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Diaspora Iranian students on the country's political dissent

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For the past two weeks Iranian people have taken to the streets against the result of Iran’s presidential election, whether if it’s been in Tehran or in Toronto’s Queen’s Park. As reported by various media outlets, student dormitories in Iran have been raided by government militias in an attempt to silence their dissent.

On June 28 the Toronto-based Committee in Support of the Resistance of Iranian People – which I am a part of – held a panel discussion with six Iranian students from different political backgrounds asking what their analysis is of the current Iranian uprising and what we, in the West, can do to support it. 

Mahdi Takaffoli, an engineering doctorate student at Ryerson University, spoke strongly of reform to the Islamic Republic rather than revolution. This was a heated topic throughout the night as it seemed everyone in the room had their own view on revolution versus reform.  While in Iran, Takaffoli was a member of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, a reformist political party. “I do not like the idea of revolution,” he said in Farsi.

Similarly, Pouya Alagheband also advocated for reform. He moved to Vancouver from Iran in 2005 to study at Simon Fraser University. During his talk he marvelled at the non-violent approach Iranians were taking in their demonstrations and strongly advocated for it to continue. This was met with an audience outcry over the violence the Basij (Iran’s paramilitary militia) have conducted on the protesters and the assertion that any violence that has occurred in the protests was provoked.

Alagheband, who went to Ottawa to vote for the Iranian election, said in Farsi, “The young people of Iran today, like me, we don’t have any one political tie…We have ideological ideas and we want unity.”

The idea of reform was met sceptically by the audience which was composed of mostly older politically left Iranians. Many of them witnessed the brutality of the Islamic Republic after the 1979 revolution and realize that reform will not change the many problems in Iran (i.e. lack of women’s, worker and human rights). Although Mir-Hossein Mousavi has become the political symbol of dissent in Iran, he did not always have this image when he was prime minister from 1981 to 1989.       

One of the panellists, Shokoufeh Sakhi, was jailed during Mousavi’s rule. As a teenager during the 1979 revolution she was arrested in 1982 and was in jail for eight years for being a leftist activist. She recalled how difficult prison life was and how many people were tortured. “Whoever hasn’t gone to prison can’t understand it.”

“Our disadvantage [today] is we are not in Iran [now],” Sakhi said in Farsi. “Here we boil and want to do something but can’t.” Her main concern is to make sure tabs are kept on all of the people who have been arrested in the past two weeks so that another generation of activists will not be crushed.

Sakhi, who is a political science doctoral student at York University, said the way international media has reported on the Iranian uprising has framed it as a spontaneous occurrence, but Sakhi believes that this has been in the works for much longer. “The politics in Iran is very complicated,” she said in Farsi. “All the factors of what can happen today is complex – we can’t simplify it.” She said a vote for Mousavi wasn’t simply a vote for him, but a vote for change.

Panellist Niloofar Golkar was part of the One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality in Iran, which advocated for women’s rights; she is now studying politics at York University. Golkar said that in the months leading up to the election there was already a crack down on student activism. She recalled how every time students held a protest, the reaction of the police became tougher, resulting in arrests and police brutality.

“If Ahmadinejad stays [in power] we have four more scary years ahead of us,” Golkar said in Farsi. She argued that there should be a focus to stop the violence happening on the streets in Iran because people have the right to protest and have their voices heard. “We need to write about the violence…Now they’re [the militia] coming with guns and killing people,” Golkar said in Farsi.

Diaspora Iranian students have been very active in current Iran-uprising solidarity work. Donya Ziaee, who has a master’s degree in political science from York University, has been one of the rally organizers in Toronto. At the panel she said she did not vote during the election. “I didn’t feel like any of the candidates offered anything progressive and they didn’t offer anything different,” Ziaee said.

She failed to see what the progressiveness was in Mousavi’s platform that media outlets have claimed exist. “Two weeks after the election he [Mousavi] hasn’t made connections to other movements,” like the women’s and labour movements Ziaee said. She criticized Mousavi’s lack of ability to use this historic opportunity to create a strong hegemonic counter movement.

As for what we in Toronto can do, Ziaee said that the role of the diaspora has to be different from what is going on in the streets of Iran. She said that reform and revolution are just dichotomies that create divisions and that alliances on both sides of the political spectrum need to be made. “I support the movements on the street and it would be a mistake for all of us who are critical of Mousavi to not support the people on the street,” she said.

For Salah Hassanpour, a doctoral cinema and media student at York University, the historical context of Iran’s political situation needs to be learned and needs to be dated past 1979. “It’s tempting to tell the story of a country who 30 years ago kicked out a monarch,” Hassanpour said.

He spoke of how western media’s focus on the 1979 revolution is the easy route to trying to understand a complicated country. “The Islamic figures have had to work hard to get what power they have,” Hassanpour said. “Theocracy is a rare power in Iran.” 

The point of this panel discussion was to create a dialogue between people with different political beliefs and it succeeded in doing so. These students spoke of their experiences in Iran and abroad to have their ideas heard.

The first step, I believe, towards any political discussion is dialogue which can be transformed into concrete and positive actions. Panels such as this are needed for the young, old and everyone in between to attend and be exposed to different viewpoints on a complicated situation that keeps escalating. 

 

 

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