The One Million Signatures Campaign: An Effort Born on the Streets

Sussan Tahmasebi*

The One Million Signatures Campaign, is an effort designed to raise awareness among the public through face to face discussions and collection of signatures of citizen on a petition addressed to the Iranian parliament. The petition asks that laws discriminating against women be reformed and brought in line with international human rights standards. The Campaign, was inaugurated on a hot summer afternoon in late August of 2006 on the streets of Tehran. We had planned to inaugurate the Campaign in Ra’ad Conference Hall, with speakers, celebrity supporters and founders explaining the aims of the effort, but were prevented from doing so.  Instead of holding an inaugural seminar, we collected signatures right there, outside the conference hall, and on the streets, from those who had come to attend our event. We explained our goals and recruited volunteers.  Perhaps it was an appropriate way to start our Campaign, as one of its main aims was to reach ordinary people on the streets, in public spaces, on the metro, on buses, in parks, wherever they could be found.   The women’s movement had been discussing the need to reach the public on the “streets” and in the public space, and despite some attempts at doing so, the activities of the women’s movement in Iran remained confined mostly to conference halls, seminars and  trainings, where the audience often ended up being other activists. The Campaign, despite serious pressures and crackdowns, ended up being the first effort to have a sustained presence on the streets and in public spaces. After all, this was our goal.  In fact the street ended up being the only place that was open to us, as from then on, we were systematically denied meeting space and conference halls. 

The Need to Change Laws

Iran’s legal code is based on an extremely conservative interpretation of Sharia law and as such imbeds in it discrimination against women, which is justified on the grounds of “equity” and “complementarity.”  According to the drafters of laws and to Iranian officials who over-turned some hard won legal gains for women prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women and men, in accordance with Islam, have differing roles and responsibilities and therefore should have differing rights.   At the same time, the social reality of women’s lives has never lived up to the legal realities of the Islamic Republic. For example, Iranian women today make up over 60% of university graduates--meaning that women are more educated than their male counterparts. Women are getting married on average at age 25, whereas by law 13 is the legal age of marriage. The birth rate in Iran is very low and on par with many European countries. Further Iranian women today, are doctors, lawyer, journalists, Engineers, teachers, parliamentarians and even truck drivers.  But the law keeps on viewing them as in need of permanent guardianship by fathers and husbands and values them at half of a man. The Campaign sought to address some of these discrepancies. Specifically it sought to ensure  equal rights for women in marriage, equal rights to divorce for women, end to polygamy and temporary marriage, increase of age of criminal responsibility to 18 for both girls and boys, right 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, equal testimony rights for men and women in court, and other laws which discriminate against women[1].

A Dual Approach, Multiple Responses

The Campaign activists relied on a face-to-face approach for raising awareness among the Iranian public. Activists would engage in discussions with the public, explain about the laws and the negative consequences of such laws on Iranians society. If citizens were in agreement that the laws should change, then they would sign the petition to the Iranian parliament asking for changes. Prior to signature collection activists would be trained on the legal issues, on how to engage with the public and security and safety measures.  They would then be able to collect signatures for the petition.  The need to change laws was an issue that had been raised by Iranian women’s rights activists across the spectrum for years. For some it was the least of demands and for others it was the highest of demands. It was however a demand which could be classified as a least common denominator, around which women from differing perspectives, from several generations and from different backgrounds could come together. The Campaign’s demands, its openness and the way in which it encouraged agency of citizens (from a signature to collection of signatures to more intensive involvement) was apparent in the great reception it received from citizens. Over 1000 individuals in over 20 provinces took part in the Campaign’s training courses, in order to begin collecting signatures.

Activists were offered an opportunity to write about their experiences of signature collection in the Face-to-Face section[2] of the site of Change for Equality. In this way, the experiences of activists would be shared with the public in almost real time. When reading these accounts, one finds that activists would often begin by collecting signatures from their friends and family, then move to other social circles and eventually go to the streets and public spaces. Also, these accounts point to several different reactions by the public to the efforts of the campaign. There are those who are in agreement and sign the petition. Then there are those who have to be convinced that this is the right thing to do and that their agency can have real impact. Of course, there some citizens who can’t be convinced to sign, either they don’t believe in women’s equality or they feel that  their signature and their demand will not be heard by officials, driving home the point that awareness raising is still an appropriate strategy in Iran.

A Security Response to our Peaceful Efforts

We thought that our efforts in the Campaign were so peaceful and legal that it would not be met with a security response. But still we decided to have a membership based on individuals rather than organizations. We knew that Organizations which were facing increasing pressure under Ahmadi Nejad, would be too vulnerable. Individuals however could withdraw, leaving the network intact.  Further, we knew that no one group or individual could be at the helm, rather committees would move the work of the Campaign forward and responsibilities could rotate. We realized that in our easy to read Campaign materials[3] we would have to explain that we were not working against Islam. So we pointed out there were differing interpretations to Sharia Law, and that demanding changes to current law,  in line with Iran’s international obligations, would not be in contradiction to Islam.

