New Internationalist

One in one million

Issue 426

Campaigner for women’s rights in her native Iran, Leila Alikarami talks to our correspondent about the One Million Signatures campaign, how the equality laws can and should be changed, and the impact of the election result on her fellow countrywomen.

Leila Alikarami, 32, is a human rights lawyer from Tehran. While completing her legal training with Nobel Peace prizewinner Dr Shirin Ebadi at the Defenders for Human Rights Centre, she joined a team of lawyers providing legal training sessions for the One Million Signatures campaign recruits. She also defended some of the cases of those campaigners who were arrested. She left Iran for London’s School of Oriental and African Studies a year ago and has completed a business law degree in Human Rights, Conflict and Justice. She is now studying for a PhD. Alikarami recently accepted the RAW in War Anna Politkovskaya Award on behalf of the women of Iran and the One Million Signatures campaign.

How did the One Million signatures Campaign begin?

On 12 June 2006 there was a demonstration in Haft-e Tir Square. Women just wanted to say that we do not agree with these discriminatory laws: Why is a woman’s life worth half a man’s in terms of compensation known as blood money? Why do women not have [the right to] custody of children? Why is nationality not transferred on the mother’s side, and why is the testimony of a woman worth half of a man’s in court? And there are so many others laws that discriminate against women.

Most of the women campaigners are Muslims. They always say: ‘We believe in Islam, we are not against the regime, we are not politicians – we are just challenging these laws and saying these laws are not suitable for now’

Most of the women campaigners are Muslims. They always say: ‘We believe in Islam, we are not against the regime, we are not politicians – we are just challenging these laws and saying these laws are not suitable for now’.

Now we have 65 per cent of university students who are girls. Women are everywhere, as a lawyer, as a doctor, as a teacher, as a minister. We have women in Ahmadinejad’s cabinet. Imagine these women want to travel, to go to the WHO (World Health Organization), but their husband stops them from going? We should bring some changes as other Muslim countries have done. It has happened in Morocco, in Tunisia.

How did you get involved with the One Million Signatures campaign?

I was working with Dr Ebadi, who was already involved. There was a committee for teaching and I started to teach. Each week they asked us to do [legal] training sessions with around 25-30 [campaign recruits]. There were women from very different backgrounds: businesswomen, doctors, uneducated… In one class there were girls from the ages of 16 or 17 to 60, or 80. We would describe the laws, and then there was a session for questions. I remember one of the cases was about a woman whose daughter wanted to get divorced, she had a two-year-old daughter and her husband wouldn’t give her custody. And I said: ‘According to law, the custody of children is with the mother (previously up to the age of two for boys and seven for girls, but now it is seven for both). If the father has taken the child illegally, your daughter can ask the court to force the father to respect the law.’

Ed. Note: The transfer of custody to the father after the child’s coming of age was previously automatic, but the women’s movement successfully fought to require a court’s decision on the matter.

How common is it that the father will take custody?

It happens. Each parent has the right to see their children, so neither one can take the children outside of Iran, but we have hazanat, which is custody, and we have velayat, which is guardianship. The father has velayat: he has control over financial issues, education, marriage, leaving the country. The husband can go to customs and tell them: ‘I don’t want my wife to leave the country.’

We do believe in grassroots work. We want to work with women from all around Iran. When a mother in a village treats her son and daughter differently, you should work from that stage, and I don't think it’s going to happen over night

I had a client, who I saw through the campaign, her mother was one of the women in these sessions. She had a boy, he was three years old and her husband took him to Kuwait. She had divorced, but because her husband wasn’t in Iran he claimed he didn’t know about the case, and they reversed the divorce verdict in the High Court. I just started to negotiate with the guy, I told him: ‘You are not in Iran, why you are doing this?’ He said: ‘Because I want custody of my children. My son is under seven and I know he will be given to his mum. I will divorce her if my wife agrees that she has no right over this child.’

How do you feel about the campaign winning the RAW in War Anna Politkovskaya Award?

