Shiva Nazar Ahari – Society and Literature. The Slovene Writers’ Association.
An interview with Shiva Nazar Ahari, human rights activist and journalist from Iran, currently ICORN resident in Ljubljana City of Refuge.
The interview with Shiva Nazar Ahari was made by Neža Vilhelm.
You come from an enviroment that is very different from European. Can you please describe what is Iran like as a country? How do people normally live? What do they do for living, for fun? How is daily life there?
Iran is a very big country with different people in different places and cities. Large cities are mostly modern with modern amenities, and in some historic cities this modernity combines beauty with monuments. Life in Iran is probably no different from other parts of the world, except in the social freedom, freedom of speech and, of course, the dictatorship government. There is a huge system of censorship and people are always controlled by the government. If you come to Iran, everything looks normal to you. We go to work, sometimes we go to a cafe, to a party and … there is a huge underground life in Iran. For example, drinking alcohol is not allowed in Iran, but you can find it in every home. I mean, there are two kinds of life, the one you can see in the street, and the one you see at people’s homes.
I have read this note today and I think it’s a good explanation about our life in the Middle East. It’s about what happened in Iran last week (I don’t know who wrote it):
»I’ve been asked several times what it’s like to be a middle eastern. Here is my answer: the government blocks the internet, isolates its citizens, and suppresses protesters, while the rest of the world falls silent because they think that’s normal in the middle east.«
And how was it growing up in Iran? And being an educated woman who is able and willing to write.
In terms of literacy, Iran has been well on its way after the revolution. Now more than 90 percent of the population in Iran is literate and more than 50% of university entrances are women. But in the labour market, the share of women is negligible, although the number of women working away from home is increasing, but it still has a significant gap with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, women in Iran are in the lowest ranks in terms of equality indices. Iranian law is very unequal. In terms of political and economic participation, women are also not in a good position, for example, women hold only 5% of parliamentary seats in Iran. Many laws remain discriminatory, despite the efforts of Iranian women’s rights activists. For example, women in Iran do not have the right to divorce, but their husbands do, and after marriage women can’t work or study if their husbands don’t let them. Women are not allowed to leave the country without the permission of their husband, and many other unequal laws. In the last 10 years, many women tried to get these rights after getting married, there’s not many of them, but it’s better than nothing!
Did you have any troubles studying?
As I said, women have good educational opportunities but in some rural or poor areas, or in parts of traditional small towns, girls may have difficulty attending school. Of course, there are still families in Iran who prefer that their daughters marry as soon as possible. We currently have marriage statistics for girls under the age of 18, which was recently discussed in the Iranian parliament. But despite the efforts to change the law and ban such marriages, some religious and pro-government groups were against the demands of civil society and, of course, they have power and they didn’t allow to change the law.
As for myself, I couldn’t continue my education after getting a bachelor’s degree, because of my political activity. In Iran people called us»Starred students«, a term which they use for students who haven’t continued their education because of political or religious views (in Iran Bahai religion is also banned and they cannot study at university).
You are a very careful and empathetic observer. And a truth loving person. I know it’s hard to be such in today’s world, seeing so many injustices. On what did you mostly focus in your writing?
I have worked in general on human rights abuses, and most of my journalistic writing and work is in the field of women. For example, during my last two years in Iran, I worked for a sports website, where we wrote mostly on women’s sports. You know that there are numerous restrictions on female athletes in Iran because of the »hijab« problem, and the discrimination against them is enormous. On the other hand, women in Iran are not allowed to go to the stadium. In general, I was trying to highlight these issues and, of course, in the activist field, along with other women’s rights activists, we were dealing with other issues, too.
It’s unimaginable for us that you not only weren’t able to speak freely and write about whatever you wished, but you were also sentenced because of your writing. What kind of society allows that? What kind of circumstances lead government to accept such measures?
It’s probably unimaginable that in 2019 there are still countries in the world where people are punished for writing or speaking, and they have to go to jail. However, the Iranian government, as a totalitarian state that oversees all aspects of the lives of its citizens, is always in charge of every individual’s writings and saying. There are no free press or news agencies in Iran, everyone knows that what they see and read in the news in Iran is not real, or not the whole reality. On the other hand, there is little confidence in the media outside Iran, as many of them receive money from various governments to write articles against Iran, and work in the interests of countries such as the United States. So, Iranian people are trapped between the two. Of course, forty years of living in such conditions have made us able to distinguish between what is right and what is false. Just imagine, we are bombarded with false news from morning to night. People do not trust the government’s voice, and they follow satellite channels. In newspapers and news agencies, all articles and reports are censored, or we write in such a way that there is no need for censorship. In fact, this is what happened to us, we have become censors ourselves in order to be able to speak at least about some things.
How does press work in Iran? And the transfer of information? Here we are used that almost every information is three clicks away.
