In Iran, images speak

Civil resistance against the regime grows stronger. By Parvin Ardalan

Funeral procession of Ayatollah Montazeri: Photo by Nima Fatemi.

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he pro-democracy protest movement in Iran was violently attacked during Aashura commemorations on December 27, 2009. Aashura commemorates the death of Mohammad’s grandson and many of his followers in battle. According to official sources, eight people were killed, but other sources claim that the number is much higher. Since then, more than a thousand people have been arrested across Iran. On the morning of December 28 and 29, many prominent political and civil rights activists, student activists, and women rights activists were arrested. Concerns about the expansion of

repression, and the implementation of a military state grow daily. The news pours in. It does not matter where you are located. On the verge of the new year, Iran has transformed into one of the hottest news stories, not only for the news media, but for governments, policymakers and analysts alike. After thirty years of the Islamic Republic, marked with two supreme leaders, six presidents, thousands of deaths, executions and the imprisonment of political and social activists and systematic repression, hope has fled the hearts of many, while scores have been forcibly exiled. Despite this, the actions of the Islamic Republic have unintentionally

led to a large informal, diasporic network that exposes the regime, acts as a mediator for contacts, and forwards news about Iran to the outside world, on a daily basis. Today, the world watches the developments in Iran in disbelief, but hope has found its place in the hearts of the Iranian people. These people are even their own media. One day before the winter solstice – the longest night of the year – and a few days before Christmas and the start of 2010, security forces from the intelligence ministry went to the home of Somayeh Rashidi, a twenty-four-year old women’s rights and student activist. After responding to a summons to appear

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Photo by Hamed Saber.

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“Fascist president: Polytechnical University is not your place” - Mohammad Yousef Rashidi: Photo via Change for Equality.

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Photo by Hamed Saber.

in court, she was arrested. Somayeh’s image sits next to the news we have published on her arrest, and it is transmitted throughout the world by the media and by women’s networks. Somayeh was accepted for masters level study, but because of her activities she has been barred from further study. She has become a starred student, the term used to refer to students who are barred from the university. Students who are starred, receive a star next to their name on the entrance exam forms. They are marked in this manner and prevented from continuing their studies. Perhaps this strategy is modelled after Nazi Germany, where political opponents – such as Jews, Romani people, and homosexuals – were identified in a similar fashion. Somayeh belongs to the generation of Iranian youth born after the Revolution. She was born in a religious city and to a religious family, and belongs to that which among Iranians is familiarly called the revolution’s generation – a product of a country governed by Islamic laws.

One day, along with other female students, Somayeh pushed aside the fabric curtain that separated the eating areas of male and female students in the university cafeteria and proceeded to eat her lunch in the men’s section. Her action resulted in a one-term suspension from university studies, as well as an aluminium partition between men and women in the cafeteria, in place of the fabric curtain. But, this did not stop her. Somayeh is the fifty-fifth person who has been arrested for activism on behalf of women’s rights with the intent of ending discrimination against women. One day after her arrest, the minister of intelligence explained in an interview that they have identified the leaders of the disturbances. He proceeded to identify women’s rights activists, student activists and political activists as those leading the disturbances. A few days later, the state run Iranian television broadcast staged confessions by student activists. Having relations with an Iranian opposition group, which is listed as a terrorist

group, is not a new accusation, but more recently we see that these accusations are being launched against younger social activists. The accusation of cooperating with foreign governments and spying on their behalf increases pressure by foreign governments on the government of Iran, but relations with an opposition group that is Iranian, becomes a national issue and reduces international pressures. Moving on from Somayeh’s picture, my gaze rests on the image of Mohammad Yousef Rashidi, suspended student from Amir Kabir University. He holds a sign in his hands during a conference held by the Iranian president that reads: “Fascist president; Polytechnical University is not your place.” He was arrested. It is evident from this image that this brave student does not want to be portrayed as a victim, nor is he asking for any help. He is determined and urges all to join him in his belief. Mohammad is only slightly older than Sohrab Arabi, one of those who was killed in the public protests, following

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Sometime before his death, Sohrab Arabi with his mother Parvin Fahimi: Photo via Change for Equality.

