Who is Accused of Being a "Threat to Civil Security?"

By: Parvin Ardalan

Sunday 6 May 2007

Translated By: Sussan Tahmasebi

During the last three post-revolutionary decades, it seems that the protection of security in our society, either in the form of direct crackdown on political organizations and parties labeled as “anti-revolutionary” in the1980’s, or curbing of the activities of cultural activists, otherwise marked as “the cultural invaders” in the 1990’s, or the clash with social movements of the more recent years branded as “soft revolutionaries,” has been a central preoccupation of security forces.

Fierce Security

In the first decade after the revolution, or the 1980’s, the pressure on political groups and organizations was exerted through the use of extreme violence and vehemence, so that almost all political activism outside the state became outlawed and mono-vocality became the norm. It was a struggle for power and domination. Any non-conformist act was considered imperialistic and in opposition to the revolution, so in this way the order for silence was declared. This one-dimensional situation lasted throughout the first decade following the Revolution and until the end of the [Iran-Iraq] war. Consequently, the oppositions also were more palpable and the intensity of crackdowns more fierce. Human life lost its value.

Cultural Security

In the 1990’s with the emergence of decentralization policies at the dawn of the “reconstruction” era, which followed the eight-year war with Iraq, the social atmosphere opened up to a considerable degree. Activism in the context of cultural growth began to surface, and the discourse on and about freedom of speech, not addressing political power, but intended to raise cultural awareness within society as a whole, emerged. Writers, journalists, and artists gradually found space for their activities. In the midst of all these developments, exclusionary policies and violent crackdowns were replaced by violent arrests aimed at quelling and controlling all. So despite some social opening and relaxation, the pressure on better known writers and journalists who advocated for freedom of speech, human rights and those who were engaged in associational activities increased. This violence was justified through a theory that viewed as a threat to national security all efforts that promoted "cultural invasion" and those targeted by this violence were identified as "cultural invaders." In other words, the cultural activities of these artists and writers and their relations with foreigners were viewed as oppositional political acts.

This period marked the beginning of threats, intimidation, telephone summons to court and interrogation, defamation of character and creation of false cases against cultural activists, including journalists and writers, carried out by security forces. The aims were the same as in the past, but the strategies varied, and unpredictable actions became the norm. Tales of that era have been recounted on numerous occasions, and included disruption and storming of writers’ meetings and pressure placed on journalists.

At that time, I was engaged at Adineh Monthly working for the social section of this publication. I was also the editor of a special issue on women. As such, I was a personal witness to the pressures inflicted on this sector. It was 1996, when I first came into contact with the security forces. My first encounter was at the airport and concerned the disappearance of a writer. In the interrogation sessions that followed, security officers at the Ministry of Information and Security went to great lengths to accuse the writer of a intentional plot, that resulted in his own disappearance! It was generally believed that the Information and Security Ministry was composed of two opposing groups—one good and one bad. One sympathetic to cultural activities and themselves cultural, who were inclined toward engaging in discussion, debate and exchange of view points, and the other group opposed to cultural activities and inclined toward crackdowns against the sector. And in the atmosphere of fear that was created for me, I remained astounded and stupefied as to which group I was dealing with. On the one hand, the private lives of those engaged in this sector were open for inquisitions of a Victorian nature and on the other hand the social life of these activists served as an excuse for political charges in an oppressed society more than willing to eliminate the weak!

During this time, I faced dilemmas of an unusual nature. On the one hand, forced to confront my feelings and emotions, I was coerced into describing and bringing onto paper the details of my love life and admitting to crimes which I did not view as criminal acts. On the other hand, as a journalist, I was viewed as an apparatus in service to cultural invaders. In some encounters, security officials would explain in kind, and brotherly terms, that indeed I had been deceived. Providing compassionate advice, these officers, would explain to me how I could avoid being deceived by "spies" and "unworthy" characters. In the midst of these "enlightening" interrogations, I was continually provided with strategies and avenues through which I could cooperate with my interrogators, who kept insisting that indeed they were concerned for my wellbeing, especially given my young age. In other encounters, my interrogators threatened me, accused me of involvement in plots to which I was not privy. They would speak against the person who had plotted his own "disappearance" at the same time, pressuring me for information about his whereabouts. All the while in my circle of friends and acquaintances, well orchestrated rumors began to take shape—rumors which simultaneously identified me as a "spy" and "infiltrator" and even an agent of the security forces. The national press played a critical role in this crackdown, which I will not discuss at length, suffice it to say that this apparatus of the state worked diligently to spread untruths against those engaged in the cultural sector.

