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Iran – The Women’s Revolt

We just spent an evening with several Persian friends discussing Iran’s brutal response to the demonstrations there for the lives and freedom of Iranian women. Mahmood Karimi Hakak brought us together at his Café Dialogue. Mahmood is a long-time Persian-American member of the Siena faculty, who worked as a producer and director in Iran until forced to leave.

Artist Cheryl De Ciantis came from Arizona. She’d gathered photographs of the women who were murdered or disfigured by destruction of an eye for demonstrating. The women wanted their disfigured faces to be seen. Those who could, took selfies and proudly showed their destroyed eye sockets or added a patch to call attention to their missing eyes. Others sent photos of the murdered women. Almost all of the women were smiling. Cheryl built paintings around the photographs, so we could see how lovely these women were, or are, and added roses to the pictures of the dead.

The word for an eye in farsi, the language of Iran, is chashm. Socially, chashm means “I will,” but I avoided using the term in that context because the fuller meaning is “I promise to do [whatever] on my eyes,” or, more completely, “If I don’t fulfill my promise you may take my eyes out.” The expression turns my stomach. It’s a way that the cruelty of Nader Shah, famous for removing people's eyes centuries ago, is preserved in everyday speech. Every Persian knows that history.

When Persian soldiers and Revolutionary Guards kill or shoot out the eyes of women who demonstrate for women’s lives and freedom in Iran, every Persian understands the symbolism, beyond the horror we Americans feel.

At dinner I pushed back, asking, how the bravery and sacrifice of these women would make any difference? Mahmood responded that society would condemn the cruelty. I pushed back. When Martin Luther King brought the nonviolent philosophy and strategy of the great Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi, to the Civil Rights Movement, he was counting on the support, and the vote, of horrified citizens from states that had not been segregated by law. But Iranians don’t have the power of the ballot – whatever good things he did, President Eisenhower deposed a democratically selected Iranian Prime Minister in 1953. Iran has not been able to choose their leaders since. Americans may not remember – it’s not our history – but I never met a Persian who didn’t. We’re still paying the price.

So how is the self-sacrifice of these brave women going to make any difference? Mahmood responded, accurately, that dictatorships and theocracies are brought down either by conquest or by collapse from within. But the price of opposition from the inside is death. Dictators hold on to their power with cruelty, murder and fear, major hurdles to any kind of overthrow. Mahmood shot back that there is growing opposition from within the regime.

I’m convinced the people of Iran don’t want an invasion, don’t want us there with guns and uniforms. They’ve had too much of that; it would slaughter too many of the Iranian people; and end up putting the wrong people in power. They want to own their own future and make it happen their way. They’re convinced that enough sacrifice, horrible as it is, will curdle enough minds, hearts and stomachs, even inside the ruling regime, that internal dissent will make the dictatorship crumble. That leaves me praying for the wonderful, kind and thoughtful people I knew there. Salaam Aleykom سلام علیکم – peace be with you.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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