Seven Questions
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Seven Questions

Iranian Human Rights, Student Protest, and Hope: Seven Questions for Maryam Nayeb Yazdi

The famed human-rights activist speaks to me about Iran’s protest movement, what keeps her optimistic for the future, and much more

Photo from the “Inspiring Iranians” Facebook page. Used as an aide for education under “Fair Use.”

As activists, we must be a voice for those who have none. I can think of few who better fit this ideal than Maryam Nayeb Yazdi, who fights tirelessly every day for the rights of her fellow Iranians. She is a sincere model of solidarity, who reminds us that we have a responsibility to help oppressed peoples wherever they may be.

Yazdi was born in Mashad, Iran, but immigrated to Canada in 1989 to pursue a degree in English at York University. After graduation, she became editor-in-chief of a magazine which covered Tigran, the world’s largest festival that celebrated Iranian culture. In 2008, she also started the online magazine, Faryad, which connected Iranian citizens with the Iranian diaspora. This early leadership in the Iranian community would prepare her for the many trials ahead.

In 2009, Yazdi started a blog, Persian2English, which translated Iranian news and human rights issues for a worldwide, English-speaking audience. Through Persian2English, Yazdi and her fellow activists chronicled the 2009 student protests against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which eventually grew into the Green Revolution, where people took the streets, chanting such mantras as: “Down with the dictator!” and “Political prisoners must be released!”. The revolution was eventually suppressed by the regime, but she did not stop there.

Her first major success came in 2010, when she saw that Kurdish law student and political prisoner, Habib Latifi, was sentenced to death while in an Iranian jail. Yazdi began a social media campaign to save Latifi’s life, which led to demonstrable results: people chained themselves to the gates of Iranian embassies, Iranians demonstrated outside of Latifi’s prison, and notable figures, such as then Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, put out a statement opposing the execution. Ayatollah Khamenei would eventually cancel Latifi’s execution in 2015. This victory taught her that “action can really save lives.”

Yazdi speaking about the 2017 Iranian protests at the 2018 Geneva Summit.

Yazdi went on to blog for the Huffington Post throughout the 2010s. In her very first post, she called the Iranian regime “one of the most sorry excuses for Islam I have observed in my life.” In particular, she was critical of how the regime abused her religion to suppress anti-government protests during the Chaharshanbe Soori festival. In another post, she shared a moving letter that imprisoned Iranian activist, Bahareh Hedayat, sent to her husband on Valentine’s Day. She has also used her platform to campaign for the release of activists Gholamreza Khosravi (who was sadly executed in 2014) and Nasrin Sotoudeh (whose case is still ongoing).

She was also an outspoken advocate for Canadian resident Saeed Malekpour, who was arrested in 2008 after he returned to Iran to visit his dying father. Malekpour had developed a program for posting pictures online, which was used by others, without his knowledge, for adult websites. The Iranian authorities put him on death row for supposedly insulting Islam. After nearly 11 years in prison, Malekpour escaped to Canada in 2019.

Yazdi puts a critical eye on Iran’s horrific use of capital punishment at the Oslo Freedom Forum (also known as the Human Rights Foundation).

Americans, though, would do well to humble themselves and recall that while our nation is nowhere near as oppressive as Iran’s, we still have some ways to go in our own record of justice, as Yazdi recently warned:

“For the US to have the moral authority to hold the Iranian regime accountable for its human rights atrocities, it first needs to deal with its domestic human rights record. When the US cracks down on nonviolent demonstrations demanding racial justice at home, it places itself on weaker footing when lecturing the Iranian regime — or any other country for that matter — and calling out repression and human rights abuses.”

I pray that the name of “Maryam Nayeb Yazdi” is brought into the company of other great Iranian women, like Shirin Ebadi, Martjane Satrapi, and Nasrin Sotoudeh. Her principled activism remains and inspiration to us all, and I am grateful beyond measure that she took the time out of her busy schedule to do this interview by email.

  1. What were some important people or books that had influenced your way of seeing the world?

The way I see the world is constantly evolving. Influences exist in life’s different stages. The most notable: mom, dad, first love, activists in Iran, Chicken Soup book series, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Hobbit, Women and the Holy Quran: A Sufi Perspective, and Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

2. How has Iran’s protest movement changed since you first started blogging on Persian2English in 2009?

Iran’s protest movement is a movement for basic freedoms and rights. There are protests in Iran every day. And with every corrupt act and human rights crime that the regime commits, more people join the movement. Many who participated in the mass protests from 2017 to 2020 were too young to vote during the mass protests that lasted from 2009 to roughly 2012. Since 2017, we have witnessed mass protests in every province in Iran and from all economic levels. The tolerance for the Islamic Republic is very low in the country. We are also seeing more unity among the opposition in the sense that there is little to no tolerance for narratives that normalize the rule of this regime.

3. What are some ongoing political cases in Iran that you would want us to be aware of?

Many of the cases in Iran are political since the authorities deny most a fair trial or due process. It is insane how many Iranians are behind bars for their opinion or for defending the principles of human rights and justice, including Narges Mohammadi, Nasrin Sotoudeh, Arash Sadeghi, Golrokh Iraee, Maryam Akbari Monfared, Saeed Masouri, Atena Daemi, Zeynab Jalalian, Ali Younesi, Amir Hossein Moradi. Those were just off the top of my head. There are SO MANY! Here is a very small list by Amnesty recently published to commemorate Nowruz:

4. As someone who has lived in both Canada and the United States, how do you feel about those countries’ current policies towards the Iranian regime?

I think a good policy begins with putting human rights at the top of the agenda. Both countries have failed at it but Canada has done a better job. Perhaps because there is more pressure on the Canadian government to uphold their human rights image. But I am optimistic about the future as I see the public placing better pressure on these governments to prioritize the wellbeing of civil society over the wellbeing of the Islamic Republic (which is what has to happen for a policy to stand a chance of making a positive difference).

5. What does feminism mean to you?

Gender violence is rooted in power and control. Feminism to me is about the freedom to just be.

6. There’s obviously a lot more to Iran and its people than its political situation. So I want to ask you, what do you love the most about Iranian culture?

It would not be accurate to judge Iranians based on the dictatorship regime that rules over them. If they had the choice to have free and fair elections and live with their basic freedoms and rights they would take it. What I love most about the Iranian culture is the hospitality. Very warm and inviting. All are welcome! I also love the simplicity of everything mixed with the close attention to detail.

7. What gives you hope for the future?

The joy and excitement in the eyes of youth gives me hope for the future. Also, my faith always gives me hope.

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Sansu the Cat

Sansu the Cat

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I write about art, life, and humanity. M.A. Japanese Literature. B.A. Spanish & Japanese. email: sansuthecat@yahoo.com