Omid Memarian

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Hardliners Are Against the Civil Society!

Omid Memarian- Summons, arrests, intimidation, barred activities, and heavy sentences for peaceful activism are only a part of the pressure Iranian Women’s Movement faces. In continuation of a security approach to civil activism, over the past few days Delaram Ali, a member of the Million Signatures Campaign For Law Change, was sentenced to 34 months in prison plus ten lashes.

Immediately thereafter, Alieh Eghdamdoust, another suspect in the July 2nd, 2006 gathering case, was sentenced to three years and four months’ imprisonment and 20 lashes. In an interview with Rooz, Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, a Women’s Movement activist says the message for such sentences is that a part of the security system will not tolerate gatherings and public protests. Referring to the escalating security atmosphere of the past few months, she adds: “The gentlemen have a plan for extensive suppression, especially after Ham Mihan newspaper was suspended and ILNA News Agency was shut down. Therefore it is safe to say that the prison sentences for those women must be viewed within the larger picture of the Suppression Project’s gaining momentum over the Control Project within the governing forces.” Following is Rooz’s interview with Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, Editor of Farzaneh publication, a quarterly journal dedicated to women’s issues, and Head of Training Center of NGO’s in Tehran.

What is the reason for stiff sentences for Alieh Eghdamdoost, Delaram Ali, and other women’s rights activists following their participation in peaceful protests, and what message do such sentences carry?

Such sentences convey the clear message that gatherings and public protests are not tolerated. Prior to March 5th, women who had been sentenced, such as Jilla Baniyaghoub, were acquitted. This means that based on [the repeated] interrogations and summons at that time, it was felt that public protests would not take place anymore, and they were willing to issue softer sentences. But after the March 5th protests and arrival of fresh new groups on the protest scene, ones that had not been present in the July 2nd 2006 protests, they felt threatened by women’s public protests and since then, harder stances have been assumed in issuing sentences for people such as Sussan Tahmasebi, Fariba Davoodi Mohajer, Nooshin Ahmadi Khorassani, and Parvin Ardalan—who were previously expected to be acquitted. We see a continuation of this trend in the case of Delaram Ali, who is a symbol of the brutal confrontation of Police with women’s protests, and who has received a two-year definitive sentence.

Another factor which must not be forgotten is the escalating levels of security atmosphere and increased police brutality over the past few months. Multiple and successive projects claiming to crack down on those attempting “soft overthrow of the government,” those disregarding Islamic dress code, and “criminals and thugs,” without regard for the roots of the problem, show that the gentlemen have a plan for extensive suppression, especially after Ham Mihan newspaper was suspended and ILNA News Agency was shut down. Therefore it is safe to say that prison sentences for those women must be viewed in the larger picture of the Suppression Project’s gaining momentum over the Control Project within the governing forces.

But the women’s protests over the past several years were peaceful, apolitical and goal-oriented. What is the reason for such concerns? Is it in the nature of the message Women’s Movement has, or is there concern that such peaceful movements might join events such as what happened in Tehran University in 200…?

Compared to the treatment university students and labor protestors received, women have been spared. As we address the stiff prison sentences for women activists, several Amir Kabir University students who were accused of fabricated blasphemy charges in their student publications are detained in solitary confinement, tortured into producing confessions. Iranian media has not reacted properly with respect to these events.

Women’s demands are clear and their independence from other political forces is easily verifiable. Women’s Movement is at present time the only social movement which is peaceful in nature and has tangible demands for social changes, which is why they have faced widespread social support. Such a phenomenon confronts government forces with a dilemma. On one hand they cannot arrest a few members of this movement, keeping them in prison for a few years until their movement subsides, as has been done in the case of university students or labor protestors. On the other hand, our demands for law changes have been repeated by even the most conservative women’s groups. Not all our demands, but some of them might be receiving some attention; for example it appears that preparations are being made to raise women’s dieh (blood money) to equate that of men’s. The heavy sentences are a message to show that their tolerance is reaching its limits, and if we don’t tread carefully, serious suppression is awaiting us. You know that as we speak we all have open cases awaiting court dates. The gentlemen’s message is clear.

In understanding the confrontation of the government with the peaceful Women’s Movement in progress through NGO’s and civic society activism, there exists a serious ambiguity. These organizations and activists act within the framework of the Constitution, and because they are based on a social need, their success will relieve the government and related organizations of a burden. Such movements will also lead to social invigoration and when those demands are met, will result in a closer relationship between the people and Government. There are other benefits, as well. But what do you think is the source of such hostile, security-based approach of certain sections of the government towards Women’s Movement?

They view civil movements of women’s rights activists as tactics for a “soft overthrow” of the government. This security-based approach which takes the shape of a project to deal with “soft overthrow,” has created additional pressure on women’s movement. They won’t accept that women’s demands are coming out of the society, based on legitimate concerns of women. Compared to two years ago, all public resources have been removed from civil society activists, especially women, and have been handed to religious propaganda and charity organizations.

