There is no doubt that we are experiencing history in the making! Popular movements in North Africa and the Middle East have filled the rest of us with hope and optimism.
One after another, dictators who for years violated the rights of the people in a widespread and sever manner are being toppled and we join the jubilation of the people who have stormed the streets to demand their just rights. The images of such moments are powerful and impressive; filled with happiness and hope. And yet for me, and certainly I am not alone in this, so in fact for many of us human rights activists across the world, such happiness and hope are accompanied with deep concern.
Look at the last but certainly not the least example, Libya. Kaddafi was arrested alive and then killed violently in the hands of the opposition forces. The victims of human rights violation, those who were arrested and tortured in his regime and under his rule, the surviving family members of the disappeared and the dead, were stripped off of the chance to look the dictator in the eyes and speak of the atrocities they had been subject to for the world to bear witness. They were not given the chance to recount their life stories and forcibly and for the first time, hold Kaddafi accountable and answerable for the lives he destroyed. The matter, however, did not end with Kaddafi. Shortly after his death, the bodies of 53 of Kaddafi’s supporters were found in a hotel in the city of Sirte. One can be worried already that it will not end with the 53 deaths either! As you can see, the jubilant images can dissipate so simply and be replaced with new and sad images of violence. The entire body of the humanity’s achievements in the fields of international human rights movement and transitional justice can in the same simple manner, as with the jubilant images, dissipate and disappear.
However, the start of a new wave of violence and killing, this time by the revolutionaries, is not the only worry regarding Libya. In its first announcement post Kaddafi’s death, the National Transitional Council of Libya promised that going forward, Shari’a law will be implemented in Libya and for example, men would have the right to take multiple wives.
This takes me back to Iran, 32 years ago! It had barely been two weeks since the toppling of Mohammad Reza Shah’s Government and the new regime had not yet formulated a constitution. Yet that didn’t stop Ayatollah Khomeini from issuing an edict to annul the secular family laws. Thereby, women lost their custody right to their own child and polygamy became legal. However, from the night of the victory of the revolution, the execution of the heads of Pahlavi regime began. Later on, the memberships of the leftist groups and even the religious groups who were opposed to Ayatollah Khomeini but had participated in the revolution that led to his victory were subject to similar ad hoc tribunals without the presence of an attorney or any respect for due process. In the first decade of the Islamic revolution of 1979, thousands of people were killed due to their political affiliations either in prisons, or in homes and streets.
32 years has passed and in spite of the tireless work of the women’s rights movement of Iran to achieve equality for women, it has not yet been successful in annulling polygamy, re-establishing women’s custody rights, or her right to obtain a divorce. In fact, a bill is being passed by the Iranian Majlis that would render polygamy and temporary marriage even easier that it presently is. Female human rights activist are still arrested for merely demanding their rights and then sentenced to long and heavy prison terms, such as 11 years of imprisonment. Most recently, male and female activist even faced lashing as punishment for their civil activism.
After 32 years, there are still thousands of families who are yet unaware of the location of burial of their loved ones. If they demand the right to know, or the right to mourn their dead, they will face threats, interrogations and detention. Families of those killed in the protests of the last few years are suffering similar fates. Actors and causers of these crimes continue to violate human rights with absolute impunity. Two years after the sever suppression of the Iranian civil society that followed the post-election unrests, the condition of human rights in Iran is extremely severe on all fronts. Civil movements like women’s rights movements, labor movements, and student movements have no room for expressing their existence. Civil society activists are either in prison or were forced to leave Iran or else fully or mostly abandon their activities. It is no longer possible to fight for abolishing of the stoning law or establishing equality between mother and father in the family law or abolishing execution in Iran. Per capita, Iran has the highest rate of executions in the world. From the beginning of 2011 alone, 360 executions have been officially announced and around 200 more have been reported by human rights organizations based on credible information.
After 32 years, Iranian’s hopes for achieving freedom and democracy have not been realized. In fact, the Iranian society experienced multitudes of backlashes.
Yes, you are correct! We all know that Iran is very different from Libya and the world of today is a wholly new place that the world of 32 years ago. And yet we know that the past is a treasure trove of experiences and issues to be learned from, particularly when similarities are overwhelming.
In Tunisia, a week before the election, the extremist Islamists staged a violent protest and prevented the showing of a film by a film maker of Iranian decent that in their opinion insulted Islam. In Persepolis, a movie that has been viewed by millions across the globe, and even secretly by Iranians inside iran, Marjaneh Satrapi tells her story of being a young girl in post-revolutionary Iran. She was forced to wear the hijab and was arrested for having a few music cassettes. Her story is real and very similar to the story of thousands of young women, such as myself, who are demanding their rights in Iran. I can understand why Muslim women who suffered social setbacks for wearing hijab under the secular dictatorships of the likes of Ben Ali and Mobarak are now reacting to the top-down enforcement of secularism through celebrating their activism in religious parties. But I cannot condone limitation of freedom of speech or the right to speak against enforced veiling justified with the excuse of respect for the faith.
