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Mahnaz Afkhami

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Iranian Women's Voices

Posted: 10/26/09 02:44 PM ET

In the flood of news and information that surrounds us every day, we may take for granted the constant ripple of voices around the globe whose struggle to be heard often ends in violence, imprisonment or death. Ironically, it is only the new information age that is allowing many of those voices to be heard for the first time; voices that were previously muffled by oppressive regimes.

What an outside audience may see as sudden bursts of political activism often reflects years of dialogue and refusal to be silenced. We should make every effort to recognize and document the long-term efforts of grassroots activists in building such movements.

Such a document is a new English translation of the book, Iranian Women's One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality: The Inside Story. Women's rights activist Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani captures the essence of the monumental grassroots struggle for rights in Iran, and locates its strength not among individual activists but within the power of a movement itself.

The core objective of the One Million Signatures Campaign when it began in 2006 was to mobilize Iranian women to become advocates for reform of gender-discriminatory laws. But it became much more than that. Gathering signatures, it turned out, became a springboard for deeper dialogue, conversations about laws and their meaning. Thousands of people -- young and old, male and female, liberal and conservative -- discovered the relation of their own personal narratives to the collective movement and took on a role within it.

One result: the massive street demonstrations, in which women played a leading role, after Iran's botched elections last June. The demonstrations shook the foundations of the government's legitimacy and created fissures among the ruling elite, making the Islamic Republic vulnerable to internal and external pressure.

Khorasani, a renowned journalist, was a co-founder of the movement, and her account offers unique insight into an extraordinary story of Iranian women's perseverance, creativity and strength. Women came together in public and private spaces, both real and virtual, to share their stories and raise their collective voices in support of women's equal rights. The story also serves as a guide for other grassroots campaigns, a model for advocacy and education that transcends the political, economic and cultural barriers that often stand in the way of large-scale collective action.

Grassroots movements and individual women throughout the Global South are relying on increasingly sophisticated and varied forms of communication for their legal education and reform efforts. Another book, Guide to Equality, documented alternative interpretations of religious laws and the successful strategies Moroccan women used to reform their family laws in 2004. Translated into Persian and buttressed by face-to-face exchanges and email connections, the book gave vital help to the One Million Signatures campaign.

Iranian women are in turn sharing their experiences via the Internet with women in other Muslim societies, bringing new support, dynamism and confidence to the global movement for women's rights and human rights. As Moroccan feminist and human rights activist Rabéa Naciri states,

The experience of Iran enables us to open the debate on the place of religion in politics. The debate on this issue, exemplified by the Iranian women's movement, will be beneficial not only for Iran but for the whole region.

Khorasani is now facing harassment and government threats of prosecution. Her determination to defy those threats and make her book accessible to a wide international audience only testifies to the courage and determination necessary to educate and mobilize grassroots populations to become advocates for equality.