Progress towards women’s rights in Iran

“Flexibility and ingenuity is what makes us a true social movement”

Sussan Tahmasebi, founding member, Campaign for Equality. This Iranian women’s movement seeks to change all gender-biased laws in Iran. Its ‘One Million Signatures Campaign’ will show that one million Iranians want women to have equal rights.

Q: Tell us about the Campaign for Equality and what it has achieved over the 2 years since its launch?

The Campaign managed to make the discourse on women’s rights a national priority, at a time when the government seems intent on defining policies that relegate women to the private sphere and reinforce their status as second class citizens.

Campaign activists have reached out to citizens and engaged them in direct dialogue on women’s rights and raise their awareness about the negative effects of discriminatory laws on women’s lives and the society.

Women’s equal rights in marriage, equal inheritance rights, end to polygamy, equal compensation to women for bodily injury or death (blood money), an end to stoning and women’s rights to pass on their nationality to children are examples of issues the campaign addresses. Other women’s groups, including reformist religious, conservative, and secular groups have taken up these issues more seriously. Much of this can be credited to the catalytic role of the Campaign.

Though no real legal changes have been achieved in support of women’s rights, small victories can be claimed. The conservative seventh parliament took up several issues in this respect, including blood money and inheritance. Also, the Judiciary through a directive has ordered insurance companies to compensate women for bodily injury and death at the same rate as men.  

Besides raising awareness among the public, policymakers, political and intellectual groups on the need to reform laws that discriminate against women, the Campaign has engaged a whole new generation of women’s rights activists in the quest for equality.  Many of the activists engaged in the Iranian women’s movement represent a younger generation of Iranians (both men and women) who were born after the 1979 revolution, and whose thinking and whose reality reflects a commitment to human rights and equality between citizens.  They have found the Campaign a venue for expressing and working toward their social ideals, through peaceful and proactive means.

Q: What made you join the Campaign?

Women in Iran have made serious social gains. Over 65% of university students are women. Women are present at all levels of society; they are entrepreneurs, academics, policymakers, physicians, etc, but the laws governing their lives lag far behind the realities of women’s daily lives. I, like many of my colleagues involved in the Campaign, believe that these laws don’t reflect the realities of women’s lives and as such they need to be changed, to ensure that women enjoy equal status under the law.  

Q: What kind of activities do you carry out for the Campaign?

Campaign activists have utilized all strategies available to them in promoting their cause and advocating for their demands. This flexibility and ingenuity is what makes the Campaign a true social movement and sets it apart from other movements in Iran.  

Our educational activities are through direct dialogue with ordinary citizens, and collecting signatures in support of a petition intended for the Parliament asking for changes in laws that discriminate against women.

We have engaged in lobbying efforts with community leaders, artists, academics, intellectuals, political parties, as well as policymakers and religious leaders (though our access to these groups because of political sensitivities to the Campaign has been limited at best).  

As the space for our activism has become limited because of security pressures, we have identified other strategies for getting our message out. We have a website, where activists can write about their activities and discuss issues of importance to them.  We have published several books on the Campaign. We conduct regular trainings on legal issues, train volunteers, hold seminars and conferences.

We have increasingly been using the arts to reach out the public and our members have organized a series of street plays to raise awareness of the public toward our demands. For example we have conducted several plays that address polygamy, or women’s unequal status in marriage.  It should be noted that the Campaign is active in over 15 provinces, and in each city the activists define strategies for reaching out to the public based on local concerns and customs. But consistently activists all over Iran have utilized innovative strategies to reach out to the public with their message and to gain support.  

Q: What problems have the Campaign activists encountered during their work?
From the start the Campaign activists faced security pressures. Our meetings, seminars and conferences have been cancelled, and our members have been arrested while collecting signatures in support of the Campaign’s petition, for writing articles on our website, and for holding meetings in their homes.

Because public space for meetings have consistently been denied to activists, we are forced to hold our meetings, trainings and seminars in our homes, but the security forces have worked hard to prevent us from even holding meetings in our own homes, meetings have been broken up and members have been arrested.

Those arrested are usually charged with vague security charges, such endangering national security, or spreading of propaganda against the state.  Nearly 50 activists have been arrested in relation to their peaceful activism in the Campaign.  Many activists have court cases pending, or have been issued suspended or mandatory sentences, which they intend to appeal. But still, the activists are intent on continuing with their work and believe that change in Iran, like any society, especially change in patriarchal traditions and laws carries a price, which they are willing to pay.
Q: How can we support the Campaign?

Amnesty International has consistently supported the work of activists in the Campaign, raised international awareness about the Campaign and our demands, and has issued urgent actions for imprisoned members. In this way they have pressured the government to release them from prison or to drop charges against them.  

International attention to the cases of activists who are charged with security charges for the most peaceful and civil of activities is very beneficial. We hope that Amnesty International and is members will continue to support Campaign activists as they are arrested by pressing for their release, or the suspension of their sentences, as well as calling on the Iranian government to seriously re-examine and reform laws that discriminate against women, so that they are in line with the realities of Iranian women’s lives and international human rights standards.