By: Elahe Amani with Lys Anzia – Women News Network – WNN
A mother protecting her child isn’t anything unique. But in Iran, humanitarian activist mothers are now becoming global icons for human rights causes worldwide. In silent public protest, the ‘Mourning Mothers of Iran,’ known locally in Tehran as the ‘Mothers of Laleh,’ stand together each week, on Saturday evening vigils in Tehran’s Laleh Park.
“I urge all women around the world to show their solidarity with the Committee of Iranian Mothers in Mourning by assembling in parks, in their respective countries, every Saturday between the hours of 7 to 8 p.m., wearing black,” said Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Shirin Ebadi, in a plea made to women and activists worldwide at a July 25 Iran pro-democracy rally in Amsterdam. Like the infamous “Women in Black,” and the ‘Madres de Plaza de Mayo,’ the Committee of Iranian Mothers use methods of ethics in non-violence to bring attention to the atrocity of their dead children.
Beginning in Jerusalem, in 1988, a group of almost 40 Israeli-Jewish women of conscience formed ‘The Women in Black.’ To make their point, they wore black clothing and stood silent in public protests. They protested against Israeli expansion into the West Bank and Gaza on the heels of the beginning of the 1987 Palestinian intifada. Soon Arab women from the northern region of Israel also joined the Women in Black. The message was asked for “Peace!” Opposing war, injustice, and militarism, Women in Black groups and their affiliates can also be found in Iran, Australia, the UK, Serbia, Japan, South Africa, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, US, India, Nepal, Uruguay, Argentina and the Philippines, to name a few.
Outside of Jerusalem, 1988 was also a very dark period for Iranian history. In a few summer months, an enormity of crimes against humanity occurred as an overwhelming number of Iranian political prisoners were massacred. This left thousands of Iranian mothers devastated.
According to reports from Amnesty International, 4,500-10,000 Iranian political prisoners were declared killed or missing inside the country that year, over a period that lasted barely two months. After finding out about the death of their loved ones, the families of the victims were not allowed to receive the bodies of their dead. They were also not allowed to hold any funerals. Instead, the held bodies were dumped together in places like Khavaran or what the regime referred to as La’nat-Abad, ‘The Damned Place,’ a cemetery used for burying non-Muslims.
Mass burials at Khavaran were later accidentally discovered by an Armenian priest who had become curious as to why stray dogs kept digging for bones at, what was later determined the location of the mass graves. French-Iranian woman filmmaker, Mehrnoushe Solouki, was held in Evin Prison for nine months as she, too, stumbled on the discovery in 2007.
“The deliberate and systematic manner in which these extrajudicial executions took place may constitute a crime against humanity under international law,” said Human Rights Watch, in 2005. Perhaps of all the crimes against humanity in the last 30 years, the 1988 Iranian mass executions continue to be the most revealing indication of the regime’s contempt and fear of political dissidents.
“In the recent events, the government in Iran has been fabricating reports depicting an incorrect image of what has been going on in the country,” said Ebadi at the July 25, 2009 rally. “They do not want the people to know the truth.”
We may think this kind of protest is new in Iran, but Iranian mothers have always spoken out against violence, disappearance and the torture of their sons and daughters. Prior to the 1979 revolution, only two mothers’ organizations existed in the country. Both were affiliated with underground groups involved in struggles for democracy. They worked in opposition to the monarchy of the Shah’s regime, who’s policies had turned, at the end, to the jailing and torture of intellectuals, feminists, students, and labour union advocates.
“I need to tell my story. No one can stop me. No one!” said Parvin Fahimi, an active member of Mothers for Peace and the mother of slain 19 year old Iranian protester, Sohrab Arabi, said recently in July. “My son had been killed, but they refused to tell me,” she continued.
Madres de Plaza de Mayo - Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2008.
On July 11, 2009, young Sohrab Arabi was identified as ‘Picture Number 12′ by his older brother at the Shapour Street Police Station in Tehran. He was dead and his family finally knew the truth. He had been missing for 26 days. On the realization, his mother was beside herself with grief.
