Interview with Amir Yaghoub-Ali

"This is a Price that as a Man Seeking Equality I am Willing to Pay"

By: Mahboubeh Hosseinzadeh

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Translated by: Parastou

Change for Equality: Amir Yaghoub Ali is a member of the Men’s Committee of the One Million Signatures Campaign who has been sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Amir was arrested on July 11, 2007 while collecting signatures in Andisheh Park, in Tehran, and spent 29 days in Evin Prison. Amir, who is twenty-one years old, believes that through their presence and activity on behalf of gender equality, men can show that unequal laws not only affect women, but also harm all of society. What Amir Yaghoub-Ali experienced during his detention and interrogation differed from what other members of the Campaign have experienced, because of the questions that the involvement of a man in a women’s rights movement raise. This is the exchange between Mahboubeh Hosseinzadeh and Amir Yaghoub-Ali:

Please tell us about the manner of your arrest and the events that took place during the 29 days you were detained:

Those days were busy days, because of the commemoration of the 18th of Tir (July 8th),[1] the attacks on the Office to Foster Unity[2] and the arrest of its members, the unrest at Amir Kabir University and the arrest of Mansour Osanlou.[3] However, despite all this, according to the plan we had made via e-mail with other members of the men’s committee, we went to Andisheh Park to collect signatures. On the afternoon of Wednesday, the 20th of Tir (July 11th), I was busy collecting signatures. After about an hour of talking to people and collecting signatures, while a woman was in the process of signing the petition, a police officer pulled out the paper from under her hand and took me to the police station inside the park.

After that, they telephoned the head of the park’s police station. Until he arrived, I was explaining the Campaign and its goals to the officers. At the same time, I was trying to find a way to let the others know that I had been arrested. The arrest didn’t seem serious to me and I thought that with the explanations I had given, I would be freed. But when one of the officers saw the papers, he objected saying, "you are against Islam and are propagandizing against Islam." After this, they contacted the security police and took me there. During the questioning, they were saying that we were trying to eradicate women’s hijab ("Islamic dress"). I also explained our goals there. I stayed in the security police office for 5 days. During the day we would go to the Revolutionary court, but there was no judge, so they would take us to the "on-call Judge." On the second day the on-call judge issued an arrest warrant for me until the main judge could arrive on Saturday and see to my file.

It was interesting that there were a group of people who had been handcuffed to each other and they would enter the room one-by-one and when they would come, they would be issued fines right away. Most of them had been arrested because of possession of crack. But when it came to my turn, they issued an arrest warrant. The others all thought that I was a drug dealer. When I objected to my warrant they said my case is a security matter and differs from their case. In the police security office they kept me in an empty cell. Because with the arrest of what they call the "bums," they had no empty space and they kept transferring me to the vice squad. During this period I was constantly moving between the security office and vice office. During these 5 days, I was moved about 10 times because they wanted me to be alone in a cell and have no connection to anyone. But my second night, I did have a cellmate, who was a man who had been sent to jail because of the issue of "mehrieh."[4]

What was his opinion of your activities and the Campaign’s goals? Did he know about the Campaign?

At first they had warned him about getting close to me. But then when we became acquainted he told me about his life and his problems. He told me if you had a petition with you I would sign it because he believed that his life had been affected by these same discriminatory laws and he viewed the "mehrieh" as something vindictive or vengeful. I thought to myself, I’ve been arrested for collecting signatures, while I am sharing a cell with a man who is suffering from these same laws. This is because high mahriehs are also part of the unequal marriage laws of Iran. When I would ask him, are you wiling, instead of paying the mehrieh to divorce your wife, he said, "obviously. If my wife does not want to live with me, the law cannot force her to stay in the house… although I love her, but she has left me. Now with this law I have both lost my wife and I am in jail."

How is it that you were transferred to Evin Prison?

On the third day of my arrest, they took me to the Revolutionary Court. Mr. Sobhani, who is the judge of the security branch, asked some questions about the Campaign. His manner was brusque and he would say, "What is it to you, and why are you involved in women’s rights?" After all, I was the first man to have been arrested in connection with the Campaign.