the disputed June 2009 election in Iran. Parvin Fahimi, Sohrab’s mother, searched desperately for her son in various prisons and government offices, for twenty days. Finally, they gave Parvin her son’s corpse. Now, she is one of the mothers who, along with other mothers who mourn the loss of the children of Iran, gather in parks on Saturdays around the same time that Neda Agha Soltan, who has been transformed into the symbol of the movement for democracy in Iran, was shot. Images speak. This time, it is the image of veiled men, wearing women’s Islamic headdress, or the hijab. After the arrest of Majid Tavakoli, a student activist, an image of him wearing the hijab is widely published by government news outlets with the intent to humiliate him, women and all that is feminine. But in response, the images of Iranian men also adorned with scarves and the chador (a black full length covering) appear in the virtual realm. These men proclaim that they too are Majid Tavakoli. Shortly following this action, non-Iranian men follow suit, and these images also reach the world. The protest action continues and women’s rights activists announce their support of the protest

initiated by men, by issuing an analytical statement criticising the concept of forced veiling and a call for freedom of dress for women. They announce that being a woman is not humiliating, and that men who dress in women’s clothes should not feel humiliated. The statement receives support from both men and women. The frozen image of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri after his death is yet another image which appeared unexpectedly. Montazeri, who is one of the theorists behind the concept of supreme leadership, is also one of the oldest religious leaders who criticised both the supreme leaders of the Islamic Republic, along with its six presidents. Montazeri was instrumental in laying the foundation for the coming to power of Ayatollah Khomeini. His critical stance with respect to the mass executions of political activists in the first decade of the revolution and after that, and his criticism of those in power, at a time when he too was a part of the power structure, separates his line of thinking and his position from the establishment. An Iranian saying that could describe this situation goes “the knife does not cut its own handle.” The knife of the regime

has committed many atrocities thus far, without cutting its handle, including attack against political dissidents, flogging, imprisonment, execution, and stoning. But presently, the attack against the regime from within has started. Now, we have to say that the knife has cut its own handle. The prominent role of Montazeri was the exposed symbol of this internal attack. Currently, the attack is not only directed toward the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenie, but has also targeted the role of Khomeni as the founder of the Islamic Republic and has grown even broader to take aim at the structure of an Islamic state. The news from Iran, and the images that accompany it, are examples of a variety of generations and groups who have one thing in common – the undermining of an authoritative and religious structure, through distancing themselves from hopelessness and cynicism, and by working towards increasing society’s resistance. This is the strategy that women are very familiar with. One of the issues addressed through headdress trainings about violence, is awareness of the cycle of violence. In other words, silence,

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Photo by Hamed Saber.

more than any other factor, promotes the continuation of violence, whether it be domestic violence, sexual violence, political violence or social violence. For this reason, we as women learn how to resist violence. Perhaps this is a good analogy for the civil rights movements in Iran, which more than anything are working to resist political, social, gender-based, ethnic and religious violence. In essence, the civil resistance in Iran has expanded in scope and size. This resistance has brought back hope to all our hearts. Six months ago, these protests began in response to election fraud. Today, these protests have not died down, nor have their demands remained static. Slowly, with the expression of each new demand, a new group joins the struggle and the power of civil resistance expands. The Iranian regime’s increasing use of violence during the last few weeks is an obvious sign of its desperation. Besides the physical violence, the most worrisome is how the regime is splitting the Iranian people. After every demonstration, the regime mobilises all of its resources in order to bring real people out on the streets to show its strength in relation to others

who, according to them, are imposters and foreign agents. By placing Iranians in opposition to one another, the regime has tried over a long period to increase the mental and psychological suspicion among the people. The news of the democratic movement of Iran portrays a secular image, which has come from the last thirty years of history in Iran, with both its religious and non-religious citizens. It is varied and colourful like a canvas which includes diverse colours representing a multiplicity of ideas, religions and traditions. No longer can we give this protest movement a religious hue – not even with the creation of mythological characteristics attributed to its leaders, not even with the death of the revered Ayatollah Montazeri. This movement is coupled with a constant and critical examination from within, by some of those who have served as the regime’s leaders, some who have served as spectators and some who have been the regime’s victims. For years, the international press only heard and presented the official views and images from Iran. The justification that “Iranians do not have a problem,” was a

good excuse for minimising the struggle spearheaded by social movements and the Iranian public. The excuse also served as the basis for increasing and expanding political and economic ties, as well as cooperation with the Iranian government. Now, the images speak for themselves. They speak of a people who are rejecting the status quo. Even biased media can no longer disregard the Iranian public. We must wait and see what the governments that claim to be democratic choose as their strategy. What will be the image of themselves that these governments will choose to project in the year 2010, to the world? �

Parvin Ardalan

– Iranian women’s

rights activist and journalist – is the cover person of this issue of Independent World Report. She is one of the architects of the One Million Signatures campaign: we-change.org/english. A version of this article, in Swedish, was earlier published by Dagens Nyheter.