Today, I am not alone in fearing that people, and above all, women, will be the losers of a populist revolution staged for achieving human rights and democracy. I share this concern with many human rights activists and feminists from countries that had similar experiences of post-revolutionary period and transition to democracy as have Iran, Algeria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. In the last months and days, they have expressed their deep concern through various mediums. For example, the network of Women Living Under Muslim Laws recently wrote in an announcement regarding Libya: “if we accept that democracy means the law of the people expressed through their votes. It is disturbing that the first act of this transitional government (following an autocratic one which it has denounced), is governing by decree, rather than by consulting the people through democratic means. Laws should not be annulled by the will of a ruler or rulers; they should be changed after due democratic consultation, by the will and vote of the people. Doing otherwise is to replace one undemocratic rule by another, and to confuse democracy with monarchy, autocracy or oligarchy.”
Successfully staging a revolution is a tough task. Coming from a failed experience, I can vouch for the difficulty of this endeavor. In the post 2009 presidential election, when it became evident that the ruling dictatorship was not willing to act upon even the tiniest requests such as recounting the votes, we tried to push the dictator to the sideline. But we failed! Two years later, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya succeeded in accomplishing this task using different methods. However, even more difficult that staging a successful revolution is transitioning into a real democracy after that revolution, a democracy in which human rights is guaranteed. Sadly, the Iranians were defeated in this battle as well.
When the supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini not only killed the heads of the Pahlavi regime, but also executed industrialists and prostitutes, none of the other revolutionary groups protested. They turned a blind eye to the sudden loss of the rights of women because “the Revolution” was more important! Later, when the suppression and state violence spread to their particular party or group, there was no one left to protest. Any violation of human rights, no matter where it takes place or who the victim of it is must immediately be protested against. Indeed the life of the victim will not be restored but others will be saved from falling victim to that crime. Therein lay a lesson we had not yet learned: in a dictatorship, suppression and violation of the primary rights of all dissenting opposition, even the critics, may not occur all at once but will certainly happen.
At Justice for Iran, one of the projects we work on is documenting the occurrence of rape and sexual violence in prisons in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This project provided me with the opportunity to listen to over 80 life stories told by women who had fought alongside men to topple the Pahlavi regime. They were then imprisoned for a few years by the new government that was born out of the revolution labeled as opposition members. For some of them, it was the first time they were speaking about their harrowing experience or that of their ward mates. One of the most horrific acts they bore witness to was the raping of virgin girls prior to their execution. After months of research, it has become clear for us at Justice for Iran that in the early years of the 1980’s, young women who were imprisoned for political reasons were raped shortly before being executed. Up until now, this matter had been spoken of as a rumor and a belief held by political prisoners of that decade and their families. After 30 years, our research proves that a systematic crime was committed. This is while the correct number of the victims and their identity is still unclear to us. I am certain that many of you had never heard of this historic tragedy. You are not alone as I am certain that millions of Iranians, be they of my generation or the previous generations, have also never heard of this tragedy and if per chance they had, they considered it a story born of the minds of the Iranian opposition. For this exact reason, when one of the two opposition candidates, Mehdi Karroubi, announced that a significant number of the prisoners arrested during the post 2009 election unrest were raped, many assumed that this was the first time that political prisoners were subject to rape in Iran.
Decades of assassination, suppression and censorship not only strips the people of a country from knowledge about historical facts regarding their own homeland and the various violations of human rights that went on inside of it, but it also causes an utter absence of a historic memory. Thereby the new generation will continue to make the same mistakes as the older generation made and therefore, fail likewise. Therefore, mistakes made by different political groups in the early 80’s in Iran were repeated by the youth who stormed the streets following the 2009 presidential election as they had no knowledge of the mistakes and errors of the older generation. For this reason, although suppression is often enacted in similar manners, the suppressed always think they are undergoing a unique experience because the previous experiences and stories were left untold and unheard.
Similarly, decades of assassination, suppression and censorship in the countries experiencing Arab spring has undoubtedly left its mark as well. You and I indeed do not have a clear idea of how the political opposition were suppressed, forcibly disappeared, tortured and killed in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in the decades past. In fact, I can say with certainty that there is no clear common knowledge about their past amongst the people of those countries either. Aside from the dictators and their well known cronies, none of us clearly know how many of the people in those countries participated in the human rights violations, what their identities are and what befitting punishments should they be awaiting. Do you see the names and faces? The victims are all individuals who were once filled with life and deserving of it but they are unknown to us. Until their stories are told one by one, we will not know who they were, why they fought and why they were killed. We will not know how and by whom they were tortured and harassed and killed for they continue to remain unknown. So long as they remain protected in the bosoms of their families and trapped in the picture frames displayed on their walls, they will not become integrated into the history of their country. And so the possibility of the same crime repeating and happening to others still persists. We cannot remain isolated with our worries about the future of the people in transitional states. Similarly, we cannot abandon the civil activists inside of those countries either. Each and every one of us, as activists in this universal movement, must feel the weight of this historic responsibility on our shoulders.
