‘I do not struggle for power,’ says Iranian feminist activist Parvin Ardalan. ‘I struggle to push the power.’
Ardalan co-founded the One Million Signatures campaign, launched in 2006 to gather the names of a million Iranians who demand that men and women be equal under law. Signatures were supposed to have been handed over to the Iranian Parliament with a request to change discriminatory laws. However, not wishing to legitimize the current regime, the campaigners are considering giving the signatures to the UN or a human rights organization once the campaign is finished.
Discrimination against women is rooted in Iran’s legislation, which states that they must be veiled in public places and that a woman’s testimony in court is worth half of a man’s. Iranian family law is based on Sharia, believed to be the laws of God, and therefore unalterable according to religious leaders.
As secular women, it is not possible for us to work through a political party. Grassroots work is better. We want to raise awareness and achieve change from the bottom to the top
Ardalan disagrees: ‘Islamic laws are not fixed. Since the revolution, some articles have been changed; it is possible. Many laws are political rather than religious and it is up to the government if they want to change them.’
Her opinions are highly controversial for the hardline Iranian regime. She has been arrested and interrogated on several occasions. After a peaceful protest for women’s rights in June 2006, she was sentenced to a six-month prison term with three years suspended. She appealed the sentence, but the appeal court has yet to make a decision.
Her activism is firmly from a grassroots perspective. ‘As secular women, it is not possible for us to work through a political party. Grassroots work is better. We want to raise awareness and achieve change from the bottom to the top. This is necessary to achieve deep change. Iranian society is so patriarchal that we need structural change and a democratic women’s policy for all branches of society.’
She has fond memories of June 2009, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Tehran to protest the outcome of an election which returned the unpopular Ahmedinejad to power. ‘Iranian women lost everything 30 years ago and we have struggled for our rights since then. The result of this work is finally beginning to show. There were so many women in the streets. It was the first time that women and men walked side by side in protest. I will never forget it.
‘What started as a protest against the election became a general protest for human rights. All the social and political movements were there: women, students and different ethnic groups.’
Ardalan began working actively for women’s rights in the 1990s when she co-founded the Women’s Cultural Centre in Tehran. As a journalist, she had covered the situation of Iranian women and felt a need to do something. She was one of the editors of the organization’s online magazine, Zanestan, and also wrote for the women’s magazine, Zanan. Both were shut down by the regime. Today, she edits the One Million Signatures campaign website, Change for Equality, which also serves as an information platform for the feminist movement.
In 2008, Ardalan received the Olof Palme Prize for her assiduous work on the campaign, which has also been awarded the Simone de Beauvoir Prize and the Global Women’s Rights Award.
The demonstrations surrounding the 2009 election were followed by arrests, long prison sentences and executions. The regime has tightened the reins on activists and women.
Since April 2010, Ardalan has been living in exile in Sweden, where she plans to stay for two years. Leaving the stress and pollution of Tehran has benefited her health – she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2006. Stepping back, however, is not an option.
‘The hope for change keeps me going. Sometimes I feel really tired, but I will never give up. I think it is good for us to try to realize our dreams. It makes me happy to see all the young women in the movement. They will be great leaders in Iranian society someday.’