On Thursday June 2, 2011, women’s rights activist, Haleh Sahabi (aged 54) was killed as a result of brutal beatings by the Iranian regime’s security forces. Her body was later snatched from her house and buried secretly to curb the outcry of the family, friends and ordinary Iranians. Haleh, a political prisoner, had been let out of prison temporarily to attend her father’s funeral.
The regime’s heinous actions drew outrage at home and abroad. The State Department condemned “the killing of Iranian activist Haleh Sahabi in the strongest possible terms.” Britain also called for an immediate investigation into her death.
Haleh’s killing is the latest case of state-sponsored murder by the regime ruling Iran. The past three decades abound with examples of state-sponsored killing of dissidents. On April 8, 2011, Tehran used its Iraqi proxies to crack down on exiled opponents. The Iraqi Army, using armored personnel carriers and Humvees, attacked unarmed Iranian dissidents in Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad, killing 35, including eight women, and injuring hundreds.
The 29-year-old Asieh Rakhshani, raised in Northern California, was one of eight women. She was shot at close range, while filming the attack on Ashraf. She graduated in Albany, California majoring in journalism. A caring, conscientious and intelligent girl, she decided to join her fellow comrades in Ashraf in the quest for democracy in Iran.
That choice apparently cost the 30-year-old journalist her life April 8, when Iraqi soldiers killed 34 unarmed Iranian expatriates after a confrontation over control of the camp’s northern section, the United Nations reported.
“My sister was one of the seven women killed,” said Hamid Yazdanpanah, a UC Davis and McGeorge School of Law graduate whose parents raised Rakhshani as their own until she left to rejoin her activist parents at Camp Ashraf in 2000.
Rakhshani was filming the pre-dawn attack when she was shot to death, said Yazdanpanah’s mother, Ensieh Yazdanpanah. “She wanted to live in a free Iran. She was sending lots of messages of hope to youth in Iran. … She was full of life and joy.”
Ensieh Yazdanpanah and dozens of Iranian Americans have protested in Washington, D.C., for medical care and assurances that people still in Camp Ashraf will not be massacred. “I lost my daughter, but I hope to prevent other attacks,” she said.
MEK is considered controversial, and is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.
Until MEK surrendered its weapons in 2003, it had a long history of terrorist attacks on Iranian officials dating back to the fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979, including the 1981 assassinations of the prime minister and former president.
Group backed Saddam
“From the beginning, there’s been bad blood between them and the Iraqi government, who saw them as accomplices with Saddam’s regime,” said Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University.
“When that regime fell, there was no place to go – nobody wanted them,” Milani said.
“They were disarmed and essentially allowed to stay there, but sooner or later it was clear something like this would happen.”
“This crisis and the loss of life was initiated by the government of Iraq and the Iraqi military. … We reiterate our call for the Iraqi government to live up to its commitments to treat the residents of Ashraf humanely, in accordance with Iraqi law and their international obligations.”
Medical help unavailable
“She said, ‘We don’t know why they attacked the camp. … Suddenly they started to shoot. Rakhshani got shot in her stomach and her leg,’ ” recalled Ensieh Yazdanpanah. “I said, ‘Why couldn’t you save her,’ and Asadhi said, ‘She lost lots of blood, and there wasn’t any medical help. More than 200 people were wounded very seriously.’ ”
On Jan. 6, 15 busloads of protesters showed up at the camp, tossing rocks and bottles at those inside.
The Iraqi army, which guards the camp, gradually pushed its way inside, where residents formed a human blockade until the army attacked April 8.
The Iraqi government has not explained the attack, but it would like those in the camp to be out by year’s end.
“It is absolutely a tragedy in the making unless the international community splits these people up among several countries and has the U.N. monitor those who want to take the risk of coming back to Iran,” said Milani of Stanford.
“Regardless of what you think of this organization, these are people who are not armed and (are) at the mercy of their error-prone leadership on the one hand and a very angry Iraqi regime on the other.”
Because she carried a camera, Asieh was a prime target of the snipers during the raid. She managed to film her last moments as she was shot in cold blood by an Iraqi sniper. Many other wounded victims died as the result of the injuries as the Iraqi authorities denied them access to proper medical care.
