Interview with Jelve Javaheri
From a Reading Group to the Campaign for One Million Signatures
Sunday 30 December 2007
By: Nahid Keshavarz
Translated by: MS
I’ve known Jelve since the early 2000’s. Along with her friends, she attended the Women’s Cultural Center’s speak-out event, "Resisting Violence Against Women," in Laleh Park on International Women’s Day in 2003. She and her friends had been working on violence against women issues and were eager to share their experiences and learn from others. Jelve strongly believed in consciousness-raising among women on the issue of violence as a form of resistance. Jelve and her friends worked to make violence against women a public issue. They held workshops on gender-based violence, broke taboos by speaking about sexual violence in the home, and advocated for women’s rights and legal reform to protect victims of violence.
Jelve served as the website programmer for the websites of two women’s NGOs, Hastia Andish (Hastia Andish) and Women’s Cultural Center (Feminist Tribune). She voluntarily gave her time and expertise because she recognized the influential role of the Internet in publicly voicing women’s need and demands.
Jelve can be personally described as a calm, even-tempered, introspective and a quiet person. She is one of the founders of the Million Signatures Campaign. She and I worked together on the Campaign Volunteers’ Committee. She wholeheartedly devoted her energy, experience, and skills to the Campaign. Her mother’s home was like a second home to Campaign members. She was perpetually prepared to work for the Campaign, day or night. She never turned down a chance to canvass a neighborhood or particular location to collect signatures, which she always did with the utmost composure and respect. In her soft-spoken voice, she would introduce the Campaign’s goals and objectives and then offer the petition statement for her audience to read. For further information, she would provide the Campaign booklet and website address. She was humble and listened carefully to people’s opinions and concerns while canvassing, because she understood that her responsibility was not only to educate, but to learn as well.
Jelve has been in Evin Prison since December 1, 2007 on charges of disturbing public opinion and propagating falsehoods on the Campaign’s website, www.we-change.info. We know her crimes well since many of us are guilty of the same crime: To bring the issue of gender equality in the public’s view and consciousness. She stands accused because she has helped raise consciousness about gender-based discrimination among a larger audience, beyond the usual groups of women’s rights advocates and supporters. Her crime is helping to create public platforms for women to articulate their demands for equality. The following interview with Jelve took place this past October as part of an academic research project, which includes interviews from numerous social actors from the women’s movement.
Q: Jelve, please describe your personal and family life.
JJ: I come from a lower-middle class family. My father died when I was 6 months old, and my mother raised and supported me and my four brothers and sisters through sewing work. My two brothers fought in the war against Iraq and were killed at the front while still teenagers. My older sister was killed in an accident with her husband. My other sister, Javaneh, is two years older than me and married. My mother’s life changed a great deal after my father’s death. She worked long hours and was able to buy a home in Javadieh. When my sister and I were in university, my mother sold the Javadieh home and relocated to Navab, which raised our socio-economic condition. I’ve been working on women’s issues for 6 - 7 years. I can’t remember exactly when women’s issues first became important to me. I was always sensitive to the issue. Perhaps because I was raised in a family where there were no men. I lost my brothers at a very early age. I was eight years when my first brother died and then a year later, my other brother died. Our family was composed of women. I watched my mother struggle. I saw how my father’s family mistreated her. I witnessed my sister’s husband’s bad behavior. It was all unjustifiable. As a result, my sister and I struggled and resisted harder. I’m not entirely sure where this compulsion came from. It wasn’t organized, theoretical, or collective. I studied computer science as an undergraduate and am currently working on my MA thesis in sociology. Even before entering the sociology program, I began reading books on sociology and women’s issues.
Q: When did you begin working on women’s issues?
JJ: When I was 18 years old, I heard that some women from the National-Religious Front, were running a women’s studies group and I joined them. We began with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. It was in that group that I was introduced to Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani’s journal, The Second Sex. I became familiar with her and Shahla Lahiji’s works. I already knew Shahla Sherkat by that time and was a regular reader of her magazine, Zanan. By the time Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, Shahla Lahiji and other women collectively organized the first public International Women’s Day gathering in City Book store in 2000, I had been following their work for a couple of years and eagerly attended the event.
In 2001, I joined other University of Tehran students to create a women’s group, which we named Hastia Association. I was a member of Hastia for 4 years. Since leaving Hastia, I have joined the Campaign for One Million Signatures and have become active there.