In Iran, when the Internet is available, we have access to information, even though many websites and social networks are filtered, but almost all of us use different proxy to open many websites, sources, social media like Facebook, Twitter, Telegram … But we can do all this only when the Internet is available. You may know that recently people in Iran have been cut off from the Internet because of protests against the rising fuel prices.
There were no news about Iran. We even couldn’t contact our families from outside, everything was shut down. We could hardly get news from inside Iran, and my journalist friends who could hardly connect to Twitter, said that it was harder than ever for them. Because they had no access to anything, no email, no Google, no Wikipedia, nothing at all. And it was even harder for other businesses that needed the Internet for work.
Normally, of course, despite heavy filtering and censorship, we had access to the most of global networks, not in the sam way as as you do, but we had it. Now, there is nothing. Let me tell you about the impact of US sanctions on Internet; for the past 8 years Iran was pushing and encouraging users and businesses to use the national infrastructure. None of them really wanted to use this infrastructure, however, since US lunched the »maximum pressure program«, every single important internet infrastructure, like Cloud services and DigitalOcean started to ban Iranians from using them just because of the US sanctions, and at the end of the day, there was no solution, and all of them were forced to move to Iran’s national infrastructure. Today we are seeing the result. Iran did not shut down the Internet in the past, and part of the reason is that it was dependent on international internet infrastructure, but now it is not. If we continue this policy, probably in the next 3 years they will be able to keep it shut down for as long as they want.
Do you see any possibilities for change in Iran? How can it be achieved?
Honestly, I can’t answer this question clearly. The situation in Iran is very complicated. The situation in our region is very complex as well, and it makes all the prospects short term. If you look at the countries around Iran, you can see they are in a even worse positin than Iran.
US interventions in that area, heavy sanctions and also people’s protests eliminate the possibility of a peaceful exchange. On the other hand, these heavy sanctions have forced the Iranian government in the past few years to think of ways other than selling oil, and they have been able to run the country, even though people have been under pressure and suffer every day because of the government, and also because of the sanctions. So, I can’t give a clear answer about the future of Iran, these days I try to keep myself hopeful, but I have to confess I’ve lost a lot of my hope, because I can see nobody in the world who wants a powerful Iran in the Middle East, and people are completely alone against the government, and all countries just want their profit and nothing else.
Is there any possibility for you to return to Iran? How do you see Iran after a year and from afar?
Of course, it is always possible to return. But I do not think it’s possible for me to return without risk of being arrested and imprisoned. So, if I go back to Iran, I will probably get arrested. It seems to me that in Iran almost everything has gotten worse in terms of people’s livelihood, political and social freedom, drug treatment. When I talk to my friends, they tell me to forget about the picture taht I have in mind of Iran, things have become much harder, more bitter and scary since I came here a year ago. A year has passed since the US sanctions began. The price of a dollar had quadrupled and it had an impact on people’s daily lives. Inflation was crazy, while our income was steady, we were suddenly a few times poorer within a year. When I saw people on the street, everyone was upset and sad because they couldn’t find their vital medicine, they could not afford to pay for their rent and their living expenses. Now a year later, things have gotten even worse and now with the news of a 200 percent increase in gas prices, many Iranian cities are in turmoil.
You are in Ljubljana for a year now. I imagine you took some time to rest and recover. How are you today?
After living in a huge city like Tehran with 10 million people, Ljubljana looks like a dream to me. A small town, quiet and full of beauty. To be honest, these days I am worrying about the future, living in a new country, finding work and all aspects of living in a foreign country are a little scary, so sometimes it makes me think whether I made the right decision to leave Iran at all or not. But after that I would say to myself: »Hey, look around you, this city is like heaven, and you always wanted to live somewhere like here.«
I look to the future. I’m studying for a master’s degree at the online university. I am taking both English and Slovenian language classes, and I hope the future is brighter than today and yesterday.
I believe everyone can do something to make world a bit better by acting locally, and also by informing the society about what happens in the world. What can I and we as a society do to make your world a better place? And the world of your family and friends in Iran?
It seems to me today that we have little opportunity to influence other parts of the world. I mean, we as a united whole, as a large social movement. However, I think there are a number of universal values that bring us all together, like the belief in equality, opposition to racism, belief in the freedom of expression and other human values. What can bring humans together today, in spite of all their suffering and pain in their lives, are human values and the efforts to promote them. I believe the solution to our world’s problems is to return to the human values that exist in our hearts. When people, when we start to believe that our fate is a mutual fate, and that we cannot prosper while other human fellows are in misery, then we will stand together to decisively oppose war, discrimination, segregation, suppression and sanctions. We will stand together against whoever wants us separated and weak.
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Shiva Nazar Ahari – Society and Literature. The Slovene Writers’ Association.