Shafaqna Exclusive Interview with Marina Nemat – author & human rights activist

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SHAFAQNA – Born in 1965 in Tehran, Iran – Marina Nemat was arrested at the age of sixteen for her political activism, and critic of the Islamic Republic. Following her arrest, she was transferred to Evin prison, where she would spend the next two years of her life.

An Iranian Christian, Marina Nemat recalls in her memoirs how she suffered from physical and psychological torture – a political prisoner in one of Iran harshest penitentiary.

Marina Nemat came to Canada in 1991 and has called it home ever since. Her memoir of her life in Iran, Prisoner of Tehran, was published in Canada by Penguin Canada in 2007, has been published in 28 other countries, and has been an international bestseller. In 2007, Marina received the inaugural Human Dignity Award from the European Parliament, and in 2008, she received the prestigious Grinzane Prize in Italy. She was the recipient of the Morris Abram Human Rights Award from UN Watch in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2014. In 2008/2009, she was an Aurea Fellow at University of Toronto’s Massey College, where she wrote her second book, After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed, which was published in 2010. Marina regularly has spoken and continues to speak at high schools, universities, and conferences around the world, including University of Milan, Oxford University, Yale, Tufts, and Stanford, and sits on the Board of Directors at the CCVT (Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture) and the Writers in Exile Committee at PEN Canada, in addition to volunteering at her church’s Refugee Committee since 2010. She has a Certificate in Creative Writing from the School of Continuing Studies at University of Toronto and currently teaches memoir writing at the SCS. In 2014, she was a recipient of the Excellence in Teaching Award at the School. Occasionally, she writes book reviews and opinion pieces for the Globe and Mail and is a regular contributor to the Oslo Freedom Forum.

An outspoken human rights defender, Marina Nemat has sat at the centre of much controversy, as her writings, and criticism of the Islamic Republic has played into a very Western anti-Iranian narrative, where Tehran has, more often than not been depicted as the root of all evils. While Iran never claimed to stand a perfect expression of democracy and human rights, Iran is far from being the political black hole western capitals have been keen to made it out to be.

To bring balance to the conversation Shafaqna decided to interview Marina Nemat, and look at her story from a different perspective.

SHAFAQNA –  Ms Nemat, in past interviews you have often declared that Iran’s government is your main enemy, and that you experienced much pain and hardship under the Islamic Republic. While no one is denying the suffering you underwent as a young woman, isn’t it true that we often see the world through our own unconscious bias, and prejudices – might they be political, or religious? Isn’t there a desire to demonize Iran to better rationalize, and maybe excuse the series of events which led you to imprisonment?

MARINA NEMAT – No, not at all. In my books I gave a fair account of my ordeal, and the terrible choices I had to make in order to survive. The Islamic Republic is brutal towards whoever it sees as a dissident … I never really chose to become an activist. As a young student in Tehran, as a young Christian woman in Iran I simply wanted to dress the way I wanted, and assert my rights as an individual. I was not politicized in the sense that I supported a particular political school of thoughts. I just disagreed with the way things were … I disagreed with the Islamic Revolution. Back then, any opposition could land you the death penalty. Which is what happened to me … I was to be executed.

Interestingly my grand-parents were refugees in Iran. They ran from Russia to start a new life away from persecution.

SHAFAQNA – Your Christianity you said has been a driving factor of not just your arrest, but your persecution in Iran. I find this surprising giving the fact that Iran has been pro-active in promoting cross sectarian inclusion, and tolerance. Religious minorities sit at Parliament, and their religious rights are well protected … I’m not implying that Iran is perfect here, but undeniably Iran has been a pioneer by way of promoting interfaith harmony, and understanding in the Islamic world. The same cannot be said of many … Saudi Arabia comes to mind.

What exactly are your grievances here?

MARINA NEMAT – I am a practicing Christian but not a fundamentalist Christian. I am not the Christian who doesn’t believe in gay marriage. I believe gays should have the right to get married. I believe that women should allowed to become priests and religious leaders. I don’t believe that governments should be religious in any form. I believe in secure government. I don’t go to Church every week but it is my religion. And so for me Iran as over-stepped the religious boundary and infringed upon the political. I think that the separation of powers is fundamental to any democracy.

SHAFAQNA – Do you not agree though that there could be many ways to be democratic, and that Western capitals do not necessarily hold a monopoly on democracy? You speak of the separation of powers … aka secularism. But why would you say that the religious should not influence on the political. If you believe in God why would you want to deny His ultimate authority over men’s affairs. Why assume that a religious oversight will automatically translate into something negative or oppressive. Can’t the religious act a keeper of accountability and tradition?

MARINA NEMAT –  Accountability to what? The Religious should always be left out of the public sphere.

SHAFAQNA – So you are a secular Christian then? Is that what you’re saying?

MARINA NEMAT – I suppose. Faith is a personal matter. Governments cannot expect society to hold to archaic rules and regulations. People change, morals change and it is important people change with them.

SHAFAQNA –  I  recalled you claimed that there is no religious freedom in Iran. Can you elaborate?

MARINA NEMAT – There is no freedom of religion in Iran and it has nothing to do with Hassan Rouhani. It doesn’t matter who is the president of Iran as long as Iran’s constitution, Iran’s law, which is based on Sharia law, under such laws there is no freedom, there is no equality. Under Sharia law a mother is not allowed to convert into another religion. It doesn’t matter if Rouhani is the president, or if Rahimi is the president. It doesn’t matter. Iran is governed under Sharia law and Sharia law doesn’t allow freedom of religion.

SHAFAQNA – I will have to disagree with you here. Too Many Muslim Scholars expressly, and absolutely proclaims, protects, and asserts freedom of religion. More importantly form my understanding the Quran enounced civil liberties in a manner which has yet to be matched. If you are referring to women’s rights in the Quran … again I will have to disagree with you. Prejudices and bias have clouded most people’s judgement when it comes to Islam. Countries such as Saudi Arabia or Turkey of course have not exactly helped either since their interpretation of Islam has been based on Wahhabism.

MARINA NEMAT – Absolutely not. Please go to my facebook page. I remember once I quoted news that a women’s magazine in Iran had just recently shut down simply because it promoted equality between the rights of men and women. And it was shot down within a few days of the presidency of Mr. Rouhani. So, I mean Mr. Rouhani talks a lot. He talks about freedom of speech, he talks about freedom of this and freedom of that, but it all impractical. He has not delivered anything. I challenge anyone who believes that under Rouhani things have become better. Come to me with facts. Because even the number of executions has increased in Iran under Rouhani and there are numbers to show this.

Go to Amnesty International’s website and all the numbers are there.

 

NOTE – Shafaqna was unable to finish its interview with Ms Nemat as she felt unhappy with some of the issues we raised. While Shafaqna never intended to upset Ms Nemat or offend her beliefs, we nevertheless stand by our views that opinions need at times to be challenged for truths to be found. We understand that Ms Nemat has a negative outlook on Iran and Iran’s policies due to her ordeal and personal journey, but we felt it was important to offer balance, and maybe suggest that one’s opinions are not necessarily reflective of realities.

Iran, even if imperfect, in comparison to countries in the Middle East and Muslim world remains a country which defends and stands for religious pluralism, and tolerance.

 

 

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