The Innovations of Women’s Organizations: Lessons Lost
From the Forbidden and Impossible to a Movement for Women’s Legal Rights
By: Sussan Tahmasebi
Friday 28 November 2008
On the 16th of February 2007, it was reported that a man in Sistan and Baluchestan province, suspecting his fourteen year old daughter of sexual relations, had taken it upon himself to stone her to death. He carried out this harsh and unusually cruel punishment with the help of his friend. In this way, the father had hoped to win back his disgraced honor, and the honor of his family. His heinous act was brought to the attention of police, by his wife, the girl’s mother—an act which I can only imagine took much courage on her part. While the father and his friend are currently in prison, it is unlikely that the law will be particularly harsh on them. In fact, while the law does not condone honor killings in Iran, the reduced punishments for such crimes committed by fathers, facilitates their occurrence.
According to the Human Development Report of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the province of Sistan and Baluchestan ranks lowest from among all of Iran’s provinces on every single human development indicator. Certainly these low rankings, along with patriarchal traditions and cultural beliefs which promote violence against women, disproportionately and negatively impact the lives of women and girls.
The Need to Change Laws in the Most Difficult of Lands
The first time I visited Sistan and Baluchestan Province was in the year 2000. During that visit, I had the good fortune to meet with women working at the Women’s Cultural Organization of Sistan and Baluchestan (Anjomane Farhangi Banoane Sistan and Baluchestan) a local community-based charity in Zahedan, which at the time had been in operation for several years. The women working with this organization were all volunteers and financed their activities through contributions by community members and their own personal funds. Later on, they managed to receive limited financial support from the office of the Governor of the Province, through the Office of Women and Youth Affairs.
These women were engaged in this work because of a sense of religious and civic duty that called upon them to improve the conditions of women in their society, whom they claimed faired poorly because of a variety of factors, including poverty, low education levels and cultural beliefs that discriminated against and often treated women violently. They spoke of the multitude of problems facing the women they served in Sistan and Baluchestan, including high incidents of domestic violence; low levels of education among the population at large, but particularly among women; the high rate of HIV/AIDs transmission, due in part to the common practice of polygamy, which took place across the borders of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan—borders which Baluchi tribal members easily traveled across—;unregistered marriages and the problems that children born of these marriages faced, including the inability to obtain identity cards or birth certificates; and easy divorce of wives by husbands, which brought about cultural stigmas and shame for women—yet another structural and cultural form of violence perpetuated against women.
The organization, not only provided financial and other supports to women, in the form of cash assistance, particularly to female-headed households, which is in line with the activities of most charities in Iran, but also focused much of its activities on cultural awareness, including training on domestic violence, and life skills training. Other trainings, like low skill training and employment in food preparation were also offered to women, who could utilize the free child care services provided by the charity.
The other service offered by this organization, especially at that point in time, and given the fact that this organization was largely structured as a charity, was a little unusual. The organization provided legal advice and support to women. I remember discussing this issue with the lawyer working with the organization, who while expressing frustration with the cultural problems women faced in the province of Sistan and Baluchestan, also explained that the most important strategy for assisting their clients was to reform laws governing the lives of women. It seemed that despite the existence of serious cultural problems and discriminatory and often violent cultural beliefs and practices against women, still the law posed the greatest challenge, as it not only supported many of these discriminatory and violent practices but also perpetuated them. At that point, the idea of changing the laws, or gaining any sort of national momentum that would promote a constructive discourse on the need to change discriminatory laws against women seemed taboo and an impossible task. Later, I found several other charity organizations across the country that provided similar legal services to women, and the women engaged in service delivery in these organizations too expressed great frustration with the law. It took several years before modern NGOs also set up similar programs in Tehran to provide legal advice to women, including the Women’s Cultural Center (Markaze Farhangi Zanan) and Raahi, both based in Tehran.
Lessons worth Learning
The recollection of this experience is important on several counts. First, it speaks to the fact that if a broad women’s movement to reform laws in Iran has taken shape today, managing to promote an encompassing discourse on women’s legal rights, this movement derives its strength and legitimacy from years of experience of women’s rights activists within women’s organizations, whether charities or modern NGOs. Through these organizations, and while working to empower other women, these women’s rights defenders too gained skills and experience and in turn empowered themselves. They also learned how to work collaboratively with other concerned citizens and other organizations. The demands of women’s rights activists for reform of laws, is based on their own life experiences as well the experiences of other women, especially vulnerable groups of women, who have experienced first hand the negative impact of these laws on their lives—laws that perpetuate and sustain negative cultural practices which promote violence and discrimination against women. If some claim, that those involved in the legal movement for women’s rights in Iran, and particularly the One Million Signatures Campaign, which has made great strides in promoting a discourse on the need to reform laws, speak for a minority of elite Iranians and don’t represent the true Iranian woman, the example provided above opposes that claim and demonstrates that women from all walks of life suffer from the negative impact of laws on their lives and support reform, in fact, they have been waiting for and welcoming such a re-examination for years.