Despite all this we never anticipated the crackdown that ensued after we started the Campaign.  When the first activist was arrested, we didn’t believe it was a systematic crackdown.  Instead, we questioned her approach. When our members were prevented from travel, we thought it was related to other issues. But the crackdown continued, and we realized that it was systematic. We were prevented from holding meetings and conferences, even small meetings in our own homes were interrupted, newspapers were told not to write about the Campaign, and our members kept getting arrested while collecting signatures.  We had to become creative in our efforts. Otherwise we would risk withdrawing from the streets.

In order to keep reaching the public and to stay safe, we started organizing group signature collection drives.  The groups would go to the mountains on the weekend and talk to the public about our demands. Some would approach the hikers, while others kept watch to ensure safety and prevent arrest. We used the same approach in other public spaces.

In an effort to convey our message to larger audiences theatre skits would be performed about the legal issues we were working to change. Audiences of 200-300 would gather around the performers, thinking that they were witness to a real event. The audience  would then leave the park, taking the issue into their homes for further discussion and questioning.

When arrested, activists would be held in the public ward of Evin prison with female inmates.  Campaign activists quickly realized that many of the female prisoners were in fact some of the people most negatively impacted by discriminatory laws.  They started writing their stories[4]. Tales of forced marriage, marriage at a young age and unable to divorce abusive husbands, would be retold by activists on the site of the Campaign to demonstrate the destructive impact of discrimination.  In turn, other activists would write about their counterparts in prison[5]. 

Our Impact

While we were not able to collect the one million signatures we set out to, we did however have other important achievements. First, we managed to create a discourse on women’s rights at the highest levels of government and in the public. Even with our arrests, which created fear among the public with respect to joining our efforts or even in signing our petition, nagging questions remained:  What is it that they are asking for, that is deserving of this extreme response?  Isn’t what they are asking for in fact just? Don’t their demands represent the demands of the majority of the public?  Even the most conservative groups we talked to agreed that our demands were just and explained that they would not accept anything less for their own daughters! 

Conservative women who had previously engaged in closed door lobbying also came to the fore to ask for some of the same changes.  Minor changes in the laws did take place, such as changes in inheritance law, changes in regulations requiring equal compensation to both men and women by insurance companies in cases of accidents and limited reform of  nationality laws, allowing women to pass on their nationality to their children. These changes were as much a response to the realities of Iranian society, as the efforts of the Campaign.  Lawmakers  could no longer avoid these realities, realizing that  pressure was building up at the grassroots level.

To drive this point home, it is important to recall the election campaigns of three of four presidential candidates in 2009 [6]. The two reformist candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, offered progressive plans to address women’s status, which included a revision of laws discriminating against women. The conservative candidate, Mohsen Rezaie, mentioned that laws should be changed to ensure “equality” of women in the social sphere. The term “equality” belonged to the Iranian women’s movement and in particular the Campaign. This was  possibly the first time a conservative candidate used it instead of the term “equity.”  Ahmadi Nejad who became president as a result of the contested elections of 2009, only made regressive campaign promises with respect to women, which he pushed through during his first and second terms.

Now in 2013, a new president will take office in Iran. Women’s groups anticipate that Rouhani will be more positive toward their demands.  Chief among his campaign promises has been to set in motion the process of reviewing laws which discriminate against women.  This is also a main demand of the women’s movement.  Whether the One Million Signatures Campaign, which like many other social movements experienced a hiatus after the unrest following the 2009 elections, will once again re-emerge  to push for equality is unclear.   What is for certain, is that the demands of the Campaign will remain a major and basic demand of the Iranian women’s movement and the Iranian public. We will continue to push for women’s equality, including under the law, until it is achieved. The lesson from the Campaign is that  the independent women’s movement gets its strength from its ability to engage with the public and so it should continue to talk to citizens on the streets and in the public sphere and wherever else they can be found.  

[1] Tahmasebi, Sussan; One Million Signatures Campaign, Answers to Your Most Frequently Asked Questions, February 2008;

[3] See: The Effect of Laws On Women’s Lives

[4] For example see:  Hosseinzadeh, Mahboube: All Women are Victims, Not Just Those in Prison, April 2007.

[5] For example see:  Azad, Nafiseh: Write Mehrnoush, The Truth is Your Salvation! December 2009.

[6] Ardalan, Davar Iran, Iranian Women Demand Change: Soap Box NPR, June 2009 

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