Commenting on the bravery of Asieh and other women at Ashraf, Dana Perino, former White House press secretary told a Washington conference on April 14: “To the women in Camp Ashraf, I express my admiration.” Perino added, “You have an amazing story to tell…I met a young woman earlier today whose brother is at Camp Ashraf. Her first memory is the execution of her parents. Her biggest problem is figuring out how to save her brother.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay condemned the attack on Ashraf, as did Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), who described it as a “massacre.”
And last week, Ambassador Nancy Soderberg, a senior official in the Clinton administration, told a Washington symposium, “We need to be vigilant of the Iranian activities outside of Iran as well, particularly many of you here are very concerned about the attacks on Camp Ashraf, particularly last April. I think many of you have seen the brutal video footage of that. It seems to have gone largely unnoticed by the United States…we must stand up against these types of attacks.”
Regarding the broader challenges the Iranian regime is posing to regional and international peace and security, Ms. Soderberg added, “As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it, Iran is moving towards a military dictatorship. We need to all recognize, it is moving not toward a democratic system that we saw in response to the democratic protests on the street in 2009 but the Revolutionary Guard is in effect supplanting the government of Iran, the Supreme Leader, the president and Iran’s repressive behavior. Its nuclear program, support for terrorism, are all directly related to the lack of democracy at home.” It is that lack of democracy, which has prompted Iranian women to take matters in their own hands, and propelled them to the forefront of the nationwide movement for change; a position deservedly theirs.
Ambassador Paula Dobriansky, former Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affair told a Capitol Hill conference in Washington in March, “The recent uprisings in North Africa drew inspiration from the 2009 democratic protests in Iran… Women and youth are indispensable agents of change; their leadership needs to be recognized and their efforts supported… Maryam Rajavi… recognizes in her Ten-Point Plan for a future Iran that there would be complete political and social gender equality, including equal participation in elections and the abolition of discrimination against women. We must support these women activists. This platform is one that underscores the basic rights not only of women but of all Iranians.”
The 3,400 residents of Camp Ashraf in Iraq, 1,000 of them women, are members of the main Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). The organization is committed to women’s rights and has a leadership primarily consisting of women, mostly former political prisoners.
The mullahs need to watch out; as the Arab Spring is advancing, the Persian Spring — this one led by Iranian women — will soon sweep the Ayatollahs from power.
A peaceful rally calling for electoral reform would have gone down as almost a non-event in any democracy, but not in Malaysia. Here, the news of such an impending rally has virtually caused the incumbent ruling power to go into a state of panic.
Ever since the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections – a civil society movement known as BERSIH – calls for a peaceful rally on July 9 to press for electoral reform, hardly a day goes by without some bigwigs pressing the panic button, as if calamities will befall the nation if such a rally were to take place.
Home minister has warned of dire consequences to political and economic stability, Umno’s ultra-racist wing Perkasa has called for a rally of its own to crush the BERSIH rally, police chief has warned BERSIH of preventive arrest, and hundreds of reports have been lodged with the police by Umno and its associated bodies to oppose such a rally.
And now, the latest, Deputy Prime Minister Muyhiddin Yassin called the BERSIH rally an opposition plot to topple the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) government when he officiated a local Umno annual meeting in Beaufort, Sabah on June 18.
(BERSIH had earlier extended invitation to all political parties including ruling BN and opposition alliance Pakatan Rakyat (PR), as well as NGOs and activists to participate in this mass movement to restore integrity to the Malaysian electoral system, which has been hopelessly corrupted to favour the incumbent ruling coalition. While PR component parties have accepted the invitation, BN has not.)
BN’S RATIONALE ABSURD
Ambiga Sreenevasan is a colossus of intellect and integrity in the Malaysian legal fraternity. Ask any lawyer and they will tell you. Here is what Wikipedia has to say:
Muhyiddin debunked BERSIH’s agitation for reform by citing opposition’s impressive electoral gain in the 2008 general election as proof of the electoral system’s fairness.
He asked: “If it is not free and fair, how could they make such electoral gains? If they win they keep quiet, and if they lose, they claim unfairness. I think their motive is to have a short cut to Putrajaya.”
