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Where do you start?
Taking away the gravity of true apartheid and genocide

June 4, 2001
The Iranian

When I first read Guive Mirfenderski's opinion piece, "Article 64", I thought it was a joke. Quick check of the date: June 1st not April 1st. So fine, it's not an April Fool's joke. Once that was clear, I re-read the piece in a state of disbelief: Could he really be calling the situation in Iran "gender-apartheid" and "genocide of Iran's religious minorities?"

The problem with writing an opinion piece disagreeing with him is that I actually agree with the gist of what is being said: The situation in Iran for anyone not part of the ruling class is far from ideal, from women, to religious minorities, to ethnic ones, to the political opposition, to the poor, to the young. Each one lacks their basic human rights, not to mention their right to participate actively and freely in the political affairs of the country they reside in. I even add to his argument that the problem goes far beyond that of the constitution and the political system.

Several days ago, a passionately apathetic cab driver ("Khanom, mageh bee kaaram to vote in the elections?"), in his praise for Amir Abbas Hoveyda said: "They say Hoveyda was Bahai. With a name like Amir Abbas, how could he be Bahai? Let's even say he is. Aslan, is there anything worse than a Jew? Let's say he was a Jew, he still did a lot for this country."

Iranians in many ways, even among the educated, are racist, sexist, and territorial. The root of the problem Mr. Mirfekenderski eloquently deals with in his opinion piece is cultural. So I place myself in a problematic position when I say I was deeply offended by what he wrote.

I found his argument to be insulting for two reasons:

a) It ignores, and even denies, the subjectivity and efforts of the people who are living in this system and fighting daily for their rights.

b) By so carelessly using words like "apartheid" and "genocide", he is, in an attempt to deepen the gravity of the issue at hand, taking away the gravity of true apartheid and genocide historically and globally.

The victimhood of Iranian women in Iran has become the Iranian diaspora's favorite rallying cry. Every time dar hits the takhteh, we hear about the horrible situation of Iranian women (only recently, and with the help of the Taliban, we've been demoted to second place in terms of our victimization.)

Mr. Mirfekenderski notes: "From the segregated beaches of the Persian Gulf to the men-here/women-there ski resorts of the Alborz highlands, from the boys-girls classrooms in western Iran to gender-specific seating on the buses in eastern Iran, the country has been for more than twenty years a monument to gender-apartheid."

This is his definition of apartheid? What about the numerous women writing, publishing, advocating the reforms in parliament? What about the brave wives of jailed journalists who have come to the fore, who have taken on an active public role, doing their share of publicizing the gross violations of human rights in Iran? How dare anyone stick to segregated buses and beaches and call this situation apartheid?

Then what would you call the 20th century history of South Africa? How many Blacks were active in the apartheid regime? How many were legally public advocates of the Black cause in the state? In apartheid South Africa, Blacks were not even citizens, let alone second, third, or fourth class ones.

There is not only a significant quantitative difference there is also a qualitative one. When you use "apartheid" you are no longer using the dictionary-definition of the word. It is used because it has historical connotations. Those connotations should be evoked sparingly in order to not dilute what has happened in the history of humankind.

When it comes to minorities, the one case where strong language can and should be employed is in regards to the Bahais. Using the same vocabulary to discuss their situation and that of the Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian minorities, is to diminish what has happened to them.

And the situation for Iranian minorities is definitely not genocide. Genocide? Are you kidding me? Iran is a far cry from an ideal society, one where the rights of every citizen are defined and their dignity as humans respected. That is a fact. What is not a fact is that there is an attempt at a systematic annihilation of a segment of society. Which in many ways is what makes the situation even more difficult to deal with, more difficult to amend.

When you say "genocide", when you say "apartheid", you are talking of institutional forms of destroying or curbing various groups within a society, situations where there actually are international protocols aimed at condemning and punishing the perpetuators. They have a beginning and an end. Apartheid systems can be dismantled, genocide stopped, redressed, punished.

But in Iran, when it comes to the topic of human rights, one is sometimes at a loss. Where do you start? Where do you begin? Once you decide to step out of the constantly critical mode of Iran not fitting the ideal of a textbook modern progressive society, what do you do? What do you do in the face of a situation where at the height of indignity, people are living in a dignified manner? Do you deny them their struggles, and their achievements?

To say that the situation in Iran is equivalent to apartheid and genocide says absolutely nothing because it paradoxically whitewashes what actually is going on: A society confronted with a system aimed at reserving freedom only for a small group of people, slowly and patiently is chipping away at it.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Naghmeh Sohrabi


Naghmeh Sohrabi's features index


Article 64
Separating minorities from the rest of the nation
By Guive Mirfendereski


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