This award has been given to Iranian women as brave women. Although there were many restrictions, convictions, arrests, jail, they worked and fought for equality and they are still working. For example, when they put one of the women in jail, she started to campaign to get a library in prison. The women take advantage of the restrictions on them to teach themselves. One of my clients (a journalist and campaign member) said: ‘I always had an idea about the impact of these discriminatory laws on women but during the time I was in prison I saw the reality. For example, I saw a woman who killed her husband and she said, “several times I went to the court and asked for a divorce. I told them I cannot tolerate this man, but they didn’t listen to me and there was no other way for me”. Or another one who said, “my husband forced me to do things I don’t want to do, to take or sell drugs. And if I didn’t obey him he beat me”, or another wife who said “my husband wanted to have sex with my daughter and I killed him because of that”.’

On the Award night, Anna Politkovskaya’s lawyer said human rights lawyers in Russia lose all their cases. Do you have more success in Iran?

We are not losing all our cases, but it depends. For example, at the Haft-e Tir demonstration some women were beaten and had broken hands. We filed a case against the police of Tehran. There was an investigation: we had medical evidence, photos. We asked the judge to ask the Head of the Police to come to the court but he didn’t. The judge sent another letter saying ‘if you don’t come we will decide properly’. But the judge ignored all our evidence, because when I went to the court and asked for the case they said the case had been closed. This was the beginning of the One Million Signatures. That was the first case against the Police; and they had a case against women, accusing them of being a threat to national security. They followed their cases in the Revolutionary court, and they convicted some of our clients, but we didn’t manage to convict them. So in a sense you can say that we lose our cases.

What have been the big achievements of the campaign so far?

You can’t have a big achievement in a short time and if it’s going to be [quick] it’s not going to last forever. We do believe in grassroots work. We want to work with women from all around Iran. When a mother in a village treats her son and daughter differently, you should work from that stage, and I don’t think it’s going to happen over night. You can’t just talk about the law in one sense and forget about other aspects. Family structure is really important in Iran and we believe in equal rights because we want to strengthen the family structure. Because some people think that if you are talking about equality, you want to be separate and independent, as a Western woman, and destroy the family structure.

Family structure is really important in Iran [and] we believe in equal rights because we want to strengthen the family structure. Some people think that if you are talking about equality, you want to be separate and independent, as a Western woman, and destroy the family structure

I have a husband and I have a son – I am living with my family. My husband is helping me because he realizes that when I am going out to work I need some help at home. In some cases, it’s more secure because you see that you have something to contribute and you have the same rights. It’s a good feeling.

Talk about the impact of the campaign on Iranian society.

I had a project in 2007 to teach men, not women, about discriminatory laws. Through those discussions I realized that this work – just raising awareness – is important because these men were aware of these laws. In one session they came up with some really interesting questions. They said: ‘We do not agree with these laws – you don’t want to be equal, you want to be superior!’ I realized that we need to work and say ‘no, we don’t want to be superior, we want to be equal’. This was a misunderstanding.

It’s easier for the family when men and women see that they are equal, and they are working together, because in some cases it is difficult for men. I explained to them that I do not agree with mahriye (dowry), because they had told me: ‘You want to have those rights and these rights as well, but in that case we should look for another campaign for men, because now you have all the rights! We should pay for the dowry, we should pay for the maintenance…’ Some of these men did sign the petition after the session.

So what’s the main obstacle to changing these laws?

There are more restrictions on women now and it is really wrong. Now everything is considered political and everything is going to be ‘a threat to national security’

We don’t have enough support from the clerics. Iran is a traditional, religious country. With more support from clerics… they can legitimize these changes and say ‘we can be Muslim and respect human rights at the same time’.

How has the post-election unrest impacted on the campaign?

There are more restrictions on women now and it is really wrong. Now everything is considered political and everything is going to be ‘a threat to national security’. But my question is: what is national security? If I am criticizing a law I’m not doing anything illegal. My colleagues (members of the campaign and lawyers) – why should they be living in this atmosphere?

Read more about life in Iran in New Internationalist’s March 2007 issue.

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