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Against gender apartheid

Parvin Ardalan: Photo by Arash Ashoorinia.

Launched in August 2006, the One Million Signatures campaign is a courageous challenge to the repressive theocracy of Iran that now enforces a gender apartheid against its women. Iranian women’s rights activists aim to collect one million signatures in support of changing discriminatory laws against women. The campaign that has already received wide international support, is constantly under attack from the Iranian regime that sees women’s freedom as a political threat to its very existence.

One of the architects of this grass-roots movement is Parvin Ardalan — feminist activist and journalist. Ardalan, along with others, established Markaz-e farhangi-ye zanan (Women’s Cultural Centre), that has become a crucial instrument in crafting opinion, analysis and documentation on women issues in Iran. Since 2005, the Markaz has published Iran’s first online magazine on women’s rights, Zanestan, with Ardalan as its editor.

In 2007, Ardalan was sentenced to three years in prison by the Iranian regime for threatening national security. The same year, she was awarded the Olof Palme prize, for her struggle for equal rights for men and women in Iran.

“Despite persecution, threats and harassment, Parvin Ardaln has been persistent in her struggle and never compromised her ideals. Through constantly more ingenious methods, she and her fellow sisters have managed to increase the support for equal rights. The ongoing campaign for a million signatures against discrimination is an excellent example. Their intensive work deserves international recognition as a path to democracy and peace in this region of turbulence and conflict,” the Stockholm-based secretariat of Olof Palme Memorial Fund noted in a statement.

Haideh Daragahi interviewed Parvin Ardalan, in Stockholm in January 2010.


Let us begin with the One Million Signatures campaign. How did it start and why, and how does it work?

This campaign began three years ago, after a gathering of a group of activists at Haft-e-Tir square in Tehran. We had announced the meeting and invited all men and women to gather at the square. Before the programme had started, they arrested two of the coordinators. The meeting took place in the sense that it was the police that carried it out. They were stationed there an hour before the announced time. We could not stay there even for five minutes. They arrested seventy people. Five of them were sent to court, and one of the participants is still in jail. They poured into my house, but, I and another activist they were after, were out by then.

We were a group of five coordinators. Many among us were against the meeting and did not come. Some two thousand people came. The meeting was announced by individual activists rather than by the groups, because the groups were under pressure and group activity was risky. After that, we arrived at the conclusion that we had two choices: either to give up, or, to find other methods of street action. We wanted both to involve people in issues related to women and to engage in street activity, because this kind of work allowed us to break out of the closed atmosphere of work within the group – one is seen and has an audience.

We, who had announced the gathering, were under pressure while we were also looking for solutions that would involve all the groups and put forward all the demands that the women had. The initiator of this discussion was the Women’s Cultural Centre, that I and some others had founded. In our discussions, we reached the point that we can benefit from the experience of women elsewhere and use those experiences as a model. We knew about Morocco, and decided to adopt their project for one million signatures by adapting it to our specific situation.

Women in Morocco had carried out the campaign for one million signatures, but, they had the political support of the Moroccan king against the Islamists, and even then it took ten years. Since we had no state support, we could only take our support from the people. We based our activity for collecting signatures on networking and face-to-face encounters. Our audience was not only women – they were all men and women over eighteen.

We were going to use the pamphlet called The effect of laws on the lives of women that we had prepared for the demonstration. Before the demonstration, since we knew we may be arrested, we dropped the pamphlets into people’s mailboxes. Some one thousand pamphlets had already been distributed in this way. We had come to the conclusion that the distribution of the pamphlets was good as a relatively risk-free way of expressing our goals. It was an effective way of raising feminist awareness in relation to legal discrimination, as the pamphlet dealt with major discriminatory arrangements in the existing legal structure.

Marriage: The first step a woman must take in marriage, according to the existing law, is to satisfy the condition of the father’s consent. For marriage, virgin women must have their father or paternal grandfather’s permission. With the courts’ permission, a father can marry his daughter, even before the age of thirteen, to a seventy-year-old man.

Divorce: According to the law, divorce is the exclusive right of a man, and a man can divorce his wife whenever he pleases.

Multiple wives for men: A man can have four aghdi (permanent) wives and infinite sighehi (temporary) wives.

