Simone de Beauvoir, the renowned author, philosopher, and feminist, once wrote: “Change your life today. Don’t gamble on the future, act now, without delay.”  On January 9th, 2009, one hundred and one years after de Beauvoir’s birth, a prize honoring her legacy was awarded to the One Million Signatures Campaign for women’s rights in Iran.  The Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom is awarded by an international jury of activists and scholars and was founded to encourage solidarity among women fighting for equality around the world.  This year they choose to honor the women and men of Iran who are fighting institutionalized legal discrimination in their country.

According to Iranian law a woman’s life has half the value of a man’s life.   This means that if a man and a woman are both injured in an accident then the woman is automatically awarded half of the compensation given to the man.  A woman’s testimony in court is worth less than the testimony than a man.  Women are entitled to less inheritance than their male peers and mothers are barred from making important financial and medical decisions for their children.  While women across the globe face discrimination in a variety of forms, the laws of Iran codify and legitimize this discrimination in a particularly shocking fashion.

The One Million Signatures Campaign was launched in August 2006 in order to gather signatures for a petition asking the Iranian Parliament to change these discriminatory laws.  Hundreds of trained volunteers in cities throughout Iran are going door to door and canvasing to educate Iranians, particularly Iranian women, about the laws and asking for their support.  The campaigners of the One Million Signatures Campaign are ordinary people reaching out to their friends, family, colleagues, and fellow citizens.  Mohammad Shourab is one such volunteer who has written on the Campaign’s website, describing his experience gathering signatures.  “I got the chance to listen to stories and woes of men and women from all walks of life who had for years kept their stories and the pain they felt from these laws to themselves,” he writes.  Shrourab and his fellow campaigners face a variety of obstacles, including government harassment.  The Campaign’s website has been hacked numerous times, meetings held in private homes have been broken up by security forces, and some activists have been arrested.  But thanks to the tireless determination of activists and volunteers the Campaign continues to gather signatures.

This is why the the Simone de Beauvoir Prize is particulary significant: it has been awared to the Campaign as a whole and not just to one outstanding individual.  I am very glad that this excellent example of grassroots activism is been recognized and celebrated.  It serves as a profound reminder of the collective power of individuals, a power that de Beauvoir herself recognized.  The volunteers, activists, and signatories of the One Million Signatures Campaign are certainly taking de Beauvoir’s advice.  They aren’t gambling that the future will bring the equality they know they deserve.  They are instead working for change today.