Iran's virtual crackdown

Roja Bandari
23 May 2008

Women's rights activists in Iran have been hit by a fresh crackdown that threatens a vital campaigning tool

A few days ago we hit a new low in systematic filtering of women's rights websites in Iran. Along with the website Change for Equality, 11 other sites and blogs belonging to local branches of the One Million Signatures Campaign in several cities or regions in Iran (Arak, Rasht, Mashhad, Esfahan, Shiraz, Zahedan) were blocked simultaneously. The list of blocked blogs included Men for Equality, set up by male activists in the campaign and those of a few Iranian immigrant populations in other countries (Kuwait, Cyprus, Germany, and the US). Campaign websites in Kurdestan and Azarbaijan had been blocked in April 2008.

Change for Equality has had over 10 web addresses since early 2007. The state continuously blocks the site, and in response activists create a new web address and move to a new location. This happens despite the fact that the activists of the One Million Signatures Campaign work strictly legally and despite the fact that they do not oppose the government of Iran.

Other women's publications both online and in print have also been a target of censorship in the past few years; the popular women's rights e-zine Zanestan ("Woman's Land"), and the long-published and well-respected magazine Zanan ("Women") have both been shut down and are no longer published as of and November 2007 and January 2008 respectively.

The One Million Signatures Campaign is a movement that was initiated by Iranian women in August 2006. It aims to change the laws that discriminate against women in the Iranian legal system. Throughout two years of activism, and despite systematic pressures by the state, this grassroots campaign has spread to over 25 different cities in Iran and to immigrant Iranian communities in several other countries. A number of characteristics of this movement have contributed to its growth, resilience, and diversity: the campaign is politically and financially independent; it does not have a hierarchy or a central decision-making group; and it is not bound to any one ideology, so that everyone is welcome to join no matter what their political or religious views. Its activists emphasize that it is a movement based on demands rather than ideologies which seems like a novel approach in a world polarized by ideologies and especially in the Middle East where people tend to rally fiercely behind opposing doctrines.

To understand why websites are important to the women's movements in Iran, we need to glimpse into the world of these activists where sometimes it literally feels like your lips are being taped shut. The One Million Signatures Campaign is not permitted access to any public tribune in Iran; television and radio stations are state-owned and the written press is subject to restrictions called "red lines" that cannot be crossed. Peaceful gatherings in the street, although legal in Iran, are met with harsh police reaction followed by arrests and prison sentences.

The only real links between the activists and the general public are the one-on-one and face-to-face conversations they have while collecting signatures, but even then they can be arrested. For the activists it is important to have a virtual place to stay connected and to be able to communicate with one another and with the public. Through stories and articles, news is shared, ideas are debated and activists learn from each others' experiences; and above all, they get to share and build upon their hope for a more just society.

International support can play a role in easing these internal pressures. There is no need for the Iranian government to be afraid of this campaign as it does not aim to undermine or oppose the state. International groups should reinforce this with officials and call on Tehran to remove pressures on these activists and allow them the freedom to continue their peaceful civil activities. Solidarity and support offered by women in other Islamic countries or in countries that are friendly toward the Iranian government might be especially effective. However, care needs to be taken in offering solidarity; as a campaign activist writes,

[...] the most important and helpful type of support comes from independent human rights and women's rights organizations. It is important for the safety of activists that support is not posed in terms that can be closely linked with "regime change" efforts or propaganda, because not only is this not a goal of the Campaign, but it will endanger activists working on the ground and the Campaign too will lose credibility among its true audience which is the Iranian public. It is not to the benefit of individual activists or the Campaign to receive support from government groups or quasi- government groups which are closely linked with or are traditionally viewed as hostile to the Iranian government, because we will suffer a backlash at home. (Sussan Tahmasebi, Change for Equality)

* An online banner used by the website iranian feminist tribune reads "censorship is offensive, not women".

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