I wonder which faction it was that on occasion identified us as the implementers of the "scenario" and on other occasions, as the victims of these same "scenarios," which the security forces had themselves drafted. Which faction was it that tried desperately to transform us into paranoid beings, nervous and frightened, unable to trust each other or even ourselves? Which faction was it that directed and orchestrated attacks from the outside? And, I wonder which part of the "truth" presented to us, was actually real?

The security forces believed in their ability as directors, without even taking into account whether these actors and their roles resembled the truth or reality. They did not take into consideration whether these actors had the strength or ability to change the course of their destiny. During that time the strategies were harsh, and the actors inexperienced and powerless. Public opinion too was weak, filled with paranoid tendencies, more than willing to believe the scenarios created by security forces. Internal pressures from within the sector were strong and the external pressures, exerted through the national press, were unrelenting. In this process, "cultural invaders" were created and charges were launched against them. Organized and institutional objections by independent professional organizations of journalists and writers were not tolerated and were prevented. Personal relationships and indiscretions were used by security forces as a tool for exerting immense and unremitting pressure on individual activists who dared to object. The aim was to discredit anyone who held any relative power or influence, and prevent them from voicing any objection to the crackdown or the strategies employed by security forces. Our minds and thoughts were targeted in such a manner as to inflict fear in our hearts and prevent us from distinguishing the truth. We were trapped in a security atmosphere, which beckoned us to distinguish between motivations. We were fully unaware of the fact that this mental preoccupation and paranoia was in fact a strategy intended to stop us in our tracks, and prevent us from collaborating, organizing, and building professional solidarity. During the reform period, these very same crackdowns by the security forces were condemned and revealed as policies carried out by rogue elements within the security ministry.

Civil Security

In the parameters of the pressure on the cultural sector during the 1990’s there were social movements which began to take shape. With the emergence of the reform movement, these social movements were afforded an opportunity for external social expression. With the reformist government in power, and especially given the expansion and establishment of new publications and civil society organizations, in particular non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civil demand and pressure increased in this pluralistic environment giving voice to human rights demands as well. Women’s groups too began to take form and were even successful in commemorating for the first time, International Women’s Day (March 8th), publicly. This new atmosphere and the increasing civil activism, served as a control factor on security forces. Civil demands and the necessity for creation of civil security even became an issue of concern for those opposed to civil liberties, forcing security agencies to adhere to moral approaches in their work, preventing them from encroaching upon the private lives and personal relations of those whom they targeted.

While the pressure on independent activists subsided during this period, the decentralized nature of government and the existence of rouge elements within ruling circles, especially security agencies, allowed for the pressures to continue. It was during this period when three well-known writers within the women’s movement, Shirin Ebadi, Mehrangiz Kar, and Shahla Lahiji, were arrested. These three activist-writers, were imprisoned based on the old justification of cultural invasion, used to crackdown on and control the cultural sector. Mehrangiz Kar and Shahla Lahiji, were imprisoned because of their participation in the now infamous Berlin conference (1999) and Shirin Ebadi under the pretense of a security "project" commonly referred to as the "video files case" (2000). All were found guilty as "cultural invaders" and sent to Evin prison. These three women, all well-known women’s rights activists and pioneers of the women’s movement, having had the courage to speak even during the early 1990’s when fear and pressures were extreme and silence was dominant, were well-known and regarded in their respective fields of law, human rights, women’s rights, and publishing. They were well regarded as independent, influential activists.

Shirin Ebadi was a lawyer, women’s rights activist, and a founding member of the Organization to Defend the Rights of Children, an independent and well-regarded NGO, which had served as a platform for women’s activism. It was Shirin Ebadi who transformed the funeral services of Arian Golshani, a victim of child abuse, into a platform to raise the issue of custody rights for mothers. Mehrangiz Kar was a lawyer, women and human rights activist, and journalist, who wrote for Zanan monthly, a publication which addressed women’s rights through progressive religious interpretation. It was Mehrangiz Kar who used the platform offered her by Zanan to raise the issue of women’s pre-conditions to marriage, as a strategy for addressing discriminatory laws against women—a discussion that has since transformed into a national discourse. Kar’s publication "Eliminating Discrimination Against Women" which was a comparative study of the Convention to Eliminate all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and Iranian law, for the first time addressed comprehensively the discrimination against women in Iranian law. Shahla Lahiji, a feminist publisher, and researcher, had played a critical role in the promotion of feminist thought with her publications and research in this area. Additionally, Shahla Lahiji was the one who for the first time after the Revolution dared to convene a celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8th, with the support of Roshangaran Press. This event was critical in demonstrating that feminist thought could only grow and develop if engaged in the realm of social activism. Clearly the activism of these three women in a male dominated, violent and ideological society was dangerous, especially at a time when a new generation of Iranian women had joined the women’s movement, and building on the accomplishment of these women, would impose their strength and demands.

