New Internationalist

Where are they now? Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani

March 2013

One of the most striking contributions to our March 2007 issue on Iran came from Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, who described her trepidation in going door to door in the campaign to collect one million signatures in support of changing discriminatory laws against women.

Arash Ashoorinia
Arash Ashoorinia

Your article caught the imagination of many of our readers but led them to fear for your safety. What has happened to you since?

That year was very difficult for me and my colleagues in the One Million Signatures campaign. Many of our members were arrested or put on trial due to an assortment of different excuses. I was among those arrested in March 2007, following a protest outside the Revolutionary Court (against unjust sentences passed against women activists). I was later freed on bail from the Evin [prison]. But the following year I was put on trial for this, at Branch 13 of the Revolutionary Court with Nasrin Sotoudeh (who is currently in prison and has been on hunger strike) as my defence lawyer.

It was also in 2007 that the women’s centre website Zanestan was banned and shut down following a court ruling. I was one of the founders of this forum and, needless to say, all the members of the Women’s Cultural Centre were active in the campaign. So I, along with a number of my colleagues in the campaign, launched another site called the ‘Feminist School’, and we continued with our endeavours in the One Million Signatures Campaign. But we remained under a great deal of pressure.

After the presidential election of 2009 and the post-election events and the ensuing popular ‘green’ movement, we became active under the banner ‘Green Coalition Movement of Women’s Activists’. But many of us were summoned, arrested and prosecuted. I was interrogated three times and eventually, in March 2012, I faced trial, charged with the crime of ‘participation in street protests after the presidential election’. For this, and for my role as editor of the Feminist School website, I was tried in court and received a one-year suspended sentence.

In your 2007 article, you talked strikingly about having to overcome fear even to start knocking on people’s doors to start campaigning. Are there times when you are still afraid now? Does having a suspended sentence change the way you are living and campaigning?

Without a doubt, the experience we gained in trying to collect one million signatures, in learning the methods of civil activism and in our ‘face to face dialogue’ with people; has reduced our fear of people’s reactions when we make contact with them, especially women. Though this has been replaced by the fear of arrest by the police.

The presidential election campaign of 2009 gave us space that we utilized to propagate demands for women’s rights face to face without fear. Up to the election, the state security atmosphere in the community was lowered and so we were able to campaign in our parks and streets without the fear and anxiety that existed before. We ran workshops on why it was necessary to adhere to the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, for example. And we brought pressure to bear on the presidential candidates to consider adopting as part of their agendas the joining of the Convention as well as other changes in favour of women.

For me the struggle for women's rights is life itself. So, like many other women's-rights activists, abstaining from such endeavours is practically impossible for me

But unfortunately, after the elections, the security atmosphere suddenly changed. Widespread and massive protests against the election results led to mass arrests and saw summons issued against many civil and political activists. From then on, the escalation of security [measures] and police backlash led to an increasingly closed society every day. As a result, many of the civil-society and women’s-movement organizations that existed before 2007 are no longer even heard of.

Unfortunately, many civil-rights activists are in jail or have suspended sentences hanging over their heads or are regularly summoned for interrogations; many others have been forced to leave the country. So things are different from that year when we we campaigned for the collection of One Million Signatures. At that time the state tolerated some of our activities, but all the extensive censure and international sanctions against the government of Iran that followed the 2009 elections – and, unfortunately, the intensified hostility between Iran and the international community –all this has led not only to pressure on the women’s movement but to uncertainty and deadlock within society as a whole.

Today our society is embroiled with many economic problems that seem to override and overshadow democratic and civil-society demands. Unemployment among women is one major destructive outcome of the bad economic situation – even according to official state statistics, unemployment among women has increased by five per cent in a year.

More important than collecting one million signatures was bringing ‘equal rights’ into the forefront of public debate, and we more or less attained this goal

In response to your question about changes and shifts in my social activities, I can say that the prison sentence hangs over my head like the Sword of Damocles. But, more than that, it is the ensuing political and economic crisis within greater society (fear of war and sanctions, intensification and the worsening economic situation) that undoubtedly weighs on my activities and plans.

For me the struggle for women’s rights is life itself. So, like many other women’s-rights activists, abstaining from such endeavours is basically impossible for me. While my fellow countrywomen suffer from discrimination and prejudice, my fight against such inequity is among the pillars of my life. But I know that any fight to change inequality and any campaign strategy must take into account the political and social conditions of society.

The Million Signatures Campaign won international awards and recognition. One of the things that made it special was that it was organized on a non-hierarchical basis. I know you have written a whole book about this but could you tell us briefly why this method of organization was so important?

Our non-hierarchical structure helped us, in that [state] security pressures could not paralyze the whole campaign by hitting one specific and identifiable group or leader. Any member of the campaign could easily make the campaign their own and, whether they were in Iran or elsewhere in the world, could advance its goals. This also helped the campaign to spread automatically and to find its way to different parts of the country.

Did you ever achieve the goal of gathering one million signatures?

Considering the [state] security environment that was constructed around the campaign, we unfortunately could not collect one million signatures for the declaration. But perhaps more important than collecting one million signatures was bringing ‘equal rights’ into the forefront of public debate, and we more or less attained this goal.

Do you think we are any closer to seeing your demands for women’s equality in Iran fulfilled than we were in 2007?

Unfortunately, after the 2009 [elections] we have witnessed implementation of polices with regard to women, that instead of advancement, have taken us backwards when compared to 2007.

Are any of your fellow campaigners currently in prison?

Today in Evin prison in Tehran alone there are about 34 women imprisoned who were involved in various fields of social and cultural activism. Present among them are several active members of our One Million Signatures campaign, though not a single one of these women was directly charged or imprisoned in relation to the campaign’s activities. Instead they are imprisoned for their civil or human rights activities or for their journalism, or for taking up the legal counsel of political defendants. This includes the lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh who was one of our regular colleagues in the One Million Signatures campaign. She was arrested in September 2010 and is currently serving a six-year sentence.

Is there anything that sympathetic readers in Western countries can do to help your cause?

I think if people around the world were able to help towards the democratization of their governments’ domestic and foreign policies they would inevitably be helping all others around the world. If we women around the world can persuade our governments to resolve tensions and conflicts between different countries through peaceful dialogue and negotiation, I am sure we will be helping not only ourselves but women in other countries too.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 460 This feature was published in the March 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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