Beatriz Campillo is a Mexican woman and has educational and professional background in the overlapping fields of Development Studies, Civil Society Sector and Political Analysis. She is currently PhD candidate at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of The Hague, researching about international migration discourses.
I was invited to write this comment about the Protest to Defend Imprisoned Iranian Women in Iran, which took place the 22nd of August. I have struggled to offer an honest and responsible narrative of my engagement in this human rights related cause. I see law as one defining element of organization of contemporary societies, but in my research and work experience I sometimes find the elicitation of international law and human rights discourses insufficient to provide contextualized answers for local justice. My mixed and emotional account of the protest presented below, hopefully reflects this tension, as well a tension between activism and research of which I am part.
My narrative is part of my engagements with the Protest: 1) my personal relation with my dear friend Mansoureh Shojaee; 2) my conviction of the importance of human rights principles, which is however hesitant about some of the contemporary international discourses and their functions. Specifically, I am aware that international organizations and movements work in the slippery terrain of international politics, where human rights interests may conflict with local diversity and dilemmas. I support imprisoned Iranian mothers because I find the extreme situation which some of them are undergoing unacceptable, and from my personal and professional experience this represents a serious call to take a position. My views stem from my personal experience as a woman and by my professional background in development studies and public affairs.
I trust the protest because I consider the women organizing it as honestly committed and professionally competent. As such, they have wide acknowledgement and are also subject to criticism. Several of the women activists are practicing lawyers, and work within the spaces defined by Iranian law, which is based on particular notions of family law; I am sure this is a very challenging task. I have been witness of Mansoureh’s difficulties as an Iranian intellectual woman her strength and her serious efforts to consider views that may conflict with her position as human rights and feminist activist.
My relationship with Mansoureh Shojaee
I came to meet Mansoureh while studying in the same university. We were both allocated a room in the same flat. Because she is a mothering being and a good cook, our real contact was first possible through typical kitchen affairs. She would feed me with this rice, soft buttered-saffron and crusty bottom(Tahdig). We would talk long about Caribbean and Latin American music which was surprisingly familiar to her. We also came soon to discussions about politics and with politics about women. That’s how I learned that today there are all these women doing human and civil rights activism in Iran, and that many of them repeatedly come in from the streets to prison and the courts, and out back to the streets. The reasons given by the supporters of these women in Europe are related to the lack of respect for human and civil rights in Iran, even within the limited legal spaces defined by Iranian law.
About a year after I met Mansoureh, I accompanied the protest organized by her and a group of Iranian women activists exiled in Europe, to spell out the non-sense plight of imprisoned mothers in Iran. I am rarely a street protester. But it is hard not to get yourself out of your chair when it comes to attempts to break one of our very core means to live, familial bonds. With Mansoureh I came to learn about Iranians, but what took me out of my desk the 22 of August, was knowing that these women were imprisoned for bringing their views to the fore of Iranian politics, and that once they are jailed, they only get to see their children occasionally, and when they do, they cannot hold them in their lap, no matter how delicate their personal condition may be.
The situation of Narges Mohammadi, an Iranian woman activist and human rights defender who has been going through serious and deteriorating illness during her 6 years of imprisonment, and who is mother to two little children, illustrates the extent to which families of activists are being put at extreme stress. There is deep concern for Narges’ life and the future of the children. In 2012, her husband Taghi Rahmani had to exile to Europe. In July of 2015, after Narges made public a letter to express her right to see her two children while being imprisoned, and harassment of authorities to activists intensified, Taghi decided to take their two kids with him in France. He has no possibility to ensure that she gets medical treatment according to the seriousness of her health condition and he is coping with taking care of the children by himself in a foreign country.
With this case in mind and the experience of the protest, I think that very basic familial bonds are being used to punish those wanting to contribute to build a firm future. Activist groups seem to be many and not necessarily in agreement, but I find all of them concerned with how to come to terms with a changing context. It does not surprise me that some activists are willing to risk a lot, probably because their experiences have been at discrepancy with established practices. I find intentional straining of familial bonds unacceptable and ultimately impossible to sustain for a long time.
My experience in the Protest to Defend Iranian Imprisoned Women
The afternoon of the 22 of August, the day of the call for the protest, I first went to the press conference headed by the Iranian 2003 Peace Nobel Prize, Shirin Ebadi. I could not understand what she, the activist Mansoureh Shojaee and the legal defendant Mahanaz Parakand were saying in Persian. I also knew little about their professional trajectories, other that the three of them have been imprisoned for their activism in the past, and were forced to leave their countries and families to find refuge in Europe. While observing them at the press conference, I could sense each of them in a single peace, as those surviving the very disconnection of prison passage often turn into.
While being there without verbally understanding, José Mújica, the former Uruguayan president, came to my mind. In writing this comment, I have looked up his words to recall that moment at the press conference. While being President of Uruguay, Mújica visited one of the prisons where he was tortured during the 1973-1985 dictatorship. That day, he was reported to have said: ‘Gracias a la vida estoy vivo, de casualidad. ¿Qué voy a chillar? Hay cosas que no tienen recachutaje, se viven para adelante’. As I understand it: Thanks to life I am alive, by chance. I will not cry! There are things that have no retreading, they are lived forward.