Age of criminal responsibility: The age of criminal responsibility for girls is nine lunar years and for boys fifteen lunar years.

Citizenship rights:According to Iranian law, the citizenship of a woman does not transfer to her child. If your father is Iranian, you too are considered Iranian. But, having an Iranian mother does not make you an Iranian citizen.

Inheritance: According to civil law, after the death of the father and mother, sons receive two times as much in inheritance as daughters.

Honour killings:Among the discriminatory laws, one can note the law that gives a man permission to kill his wife whenever he sees her in bed with another man, and the law will not punish this man.

Bearing witness: There are some crimes in which women can not testify. In the cases where a female witness is accepted, the testimony of two women equals that of one man. Then, other discriminatory laws like compulsory prescribed dress for women and stoning.

Since we were going to collect signatures, we planned to adopt the face-to-face method. Based on what we had written in the pamphlet, we prepared a single page statement. We produced this statement when we worked for collecting signatures and asked the person to read it. Then, we would give them the pamphlet, enter into a discussion, and ask them to sign. We were interested in tangible issues. In speaking to people, we talked of our own problems in relation to these laws, so that in the course of the average twenty minutes it took us to talk to each person, they would feel free to talk back. This would raise their consciousness, and encourage them to take part in the activity. We were happy if they signed, and we did not loose anything if they did not sign, because, they were given the pamphlet, that they would take home, with more information.

This process has been going on over the last three years. The initiators were the middle-class activists of the women’s movement, but before long, the activists of the workers and students movements also got involved. Since collecting signatures took place in public spaces and work places, it broke the class barrier. We collected signatures in prisons, courtrooms, undergrounds, buses and collective taxis.

The more we went on, the more intense became the attack on the campaign. Altogether, some sixty people were arrested and sent to court. Two people have been arrested recently on the charge of acting against national security.

Our work consists of consciousness raising and advocating rights for women, through networking and horizontal form of cooperation. We are not women only, there are men who work with us. We are not based only in Tehran, but, in many cities and smaller towns, as well as abroad. The campaign has tapped new energies and potentials among young and creative participants.

How do you see the role of religion and politics, in the oppression of women in Iran – how much of this is religion and how much is politics?

Before the 1979 revolution, the condition of women was far from ideal, but, it was comparatively better. We had a patriarchal structure with discrimination based on tradition. Many laws were rooted in religion. The new government increased discrimination by using Islam and adjustment to Islamic dictates. For example, the family support law, allowing women to turn to special courts for divorce and custody of children, was passed before the revolution, but it was not enough. These family courts were annulled with the argument that they were un-Islamic. Religion entered the state. It was said that these new laws are based on religion and therefore non-negotiable. In practice, women were discriminated against, both from a governmental and a religious point of view.

What happened to women in Iran, was an anti-women strategy enforced in the name of religion through the power of the state. Religion, with its roots in culture, was an asset to them and the Islamic Republic implemented the interpretation of religion that is utterly against women. Freedom of dress, for example, was taken away, and age of marriage for girls was reduced to nine. These discriminatory measures promoted a view of women as inferior and subordinate – a view sanctioned by religion. The combination of religion and state was a combination of religious and political discrimination against women. As the basis for this attitude on the social level was laid out, many men kept quiet about this enormous discrimination. The first victims of the religious state were women living with patriarchal politics, and patriarchal religion.

It looks like, the Iranian regime sees women’s freedom as a political threat – something that fuels the ongoing gender apartheid there. Why is that so?

One reason is that the policies of governments before the revolution, in relation to women, were presented as Western. Reza Shah – the father of the Shah – took the veil off women’s heads by force, since this was not what all the women wanted in the 1930s. The policies of his son, by bringing more women into the job market and secularising a number of laws, were regarded by the Khomeini regime as a symbol of modernisation and an effort to Westernise Iranian society.

The Islamic government tried to bring about change by resorting to de-Westernisation for which women were the vehicle. In other words, its opposition to the Shah was symbolised in the appearance of women. The idea of man as the legally superior sex, and the head of the household as well as the person to whom the woman should submit sexually, was transferred to the political sphere and the role of the state.

Thus, just as the man is in control of the woman, the state is the keeper of this Islamic symbol by controlling the woman’s body by enforcing the veil, gender separation in schools and universities, on the streets and means of public transport.

