Iranian Women's One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality: The Inside Story

Iranian Women's One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality: The Inside Story


Iranian Women’s One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality: The Inside Story (Translation Series) (book, English) Author:Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani (2009) 

Download it on the Women’s Learning Partnership website  (Available in additional languages)

This volume details the history, strategies, and values that brought together a diverse group of Iranian women, men, and rights activists for the well-known women’s equality campaign. It is a valuable case study of a new model for grassroots movements in the 21st century, applicable not only in societies ruled by autocratic governments or influenced by radical fundamentalism, but also in more open and tolerant societies that have yet to achieve full equality for women.

This Campaign received incredulous praise from famous women’s rights activists like, Mary Robinson (former President of Ireland), Shirin Ebadi (Iranian Nobel Peace Laureate), Azar Nafisi (author and activist) and Yakin Erturk (UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women).


Book Excerpt


Foreword by Mahnaz Afkhami In Iranian Women’s One Million Signatures: Campaign for Equality The Inside Story by Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani

Women’s Learning Partnership Translation Series

The volume you hold in your hands is the second in a series of translations launched by the Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP). The goal of the series is to make available to the widest possible audience works of importance to women that are produced in the developing world. We focus especially on those that define women’s issues, identify fields of opportunity, and chart strategies to improve women’s lives.

The present volume bears a close connection to the first, Guide to Equality in the Family in the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia). Both books offer well-researched arguments that bring together thinking on religion, human rights, and constitutional and national law with insights from the social sciences in ways that will aid the cause of reform. The Maghreb case drives home the value of raising awareness about women’s issues at both the popular and elite levels, the need for NGOs to work together, and the importance of maintaining a disciplined focus on issues of immediate concern to women. In the pages that follow, Iranian activist Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani ably shows that campaigners for women’s rights in Iran have moved beyond the basic tenets of the Maghreb campaign to advance new understandings and new methods of activism.

Iran’s One Million Signatures Campaign for the Reform of Discriminatory Laws is an extraordinary phenomenon. It is democratic, nonhierarchical, open, and evolving in a polity that is none of those things. The campaign brings to mind the image of raindrops falling, forming rivulets, and then converging on an ever-larger scale until they become a river. First there is a murmur, a trickle, and then, gradually, a torrent of voices sounding together and reaching far and wide.

The genius of the movement lies in its capacity to connect its members’ thoughts and deeds in ways that adapt and change as conditions require. The context is on the one hand the clash between an Iranian civil society with a century-old record of growing sophistication and important roles for women, and on the other an archaic legal system that cannot be reconciled with the exigencies of modern life. With each passing day, the tension between these two contradictory realities ratchets up a bit, fueling a sense of urgency that may help to explain why so many in the campaign are so lucid and selfless about their struggle. It is almost as if they simply cannot afford to be any other way, given what is at stake and the gravity of the circumstances.

Noushin’s account provides a valuable case study of how to build a movement in the 21st century, not only to bring change in societies ruled by autocratic governments or influenced by radical fundamentalism, but also in the more open and tolerant societies that have yet to achieve full equality for women. As a chief reason for the campaign’s astounding success in mobilizing a powerful network, she cites the deliberate practice of constant, searching discussion among a core group of experienced activists who are also open to the views of the thousands of younger women who have thronged to become campaign activists themselves, often at considerable personal risk.

This is not to say that all the lessons Noushin cites are positive ones. She describes the ways that thirty years of revolutionary tumult, preceded by more than a decade of ideological infighting, smashed oppositional politics into often-useless shards. She then shows, however, how the founders of the One Million Signatures Campaign learned from this and managed to set aside ideological differences, avoid distractions and emphasize specific, concrete demands to attract the support of women from a variety of backgrounds and belief systems. Agreement need not be total. It can be centered on incremental changes and reforms that are thoroughly within the realm of the plausible.

This “circumstantial” or “issue-based” approach to feminism has not only won the campaign legions of supporters, but also helped it to form a nimble coalition of women’s groups. Together they were able to push back parliamentary passage of a nefarious “Family Protection Act” first proposed by President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad. The same strategy led six organizations and seven hundred individual activists to prepare a list of women’s demands for presentation to the 2009 presidential candidates. That effort mobilized many women who were unhappy with the regime’s pre-selection of candidates and the consequent lack of choice. They took advantage of the election campaign to connect with other networks and expand their own.

Their demands led the two preapproved “reform” candidates, Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi, to shift their public positions toward gender equality, moving away from the “complementarity” model for male-female relations favored by the Islamic Republic. The campaigns of both men also then vowed to support ratification of the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)—a document that Iran’s Guardian Council has condemned as “anti-Islamic.”

The diversity of women and their massive participation made their power explicit. It created a dynamic relationship between their visibility and their power—each strengthened and augmented the other. The massive demonstrations that broke out across Iran after the contested presidential election of 12 June 2009 further demonstrated the strength of the women’s network, which now seemed to work as one with the labor and student movements.

Observers noted the display of ways and means for linking seasoned activists with one another and with everyday citizens through face-to-face contacts and door-to-door campaigning. Attentive Iran-watchers also marveled at other achievements: the campaign’s robust understanding that its aim is not merely to get a million autographs but to recruit a million activists; the maturity with which the campaign has dealt with the Iranian diaspora as well as regional and international advocacy organizations; the campaign’s deft use of state-of-the-art technology to reach backers at home and abroad; the skillful marrying of ideas to actions; and finally, the “intersectionality” revealed by the campaign’s ability to integrate the women’s efforts with those of numerous men (often from student, labor, democracy, and human-rights groups). “Intersectionality” is an ideal more often praised than realized, but the One Million Signatures Campaign has shown how the thing can be done.