When we speak of an international human rights movement, a large part of it is the history of the oppressed, the history of the victims of human rights violations. Humanity’s common heritage is not limited to environmental and historic locations and buildings. The history of the oppressed and the victims of human rights are also our common heritage. It is the history of men and women who became victims of human rights violations solely due to having different political opinions or desiring to act upon those opinions. History of the oppressed is not limited to that of the victims but it is the history of the human kind’s resistance, persistence and struggle to achieve democracy and freedom. Without documenting this history, without recounting it for those who do not know it, without sharing it across time and space, mankind can repeat the same mistakes and commit the same atrocities. The concern that persists today is that without an effective intervention by the international human rights movement and the study of the previous experiences, like that of post-revolution Iran in which the revolution itself became a ridiculed notion, or of South American countries regarding the establishment of justice or of South Africa regarding national reconciliation, the Arab spring withers into an early autumn.
It is not enough to closely monitor human rights developments and protest its violation in order to protect humanity’s common heritage. Amnesty International is one of the largest and longest standing organizations committed to this task; a task that is certainly necessary but not sufficient. Let us be creative and proactive rather than just reactive. We are the members of the international society of human rights, the only ones who might have a chance in preventing a repetition of the crimes against humanity.
If each of us self-identifies as a representative of one victim of human rights violation, only one victim no matter who it is or where the violation has occurred, one victim who is today unable to tell his life’s story, we can have a deeper and much more lasting impact!
Perhaps in this manner, we are able to protect and share the history of the oppressed, this common heritage of humankind. Fortunately, there are many ways by which this task can be achieved; our personal weblogs, Facebook pages, speeches and gatherings, small local media as well as international global media, all can discuss, reflect and play back the history of the oppressed.
I would like to end my speech with a real and yet unbelievable story of one of the victims of some of the most horrific violations of human rights as this story serves as a testament that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. I have decided to be the narrator of her story in hopes that one day there no longer be any concerns or fear for children in Iran and other countries to suffer a similar faith:
Somayeh Taghvaee was a girl of only nine years. On that faithful day, she was home doing her home works when her house was stormed by the Sepah-e Pasdaran and she was arrested. The Pasdars were after Somayeh’s parents who were members of the Mojahedin-e Khalq, one of the organizations that opposed the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1981. Scared and alone, Somayeh hid behind the refrigerator while the Pasdars engage in an armed scuffle with another member of the Mojahedin organization who was present; it led to the killing of that person. In the absence of Somayeh’s parent, she was dragged from behind the refrigerator and taken to prison by the Pasdars. Somayeh was then forced to point out the homes of relatives and friends to the security forces. She was subject to hours of interrogation by the authorities who hoped for extracting some information about her parents’ whereabouts. Somayeh remained in prison as collateral hostage until the age of 14.
In those years she witnessed the torturing of other prisoners and their lashing, as well as their bandaged and bloody feet. She was provided no educational opportunity while in prison. In fact, she was instead put to work at a sewing workshop inside prison. During this entire time, Somayeh suffered from abnormal urinations at night. When she was 13, Somayeh was taken from her prison cell for two weeks. When she returned, her hands were dyed with henna and she suddenly had a gold bangle. These are things that are traditionally done to a bride prior and during the marriage ceremony. Somayeh told her ward mates that for the entire two weeks, she was at the home of Assadollah Lajevardi , head or Evin prison at the time. One of her ward mates says that after Somayeh returned at the end of the two weeks, she was no longer the same person and was suddenly depressed and dejected. Shortly thereafter, Somayeh was given to her aunt and was able to start her education again. Barely two years passed before the authorities from the revolutionary prosecution office came for Somayeh again. This time, Somayeh was forced into a marriage with a man who was close to the government officials. She was threatened that if she refuses to accept the marriage, she will be returned to prison. Somayeh, mother of two girls from her forced marriage, lost her battle with cancer at the age of 24. Until her death, she never felt the necessary security to speak in detail about her stolen childhood.
It has been 30 years since Somayeh was arrested and 14 years since her untimely death. Today, her story was finally told and yet, thousands of similar stories remain untold across the globe. Humankind’s common heritage, the history of the oppressed, is a puzzle to be completed by all of us working as a collective, each of us bringing forth one piece of this puzzle. Which part of this heritage will you be narrating? Which one of the victims of human rights violations will you be representing? The time has come, here and now, to accomplish that task! For this reason, I request that the organizers dedicate the rest of the time to hearing your narration of your piece of the history of the oppressed.
The floor is yours!
* This is the text of keynote speech of Amnesty International USA Western Regional Conference 2011
For further details, see this link:http://dogmo.com/des/sandbox/amn/WRC2011_program.pdf