If this control is threatened then, the assumption is, it is a threat to Islam, and by extension, to the Islamic state. Any incursion on this control is seen as a threat. Just as according to Iranian law the man is the measure for humanity, the woman is the measure for discrimination. The sexualisation of politics was from the very beginning the strategy of the Islamic Republic.

A part of your answer actually brings us to the next question I have – how much of the Iranian movement for freedoms and rights is influenced by the West, as the regime always allege influence of alien culture or foreign hand?

The accusation of being linked to the West has always been a political ploy to restrain social and civil activists. I believe that what started and developed after the 1979 revolution, and made the voice of the Iranian society heard internationally, was the result of the work of the activists of civil rights movements. The resilience of these movements in the face of accusations and their refusal to surrender, is in itself evidence of the fact that what is happening in Iran is independent.

How does the women’s movement in Iran contribute towards the movement for democracy and rights? Also, how important is international solidarity in this struggle?

The women’s movement has been one of the most important aspects of the democratic movement in Iran. It has contributed in its method of networking and decentralised leadership and activity, by serving as a model for the ongoing movement overall. Also, by creating international support through reciprocal solidarity.

Our campaign includes activists from the working class movement and the student movement, just as we consider it our duty to support these other movements. This pattern has been implemented on the international level in support networks for the women’s movement. This turns solidarity not into a favour but into a duty.

Using the model of horizontal movements, we place ourselves in an extended network in which helping the other is also self-help. Support for the Iranian movement is not helping the Iranians alone. It is helping the supporter as well. In a globalised world, the positive and the negative outcome of the events in Iran has global dimensions, and is by no means limited to Iran.

There is an interesting campaign going on right now, as male activists are donning headscarves and posting their photos online to belittle the regime, in response to the arrest of a fellow activist. How do you see this Be a Man campaign?

To begin with, the Islamic Republic forced the veil on women by using the argument that it is the symbol of respect for women and maintains their integrity. When it wanted to humiliate a student activist it photographed him wearing the veil, and distributed that photo to somehow discredit him. By so doing, it discredited its previous explanation for the veil. By belittling womanhood and scorning men who wear women’s clothes it exposed its real view of women, indicating that womanhood is inferiority.

The reaction of the men, who put the veil on, questioned the veil as a symbol, and male superiority. It increased the solidarity of men with women. It showed that they no longer consider womanhood as humiliating. It was a step taken a bit late, but their action showed that the younger generation not only do not consider womanhood as humiliating, they are proud of it. This is a far cry from the reaction after the imposition of the veil thirty years ago, when a small number of men protested but the majority went so far as to condone it. After years of work by the activists in the women’s movement and the increase in society’s level of feminist consciousness, such a reaction by men signals a qualitative change in male attitude.

Their reaction is important and admirable. After the event, a number of women’s rights activists issued a statement in which they point out that neither womanhood, nor men who wear women’s clothes, such as some homosexual men, are inferior. For transvestites have been humiliated not only by the regime but also by different sections of the society at large.

Where do you see Iran five years from now? In terms of general politics and freedom for Iranian women.

We live between hope and fear. It is not easy to predict. As an activist of the women’s movement, since I believe in resistance and believe that thirty years of women’s resistance to the Islamic Republic has resulted in a gradual opening, I am hopeful. Considering the recent development and the role of women in it as prime advocates for freedom and equality, I can say that the continuation of this process can result in a free and equal society. Iran has the chance to experience real democracy and women hold great resource and potential for such a society.

As a woman and as a journalist, you belong to two of the most threatened groups in today’s Iran. How do you cope?

Living in an oppressive society like Iran requires creative methods and belief in our power as politically marginal forces. This is needed to keep sparks of hope alive and to continue. The situation requires new, democratic, and anti-discriminatory strategies. Not easy, but people who live under these circumstances, have tried to discover and implement these methods. Being a woman and a journalist, who wants to bring about change and make herself heard, is costly. I am aware of this and prepared to pay the price. I am so glad that idealism is still alive in us.


Haideh Daragahi – scholar and rights activist – was a professor of English literature at University of Tehran, at the time of the Islamic revolution in Iran. Since 1984, she is based in Sweden.

In print: Independent World Report — Issue 3/February 2010.

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