In the end, the simple courage and perseverance of women whose peaceful signature-gathering is condemned as a crime against the state reminds us that ideas and beliefs cannot be silenced. During the brief three-and-a-half years that the One Million Signatures Campaign has been in existence, every original signatory of its charter has been harassed, imprisoned, dragged into court, and sentenced to months or years of imprisonment. Many others have been subjected to similar punishment. But still the campaign grows.

The rivulets that wended their way to become a stream, and then made a rushing river, keep cascading on. The torrent flows along the long arc of history that Martin Luther King, Jr., once said bends toward justice. The sound of its waters is now so loud that all the world can hear.

Mahnaz Afkhami Founder and President, Women’s Learning Partnership

Book Review


Book Review 

Ahmadi Khorasani, Noushin. (2010). Iranian Women’s One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality: The Inside Story. Bethesda, MD: Women’s Learning Partnership, 183 pp., $12.00, ISBN: 978-0981465203. 

This book is essential reading for anyone interested in Iranian women’s history, contemporary Iranian society, and the emergence of Iran’s Green Movement. The book is a compilation and translation of pieces of advo- cacy journalism, first presented in Persian on the Internet by Ahmadi Khorasani. As such, it is a primary document on the rationale and aims of the most important social movement in recent Iranian history: the One Million Signatures Campaign of 2006. The Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP) was and is a sponsor of the campaign. The current president of the WLP, Mahnaz Afkhami, is among the more visible feminist advocates in the post-1979 Iranian diaspora (she was also the minister for women’s affairs under the Pahlavi Dynasty, 1976–1978). These facts make the organizers all the more courageous in their attempt at a postsecular (to use Golbarg Bashi’s phrase), populist, and peaceful feminist campaign. Their efforts drew fire from the Islamic Republic as part of a “velvet revolution” threatening the state in collaboration with foreign powers. Indeed, Ahmadi Khorasani notes the unintended risks of transnational support that, however well intentioned, may undermine the local political work that needs doing (80–82). One of the most important local effects of the One Million Signatures Campaign, she argues in the epilogue, was that it compelled presidential candidates and state officials to engage with the demands of the movement, especially reformist candidates (including the Green Movement’s Mir Hosayn Musavi)— an effect which was only undone by the violent reaction of the state to all dissident voices in the aftermath of the June 2009 elections (89–97). Women have always been part of liberal political movements in Iran—going back at least to the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1906—but this is the first moment in history in which Iranian feminists have served as the vanguard of liberal political dissent. 

According to Ahmadi Khorasani, the “campaign for equality” has neither an organizational hierarchy nor an ideological litmus test for its support- ers. It likely benefits from what recent survey data, as reported by Charles Kurzman in 2008, shows is widespread support for “equal rights” feminist issues (equal pay, equal access to higher education, more equitable marital relationships, and personal status laws affecting such issues as inheritance) among Iranian women. Also, this generation of Iranian women is not just overwhelmingly literate but the most highly educated in Iranian history. That said, some of demands of the campaign are sadly familiar, notably, the desire for protection from the effects of polygamy and unilateral male divorce (16–30). Some demands are reactions to inequities that stem from early modernist reforms such as the Marriage Law of 1931 requiring the state to approve Iranian women’s marriage to non-Iranians (regardless of the faith of the bride and groom). But many more demands are responses to the Islamic Republican enforcement of a version of “complimentary rights” fem- inism anchored in the codification of premodern interpretations of Twelver Shi’ite Islamic laws and social norms. 

The Islamic Republic has overseen an unprecedented practical extension of male authority over the women and has presided over an unequal enforce- ment of laws (particularly in regard to adultery, for which most of those convicted and executed are women). The petition of the Million Signatures Campaign lists some 68 laws in the Civil Code, Penal Code, and Islamic Republican Constitution that it seeks to change, not in the expectation that these changes will be sufficient to establish equal rights for women in Iran but with the firm conviction that these changes are a necessary founda- tion. In addition to a useful narrative of the aims, history, and impact of the Million Signatures Campaign, the book contains seven appendices, which include public statements issued by the campaign during the June 2009 elec- tions, a concise chronology of the campaign’s activities from 2006 through September 2009, a translation of the repealed Family Protection Law of 1975 (which can be compared to a list of specific and current laws targeted for change), and lists of the initial signers of the June 2006 petition. Students of the Iranian women’s movement will find this book comparable in value to women’s magazines of earlier eras and the minutes of the Eastern Women’s Congresses from the Interwar period. 

It is clear from Ahmadi Khorasani’s narrative that earlier women’s groups both inspire and serve as a cautionary tale for today’s movement. Earlier movements tended to factionalize along ideological lines, party lines, and even as a result of personality conflicts. The current movement seems deter- mined to avoid those pitfalls by focusing on key issues that different women’s groups and individual feminists can support rather than requiring some con- trived “unity” of theory or leadership. Inherent in the 2007 petition drive itself is the group’s determination to engage in “democracy from the bottom up” and “face-to-face” dialogue (pp. 42–49). Also, previous women’s groups and campaigns (such as the first women’s suffrage campaign in the 1940s)—often out of political necessity but sometimes out of conviction—subordinated women’s progress to wider national, class, or ideological agendas. Ahmadi Khorasani argues against such false choices (63). Supporters of the campaign insist that addressing the demands of the 2006 petition must be integral to any genuine reform of Iranian state and society. The peaceful populism of the One Million Signatures Campaign has made its supporters no less vulnerable to state repression. Ahmadi Khorasani herself has suffered arrest and imprisonment for her efforts well before postelection crackdowns on the Green Movement. All readers should appreciate and respect the fact that the insights accorded us in this book have come at a high cost. 

Camron Amin University of Michigan–Dearborn