Q: Please describe the activities of Hastia Association.
JJ: The first members of Hastia were university students. Some of the founders were studying health and sciences and they initially wanted to focus on women’s health issues. But later the activities expanded to include women’s legal rights and violence against women. Since we were all young and still students, most of our membership came from other university students. This worked for and against us. No one in our group had any prior experience to share and offer so we had a lot to learn. Yet our youth and inexperience made us self-reliant, led us to take independent positions, and forced us to work harder for others to get to know us. One of our goals was to empower women but we first had to empower ourselves.
Our objective was to work on women’s issues but we really didn’t have issues that were of specific importance to us. We hadn’t narrowed our focus so we joined all sorts of activities and events. If the Women’s Cultural Center NGO organized an event on violence against women, we attended. If Azam Taleqani held an event to protest the prohibition of women candidates from the Presidency, we would go there too. For some of us who have left Hastia, working in the Campaign became priority so we have put all our energies there.
Q: How would you describe feminism and what would you call yourself?
JJ: I began calling myself a feminist shortly after I had heard the word for the first time. I came to know feminism quite late. My home life situation was very difficult and unstable, so I never really had time to pursue independent reading. Also, being a girl, my restrictions were numerous, particularly around the neighborhood in which I lived. When I entered university at 18, I had access to social spaces where there were books and reading materials available.
I first heard the word feminism uttered from a man. I was 19. He told me that my opinions were similar to feminism. I asked him what feminism was. He introduced some books to me. After reading the books, I realized that he was right. I never had any resistance to the word. Since then, I have tried to use the word in my surroundings. That man was part of my circle of friends at the university, and he later became my critic after I became involved in women’s activities. I think for many men, challenging givens are acceptable when they are happening elsewhere. But when the challenges penetrate their circles and lives, they become defensive. Most men want to be masters. He taught me about feminism because he wanted to serve as my guide and escort me down the right path. After I found my own way, he still wanted to lead me to prevent my deviation.
Q: Do you see this among the young men who work for the Campaign?
JJ: Fortunately, I don’t. Maybe it’s because the women in the Campaign are so strong and speak with such force. Maybe if the women showed their strength less, the men would feel the urge to take over. I think that women’s behavior and interactions play a big role in men’s acceptance. One major factor is women’s capabilities and also, the longer men work on women’s issues, the more they internalize principles of equality.
Q: You have recently married. Do you see this urge in your husband?
JJ: Fortunately, this urge is very weak in Kaveh. But to be honest, I think Kaveh is an exception. For as long as I have known him, Kaveh has been willing to listen and accept. He is very self-aware and self-critical. I have seen many young men who engage from a position of authority. They couldn’t accept that as women, we had our own opinions. They would say that we weren’t capable of organizing, our understanding was limited and that we hadn’t read or studied enough. Meanwhile, their own readings were just as limited. They would launch very general criticisms, discourage us and try to weaken our self-confidence yet show themselves to be all knowing.
The younger men who are joining the women’s movement are different from the young men I knew several years back. They have internalized the discourse of equality more seriously. At the same time, women have become stronger. There is a big difference between now and before. We don’t hang our heads low and we’ve got something to say.
Q: There are different kinds and branches of feminism. Which kind of feminism are you closest to?
JJ: I really don’t know. I’m the kind of feminist that lives and tries to work in the specific cultural and religious context of Iran. I think if anything, I am a feminist who is action-oriented. I think that the Campaign is using the situational feminism that Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani discusses. By action-oriented feminism, I mean that we have to analyze the situation and daily realities and act accordingly, while not losing our values. For example, I don’t believe in carrying arms but I will go to prison if I have to. They are the minimal conditions we set for ourselves, seemingly obvious yet very important. I don’t want violence to break out. I don’t want people to be deceived. These human values need to be maintained and reproduced so they are not lost in today’s world.
Q: You don’t think that pursuing these minimal and daily demands will distract us from our larger ideals and vision?
JJ: Ideals are the small accomplishments that we achieve. If my ideals are so far-reaching that I can’t realistically pursue them, then they will be limited to awareness only. It exists in our minds and imagination but for which we take no action. What’s the use of that?
Q: How much has becoming a feminist impacted your life?