Equating opposition’s electoral win as proof of the system’s fairness has become BN’s standard answer to fence off rising condemnation of BN’s massive abuses that have gone from bad to worse.
But such argument is as illogical as it is laughable. Whether an election is fair should be determined by the conditions under which the election is conducted, factors such as the presence or absence of an impartial the election commission and the existence or non-existence of a level playing field. It should never be determined by whether a contestant has won or lost.
Malaysian election is so notoriously unleveled that one should have no hesitation to conclude that PR would have been swept to power in the 2008 election if there was free and fair election, considering the fact that the popular vote was virtually split at 50-50.
ELECTORAL SYSTEM HOPELESSLY FLAWED
How can anyone consider Malaysian election fair, when the election commission is unabashedly acting as ruling coalition BN’s virtual agent, and the entire mass media of the country (with the exception of the Internet) serve as BN’s propaganda machines to the complete exclusion of PR?
Since the 2008 election, BN’s election bribery has gone from covert to overt, famously dramatized by none other than Prime Minister Najib Razak himself when he publicly attempted to buy votes by offering instant cash aid to the tune of millions of ringgit subject to a BN win in two successive by-elections (Hulu Selangor and Sibu).
Strangely, or rather shockingly, while the video clip of this drama had been watched by a worldwide audience via You Tube, the presiding judge (Azahar Mohamed) threw out a subsequent election petition to nullify the Hulu Selangor by-election result on the ground of “lack of evidence”.
When even the court sanctioned such open bribery committed by the top leader of the ruling coalition, the floodgate for all kinds of corruption, intimation and abuse of authority was virtually thrown wide open to work in BN’s overwhelming advantage. And this is exactly what happened in the recently concluded Sarawak state elections, where BN swept to a landslide victory on the twin strategy of bribery and intimidation.
BERSIH’S MOVE COMMENDABLE
Under these circumstances, BERSIH ought to be commended for its gallant and timely move to call for a mass rally whereby a petition will be delivered to the King to put a stop to the election system that has been turned into a complete mockery of democracy.
Among BERSIH’s reform proposals are: prohibition of vote-buying of any form, restoration of independence and impartiality to enforcing bodies on election offences, fair media access to all contesting parties, reform of the current dubious postal voting system and cleanse the electoral roll that is fraught with irregularities and phantom voters.
It will be seen from these proposals that the current BERSIH move is not only not a threat to national interests, but a most reasonable and logical proposition to save democracy and restore justice and decency to a country where the state institutions have been pervasively perverted by BN’s prolong autocratic misrule.
With regards to police’s avowed refusal to grant permit to the rally, we have to respectfully advice the police that they have no authority to obstruct such a peaceful rally. Freedom of assembly is a constitutional right guaranteed to all citizens, and the role of the police in such an event is to ensure that peace prevail throughout the rally.
Any attempt by police or any quarter to disrupt a peaceful rally of such noble intention will be construed as a serious breach of the Constitution and will not be taken kindly by peace-loving Malaysians.
Be assured that Malaysians will not back down or compromise on such important principles as the right to have free and fair election and the right to have freedom of assembly.
Kim Quek is a reader of Malaysia Chronicle and the author of The March to Putrajaya. The book was banned by the Home Ministry and Kim is now suing the government to get the ban lifted.
Chador-clad women looked on curiously from the fringes, as excited men rent the air with incessant and cringe-worthy cat calls as I wrapped up a report in the heart of Islamabad’s open air market. Judging from the ravenous looks, you would think that my arms, clad in half sleeves, were akin to succulent barbecued chicken legs. If slipping the mike under the shirt without exposing a millimeter of skin was a nightmare, my facing the camera attracted people like bees to a honey pot.
As soon as the recording began, the guy hawking watermelons on my left raised his voice a few decibels. When the cameraman started gnashing his teeth, I requested the stall owner to lower his voice, which resulted in him screeching like a banshee. Amidst the swelling cacophony, I was unable to hear myself speak while the cameraman couldn’t decipher my lines despite the headphones and the microphone. Since the smirking municipal authorities seemed unable to control the gawking and gesturing men creeping closer, we turned tail and fled, the wolf whistles and ribald comments dogging our heels. Inside the safety of the car, I detached my mike with trembling hands and exhaled.