“Please hear my painful story as a resident of Tehran. I lost my son on Monday 25 of Khordad (15 June) during a peaceful rally that was taking place to protest the election results. With the crowds estimated at a minimum of 3 million, many people were lost and I too lost my son. The mobiles were cut off and I couldn’t reach him – I searched everywhere for him and went back home and found he was not there either so I went back to Azadi Square to keep searching for him. The atmosphere was terrible, so much tear gas everywhere, it felt more like a battle ground and I have been sick ever since with chest problems. I couldn’t find my child and I returned home and together with the sons of my relatives. As we searched every hospital and police station we didn’t get a response. My son did not have his ID card with him; he just had a bit of money on him to go and buy test papers at Enghelab Sqaure to prepare for the university entrance exams coming up…
That night I still did not hear of my son. The next morning when I called 110 (the emergency police call number) they told me to refer to my local police station. I went to the local police station and filed a missing persons report and they started the search process. No one had the guts to tell me than that maybe my son was killed; some people said he was probably arrested and some said he may be injured. I found out that 7 people were killed that day (at the protests) of those, 5 had been identified and 2 had not. The 2 that had not been identified were apparently older. The sons of my family members went to see the 5 that were identified and they confirmed that none of them was Sohrab. I was relieved to hear that and thought that my son was therefore arrested. I knew that he wasn’t injured because I searched every single hospital. I am aware that some hospitals would not give me a clear answer, but others did.
So I headed out for the Revolutionary Court (Evin Prison) to follow up on his arrest. They told me to return home and I told them I couldn’t – I am a Mother – I couldn’t even eat. To this date I have a hard time eating. My throat just closes up. I have kept myself going through liquids only in the past few weeks. I can’t tell you how much time I spent at the Revolutionary Court… if I were to write the story it’d make a very thick book. . .
How can a 19 year old that has yet to sit at the University entrance exams, and has yet to fulfill any one of his dreams, be killed? By whom; and on whose orders; and for what? I ask the City Council, what did my son ask of you? What did he ever ask of the government? What did he ask of his country? …We wanted nothing but peace, tranquility and a freedom of thought – that’s what’s important to us, is that my son thought about whom he voted for and where his vote goes. He didn’t ask for anything else. Just because he was a supporter of Mr. Mousavi, he must be killed? For what crime? On the basis of what guilt? My son was in the prime of his youth, a 19 year old, who never fulfilled his dreams. As a mother, I ask God day and night to put an end to this injustice.”
- Parvin Fahimi, mother of slain protester, Sohrab Arabi
(Partial testimony given during a Tehran City Council
meeting July 23, 2009)
The exact circumstance surrounding the death of Sohrab Arabi continues to be unexplained. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights Iran, when the family received Arabi’s body, his death appeared to be from the result of a gunshot wound to the chest, but no one knows when or where this injury occurred. An official, but inconclusive, report was made by the Coroner on June 19.
The lives of the mothers of missing global activists, who are often called, ‘mothers of the disappeared,’ are often filled with moments of endurance and courage, in spite of the grief they carry. From the mothers of slain reporters working in Iraqi Kurdistan or the Ukraine; to the mothers of missing activist children in Iran or Argentina; the mothers of those who have who have ‘gone missing’ have the same experience over and over again. Mothers worldwide have the same fear, grief, anger and frustration about their dead and missing children.
“I begged the gunmen to kill me instead, and they pushed me away and told me that they wanted her not me,” said Kurdish mother of slain Iraqi journalist, Sara Abdul-Wahab, during a May 2008 Associated Press interview. In spite of her mother’s attempt to save her life, Sarwa was fatally shot twice in the head by kidnappers. Tragically, her mother felt she could do nothing to save her daughter. Sarwa was the only breadwinner for a widowed mother, a sister and brother. She was a strong defender of human rights, a Kurdish lawyer and activist in Iraq, who continued to work in spite of numerous threats against her life.
When Ukrainian Prosecutor, General Mykhaylo Potebenko, issued a statement saying that DNA tests were delayed due to the illness of Lesya Gongadze, the mother of the missing and presumed dead human rights reporter Georgy Gongadze, Leyla grew suspicious. “This is a complete lie and deception,” she told Ukrainska Pravda, the Web newspaper that her son founded. “I wasn’t that sick, not so much as to be unable to give my blood for analysis. I was even insisting on it because I wanted to know the truth,” she added.
For nine year Gongadze case has been rife with confusing facts and government shuffle. Georgy Gogandze’s mother, Lesya Gongadze has been struggling to expose the facts from the moment her son went missing. Faced with the dilemma of not trusting the validity of DNA tests made by the Ukrainian authorities for an unidentifiable body that was found in 2000, Lesya continues to ask questions and demand clarity on the true circumstances surrounding the murder of her son. To date, she has not been satisfied with the answers given her.
Prostest poster from International Women's Day - Paris, 7 March, 2009. Image: Hugo de C
In Argentina, mothers of missing activists ask the same questions as mothers worldwide. These questions have lasted in Argentina almost 33 years. In 1977, they came together in Buenos Aries calling themselves the ‘Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo).’ Ignoring a law prohibiting more than 3 people from gathering in one place, they began walking the plaza two by two, in the form of heroines under the threat of arrest. They began as 14 mothers who publically protested the disappearance of their children. Their protests began during what has been called the ‘Dirty War’ of Argentina, a war beginning with the military dictatorship of General Jorge Rafael Videla.