This has caused a radicalization of the Women’s Movement as compared to two years ago, driven by the radicalization of the atmosphere. Some women feel they no longer have access to a podium to voice their demands, and choose riskier alternatives to voice those demands.

Do you mean that if this “soft overthrow” was not raised as a goal by these authorities, women activists could continue their activities without any problems?

The “soft overthrow” project, which was started with the case best known as “webloggers’ case” in 2003, has been under scrutiny and a source of conflict inside the regime, and has been officially revived over the past few months. Announcement of budgets dedicated by the Deutsch and US governments has also exacerbated the issue. Add to this the radicalization of the civil protests arena, and you will have a setup conducive to suppression of women’s rights activists. Currently, all offices dedicated to women’s rights activism, such as ours, are either shut down or have been voluntarily closed down. Budgets dedicated to the deprived women of faraway provinces are now suspended in our organizations’ bank accounts. I would like to separate activities of NGO’s from the Women’s Movement. I believe that we must be able to receive internal and external legitimate funds for NGO’s whose concentration is on development. The Women’s Movement, however, which is working through campaigns staffed by activists, must remain totally independent from any financial resources, and must rely on its volunteers alone. Security forces fail to understand this separation in the very nature of the two activities and their related plans of action. They don’t appreciate the difference in the values and goals of volunteer-based activities and development-based activities for women (the same distinction I made earlier).

We pursue a change of approach by regime about women, and believe those who can create these changes are the people and women of Iran, and most importantly, that these changes must take place through our own internal resources.

My question is whether this “soft overthrow” thinking, which has plagued the government’s approach towards so many legitimate civil movements over the past two years, is the real concern vis a vis the Women’s Movement; or is this an excuse to cover certain government organizations’ lack of accountability and the ability to understand these movements? I mean is this “soft overthrow” concept being used as an excuse for suppressing certain groups, even where there is no evidence to support such intentions?

I see this as an excuse. Through the interrogations conducted over the past two years, they have discovered that such accusations are not true. If they were true, we wouldn’t all be free on bail. If, for example, I was involved in this “soft overthrow,” I would still be in Evin’s 209 Ward.

Look, soft overthrows have taken place in certain countries, and if foreign resources were not available to those movements, they couldn’t take place. Those funds, for example, provided soup for thousands of people who stayed out on the streets in a country for a whole week, long enough for the government to change. If there was no soup, after two days, the hungry protestors would have gone home. Such a “soft overthrow” is not valid in the case of Iran.

The Iranian government perceives two types of threats against itself: war and “soft overthrow.” I think the government is certain that Iranians do not pursue a revolution, but in the case of the threats it perceives, like Don Quixote, it fights the wooden horses for years. Of course military preparedness is a very good idea, but to pursue “soft overthrow agents like Don Quixote is not such a good idea. The Iranian civil society’s structure and social movements in Iran do not provide for a soft overthrow. If the Judiciary were to abolish stoning from Iranian laws, how do you think we would react? Will we congratulate the Judiciary or look for other excuses to start a campaign against it? In the case of Iranian Women’s Movement, the first option will prevail, not the second. This defines the difference between demanding changes and a “soft overthrow.”

Why do the country’s security and political authorities fall short of understanding this distinction? Their lack of comprehension forces them to react in the costliest and most tension-producing measures.

Perhaps they have not achieved democratic growth to develop tolerance, and have an “Us and Them” approach to issues. This way of thinking has to do with psychology of power in their non-democratic minds. They also think that when it comes to determining what is good or bad for the country, they are God. They can’t imagine that in this country, there are men and women who believe in independence and also have serious criticism.

Are you hopeful that authorities may allow increased activity for civil society organizations to attempt solving social problems on the sidelines of the defective and ineffective bureaucracy of the government?

In Ahmadinejad’s cabinet which views all social and political bases in a security-based approach, such a thing appears improbable and impossible. We must all believe that they do not want a civil society.

Have you and your friends thought about a dialogue with the Government as an item on civil society activists’ agenda?

We are not interested in unequal dialogue. So far, the only conversation that has taken place has been based on summons and interrogations or through participation in Government conferences with certain organizations which claim to be NGO’s [but are not], and no one has ever invited us to a dialogue. The issue is not even that we are not interested in unequal dialogue. The issue is that they are not capable of having a dialogue with us.


Due to its very nature, a hierarchical totalitarian system is incapable of a dialogue with people.

Maybe it’s time to change the ways exchange of information are taking place, from interactions of a prisoner and his/her interrogators under pressure, to a dialogue in the media among government organizations and NGO’s? Do you suppose Ahmadinejad’s government is capable of this?

No. I don’t believe Ahmadinejad’s Government to be capable of this.


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