, or any of the official or unofficial religions.

CODIR: So what is it that the security forces and the revolutionary court have a problem with in the Campaign activity and see it as a risk to national security? What is it in your activities that could be considered detrimental to the political system? This is when you, yourself, have on several occasions clearly stated that your activities are totally non-violent, non-political and within the framework of the laws of country.

Noushin Ahmadi: Believe me, I have asked myself this question many times. If they are telling the truth and do not have any problem with the content and subject matter of the 100-year old demands of this movement, then to which part of this popular and self-developed movement are they opposed? What kind of contradiction and paradox this is that on one hand they are not opposed to our demands, but at the same time, suppress us, take us to court, incarcerate us, and create a thousand barriers in the way of our peaceful and legal activities. Recently they declared that membership of the Campaign is deemed illegal. What is the risk of collecting signatures from people, for presentation to the legislature, to the security of the country? What is it that makes it a criminal act?

As one of the members of the OMSC, I have thought very much about this paradox and finally reached a not very certain" hypothesis. That is, that decision makers and the security services have a problem with the methods and strategy of this newborn movement, that is with the icon of this struggle: the Face-to-Face approach. Now, if we assume that this hypothesis is correct to some degree and generalize it cautiously, we may arrive at this conclusion. They may think that if this specific and non-violent approach is not prohibited and suppressed, it has the capacity to practically engage millions of Iranian citizens with the rightful demands of women and involve a large number of people in this cause for building the future.

Imagine that if one day such broad involvement takes shape, what a powerful impact it would have on the whole democracy-seeking process in Iran. This collaboration is happening outside the circles of power and beyond the context of official ideologies. It engages with outsiders and with the voluntary participation of people. It will therefore have a colossal and multifaceted impact on the democratization of the cultural and social texture of society. In fact, this new approach (Face-to-Face) and the broad participation of people could help reduce existing boundaries in society. These boundaries, whether ideological, gender-related, ethnic, or religious�etc. are the main sources of violence in our country. Furthermore, this multifaceted impact will also lay the grounds for an understanding the objective and institutionalized logic of the development of society.

CODIR: Among the many facets and areas of activities that you named, if we want to identify one main symbol for the Campaign’s work, what would that symbol be?

Noushin Ahmadi: You ask a very important question. In my opinion, if we want to highlight one facet of the Campaigns functions as a new symbol for struggle within Iran’s women’s movement, this symbol or icon of struggle is the approach that the women’s movement in the Campaign has chosen in order to make changes in the real texture of everyday life of women. The symbol of struggle in the Campaign has even gone beyond the civil goals and its broad demands - i.e. equal rights and legal equity - and by relying on the Face-to-Face approach has now expanded its capacities. Almost all of the members and activists of the women’s movement now admit that changing and reforming the legal system and all the discriminatory laws, are integral and strategic parts of the legal battle of the Campaign. At any step of the way, if any of these laws are changed by anyone or any power or faction in any context or with any motivation, it would certainly be welcomed, because the activists of the Campaign are not after gaining any personal or partisan benefits and do not intend to place themselves on one side of the table in the existing tensions between governments. Also, they do not wish to take any side in particular among the ruling factions. Therefore, any small change, regardless of who drives it and with what incentive, is indeed a gain for women. Albeit, the legal battle of women to change all the current unjust laws will continue steadily for years. The major and multifaceted effect of Face-to-Face approach should not be underrated, because undoubtedly the distinct characteristic of the Campaign compared to other activities is in fact this same new face-to-face approach and involvement of citizens in the Campaign. This is an approach or path that any small change or reform in laws knowingly made in its course, will inevitably change the balance of power in favor of women, as it is achieved with the practical involvement of the citizens themselves. In fact, the campaign intends to show, that with gradual and collective action of citizens, that gaining rights will never be achieved without direct involvement in one’s destiny. The true essence of all change lies in determination for collective participation. Iranian women can characterize and have the right to define their human position and historic right through their direct and collective presence.

It is not clear why this pivotal and clear point has been neglected by female activists who criticize the Campaign. Let me emphasize right here that the Campaign symbol goes even beyond echoing and repeating human rights a thousand times by the elite. The symbol of our struggle in the women’s movement inside the country is to gain the rights and respect that is founded in the practical and active participation of women themselves. Yes, the symbol of the One Million Signature Campaign is not simply human rights for women and by the elite. It is important to gain human rights � even it is half-done � but with the presence and participation of the women themselves.

CODIR: A significant portion of Iran’s society still carries traditional beliefs. What effect has this characteristic of society had on the Campaign’s work and what has been the approach of the Campaign in dealing with this matter?

Noushin Ahmadi: Through practicing the democratic and multi-faceted Face-to-Face dialogue, the activists of the women’s movement, and the youth in particular, have got a chance now to make the most of tradition in order to transform its essence. When they hand the educational booklets to diverse groups in society, along with traditional snacks and dishes (nuts and Aash or potage), this shows an innovative and smart use of traditions that for centuries have promoted fate for any change in the life of women. Nevertheless, the women’s movement makes the most of these same traditions and purges them of any negative content and fate-related superstitions. It uplifts them to serve as a means to expand the boundaries of collective action.

CODIR: With many thanks and wishing success for the Campaign and its tireless activists.

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