It was during this period that many publications were shut down. This period too witnessed the emergence and activism of parallel security agents and organizations, who with the support and cooperation of some in the judiciary opposed to reform, worked to increase pressures, through summons and arrests of social and student activists, again with the charge of cultural invasion. Women’s rights activists and activities too did not escape this pressure and activists such as Shirin Ebadi were called in for interrogation and women’s meetings were disrupted through the use of force.

Soft Civil Security

With the consolidation of power by conservatives after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, and given the increased strength of the student, worker’s and women’s movements, and the expansion of a human rights discourse in Iran, the theory of "Cultural Invasion" gave way to a new theory allowing once again for justifiable crackdowns against social justice activists. The theory of "Velvet Revolutions" relies on the strategy of control rather than imprisonment and exclusion, in confronting social movements. In line with this theory, journalists, human rights defenders, intellectuals NGO activists and social activists are seen as agents of foreign governments engaged in activities designed to bring about velvet revolutions and overthrow the government. In reality this theory revolves around the larger more encompassing theory of conspiracy, which sees social movements as the breeding ground for soft revolutionaries, intent on toppling the government. The summons, interrogation and arrests of these social activists, demonstrates once again, that security forces have chosen to look from the outside in, and search for the footprints of the "enemy" in explaining the demands of these groups, rather than choosing to ensure national security by facilitating conditions which bring about appropriate responses to the just demands of social activists. Perhaps this tendency can in part be explained by the fact that our bureaucratic security system, which justifies its actions by referencing orders from above, can’t understand the horizontal nature and structure of social movements. In interrogations it is clear to us that security officials, viewing social movements as a threat to national security, have difficulty in understanding that social movements are indeed national and homegrown efforts which wield great influence in transforming society.

The severe crackdown against the women’s movement came about after the June 12th protest in 2005, where the women’s movement for the first time, demonstrated its relative strength. Of course, prior to this event, independent women’s rights activists and organizations faced numerous obstacles with respect to carrying out their work, which were imposed by other governmental groups and bodies. Additionally, a special section within the Ministry of Information and Security charged with oversight and control of of NGOs had been created. But the concept of the women’s movement, and its demands, was new for the security forces, and as such time was needed to identify the issues and activists within the sector and to begin implementing strategies of control. At first, the pressures were implemented on women’s rights activists involved in the women’s movement, through informal telephone "invitations" for interrogations sessions. Faced with civil resistance to these informal invitations, written summons were used by security forces to call in women’s rights activists, and these visits took on a more formal tone and nature. The interactions were soft at first and ranged from the outright infliction of fear to polite and cordial interactions.

While, at first glance it may seem that the interaction of security forces was indeed softer toward women’s rights activists, who by virtue of their gender and the nature of their work, at times benefited from positive discrimination, the reality is that the interaction of security forces with women’s rights activists and the pressures they exerted on this sector was in fact more delicate and complicated at the same time and as such in need of greater analysis.

The crackdown against women’s rights activists took on many forms. It may have included the reenactment of a scenario of attack, whether in the airport, in our homes, in the metro or our place of work, or efforts to promote "cooperation" with activists, including invitations for collaboration with security forces, or interrogations of all sorts which may have included tea and sweets, with an aim to gain better understanding and information about the sector and activists engaged in defense of women’s rights. The use of soft and harsh approaches, sticks and carrots, and good cop, bad cop strategies are intended to weaken the capacity of activists to predict future developments, to confuse us and instill in us a sense of anticipation for ensuing crisis and disaster. Tactics of inflicting fear and use of softer measures used to prevent the peaceful gathering planned for June 12th, 2006 in Hafte Tir Square, the arrest of members of the Women’s Cultural Center and members of the One Million Signatures Campaign at the airport, threats against the families of activists involved in the Campaign, arrests of campaign activists in the metro, threats against campaign activists in the provinces, relentless summons of activists to court and interrogation, are only a few examples of the strategies used by security forces to prevent the efforts of women’s rights activists.

