How do you turn off compassion?

Wednesday 5 December 2007

by: Roja Bandari

My recent challenge has been trying to go about life as usual at the university and at home in California. Unfortunately this simple task is becoming more difficult every day because of things that are happening 7580 miles away in Tehran, Iran. For the past nine months I have been a part of the Iranian women’s struggles for equality. Iranian women’s demand for equality goes back over a hundred years but equality, especially in the law, has remained elusive to this day. In June of 2006, a movement called the Campaign for One Million Signatures was conceived that unified many of the Iranian women’s rights groups that were formerly working separately. The campaign has a goal of collecting one million signatures to demand a change in the discriminatory laws. Signatures are collected face to face and with a discussion and a booklet that educates the reader about specific laws that have a negative effect on women’s lives. As an Iranian living and studying in the US, my limited involvement has been an educational journey for me; I have been reading these women’s writings and listening to their stories and trying to tell them to others.

I have been moved and inspired by the amount of love, support and trust that is in this campaign. Activists in Iran can be easily marginalized by accusations of ties to western countries or to Iranian political groups that work against the Iranian government outside of Iran. It is understandable why many inside Iran are very cautious about any harmless stranger who offers them help or even solidarity. Despite this, my very first email asking about how I could help was replied with an open heart and open arms and I was touched by this accepting behavior which I later found was a general attitude of the campaign. I continued to have email contact with a few of the people who were more comfortable with email and English and who had some time. One of these women was Jelveh Javaheri.

I like Jelveh. I found her to be a very warm and kind girl. She is not very loud and you almost don’t expect someone so soft-spoken to be so bold and stubborn in continuing her path. Her articles are published on the Campaign’s website and they were among the first articles I read that touched my heart and compelled me to join the campaign. When she writes, there is a certain sorrow in her tone that makes you want to reach across the oceans and give her a big hug.
I translated one of her articles to English but with my amateur translation skills, I don’t know how much of this deep and sorrowful voice was successfully translated to English. In this article, Jelveh talked about her high school friend, Leila, who along with her mother, were being abused at home by Leila’s father. Jelveh described that despite being a good student, Leila didn’t get a chance to take the university entrance exams because she was locked up at home. In the end, Leila ended her own life. Jelveh talked about some other classmates from elementary to high school and their experiences with violence.

Each morning I check the campaign’s website for new articles and news updates. This morning the news wasn’t very pleasant; I found that Jelveh has been summoned to court and taken to the Evin prison. Her charges were disrupting public opinion, advertising against the system, and publishing lies. I have been going through a wide range of emotions; I went from disbelief to anger, to a spur of energy to do something, and now I feel a strange numbness. I’m so utterly sad and I’m surprised for feeling this way. I have never met Jelveh in person but I think about her as my friend. I struggle to go about life as normal when Jelveh is in jail for telling women’s stories. How can one turn off compassion? How do you switch off friendship? And how do you kill love? These are things that fuel this campaign. Jelveh writes about women and their stories because she cannot ignore them; she can not switch it off and go about life as usual. Now Jelveh and other women like her are the ones in danger; the ones who face an even bigger and more abusive father who locks them up and beats them. There is a need for others to stand up for these activists and tell their stories.

This article originally appeared in openDemocracy


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