“Millions Of Eyes Around The World Watching Us Is A Safety Net”: Women’s Rights Activism In Post-election Iran
Iranian women’s rights activist Leila Nazari discusses what is happening to human rights activists in this period following the recent presidential elections and how internal expressions of dissent and external expressions of solidarity are catalyzing courage and dismantling lies.
The period following the 12 June 2009 presidential elections in Iran has seen large-scale public demonstrations against election fraud and in support of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Other groups have rallied in support of the re-election of sitting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Amidst all of this, human rights activists, including women’s rights activists, have played a key role in mobilizing for change, transparency and accountability and have been targeted in the repression by government authorities. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, “the human rights community in Iran is in an exposed and dangerous position, subject to severe persecution and without effective support from the international community.” 
Leila Nazari spoke with Masum Momaya at AWID about the current position of human rights activists, their mobilizing strategies and their interactions with the international community.
Has it been difficult to campaign for human rights and/or women’s rights during this post-election period?
In general, during big changes, focusing on specific change is difficult. Human rights campaigns are more dangerous under military-like conditions, as is the case these days. Our human rights actions right now are related to the recent crises - for example, protesting to end violence against those who are speaking out.
How do you feel about how women’s rights issues have been taken up in the election process, for instance Mehdi Karroubi’s mention of supporting single mothers and combating violence against women in his campaign commercial? Is this beneficial or something to be cautious of?
In my opinion, it is useful whenever women's rights get highlighted.
This was the first time in the history of Iranian elections that candidates clearly talked about their plans for advancing women’s rights. This change came about due to women’s rights activists’ ongoing efforts to make women’s rights important issues in Iran. In particular, women’s rights activists have been lobbying Mehdi Karroubi, and many them supported him in the most recent elections because of his reformist views.
How has the status of women’s rights activists changed in these few months after the elections? Are recent arrests, for example, an indication that women’s rights activists are facing more repression and persecution?
In general, working on human rights issues has been very difficult during Ahmadinejad’s presidency. In the past few weeks, the government has further repressed activists who work on a number of human rights issues. The authorities seem to have no tolerance for anyone who is a social activist or anyone who protests. The arrests of Shiva Nazarahari, Kave Mozafari, Jila Bani Yaghoob and Shadi Sadr, who was released a few days ago, for their recent activities, shows this. But I don’t think that this necessarily indicates more persecution of women’s rights activists. The lawful rights of all people are being increasingly violated, and it is definitely a more challenging time for activists in general.
What are some of the means of repression and persecution being used?
Government agents have been tear-gassing peaceful demonstrators, beating and arresting them. These agents are not only official police. Most of the time, unidentified individuals in plain clothes violently confront people. Many detainees are not in known prisons, and their families cannot get any information about their situations. So those held in detention have no contact with family members or lawyers. Also, there is no accountability and transparency in our judiciary system for this large number of detainees and disappeared persons.
What are some of the charges that have been levied against women’s rights activists?
Over the two past years, numerous women’s rights activists, especially the members of the One Million Signatures Campaign who are working peacefully and legally to change Iran’s discriminatory laws, have been arrested, searched, interrogated, prevented from meeting and subjected to travel bans preventing them from traveling abroad.
In April 2009, for the first time in Iran history, a women’s rights advocate, Alieh Eghdamdoust, had been jailed for three years solely for participating in a peaceful demonstration on behalf of equal rights for women in 2006, in which 70 others were also arrested.
During recent years women’s rights defenders have played leading roles in bridging various human rights movements in Iran. They have raised the visibility of citizenship rights, catalyzed discussion about equality and fought for a broad spectrum of human rights. In doing so, we have been serving as examples for other women in the Middle East, who are living under similar types of discriminatory laws.
Do you feel that the recent uprisings and expressions of dissent provide an opening for change?
The most important achievement is that the calls for change have become so public. It has been incredible to see so many people participating in the protests. Many different types of people from many walks of life in a very wide range of ages have been making demands for their rights and for an accountable and transparent government.
Also, attacks on the protestors have brought out new requests to stop the violence and to respect the rights of citizens. And women and men have been together in fighting for all of this.
The Western media has been reporting that Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) like blogs and twitter are playing a significant role in this “revolution.” Is this true?
Yes it is true, at least to some extent. This "revolution" has been somewhat enabled by middle class people who have access to the internet and many news sources. And because of all of those tweets, the world started watching! For example, the #CNNFail tweets were codes to say "hey CNN: report!” When CNN responded and headlined Iran, a media flood started, and Iran became the headline of major news agencies. This helped us survive because when the world is watching, we have more courage to do things, and having millions of eyes all around the world watching us is a safety net.
Are ICTs helpful? How, if at all, are you using them in your work?
In addition to spreading news about what is going on, ICTs are helping us organize our movements. We are constantly receiving and sending emails about our activities and plans. This is mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people!
ICTs are also useful for dismantling lies. For example, the police have been claiming, "the rioters are damaging people's cars." But people have uploaded tons of photographs to the internet showing the police themselves doing the vandalism.
Given the complicated history of Western involvement in Iran, do you feel there is a role for feminist allies outside of Iran to play in supporting women’s human rights activists in Iran?
Yes, I think those outside of Iran have a role to play, and they can focus on three main areas.
First, they can help raise awareness. If the world sees us, and if we know that the world is aware of our situation, not only we will have more courage to continue, but also we will be in less danger. Our government has shown us many times that it is highly afraid of the western media's words. There is some evidence that when those in the West insist on releasing a human rights activist, the Iranian government does so, or at least decreases their pressure on him or her.
Second, helping to show the real Iran to the outside world is also very important. The world should know the truth: Iran is not Ahmadinejad. He became president by bullets, not ballots.
Finally, those outside can participate in sharing knowledge, ideas and history. Feminism and equality are roads. Some countries move along faster, and some are slower. Nations who are faster can and should share their history and experiences. Success stories from other countries are a boost to us, and we are not going to and don’t want to invent the wheel by ourselves!
Organizations such as Amnesty International and Women Living Under Muslim Laws have initiated awareness raising and petition campaigns to support women’s rights activists in Iran and elsewhere. Do you feel these campaigns are effective? And if so, what is most important to convey in the campaigns?
The campaigns are effective first because they help Iranian people to amplify their voices. Second, these actions get more people involved because they are initiated and coordinated by well-known organizations who have respected and trustworthy reputations.
It is important to remember that the Iranian government is continuously trying to show that the protests are driven and led by those outside of Iran so highlighting our agency and independence as activists inside Iran is very important.
To understand the role of women in the post-election protests, read articles by Golbarg Bashi and Sara Farhang.
For updates on the status of women’s human rights activists in Iran, visit Change for Equality.
For information about those currently detained, read Women’s eNews commentary by Leila Mouri Sardar Abady.
To learn more about the women’s rights movement in Iran over the last 30 years, see Homa Hoodfar’s essay.