He ordered that they return me to the security police and the next day I would be returned immediately with my things to the Court. When I went from the Revolutionary Court to the security police, I was interrogated again, though not blindfolded. They were asking about other things also. The next day when they returned me to the Revolutionary Court, there were eleven charges against me – two of them were related to the Campaign, one was being a member of the Campaign and the other being a member of the Men’s Committee of the campaign. Being a member of feminist and student groups – were also among the charges. They issued my bail at 20 million Tomans (approximately $22,000). When they took me to Evin, the guards there would not accept me and said, "We bring the detainees from the Revolutionary Court ourselves." So, I was returned to the security police.

At the security office, they asked me to mop the floor. I was confused and said what does this mean? Then they began to curse and beat me. Well, I prefer not to talk more about this because I was alone there and from a legal standpoint I have no other witness to what happened to me there. The next morning they took me to the Revolutionary Court again and I was delivered to officers until I can be taken to Evin. They handcuffed me and took me to Evin. Then I was sent to Section 209 while blindfolded. Once there, they took my picture and gave me a blue prison uniform and a pair of slippers. My hand hurt so they took me to the infirmary. I told the doctor that there’s so much pain I can barely move my hand. He said there’s no problem and he did not even give me a single painkiller. I was detained in a solitary cell with walls painted green. I had a blanket and a copy of the Qur’an. After I spent 3 days in Section 209 they started to interrogate me and until I was let go I was interrogated eight times.

What was the interrogation in Section 209 like and what sorts of things were you asked?

Sometimes I was interrogated by one person and sometimes by two persons – I was blindfolded and facing the wall. Most of the questions were about the Campaign and my involvement in the Campaign. They also asked about other things like what activities I have at university. Some of the questions were also about my beliefs and were ideological. At first I avoided answering questions because the questions were mostly to gauge my beliefs and opinions, but when I wouldn’t answer questions they would stop interrogating me and I would spend days in the cell without knowing what would happen. I was under lots of pressure because I had no contact with my family and had no idea what was transpiring outside the jail. They were also giving me false information. For example they would say, "We went to your house, but couldn’t find your computer case." Of course after I was released I found out that this never happened. But when you’re blind folded and facing the wall and then someone suddenly kicks the leg of your chair or kicks the wall, all this has a very damaging psychological effect.

What was their reaction to a man’s involvement in activities to promote gender equality?

They had no concept or understanding of why a man would be involved in the women’s movement. When you have an identity (as a student activist or…) other than a women’s rights activist, first they assume that you have entered the women’s rights field for ulterior motives, and you constantly have to explain that being involved in women’s rights is not incongruous with activities in other movements. One does not only seek equality in economic matters, etc.

Once they get past that, they look at you as someone who has entered the women’s movement due to your "sexual problems," and they take this very seriously. They were constantly mocking me, saying "as men, why are you involved this?" They kept insinuating that we are so incapable of having relations with the opposite sex that we have to enter the women’s movement. Or they thought that by being involved the women’s movement we are betraying men.

This is a perspective common in the culture of our society.

Yes, the attitude of the interrogators or security agents towards men involved in women’s rights can exist in the most traditional of societies and in the most progressive elements of society as well. In our university, where they offer a master’s degree in women’s students, and where 80% of the sociology students are women, this belief exists that if a man enters the women’s rights movement, it is for ulterior motives – now what that is they never specify.

I believe that the continuous presence of men seeking gender equality – which with the Campaign and the Men’s Committee – has become more prominent, and more recently has also involved paying a price – that all this should put an end to the assumptions that men enter this field to take advantage, or for ulterior motives. It’s been more than a year and a half since the inception of the Campaign and I would really like for those who talk of ulterior motives to show us exactly what this means. In my opinion, this all stems from a flawed thinking that fighting for women’s rights is fighting for half of society only. They think that if we remove something from one side of the scale and add it to the other, some sort of disturbance will result and men will lose their rights. They see society from the view point of men versus women and are not able to conceive of the fact that in society we have human relations and that through achieving equality in legal and social matters, our relationship to one other as humans change and become more humane.