“By the end of the year (1977), thousands would be illegally detained, tortured, assassinated or disappeared,” says a now declassified document at the US National Security Archive.
In panic under the sudden disappearances of Argentine labour advocates, students and social activists, the mothers began to speak out strongly to demand answers. A military coup had taken over Argentina with a vengeance, lasting seven long years with what has been counted today as up to 30,000 missing or dead.
In 1978, “A recent dramatic occurrence was the abduction, in December, of five ‘mothers of the disappeared’ and two French nuns, whose bodies were reportedly discovered washed ashore,” continues the declassified US National Security Archive report.
“One of the things that I simply will not do now is shut up. The women of my generation in Latin America have been taught that the man is always in charge and the woman is silent even in the face of injustice… Now I know that we have to speak out about the injustices publicly. If not, we are accomplices. I am going to denounce them publicly without fear. This is what I learned,” says Mother of Plaza de Mayo, María del Rosario de Cerruti.
Since 1977, the bereaved mothers have gathered to walk around the Plaza de Mayo in central Buenos Aires for 30 minutes every Thursday afternoon. Wearing white headscarves as a symbol of peace, the simple action of the mothers walking in a circle for peace has finally caught the world’s attention. Their movement has inspired families of the disappeared and victims of human rights violations in many parts around the world to engage in similar peaceful protests in public places.
On June 27, the Mothers of Lelah made a formal statement to the world that echoed the grief of all mothers worldwide.
“What crime have they committed to deserve death? Why do we Iranian mothers have to bear this enormous grief? What is our crime? We will never let this crime against us and our children pass by unnoticed. From now until the release of all detained demonstrators, the cessation of violence and until our children’s killers receive their punishment, we will every week gather in silent mourning near the place where our beloved martyr Neda died at Park Laleh. We urge all parents who are concerned about their daughters and sons, the future capital of our country to join us.”
- The Committee of Mothers Iran (Mourning Mothers of Laleh) 2009
To date, the Argentine mothers have received 3 major international awards for their work with human rights; the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the United Nations Prize for Peace Education and the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights. It is expected that the Committee of Mothers Iran (The Mourning Mothers of Laleh) will follow the legacy of Madres de Plaza de Mayo with special award and recognition in their time.
“Holding on to memory is the way to fight the remains of the past regimes who want the whole story of the disappeared to vanish,” said Morea, one of the Plaza de Mayo mothers.
“If you want justice and freedom, you have to put everything else on hold,” said Iranian mother Parvin Fahimi, recently in a Sept 2009 interview.
This subtitled (English) video shows the depth of funeral grief of Parvin Fahimi, the mother of slain 19 year old Iranian protester, Sohrab Arabi, as she speaks out against the murder of her son.
Rock star, Bono, from the infamous band U2, brings the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo on stage during a concert in Santiago, Chile (1998) to address the audience one by one as they share their pleas for justice.
For more information on this important topic go to:
“Democracy, Governance and Human Rights – Programme Paper Number 6” – UNRISD – United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, Oct 2001
“With Revolutionary Rage and Rancor: A Preliminary Report on the 1988 Massacre of Iran’s Political Prisoners” – Kaveh Sharooz, Harvard Law School, Nov 2007
“25 Days of Run Around for Mother of Peace” – The Feminist School (Iran), July 2009
“Madres de Plaze de Mayo” – online website resource
“Iran – Voices Struggling to be Heard,” US Department of State Publications, April 2004
Additional sources for this article include Amnesty International, BBC Persian, Committee to Protect Journalists, Iranian Progressives in Translation, IPS, University of San Francisco Jesuit Education, US National Security Archive, CNN, Associated Press, Harvard Law School, US State Department, Radio Free Europe, International Campaign for Human Rights Iran, Frontline, Kyiv Post Independence News, Human Rights First, Iraqi News, KHPG.org – Human Rights in Ukraine, Women in Black and Madres de Plaza de Mayo.
Special correspondent for Women News Network – WNN, Elahe Amani, is director of Technology for Student Affairs at California State University. She is also a 2007 Lillian Robles Award winner for her outstanding community service, social education efforts and feminist activism and is chair of Women Intercultural Network (WIN).
Humanitarian journalist, Lys Anzia, is Director/Editor-at-Large for Women News Network – WNN
©Women News Network – WNN 2009
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