Roya Hakakian: An Iranian-American Perspective Author and activist Roya Hakakian offers her take on political upheaval in her native Iran. Hakakian emigrated from Iran to the United States in 1985, seeking political asylum.

Roya Hakakian: An Iranian-American Perspective

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GROSS: Roya Hakakian identifies with the protestors in Iran. She remembers protesting against the Shah. In 2004, she published a memoir about growing up Jewish in revolutionary Iran called "Journey from the Land of No." She left the country with her parents in 1984 at the age of 18 and now lives in the U.S. She's a founding member of Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, serves on the board of Refugees International, and is a fellow at Yale University's Whitney Humanity Center. Hakakian initiated last weekend's prayer campaign in memory of Neda Soltani, the young Iranian woman who, in death, became a symbol of the protest movement.

Roya Hakakian, welcome to FRESH AIR. Do you think that the protest movement in Iran is over? Has the government succeeded in repressing it or do you think it's just going to enter a new phase?

Ms. ROYA HAKAKIAN (Founding member, Iran Human Rights Documentation Center): I don't think the protests are over. And I think what really happened during these last elections in Iran is that the nation crossed a boundary and that boundary was the one that had never been crossed before. There was always a sense of hope about wanting to make comprises, make incremental changes, find ways of negotiating with those in power in Iran. And I think with this round of elections, with the responses from the Supreme Leader, that people in Iran have come to the conclusion that those steps that they had hoped to take to make a soft transition to change in Iran are no longer possible. So I don't expect for the protests to go away. I don't anybody does. I just think that the movement will in the future weeks be retooling itself to come up with new ingenious ways to fight the system.

GROSS: Like what? What are some ingenious ways that you think are possible fighting the system?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: Well, I think it will adopt the format that a lot of other covert movements have adopted in the past and historically, even in Iran against the Shah. You know, the 1978 revolution came out of about two or three decades of protests against the Shah. And I think it took a very, very long time for those things to come to a head as they manifested themselves in 1978. So it is possible that there would be a return to that era and you know those acts of protest and demonstration can take a variety of shapes and forms. For instance, it's very likely that we will see a lot of labor strikes. I think people will retreat to their homes and become defiant and those acts of defiance will manifest themselves in a variety of ways.

For instance, every day now I get Facebook postings from Iran and recordings of people on their rooftops shouting, Alah-o-Akbar or God is great. And I think people are doing this sort of as a national diary to record what's happening. And I think posting these things on a daily basis serves as a reminder to all of us that the movement is ongoing.

GROSS: What does it mean to go to your rooftop and shout God is great? How does that register as a protest? I mean you're dealing with a clerical government who'd be shouting God is great too. So where is the protest on shouting that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAKAKIAN: Well that's the beauty of it. The nation is trying to harken back to the images, the icons, everything that was extremely symbolic and very meaningful to the movement in 1978 and 1979. Whether this is organized or thought out, I'm not certain. But what is naturally happening spontaneously among people in Iran is that they're trying to connect this to 1978 and say, we are the same nation and we are once again oppressed and we once again want to get rid of our dictators. And therefore, we will be using the very same symbols, the very same imagery, the very same actions that helped us overthrow the previous dictator. So going off to the rooftops is going back to the memories and the history of 1978, when people in Iran, in December of 1978, I was 12.

You know, I went to my rooftop because Ayatollah Khomeini had ordered people to go to their rooftops and in a completely non-violent fashion just shout for 10 minutes, God is great or Alah-o-Akbar, in pitch dark. And I can't tell you Terry, it was one of the most staggering experiences of my entire life to be standing on a rooftop and listening to this sound that came from nowhere because it was so dark, and yet it was so overpowering.

GROSS: Do you feel that in some ways the people of Iran, particularly the younger people grew up, you know, in a quote, "revolutionary time" and the revolution was celebrated and taught and in that sense people were taught how to protest a right that is now being denied to them?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: Precisely. That's why I think this is such a tough position for the regime to be in because they taught this revolution to us even when I was in high school in Iran, every day in a variety of ways. This was part of our official textbooks. You know, it was a big part of our history. I mean, Iran has a history of 2,500 years and yet, you know, the overthrow of the Shah was probably five chapters in a 12 chapter history book. They really drilled it into us and we really embraced it, especially the youth in Iran, as a proud moment in our history when we together as one had gotten rid of a dictator. And because they drilled in all those lessons to us so consistently, we in a way were educated by them. Or I should say the nation has been educated by the very people who now have to deal with young people on the streets who are trying to overthrow them using the same strategies and tactics.

GROSS: Well, Ahmadinejad is scheduled to be sworn in in late July or early August, so like once he's in office it's no longer about contesting the elections, so the protests seem like they have to take on a different goal.

Ms. HAKAKIAN: They already have. There have been several smaller demonstrations throughout Iran, especially Tehran, in the past week when the millions and millions have gone away to their homes and are probably thinking through other acts. I have received YouTube installments of, you know, what looks like street skirmishes, you know, 20 protesters coming out of the subway chanting and protesting and then fading away. On the other hand, the regime, of course, will not be quiet and they have to deal with 2,000 - 3,000 people that they have sitting in prisons at the moment.

It seems like in the past day or two they have executed a few. I saw the news of about six people being hung yesterday in Mashhad. And I think these acts, which I expect to be coming forth, will serve to inflame the public even further. And what's interesting for me to watch is that this movement has made a commitment to do what the movement against the shah hadn't made a commitment to do, which is to remain nonviolent. This is probably one of the most moving experiences that I have had watching Iran in the past 30 years.

