A Quiet Battle for Rights in Iran

By Fotini Christia
Sunday, August 26, 2007

TEHRAN -- It was during a recent visit to a middle-class beauty salon here, amid the women getting their upper lips threaded and their legs waxed, that I saw what the One Million Signature Campaign is up against. A female volunteer approached another customer and encouraged her to sign a petition, which organizers hope to submit to Iran's parliament along with a request for legal reforms on gender equality. The woman said she supported the demands for equality but shied away from what she considered overt political activity against the regime.

The campaign against gender discrimination is encountering resistance on multiple fronts.

Activists gave themselves two years to collect a million signatures, but tomorrow, the campaign's one-year anniversary, they will not have more than 100,000 to report. But unlike other human rights movements battling repressive regimes, which have traditionally looked to the West for a lifeline, Iran's activists are adamant that for all the gratitude they may feel for their Western supporters, they would prefer that we keep our distance. Their efforts offer a fascinating window on how one aspect of the Iranian democracy movement is struggling to survive in a period of growing government repression and paranoia.

The campaign for the million signatures was born after the arrest of 70 women who staged a demonstration against gender discrimination last year in Tehran's Haft-e-Tir Square. Nine of those women were convicted on charges of "endangering national security" and face lengthy prison sentences, beatings with whips and, in some cases, both. (They are free pending appeal.) The crackdown prompted Iranian women's rights activists to embark on a new strategy based on quiet campaigning, face-to-face organizing -- and disavowing any Western help.

With extraordinary tenacity, the activists seek out all possible venues in which to gather support without incurring the wrath of the Ahmadinejad regime. They collect signatures not just in beauty salons but in living rooms and parks, on street corners and at bus stops. In Tehran, they have assembled and trained at least 400 volunteers through private parties at organizers' homes, over popcorn and watermelon.

Yet for all the campaign's efforts to elude government attention -- and to disown any connection with the West -- the regime has been aware of and has reacted to the activists. In March, 34 members were arrested in front of Tehran's Revolutionary Court, where they had gathered in solidarity for their nine convicted colleagues. Over the past year, 13 others involved in the campaign have been arrested. The campaign's Web site-- a key tool in a country that lacks an independent media -- has routinely been blocked. Members repeatedly have been denied permission to assemble in public places.

The regime aims to paralyze the movement by instilling fear. Even so, many women are undeterred.

"The regime wants to scare us. But we won't let them win. When they push, we resist," Parvin Ardalan, a journalist who was one of the nine convicted in March, told me this month. She is appealing her three-year sentence.

Despite all the institutional repression, perhaps the trickiest issue for organizers is their relationship with the West. In recent months, a number of prominent Iranian Americans with Western passports -- such as Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh -- have been charged with conspiring against the Iranian government. Political leaders increasingly voiced charges of a "velvet revolution conspiracy," allegedly aimed at toppling the government and backed by "lackeys of the West."

The omens aren't good. Already, the country's intelligence minister has described the movement as comprised of "elements of soft subversion" -- an unsubtle attempt to link them to foreigners. In public statements and in conversations with prospective signers, campaign activists emphasize their Iranian roots and their respect for Islam -- if only to avoid giving the regime an excuse to discredit them. "What hurts the most is hearing people who claim to be for democracy and reform accuse us of being tools of the West," said Parastoo Alahyaari, a computer engineer and campaign member. "We want to prove that we can do this on our own."

Financial independence is also important. The movement raises funds through documented membership dues and donations and explicitly states on its Web site that it does not accept financial or other support from organizations or governments. Volunteers are asked to strictly adhere to this rule.

"Our regime has phobia," Nobel Peace Prize winner and campaign advocate Shirin Ebadi told me at her Tehran office. "When people talk about human rights they get immediately accused of being with America. But we are Iranian and want to work for our rights . . . And we know we are doing something right because we are being persecuted." About aid from the West, Ebadi was just as firm. "No money. Never."

The writer is a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


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