Second, for years now, the good work of charity organizations in Iran has been dismissed both by women’s rights activists and by the modern NGO community as a whole. The excuses used to dismiss the work of these organizations includes some of the following: they are seen as perpetuating traditional beliefs, they are engaged in this field because of religious beliefs, they promote dependence by providing financial supports to women and families in need, they don’t base their programs on scientific practices, they don’t document their work, etc. I have had the good fortune to travel much around the country and meet with local community-based organizations, many of them charity organizations and I have been surprised time and time again by the innovation that these organizations have used in addressing the needs of the communities they serve. While providing the regular services and supports which charity organizations usually provide, such as cash assistance to vulnerable populations, housing assistance and loans, all of which is mostly provided to female-headed-households, these organizations have had to adopt innovative strategies designed to address the changing needs of the communities they serve, including drug use prevention programs, treatment for drug addicted individuals, domestic violence prevention programs, legal advising services for women, job training and employment generation for women, etc. They work in close collaboration with the communities they serve, and as such, they are well trusted and able to take risks in their program design. While some of the criticisms of these organizations may be true, it is also true that modern NGOs in Iran suffer from many of the same pitfalls. Because the voluntary sector in the form of the modern NGO is a relatively new concept in Iran, the sector has not had the opportunity to develop into a strong and professional sector and the similarities between modern organizations and traditional organizations are far greater than their differences. Given the pressures placed on modern women’s NGOs and women’s rights activists after the election of President Ahmadinejad, and their inability to continue doing the work they were engaged in during the reform period, it may be a good idea to revisit the charity organizations and examine their potential to act as partners with modern NGOs and women’s rights activists for the improvement of women’s lives and the empowerment of women.
Third, I believe the example provided above attests to the level of innovation that takes place within Iranian NGOs, charities and modern NGOs included, in serving the needs of women. Largely on their own, and with little support, little formal training, limited or no financial assistance, and great environmental and policy challenges and pressures, women’s organizations in Iran, have come up with the most innovative and up-to-date strategies to address the needs of women—strategies on par with best development practices in the region and internationally. Unfortunately, these organizations have not been active enough in documenting their activities. Government and UN agencies have fallen short on this account as well. With the increased pressures on women’s organizations, the unfriendly policy environment that exists today and the increased sensitivity toward programs addressing women’s needs, we risk the possibility of losing the opportunity to learn from the Iranian experience in designing development programs for women. Instead, it seems that those who have the capacity and the charge of addressing women’s issues in this sensitive time, such as government planners and UN agencies, are taking the safe route, by not addressing women’s issues in a substantive manner, limiting their collaboration to organizations that are not politically sensitive or drawing on examples of efforts in other countries, with secondary relevance to the Iranian situation. In essence, the security oriented approach toward women’s rights and women’s social problems is working to marginalize women and the experience of women’s groups from the process of development planning for women.
Interestingly enough, I attended a meeting hosted by UNICEF about a year ago, during which "experts" from Bangladesh and South Africa had been invited to discuss the innovative experiences utilized by their NGOs to improve women’s rights, including legal clinics providing legal advice to women and citizen’s rights training, where citizens are targeted in public spaces and on the streets and provided with basic education on their legal rights—a program which sounded very similar to our own effort in the One Million Signatures Campaign. At this meeting there was also an Iranian counterpart, from Mofid University, a religious university in Qom, which is now a major partner for the UN and other international groups in addressing women and human rights issues. The approach Mofid has successfully and commendably used in the past has been to re-examine human rights and women’s rights from a religious perspective and invite public discourse on these issues in a non-sensitive manner. During the UNICEF meeting the representative from Mofid explained that the university intended to set up legal clinics to serve women, and through this process, they would document the shortcomings of the law and if based on their experiences and findings they came to realize that there was a need to change existing laws, then they would take the next step of entering into policy discussions.
Repeated Experiences in Documentation of Women’s Legal and Social Problems
I wonder exactly how long it will take to do all this documenting, which is apparently being started anew each time with a new partner, in a new sector. One day it is the 6th parliament who takes on the task of documenting the legal problems of women, the next day it is members of the 7th parliament, who don’t trust the findings of their parliamentary predecessors and want to have their own statistics, facts and figures, and the next day it is a religious university, where unlike women’s organizations, "modern and scientific approaches" will be used to document the problems.
I understand that there is great political sensitivity when it comes to addressing women’s needs and rights in Iran and which with the increased activism on the part of women in demand of their rights is also on the rise, making it difficult for the UN and even some sympathetic government officials to work with women’s rights groups in addressing women’s needs. But certainly I believe that at a minimum there should be efforts expended to understand, take into account and build upon the innovative work which women’s rights activists in Iran have done. In fact, this should be a prerequisite for anyone wanting to address women’s rights and issues. Certainly this approach is less costly and more practical and useful, than basing programs on the experiences of countries where ample development funding has been present and NGOs and activists don’t face serious security and political limitations. It is also less costly than starting the process of data collection and justifications over and over again each time, because political and security concerns are more important than women’s lives, and because anyone who wants to do serious work on women’s issues will eventually become problematic and a security risk.
And I wonder how many young girls will die, while we document again and again, each time with new partners and new organizations and in new sectors, the negative impact of the law on women’s lives. I am not sure exactly how many young girls have to die, before we start acknowledging the innovative work that women do with limited resources in promoting women’s rights, before we start to strengthen their efforts, and before those with some relative power, start to take risks designed to move women’s issues back to the social realm, as opposed to the security realm.