To share human rights where there is no room for it

Illustration by Mana Neyestani
Illustration by Mana Neyestani

Simple things often can be controversial, even dangerous, if you live under unusual circumstances. For instance, discussing human rights would always be a sort of trouble when you live in a dictatorship! But in December 2018, my friends and I decided to buy the risks and distribute the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) at our university in the Islamic Republic of Iran on international human rights day.

To be honest, We were not some anarchists who wanted to experiment v for vendetta in real life! On the contrary, we intended to do everything legally. So why I said we bought the risks earlier? And how did we manage to do this activity safely? Eventually, is it moral to be part of a game when you know the referee is biased, the rules are unfair, and the system will never respect you?

The first step was convincing our group that this effort might be worthwhile. I was part of the Islamic association of students, although no one in this association had any faith in Islam! Using Islam’s name is unofficially mandatory in Iran if you want to be legal. However, in some other universities, students who established new institutions tried to choose a more appropriate title, like the Islamic association of culture and politics. So in informal conversations, they could refer to themselves as the culture and political association with no Islam. But in official documents, Islam clings to them forever.

In our circle, I remember when my friend proposed her idea for allocating UDHR and shared the text of the human rights declaration with the room, the main debate was on article 18th. The right to change your religion or belief and practice it in public or private, alone or with a community. It was against the Islamic republic’s principles, especially with all the restrictions they imposed on the Baha’i faith followers. Hence it could bring us unpleasant consequences. 

After a short argument, everyone accepted the risks. My friends mentioned a case from a university in Tehran, Where the authorities painted the flag of Israel on the ground to people walk on it as desecration. But some students cleaned it up and survived severe punishments (of course, only after publishing a statement supporting ideal Palestine and condemning the crimes of the Zionist regime!)

So we proposed our demand to distribute UDHR on a specific day to the cultural vice president of our university. This Mr. vice wasn’t the only principal we were concerned about; a council appraised all student’s Extracurricular activities and issued permission if approved. Even the existence of our Islamic association was due to their authorization! 

The hand of the supreme leader was our primary concern, The representative of the guardian jurist (Vali-e- faghih) in the university. All around Iran, these representatives, as envoys of the supreme leader, are present in all universities and public administration offices with their assistants and vices. An army of clergies to ensure no one crosses the red lines. 

In our university, the representative of the guardian jurist was 36-year-old clergy. Usually, when we talked to him about something, he acted open-mindedly, but behind the stage, he tried to sabotage us! He often appreciated our moves at first, but later we realized (probably by one of the other parties in the council) that he was the main opposition to our request.

This time wasn’t different either. He told us he is also passionate about informing other students about human rights. Still, finally, he convinced the council to limit us to one table on each faculty, sharing papers with the text of UDHR between 12 pm to 2 pm. without any speech, lecture, banners, or even using someone to invite students to the table. 

Ridiculously we accepted these minimum circumstances because it was better than nothing! But now that I have reevaluated our actions and compared The current situation in Iranian universities with ours, I believe we committed big mistakes; Nothing was better! 

We were in a delicate position and could hardly do anything in favor of our goals. We felt if we kept cautious and alleviated our criticisms, they would give us more space after a while. It was a wrong assumption! Whenever you compromise with autocratic powers, that power will restrict you more! It’s a repetitious lesson in history; ironically, we had already read about the devastating outcomes of such compromises, but we perceived it only after experiencing it. Our cowardice made our situation more than fragile; we became ridiculous.  

And a ridiculous person cannot expect to be taken seriously. So, ordinary students ignored us, and only a few checked our tables. Instead, we had many visitors from two rival institutions. First, the Basij! A Militia movement with branches in any aspect of Iranian society. You can see Basij’s bases in any university, public building (even hospitals!), and all neighborhoods. (Basij is currently so active in helping the suppression). 

The second unwanted guest was the Islamic association of independent students. Actually, they were anything but independent! Conservatives established them, and they were attached to the authorities. This association and Basij are complementary. Independent students are more innovative and supposed to supply the next generation of Islamic republic politicians.

In contrast, Basij is the muscle for dirty jobs. Like attacking lectures and gatherings that they consider inappropriate. And also cooperation with military forces if a general ambush on the university is necessary. So Independent students can keep their hands clean.

Despite these differences, they both talked about the same thing; the differentiation between western and Islamic human rights. they refused to say which specific article of UDHR conflicts with Islam from their point of view; They only mentioned that Islamic human rights exist and we must use them instead of this western document. Also, a more intelligent one highlighted the cultural differences between the west and the Islamic world. He learned this argument by observing Europe’s last two decades’ debates.

As far as I am concerned, by Islamic human rights, they mean the adjusted version of human rights with their particular Islamic vision. which allows the execution of protesters, the assassination of anyone they don’t like, and forcing people to behave in the way they order! In the past few months, the Islamic Republic committed all these crimes, as well as almost the past 44 years. But they all are spotless due to their version of human rights.

About the Author
Ali was a journalist in Iran, working for ISNA (Iranian Students News Agency) from 2019 to 2021. He now lives in Milan, Italy.
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