JJ: A great deal. Before becoming a feminist and joining the women’s movement, I wasn’t very optimistic about my future. Perhaps because of my family situation or social environment, I just wasn’t very hopeful. But now I am someone who thinks for herself and independently makes choices – about my friends, who to love, how to live my life. More importantly, I have been able to make a difference in the lives of people around me. Even my mother is more enthusiastic about her life. Feminism has given me a distinct and reaffirming identity. I gave my mother some Campaign booklets to distribute among the women in her religious gatherings. They were very positive and signed the Campaign petition. They are discussing women’s issues and are supportive of such social actions. My mother recently went to another religious gathering and challenged the government’s new family bill that is being reviewed in Parliament for passage. She is very involved and discusses the issues with her friends and social circle. Sometimes she manages to collect signatures.
Q: Can you explain the history of the Campaign’s development?
JJ: The issue of women’s rights has always been important in Iran’s modern history. During the reformist period, diverse groups of women pursued various issues impacting women’s lives. Some worked on violence against women, others on AIDS, another on the issue of peace, and so on. But none of the groups distinctly focused on women’s legal status.
The women’s public gatherings in June of 2005 in front of Tehran University, and then again in 2006 prompted new developments. We had gone out into the streets, articulated our demands, and publicly presented the movement and ourselves. At the same time, the country’s situation was changing. The office of the Presidency had switched hands and an atmosphere of fear took over some parts of society. In the midst of all this, security forces suppressed and beat women who had participated in a March 8 2006 public gathering. When it came time to organizing another June gathering, some people said that holding another gathering in Hafte-Tir Square was too costly, that the security forces had been given authority to shoot, that it was madness to go out in this environment, etc. Our response was that the number of participants mattered less than going out into public and voicing our demands again. Many of those who participated in the second June gathering played an important role in developing and launching the Campaign.
The criticisms that were launched after that gathering were crushing. Our detractors such as Shahla Sherkat and others said that holding such public gatherings were futile and furthermore, radical and revolutionary. Others expressed their opposition in their weblogs. We suffered a loss in our support base – we felt very alone.
However, we had distributed small booklets among people before the gathering, which outlined our position and demands and highlighted women’s current inferior legal status. Those booklets had attracted a new group of people who attended our gathering. The positive outcome of the second gathering was the realization that we had to work among and with other people. We had to expand our base beyond the familiar groups of the movement who participate in gatherings when the environment is good but who decline when the situation gets bad. We had to broaden our demands and make them more tangible to a larger group of people. Out of this realization came the development of the Campaign.
The scope of the Campaign is diverse because it does not only aim to collect one million signatures. It has an education component that aims to raise gender awareness among people by direct face-to-face advocacy. From the start, people have been very responsive to the Campaign. It is a legal and peaceful social action which has attracted a wide base of people.
Q: How do you assess the Campaign’s strengths and weaknesses?
JJ: The Campaign’s method of collecting signatures through face-to-face canvassing is very important. The only other groups to do something similar were environmental groups who went door-to-door at a more limited scope. I have never seen this method used before where advocacy is done among people through face-to-face discussion. Several times, people have commented on how interesting our method is. The Campaign has been able to establish and use this method to good effect.
Another positive feature is that there are many young people working in the Campaign. Their abilities and self-confidence have developed to such an extent that many of the Campaign’s important responsibilities are entrusted in their hands. The new people who join are able to immediately get their hands dirty and take on responsibilities. This young force is very important in energizing and expanding the Campaign. Another positive impact is that the Campaign has been able to integrate the discourse of equality into people’s religious discourse. Many people have written about the relationship of the two discourses in a positive manner and there have been lots of discussions. I think the Campaign is the first social action that has been able to articulate the issue of women’s rights and Islam so broadly among people.
In terms of weaknesses, the Campaign’s older activists have not been transmitting their experiences to the younger more inexperienced cadre. The transfer of knowledge and experience isn’t happening as much as it should although it’s been recently improving among some who are sharing with the younger group.
At the same time, sometimes I feel that the younger generation is less interested in learning from others. It’s true that we are equal but some of us have worked longer and have more experience. There is a tendency among the younger group to be self-aggrandizing and more insistent on asserting their own position than hearing others who have worked for 10 or 20 years. Some of the people who have joined the Campaign have had no prior experience with women’s rights actions and have no knowledge of women’s organizing and coalitions. And they view democracy within the Campaign in absolute terms, as if such a democracy had a prior existence to which the Campaign must now adhere. They don’t even view the establishment of democracy as a process.