With the continuation of our presence in this field we show that unequal laws do not only affect women, but that its harms affect all of society – as if affects family and human relations more broadly. It is clearly that harmful social relations have caused all this harm to society. This is because our legal system and our social relations are flawed.

So you do not regret the fact that you will be tried for gender equality?

I have never said that I regret my activities on behalf of gender equality. Why should I regret them? In fact, had I expressed regret or remorse in the proceedings, they may not have sentenced me. By putting up with detention nothing will happen to me or other equality-seeking men. But paying this price will hopefully prove that we have not entered this field for ulterior motives. We have entered for more sublime goals and our presence, and our paying of a price for it, will be a positive force in the women’s movement, because even within the women’s movements there are those who feel that the presence of men will distract the movement.

Though I will not deny that there might be men who enter this field for other motives, but this has nothing to do with men or sexuality – every person – whether man or woman – might have entered this movement for other reasons. But most have entered it for their goals, because they know that when there is equality between the sexes, social relationships will become more just and humane.

To what extent do you think that the involvement of men in gender equality movements has been effective in changing these perspectives?

It is possible to observe the effects of our movement at different levels. I have no doubt that the man with whom I shared a cell at the security police who had been imprisoned because of the issue of the mehrieh will never forget that a man had been imprisoned for being involved in women’s rights. Granted, after he is released he will not become an activist for women’s rights, but he will retain this image. I also saw a change in the mannerisms of the guards in the jail and at court. The guards who were mocking me at first and telling me that I am bisexual for being involved in women’s rights, experienced a change in their attitudes toward me, by the end of my detention. So much so that they had become friendly toward me.

We witness these types of encounters everywhere, even at the university. We had a publication which had a page devoted to women’s issues. On this page we would discuss problems women face in society. Reactions were often negative and even some of the women at university showed no inclination to be involved with the publication. But after some time an editorial board of 10 people was formed, two of whom were men. I want to say that at first men’s involvement or presence in the women’s field seems like a one-way relationship. At first they did not accept the presence. But our continued involvement showed our good intentions.

This type of perspective or attitude is long-standing. Sometimes it’s happened that men, because they have more power and experience, when they do enter the women’s movement, they bring it under their own influence. Do the efforts of men to gain gender equality have any effect in democratizing men’s involvement in the women’s movement? …

The feeling or vibe of the women’s movement differs from other movements. For the men who enter this movement, if until yesterday they were the ones doing the talking, now they have to be willing to be listeners. The system of control and power, the effort to create hegemony, tends to be more pronounced in movements created by men, but in the women’s movement the situation is different. There is a real effort to resist the tendency towards domination, which is to be expected. That is, if a women’s movement is characterized by too much hierarchy and power-seeking, how can it then claim to want equality and a change in power structures? Just as you cannot achieve democracy through undemocratic means, you cannot achieve equality through involvement in a hierarchical movement. I believe that the minimum lesson we learn from being in the women’s movement is this. Here, we need unity and cooperation and not arguments over control. Of course you cannot claim that everyone has an equal role in advancing the movement, and you cannot even claim that the movement is completely un-hierarchical, but you can say that in this movement there is a much stronger effort to create democratic relations within the movement. Cooperation in this movement is based more on interactions and there are less of those seeking to be in power. Some view these goals [of the women’s movement and women’s legal equality] as a ceiling and others as a floor, but no one wants to impose their own viewpoint. With involvement with the One Million Signatures Campaign, the women’s movement is pursuing a path of transformation, and regardless of what the future will bring our progression along the path which we have embarked upon is teaching us a lot about the movement and activism.

[1] On July 8, 1999 there had been student protests that were put down violently. The reference is to a commemoration of that anniversary.

[2] A reformist student organization.

[3] President of the Executive Committee of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, the transport workers’ trade union in Tehran, who was arrested and detained around the same period.

[4] A part of the marriage contract under Islamic marriage laws, where by the groom agrees to a sum of money to be paid to the bride, as a condition of marriage, and upon her demand, anytime during the course of the marriage or upon divorce.

Read the original interview in Farsi


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