Iranian exiles try to make a difference

A political tract hammered out by
an Iranian feminist this spring presents a snapshot of activism from exile.

Incensed by an aging ayatollah’s
pronouncement that women exposing excessive flesh cause earthquakes, the young
lawyer, who fled to Germany after her arrest in Iran, fired off a Web post
accusing all Iranian men of complicity in the oppression of women propagated by
the ayatollahs.

The diatribe went viral instantly,
provoking a global debate among Iranians, with countless men denouncing the
premise. But the furore soon died, underscoring the quandary faced by former
high-ranking reformist politicians, journalists, academics, student leaders and
others who have sought safety abroad since the contested presidential election
in June 2009.

The Web keeps them involved with
events inside Iran, easing some of the isolation of life in exile. Still, they
can no longer directly confront the government in the Islamic republic, where
widespread bloody repression has left the opposition Green Movement with an
uncertain future. From Ankara, Turkey, to Oslo to New York, the exiles struggle
to remain relevant, hoping that by reflecting on past experience they can
somehow shape whatever future emerges.

“They have shifted the goal posts
in saying that Iran is ruled by an illegitimate government; that had never been
said before by so many people who were important inside the government,” said
Behrouz Afagh, the director of the BBC World Service for Asia and the Pacific,
including its successful Persian-language television channel. “But they have a
future only if things inside Iran keep moving. Once out they might be effective
for a year or two, then what they say will not have the same resonance.”

Given the scattershot nature of the
exiles’ escapes, their exact numbers are elusive, though the United Nations
says there has been an increase in the number of academics, journalists and
others seeking refugee status on the grounds of persecution for political

The Iranian government has tried to
combat their use of the Internet by slowing the Web, so YouTube videos or other
large files are often impossible to view from inside the country. But enough
information passes back and forth that many exiles feel connected.

In Brooklyn, New York, Sadra M.
Shahab, 25, an Iranian graduate student who grew his black hair long in protest
even before he left Isfahan, signs onto Facebook in a design laboratory at
Pratt Institute.

One posting on Shahab’s Facebook
page typified the tensions over strategy between those outside the country who
urge greater action and those inside who fear for their lives. It was a picture
of movie directors, scriptwriters and actors meeting with the supreme leader,
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who lectured them about the importance of television in
spreading the Islamic Revolution.

Some exiles condemned the artists
for not boycotting the session. But people in Iran defended them, saying no one
would dare ignore such a summons.

Shahab, a frequent rally
participant, gets inspiration for his chants like “no to sanctions” by reading
what the former Green presidential candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, writes from
inside Iran. The constant communication back and forth will have a cumulative
effect, he contends, although it may take a decade to bear fruit.

Women play a prominent role among
the exiles, as they have recently in the Iranian opposition.

In Iran, Asieh Amini, 37, started a
campaign called Stop Stoning Forever, even collecting bloody rocks from one
stoning. Such tactics are out of reach from Norway, where she fled last year,
so in June she joined a dozen activists from inside and outside Iran in
creating a 133-page pamphlet called “Once Again From the Same Street,”
suggesting that the Greens could learn from the long struggle for women’s
rights and its success in building grass-roots organizations in Iran.

“The Greens have no continuous or
purposeful program of activism; they are reacting to events,” Amini said. While
nodding to security concerns, she concluded, “If the purpose of the Greens is
not to build a network, then what purpose does it serve?”

Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, 52, a
women’s rights activist who was sentenced in absentia in May to
two-and-a-half-years in prison and 30 lashes for “acts against national
security,” is now working from Amsterdam to establish an online television
channel to broadcast discussions about women’s rights.

As the months, and years, go by,
many exiles battle depression, the gnawing sense that removed from the fray,
they no longer matter. Some focus on winning the small battles – like loosening
sanctions banning sales to Iran of certain software applications, a goal they
recently achieved – that they hope will lead to bigger victories.

On a recent muggy afternoon in
Washington, Aliakbar Mousavi Khoeini, a former member of parliament, sat at a
white table in a small Google conference room, imploring a top executive to
provide more Persian-language Internet tools.

Speaking in halting English
acquired during his year in the United States, Mousavi Khoeini told Robert O.
Boorstin, the company’s director of public policy, that activists inside Iran
desperately needed Google Earth, Google advertising and other services that
could help thwart repression.

Boorstin was sympathetic if
noncommittal, promising to consult with various engineers.

Iranians have always been a
terribly fractious people, and the diaspora is no exception. Younger Iranians
seem particularly mistrustful of the old guard from the reformist
administration of President Mohammad Khatami, suspecting that its priority is
to return to power rather than to achieve democracy. Atollah Mohajerani, a
former minister of guidance now in Britain, raised hackles in youthful circles
when a Lebanese weekly quoted him in April as saying that the Green movement
sought reform within the current constitution.

Although the harsh government
crackdown created greater solidarity among exiles, such differences are a sign
that the diaspora has not yet jelled into an opposition party. Some reject the
very idea, fearing that would buttress government accusations that the
opposition is a foreign conspiracy.

Exiles believe that the
administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pushed thousands into exile to
rid itself of critics without creating martyrs. But the government evidently
still considers some prominent exiles a threat. Kayhan, a newspaper close to
the supreme leader, frequently attacks Rooz Online, a news site that Nooshabeh
Amiri helped found from her exile in Paris.

One recent editorial said it sought
to turn the Green movement into a “carnival of crazy animals.” More visibly, on
the main nightly news in recent months, the Iranian government has broadcast a
series of video clips devised to besmirch high-profile opposition members.

One depicted Shirin Ebadi, the
lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who has been abroad since the election,
as working with foreign powers to destroy the Islamic republic while battering
her husband at home. Many exiles welcome the government’s smear tactics as
evidence that they are having some success. Yet others recognize that the
impact of overseas efforts is necessarily limited.

In New York City, another activist,
a slight dark woman, who does not want her name printed because she continues
to visit family in Iran, said she still participated in antigovernment
demonstrations, even though the whole exercise felt vaguely absurd.

“We do come here because we think
it matters, but honestly, you don’t change anything by coming out onto the
streets of New York,” the woman said at a June 12 rally outside the United
Nations. “It is partly a psychological thing; you should not let the battle

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