I experienced the protest as charged with this sort of forward will. Before the time set for the protest, people began to arrive and slowly streamed into a small intense lifeblood. Residents, students, travellers and other life sojourners. Each of us took the face-name of an imprisoned mother to hold her up during the act. Activity was pouring over the square facing the Peace Palace in The Hague. Iranians, men and women came to the protest from several European locations and cities, mainly in Norway, Germany, France, Austria and Netherlands.
As me and fellows from other countries joined, I could see Iranians coming and going, busy, serious, giving themselves into preparations. Some had their own ideas to bring in, and thus the handwriting of posters. The positioning of banners –on the floor, the columns, the table, the board— was perhaps the most intense activity. Narges’ photos were moved around once and again, she was a significant felt presence and embraced by many. I felt it as if each of us had to find each imprisoned woman her deserved place. As if out of time erasure and despite unawareness of participants, each column inscription in the Memorial of the Resistance and Liberation of The Hague, the name of the square´s monument, was claiming its own imprisoned woman.
In my mind, imprisoned Iranian women accompanied by other prisoners for political reasons or conscience objections were slowly occupying the Memorial square under the sight of the Peace Palace. Passers-by observed, some taking a minute to stop and read, ask. Speakers were interviewed by media. One of them was sharing her reflection with a fellow, discussing and handwriting. Several of us took our mobiles to make photos with Iranian mothers in the background; we were hoping to help bring them out of jail, home is with their children, with our mothers’ security and peace. Other photos were made with grief-old fellows, with Narges’ Spouse, with Mrs. Shirin and Speakers coming from the present, from Iranian human rights and law movements, from media ,and journalism practitioners, from Iranian cultural diversity and geographies, each bound together, like me, by trust in the rightness and worthiness of the protest.
The time of sharing came. Slowly we got close together and a circle was formed to hold inside out a firm demand: release imprisoned mothers, conscience and political prisoners! Under mothers’ faces and names, motivations and reasons were spelled out: the shameful targeting of mothers; the concern for Narges’ health and security in the words of her Spouse; the presentation of cases of blatant violations to Iranian’s law due process; imprisonment of legal defendants of feminists and human rights activists; a call to reason in regards of imprisoned youth protesters and attempts to suspend their lives by long jail sentences; the messages sent from Tehran and other Iranian locations; the presence of representatives of related causes, like an organization working against execution penalty “LEGAM”; the announcement of continuation of support to the campaign. In between speakers’ messages, our voices raised to claim: ‘with mothers in prison, we’ll fight for freedom.’ The very emotive act closed with an Iranian Lullaby.
There was not enough time to go into details about the many cases in a very complex situation which I am still rethinking and learning about. For some of us accompanying the protest without full awareness of the situations of peoples in Iran, it was an opportunity to come into contact with groups of activists that for many years, and often with huge efforts and personal losses, have worked to push for observance of international human rights law, including women’s rights.
Almost six months have passed since the protest. The cruel reactions of Iranian authorities to dissent continue. Even though her health condition worsened last October, Narges was chained to a hospital bed and has been heavily guarded. Narges has also been impeded to speak with her children exiled in Europe. Recently she wrote a letter addressed to the Chief of Justice of the Islamic Republic, to express again her right to have telephone contact with them. Yet her situation is still the same. It is common that the more senseless the reactions of authority, the more endurance the victims develop. I am still hopeful that judiciousness will finally reach those who have the authority to resolve the situation of Iranian imprisoned mothers and their families.
My message to Iranian imprisoned mothers
I am not a mother, I am not an activist and I have never been in prison. But in being woman, I have experienced deprival of an essential part of me, for reasons undelivered to my time and denied of my views. My heart has been pierced and strengthened too. Imprisoned Iranian mothers and women, for our differences I support you, resist. Mothers and women are at the nucleus of families and societies. Without subjective or emotional needs given attention, there is no smooth walk, no firm grounds. Without women understandings, there is no pursuance of justice, in action and ideas. Inflicted uncertainties may threaten to take over, but cruelty, whether open or concealed, ends up swallowed by its own huge lack, the absence of judiciousness, of wisdom.
I am ignorant of your particular motivations, but I am hopeful that the distinctiveness of our voices will continue to be acknowledged to the extent in which our views find points of contact, if not full harmony, with the situations of others. On the basis of care, creativity and work we can continue to learn about differences and build our high standing. I believe that we are necessary in the continuous adaptation of reasons to present times, and that women’s reasons are part of deep human needs. Priorities are extremely difficult to agree: those of us, of ours, and of those not directly ours too. Iranian imprisoned mothers, you knew that some of us have no option but to keep on active. Iranian mothers, I thank you for helping me put together my own understanding.