Neo-Colonial Ideas About Rescuing Muslim Women Strengthens Hardliners, Hurts Local Activists

BERKELEY, California -- The U.S. government's calls for civil society to work for "regime change" in Iran has increased pressure on activists on the ground who are engaged in a peaceful process of improving their society and addressing social problems, according to Sussan Tahmasebi, a prominent women's right activist in Iran who has not been allowed to leave the country for the past two years.

In October 2008, Tahmasebi was stopped at Tehran's airport after having gone through the passport control checkpoint. The authorities confiscated her passport and since then her efforts to get her passport back and leave the country to participate in a number of conferences on women's issues have failed.

For nearly ten years Tahmasebi has worked with U.S.-based NGOs to address women's health issues -- with a focus on the needs of underserved populations and communities of color.

Tahmasebi is a founding member of the One Million Signatures Campaign, an effort that seeks to reform laws discriminating against women. Shirin Ebadi, Iran's 2003 nobel peace prize laureate, has repeatedly and vigorously supported this campaign and its members.

The Iranian government has arrested more than 30 members of the Campaign over the past two years, banned some of them from traveling abroad and has censored their website.

Tahmasebi, the editor of the English language website of the Campaign -- Change for Equality, -- believes that Iranian civil society is not looking to bring about regime change in Iran.

In an interview with IPS, Tahmasebi explained the impact of the worsening U.S.-Iran relations on civil society:

IPS: How many times have the authorities stopped you at the airport and confiscated your passport? And for what reason?

Sussan Tahmasebi: In this latest incident I was stopped at the airport after having gone through the passport control checkpoint with no problems, which indicates that I did not have an official travel ban. A security agent, who refused to provide any identification, approached me. He then confiscated my passport, and provided me with a notice to go to the Ministry of Intelligence to follow up on my travel ban.

Once upon entry into Iran in November 2006, my passport was confiscated and I was banned from travel -- which took over seven months to resolve. Twice in the fall of 2007 I was prevented from travel.

IPS: What kind of reasons did they provide to explain such acts?

ST: In this latest case they told me that they wanted to summon me in relation to an open case. Clearly they could have taken a different approach in this respect. In the other cases, no official reasons were provided.

I should mention that in my latest case, upon returning to my home from the airport, five security agents confronted me and entered my home, to search it and seize property including my notes, papers and my computer. I was then called into interrogation.

IPS: What kind of danger does a civil society activist, in your case a women's rights activist, pose to the government?

ST: Frankly, I am not sure what kind of danger we pose. This is a question that you have to ask the authorities. It is unfortunate that security officials view women's rights activists with such suspicion. All around the world it is commonplace for citizens to work through civil society groups to address development and social problems.

In fact many of the same people who are targeted in Iran today -- myself included -- began their civil society activities following a call for citizen participation by the reformist government of Mr. Khatami. If civil society activism is seen as a danger to national security, the onus falls on the government to officially declare and explain such an extreme change in policy.

IPS: How have the ups and downs in U.S.-Iran relations affected the activities of activists like you?

ST: Certainly when there are calls for "regime change" by the U.S. government -- and civil society is identified as the agent of this change -- it increases pressures on activists on the ground. I do find fault with this overly politicized rhetoric, as I don't believe that it is intended to solve any problems or done with the best of intentions.

Part of the responsibility also falls on Iranian authorities -- who fully know that Iranian civil society is not looking to bring about regime change. Civil society and women's rights activists are looking for positive and constructive strategies to address social problems, and the Iranian government should welcome such an involvement, which demonstrates the maturity of Iranian citizens and their commitment to their country.

IPS: How has banning you from travel affected you personally, your determination, and also the quality of your advocacy work?

ST: I believe it's essential for women and human rights activists to have relations with their counterparts internationally and to be able to travel freely to meet them, network and share ideas and experiences. In fact this right has been guaranteed to us in accordance with international conventions of which the Iranian government is a signatory.

I believe that Iran in particular holds some very interesting lessons for the world and the region in terms of women's social participation. The One Million Signatures Campaign, of which I am a member, has received much international attention. We want to be able to share information about our movement, and to learn from our sisters around the world.

These travel bans prevent us to some degree from being able to do this and to present our work, but they also present a very negative image of Iran internationally. Iranian women have accomplished much in the last several decades socially, but the laws lag far behind.

Personally these travel bans have had a very negative impact on my life. My family lives in the U.S. So a travel ban means that I cannot see my family. I have not seen my sisters or brother for over two years and only see my parents on their short trips to Iran. Needless to say I miss my family very much.

I want to be able to talk about and present a different view of the women in my country, reflective of our realities and our accomplishments. Unfortunately these travel bans not only prevent us from breaking the negative stereotypes that exist with respect to Iranian women, but reinforce them.

IPS: What are the psychological affects of confiscation of your passport at the airport without any warning in advance?

ST: It's not a good feeling to be treated like a criminal for demanding basic human rights.

I have always thought of myself as someone who is out to build bridges of understanding between my different cultures, and even in Iran between different groups with varying ideologies. I understand that the treatment we receive is due to the fact that there is little understanding in Iran about the way that civil society and government should interact.

The Campaign employs an innovative grassroots and civil approach to its activities, and so I believe that some of the backlash we receive is because there is little understanding about strategies that bring about positive change. Plus like in other countries there is obviously resistance to women's rights.

Despite all this I remain committed to address women's rights in my country. I am hopeful that in the near future our activities will not be viewed as suspect and hope that eventually the authorities will welcome them.


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