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Report

Outcast
LGBT people in Uganda live under threat and fear. By Ariel Rubin

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he Kampala night club seems like your typical bar – a DJ blasting raucous dance music, drinking, laughing and even some furtive flirting are the order of the night. However, this remains one of Uganda’s few gay friendly bars. On a recent visit, as the debate rages over the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009, a current of fear and anxiety is felt beneath the veneer of another night out. One man notes wearily, “Why is that so shocking to you? This is the country that wants to kill and imprison us.” While life has never been easy for Uganda’s marginalised gay community, it could get a whole lot harder should the bill pass. Amos, an eloquent man in his early thirties committed in a relationship for many years notes, “Do some people know? Yes. Do some people suspect? Yes. Can they prove it in court? No. The new bill changes that.” As a group of seventeen human rights organisations notes in a recent statement, the bill “includes a provision that could lead to the imprisonment for up to three years of anyone, including heterosexual people, who fails to report within twentyfour hours the identities of everyone they know who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, or who supports human rights for people who are... The draft bill seeks to imprison anyone convicted of the offence of homosexuality for life.” The bill – known as the Bahati Bill, after David Bahati, the member of parliament who privately tabled it in October 2009 – comes out of an environment that is already deeply inimical to alternative lifestyles and any perceived threat to the traditional family. 94% of Ugandans consider themselves religious and 95% strongly oppose the legalisation of samesex relations. As one of Pastor Rick Warren’s purpose-driven nations, Uganda has become a test-tube for Western evangelicals. The coalescence of the church and the state is the norm in this profoundly religious

country that received millions of dollars for its abstinence programs from the Bush Administration. Warren, the highly influential US evangelical holds immense sway in Uganda. While finally condemning the bill after a great deal of recent pressure, Warren remains the same man who, in an April 2008 visit to Kampala, told religious leaders that homosexuality is not a natural way of life and, thus, not a human right, “We shall not tolerate this aspect at all.” As Anglican priest Kapya Kaoma notes in a recent article, the religious orthodoxy of many African churches provided the US religious right with a golden opportunity to extend the church’s influence into the government. According to Kaoma, “Africans resonate with the denunciation of homosexuality as a post-colonial plot.” Ugandan homophobia, thus, ironically doubles as an expression of resistance to the West while being stoked and funded by conservative leaders and church clergy from the very same West. A recent news item in the Vision newspaper, about Ethics and Integrity Minister James Buturo’s refusal to capitulate to donor country demands to scrap the bill, sums up the sentiment perfectly: We will not bend over for aid, Butoro tells donors. In a country where the notion of atheism is scoffed at as a joke, and a deep-seated fear pervades over the undue influence of Western decadence and liberalism, political elites have managed to introduce the perfect bill to distract much of the country from the entrenched problems like corruption and unaccountability. This is a country whose tabloid daily – The Red Pepper – routinely publishes articles with titles like Homo terror and List of tycoons who bankroll homos, in addition to notorious dossiers of first names, professions and physical descriptions of alleged homosexuals. As the campaigning season for the 2011

Ugandan elections is set to commence, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill further presents the opportunity for the ruling National Resistance Movement government to shore up popular support by vilifying an already marginalised minority. With the violence of the September 2009 riots still fresh and murmurs of deep-seated unrest in this triballydivided country, the fervour over the inflammatory bill has played directly into the hands of those who introduced it. As Sylvia Tamale – Dean, Makerere Law School – warns in a recent debate over the issue, “Anyone who cares to read history books knows very well that in times of crisis, when people at the locus of power are feeling vulnerable and their power is threatened, they will turn against the weaker groups in the society.” When discussing the bill, Tamale still can hardly believe it came into fruition. Clearly, the bill’s author is no lawyer, she notes, as it violates tenets of the 1995 constitution while legally the parliament lacks the power to nullify inconsistent treaties or constitutional provisions. “You cannot put this in a bill if you know your international law.” Indeed, one of the key consultants and writers of the bill is not a lawyer at all, but the controversial Ugandan pro-family pastor, Martin Ssempa. This is the pastor, who, over recent years, burned condoms in the name of Jesus and arranged for the publication of prominent homosexuals’ names in local newspapers. His abstinence-based HIV/AIDS work was supported by the Bush White House and he has close ties with the born again Ugandan first lady, Janet Museveni.

“As Africans, we find the whole subject of sodomy and lesbianism an unacceptable lifestyle.”

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A Red Pepper dossier on homosexuals: Scan by Gay Uganda via Box Turtle Bulletin.

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