I have seen several video installments of people who have been confronted by the members of the revolutionary guards who have come to attack them. And there have been protesters on the streets who have made a human ring around these five or six revolutionary guard members to protect them from the wrath of the crowd. This, I think, more than anything shows that this population, this movement, is committed to remaining nonviolent and gaining whatever it is that it's trying to through peaceful means.

GROSS: Where do you think that comes from, that nonviolent resistance -certainly not from the 1979 revolution?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: I think precisely because the 1979 revolution led to such a terrible disaster that people are trying do everything possible to avoid another experience like that. And I think, you know, there are instances that Iranians have embraced - again, because of the massive propaganda by the regime - of various movements throughout the world. For instance, you know, the apartheid experience in South Africa, we learned a great deal about Nelson Mandela when we were in schools in Iran. I remember the only great American leader that I was ever taught about was Martin Luther King when I was a student in Iran in high school.

So, it's ironic that the regime itself has embraced and implemented, in Iranian education - post-revolutionary education, these important figures, figures to be beheld by Iranians, you know, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King. And I think those lessons are now enlightening the current movement.

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Roya Hakakian. She's a founding member of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. She serves on the Board of Refugees International. She grew up in Iran and left as a teenager with her family for the United States. She also wrote a memoir few years ago about growing up in revolutionary Iran called "Journey from the Land of No." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Roya Hakakian. She's a founding member of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. She serves on the Board of Refugees International. She initiated a prayer campaign on behalf of Neda Soltani(ph), the young Iranian woman who was killed during the protests. She also, a few years ago, wrote a memoir about growing up in revolutionary Iran called "Journey from the Land of No." She and her family left Iran for the United States when she was 18. Women have been very active in this protest in Iran. Do you see that as, in part, you know, protest against the suppression of women in Iran?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: Absolutely. But what's even more interesting to me is that people find that surprising. The most vibrant, the most serious, the strongest opposition that the Iranian regime has ever faced in the past 30 years has been the opposition to its existence by the Iranian women. It's an opposition that has been unfolding itself from the very early days of the revolution. Because, you know, on March 8th of 1979, which was, you know, barely a month after the Iranian revolution had taken hold on the Ayatollah had returned, the Iranian women took to the streets and staged a massive march against a decree that the Ayatollah had issued to implement the Islamic dress code, meaning to bring back the veil. Now, a lot of people forget that Iranian women had historically had the right to dress code. In other words, at the time when I was growing up, some women where under the veil and others were not. Women chose how they wanted to dress and went about it in that way.

But on March 8th, women took the streets to demonstrate against Ayatollah's decree to bring back the veil and make it mandatory. And, you know, it's an opposition that has been organizing, strategizing and thinking through its demands very seriously at least for the last 10 years. So, I think it's no surprise that we see women in the forefront of this movement and it is really the women that have provided the engine, the organization know-how for the pre-election campaign.

GROSS: Neda Soltani(ph) became a symbol of the protest movement, you know, a young Iranian woman who was killed while protesting. And a lot of people have noted how different she is as a symbol from the bearded middle-aged men of the 1979 revolution. You initiated a prayer campaign on her behalf - was it last weekend, two weekends ago?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: Last weekend.

GROSS: Last weekend.

Ms. HAKAKIAN: And we're hoping to bring everybody together for the 40th day of her death.

GROSS: So, what did she mean to you? You were 18 when you left Iran. You were 12 when you protested against the shah. So what does seeing her face mean to you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAKAKIAN: You know, I wrote a very bad poem which I have kept on my laptop and haven't shown to anyone. But, the poem really was about seeing myself in Neda. I think I have no doubt that if I were in Iran now, I would be on the streets. Because when I was 12, I was on the streets. I have no doubt that I would be protesting along with the women, with the others who are on the streets. And I have no doubt that I could have died too. I mean, oftentimes when I think about the stupid things that I did when I was a teenager in Iran, the idea that I survived my stupidity, the idea that I encouraged so much danger and yet somehow survived, staggers me.

So, I think she's the face of the Iranian movement, but not just the current one, the one that begun in 1979. I think the majority of the secular Iranians who joined that revolution, joined because they were hoping to have a democracy in Iran, to have an egalitarian rule and that hope still survives and I think no one better than Neda captures that hope that has yet to come to fruition.

GROSS: So, now that you've been living in the United States since 1984, you're…

Ms. HAKAKIAN: Since 1985.

GROSS: Since 1985, thank you. You've been trying your best to keep in touch with people in Iran. And Americans are seeing a different side of Iranians now. They're not chanting death to America. So, what are you hoping that Americans are learning about Iran as they try to keep track of what's happening there now?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: The Iran that Americans have been seeing in the past three weeks is the Iran that I've always known, is an Iran that has wanted freedom and equality. And I think what always devastated me, because I'm also an American now, was what a terrible view we, as Americans, held of Iran, especially the Iran that I knew. And I always wanted to somehow help settle this misunderstanding, that we were the victims of the very regime, of the very characters, who were burning, you know, the American flags on the streets of Tehran or, you know, burning the effigies of Uncle Sam. So, I think I hope that this latest movement has helped people see Iran in the way that I know Iran.

And I hope that we, as Americans, come to embrace what's happening in Iran today, as a universal plight. Because I see it as, you know, as a situation which is basically a gender apartheid and we as global citizens wouldn't want to be living in an era where gender apartheid -where apartheid of any kind - is an existence.

GROSS: Roya Hakakian, thank you very much for talking with us. I really appreciate it. Be well.

Ms. HAKAKIAN: I was delighted to be with you, thank you.

GROSS: Roya Hakakian is the co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and is a fellow at Yale University's Whitney Humanities Center. We've invited her back next week to talk about her memoir "Journey from the Land of No." It's about growing up Jewish in revolutionary Iran. You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site, I'm Terry Gross.

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