Q: Externally, what are some of the problems the Campaign has faced?
JJ: The Campaign is promoting a new action, so it is both attractive and threatening. Even the government takes contradictory positions. One day they say that they don’t have a problem with the Campaign’s demands, the next day, they do. I feel that they’re not sure themselves on what to do with the Campaign. But from the start, they have worked to contain the Campaign and have erected numerous obstacles to slow its growth drastically. They arrest people when they are collecting signatures, they continuously filter the Campaign’s website, Change for Equality, they refuse us access to public spaces to hold seminars and gatherings. Such pressures create internal tensions, yet at the same time, build strong solidarity among the different groups whom we work with, despite significant differences in our thinking.
Q: Can you elaborate?
JJ: Some of the opposition to the Campaign has come from the leftists who don’t consider legal change to be very important. Other opposition comes from the Islamists who see our demands as anti-Islamic. Then there is the perpetual criticism among some that says that we are cooperating with the regime and that our actions are serving to reinforce existing power structures.
There are two critical viewpoints from an Islamic viewpoint. Some say that Islam is what the regime says it is and because the regime is unwilling to change it, our actions are futile. Yet another position holds that Islam is and should be what our current laws says it is. This perspective is very close to the political Islam that exists within the regime.
But our greatest opposition comes from the security and intelligence forces who fear the growing connections between women. I believe that there are people within the regime who believe in the necessity to reform the laws but who are opposed to this independent action. I think our situation is similar to the U.S. suffragists in the early 20th century. The regime has a problem with our strategy and prefers that negotiations and change take place behind closed doors. That said, I seriously doubt their will to change the laws since that would fly in the face of their patriarchal interests. Nevertheless, the regime doesn’t want women to work together and they would prefer our diversity to divide us. They don’t want the different movements to associate with another but the women’s movement has to build links with other movements and actions if it is to make its demands more widely heard.
Q: How successful has the Campaign been in bringing people together?
JJ: I think that we have become more successful than we initially anticipated. Our goals were general and broad. One was to create a platform where diverse people could participate. Unfortunately, we have been unable to attract the political parties. They still cannot accept that parties operate within movements, not outside them and that they must join in. Because of the current environment, our political parties are closed off and conservative to some extent. As a result, the Campaign has not been able to attract the Participation Party for example.
The Campaign has been able to enter people’s homes and gain supporters, and has volunteers throughout the world. It has grown a great deal and has garnered broad support. Perhaps least expectedly, its discourse has entered the ranks of the regime and there are sympathizers within the power structures as well.
There have been setbacks and obstacles as well, such as the Family Support bill presented by the current government, which further curtails women’s rights. But there has been great resistance to this bill from the start and opposition is growing. Some parliament representatives - among them even "fundamentalists" - have taken a stand against it. During the last year, the just and rightful demands of women have become popular and have even found supporters within the regime.
Q: The Campaign activists have steadily been under attack. How do you assess the impact of the continuing persecution?
JJ: The actions of the security forces have had some unintended consequences. It has elevated the visibility of the Campaign because with every arrest and detainment, its news is spread throughout the world. I don’t think we would have attracted as many supporters and activists if the Campaign had been allowed to progress quietly. These arrests have kept the Campaign alive and high on the public’s consciousness. It’s true that the arrests have also caused fear but they also confirm that the Campaign is alive and active despite the pressures. On the one hand, people are arrested but on the other, people are still going out and collecting signatures. This has a positive impact on people who see that the Campaign and its activists are serious and committed about reforming discriminatory laws. People respect that. Of course, some supporters drop out along the way too which is damaging. The persecution forces us to continuously rethink out tactics and future steps to keep the Campaign alive, and of course creates numerous worries, which occupies a lot of energy and time.
Q: How hopeful are you for the Campaign?
JJ: I’m very hopeful and optimistic. In the past two years, women’s issues have become much more widely discussed throughout society. It is well on its way and will continue unless something unusual happens, like war, to stop its progression.
I really don’t think it’s possible to stifle women’s discourse of gender equality. Women are much stronger now than ever. Yes, I’m very hopeful.