For years now, women’s rights activists have engaged in every possible peaceful activity in an effort to make their demands heard and visible. These efforts include some of the following: writing, convening of seminars and workshops, peaceful protests, the creation of groups for collaboration, such as the women’s thinking collaborative, engagement in international women’s movements and campaigns, women’s networking for peace, implementation of campaigns allowing women to enter sports stadiums, and the One Million Signatures Campaign which aims to end legal discrimination against women. The One Million Signatures Campaign is of special interest here, because it relies on a strategy where activists engage in face-to-face discussions with the public and grassroots women and men. Regardless of their different aims, each effort strives to utilize creative measures to expand the small social space allotted to women. All the while, women’s rights activists have been faced with obstacles along their path intended to bring to a standstill their progress. They have had to pay high prices for their agency and activism. In the end, women’s rights activists have been creative and have come up with alternative strategies in pursuit of their goals. Nevertheless, these control mechanisms in actuality work to prevent women’s civil action. In my opinion there are several arguments used to justify the tactics and strategies of control launched against women’s rights activists, including the following:

1. The women’s movement must not become radical. The security agencies are concerned about women’s rights activists and are seeking to defend their rights. Because the security agency enjoys the privilege of access to all sorts of information, it can determine the best interest of the sector, and at times can provide women’s rights activists with advice, facilitate their cooperation with decision makers and power holders, and in the end protect and support the women’s movement. From the perspective of security forces, this is the most desirable strategy for control of the women’s movement!

2. The ownership of the women’s movement is of importance. It is not fathomable that the women’s movement does not have an owner or patron. Participating in conferences and workshops are certainly not a crime, but to do so, women’s rights activists must first inform security forces. Collection of signatures demanding changes to discriminatory laws, does not constitute a crime, but truly is it possible that such an effort is not supported by a particular group or person, or that it does not receive financial support? This justification calls for identification of the "owners" or "leaders" of the women’s movement, so that they can "wisely" and in a controlled manner take action on behalf of women. This is a desirable strategy from the perspective of security forces as well, because the process of control is proactive.

3. This third justification, like the strategies of control it employs, has a hidden dimension which is often hard to see. Security forces have taken women’s rights activists seriously, but are still unwilling to openly acknowledge this fact. Recognizing that they are not faced with a political party or group, they seek to identify the main organizers of the women’s movement, from among the masses of women who are involved in this effort which demands equality. Even if security forces or other governmental groups or bodies are direly opposed to the demands of the women’s movement, which seek equality by changing unfair divorce laws, addressing women’s rights to child custody, increasing girls legal age, etc, they can’t prevent these activities directly or overtly, because there is no legal justification for stopping these efforts. Instead the security forces work to create multiple obstacles for the women’s movement. Through this strategy, they can increase pressure and limit space for public action, and successfully ensure that women return to the private and domestic realm, so that these just demands do not become public and all encompassing. This strategy relies on the assumption that an inactive victim is preferred to an active agent. So, if we women engaged in the One Million Signatures Campaign, carry knowledge and engage in discussions about our rights door-to-door and face-to-face, some have to travel with us, shadow-to-shadow, in order to inflict fear and disperse threats. And for us, it is somewhat ludicrous, that all this effort and energy is being utilized just to control our very civic activities, to hear our very transparent discussions about our meetings and workshops, so that perhaps instead of allowing 15 women to come together to talk about their rights, the security forces can succeed in pushing them back to their private spaces and lives, so that in solitude they tend to domestic duties instead of engaging in collaborative activities. This is the worst case scenario for security forces, as it reflects the fact that they have lost control of women, even if they know that women are not engaged in any illegal activities which threaten national security.

Creation of False Cases Against Civil Security

Creation of false cases against social justice activists has a long history in this country. Massive organizations have been created and countless staff have been hired to stop social movements in their tracks. Still it is perplexing that security forces, despite having unlimited access to information and resources, commit such outrageous blunders in identifying and stopping the "enemy." In today’s fast paced information society, the concept of actions against national security has been transformed into a meaningless cliché and cannot be attributed to women’s rights activists. Rather this accusation serves only the purpose of a legal strategy utilized against women’s rights activists with the intent of stopping their just efforts, and attests to the fact, that security forces are engaged in assessing the strength of the women’s movement. I fear that the heavy shadow of the security discourse will befall social movements, even if carried out in softer tones. In particular I fear the weight of such a discourse and strategy will impede the women’s movement, which daily gains strength and depth, encompassing broader circles and connecting the various generations of women committed to its cause. I am afraid to imagine that some may take to the creation of one crisis after another, and in so doing, will succeed in engaging us in the process of seeking hidden motivations of fellow activists, make us fearful of collective engagement and activity. But I know that women’s resistance will not be stopped. No one can succeed in ending the agency of women’s rights activists who have transformed their private living spaces, their homes, into the awareness raising workshops that seek to further the aim of the One Million Signatures Campaign. Threats will not succeed in shutting the doors of these homes to women. No one can forbid us to utilize our own homes to this end. Because even if women have no rights, at least they enjoy some rights within the confines of their own homes. No one can take away from us the overflowing and sweltering joy of knowledge.


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