“In Pakistan [harassment] is like a white elephant in the room that no one sees,” saysjournalist Shazia Nawaz. The problem is so deep-rooted that sexually harassing women is considered a form of recreation rather than a crime, with the focus squarely on the victim’s conduct and appearance rather than on the aggressor. When a woman complains about harassment, people tend to turn a blind eye.
According to lawyer Zia Awan, even educated women in Pakistan do not understand what harassment is: “Sexual harassment does not just mean an act of physical offense. It starts from any gesture, stares or remarks that make women feel insecure and uncomfortable — while rape, molestation… remain the most severe forms of sexual harassment.” Domestic worker Shamim affirms that “men try to touch you and grope you whenever they find you alone on the streets of Pakistan.” The majority of women, who commute using public transport wagons and buses, complain of different forms of harassment including verbal, physical and sexual harassment. A survey of 75 women commuters revealed that inappropriate touching and sexual comments is commonplace.
Shazia says, “[Eve teasing] takes away a very basic human right away from women. Everyone should have the right to freedom of movement.”
“Eve teasing” is a subcontinental euphemism used for public sexual harassment of women by men, with Eve being a reference to the biblical Eve. As Wikipedia put it: “it is referred to with a coy suggestion of innocent fun, making it appear innocuous, with no resulting liability on the part of the perpetrator. Many feminists say that considering the semantic roots of the term in Indian English, eve-teasing refers to the temptress nature of Eve, placing responsibility on the woman as a tease, as though the aggressive response of the males was normal rather than criminal.” Victims who speak out against harassment are often labeled as troublemakers who are looking for attention. Thus, the victim often becomes the accused with their appearance, private life, and character likely to fall under intrusive scrutiny.
Educational institutions are rife with tales of sexual harassment which range from standing too close to sharing vulgar jokes and sexual invitations. University student Amna recalls one of her teachers “patting our backs, touching our hands and staring at us suggestively.” Recently, a teacher was suspended on charges of sexually harassing students at the University of Peshawar. While the provincial government has formed a committee to investigate these allegations, they do not have any evidence against the accused as nobody is ready to testify against them “They are among the power-brokers on campus and no one wants to have problems with them,” says a teacher.
Workplace harassment is also common, with tales of bosses and colleagues preying on women employees. A police superintendent was transferred after some lady constables alleged that he had sexually abused them. Despite the presence of the law against sexual harassment, no legal action has been taken against the official. In 2010, Pakistan became the first South Asian country to declare sexual harassment a crime. The Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill aims at creating a working environment for women free from harassment and abuse. Punishment for the violators of a code of conduct ranges from censure to dismissal to an unspecified fine. Although legal and institutional mechanisms are present, implementing the laws has remained a challenge
According to a Dawn profile of social activist Dr. Fouzia Saeed, “it is the power hierarchies that resist change. So unless these power structures are broken and replaced with good and effective structures the mindset will not change, just creating awareness is not enough besides accountability is vital here.” This is quite evident in the Mukhtaran Mai case where a crime was committed against a woman and yet the majority of the culprits went free because of the strong power structures providing them safety. According to the Dawnprofile: “It was a test case and a major setback. It spoke volumes about our faulty criminal justice system, starting from the police reporting to documentation of evidence, the long delays and mindset of the lawyers and judges. The whole system needs overhauling.”
The introduction of the law, which is also included in the Pakistan Penal Code, makes it important for all stakeholders to understand it in order to make it work. Rampant chauvinism and social pressures are major hindrances which often prevent victims from reporting cases of harassment. All sections of society must be sensitized about the issue and the relevant law in order for it to be effectively implemented. Beenish adds, “The most important point is that when a woman complains about sexual harassment do not blame her dress or attitude. The woman does have the right to present herself in any way that she feels fit, but no one has the right to touch her or make her feel physically threatened in any way.”
The issue of sexual harassment has impacts on the decisions of many women in Pakistan not to leave the comfort of their homes and work. They are thus unable to contribute towards the economy or to involve themselves in social or political activism. At a time when Pakistan is tottering on the edge of the precipice, our womenfolk deserve the protection and security of the state so they are able to be truly useful members of society.