Sunday, December 3, 2017

Inaugural PEN Canada-Humber College Writers-in-Exile Scholarship Awarded to Ava Homa

Echoes from the Other Land Author to work with David Bezmozgis on new manuscript
PEN Canada has long promoted freedom of expression and supported writers facing persecution. Thanks to a new partnership with the Humber School for Writers, that support now includes fully sponsored peer mentorship for one refugee writer through the PEN Canada-Humber College Writers-in-Exile Scholarship. Starting in September, Ava Homa, the scholarship’s inaugural recipient, will work on her new manuscript under guidance of the School’s graduate certificate program director, David Bezmozgis. Homa was born and raised in the Kurdish region of Iran and now makes her home in Canada.
“PEN Canada does exceptional work helping to provide refuge for persecuted writers,” says Bezmozgis. “Bringing them to safety is important, but finding a means to allow them to continue to write is also vital. This partnership between the Humber School for Writers and PEN Canada will provide talented refugee writers with the chance to practice their craft, enter into a professional dialogue with a Canadian author, and, ideally, create a book that will offer a new and valuable perspective to Canadians about the world we live in."
“What is left of a writer when exile denies her publishing in her language?” says Homa, reflecting on the challenges of writing in Canada. “I have lost count of the number of times I have tripped while trying to put the shattered pieces of my identity and my career together. Had it not been for this stellar opportunity, my historical novel, the fruit of seven years of perspiration, would never find a mentor at Bezmozgis’ level to reach its full potential. I am grateful to PEN and Humber.”
The PEN Canada-Humber College Writers-in-Exile Scholarship will provide one member of PEN Canada's Writer-In-Exile network each year with a full scholarship to attend the School for Writers’ graduate certificate program in creative writing. Over the course of 30 weeks, the selected applicant will work one-on-one with one of Humber's faculty mentors on a book-length English-language manuscript of fiction or non-fiction.
The article originally appeared HERE

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Western pressure on Kurdistan Referendum reveals double standard, unifies Kurds

The West has continuously admired the Kurdistan Region for three years: for fighting the world’s enemy, the Islamic State (IS); for its admirable inclusiveness of minorities; for sheltering nearly two million refugees and IDPs, and for practicing a fledgling democracy in sharp contrast with most of its neighbors.
The Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) relations with the Western world have been improving, as indicated by numerous visits of Western diplomats to Erbil and the opening of several consulates in the Region.
And yet, despite all of the above, Western powers, one after the other abandoned the Kurds and their government at a time when they approach the age-old dream of no longer being subordinate to a hostile government.
At a time when Kurdistan sought support from its allies, Western powers turned their backs on Kurds who have made, and continue to make, sacrifices in the ground fight against the world’s enemy, IS, and have shed blood to do so in areas outside of their ancient land.
In declaring their opposition to a democratic referendum, in line with international laws and conventions, they undermined the ideas they preach.
According to their double standards, when one of Kurdistan's political parties disagrees with the referendum, it is not interpreted as a sign of freedom of expression and democracy but as “division” and “lack of unity.”
What Kurds, in millions, rally for at home and abroad is not respected. It is overlooked. Democracy seems to be good, but only for the powerful.
Ironically, Iran and the US agree on opposing the referendum, though not for the same motives. Iran is afraid of losing its iron-fisted power over its own suppressed Kurdish population. On its end, the US is wary of Iran’s widespread influence in Iraq.
The United States changed its position on the referendum a few times, but eventually, the State Department’s rejection of the vote was followed by the White House’s refusal to support KRG. Finally, the UK rejected the move, and more countries jumped on the bandwagon.
Political analyst Hemn Seyedi told Kurdistan 24 on the phone he sees four reasons for the complete U-Turn of the West on Kurdistan. 
To begin with, in international relations, countries cannot openly support secession as it would be fertile ground for conspiracy theories, he said, akin to a declaration of war.
The exception would be when countries are openly hostile, such as Iran’s support of Palestine and Israel’s support of Kurdistan independence, he said.
In addition, Western states, especially Trump’s new administration, would like to put an end to costly interventions in the Middle East. With a divided Iraq, their goal for creating a “democratic” Iraq would also have failed, he added.
Moreover, any change in the turbulent Middle East would create new responsibilities they would not necessarily want to shoulder. Therefore they see it in their interest to maintaining the status-quo, Seyedi explained.
Finally, the US wishes to woo Shia officials in Iraq in an “American campaign” to curb Iran’s influence in the country. Washington hopes that a Shia-led Iraq would be different from the Shia-led Iran and would become an ally, the Kurdish analyst concluded.
As such, the United States’ refusal to support the referendum could only be rhetorical and part of an internationally-accepted diplomatic attempt, as Professor David Romano suggests, “to not alienate the Arab world.”
He also told Kurdistan 24 that American leaders “are incapable of thinking outside the box and deviating from standard routines until presented with no other choices and that the standard routine is to defend the current borders.”
Nonetheless, the Western and regional pressure has had the positive effect of unifying Kurds across the ideological spectrum.
The support for the referendum is spreading to way beyond the Kurdistan Region, as analyst Amberin Zaman told Kurdistan 24 in an email exchange.
“It has reinforced President Masoud Barzani’s standing among Kurds and stiffened his resolve. His refusal to bend to such pressure has put the lie to the myth that the United States always calls the shots,” Zaman said.
The neighbors are panicking, and their rhetorical war has increased so much that the prospect of violence has increased. In fact, the whole world has been hysterical about a legal referendum while turning a blind eye to blatant war crimes in places like Turkey and Myanmar.
Analysts who dismissed the threats as mere rhetoric a few weeks ago now think Kurdistan should be prepared for the possibilities of unrest.
“Whether Turkey follows on its threats to take concrete action, particularly if it shuts the border or shuts off the oil pipeline, it will obviously have a severe impact, and as its effects are felt, it may well weaken support for the leadership over time,” Zaman said.
“Equally, the potential for violence and provocations in Kirkuk is deeply worrying. But nobody said this was going to be easy,” she concluded.
Kurdistan is going through a critical time. Whether or not military action is taken against it for holding a legitimate and democratic vote looms large in the minds of Kurds as they anxiously count down the days with both excitement and trepidation.

The article was originally published here

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

How Iran's Education Ministry targets women, minorities through uncompromising, exclusionary policies

Iran's Minister of Education has been using a list of "disorders" for two years that disqualifies applicants from obtaining a teaching position.
The Ministry that is expected to educate non-discriminatory practices managed to exclude the greater part of the population by offering at once a sexist, ableist, homophobic, and racist discourse. Included in the list are cancer survivors, people who have an “accent,” or smoke cigarettes or shisha.
Though teaching is traditionally considered a “gender-appropriate” job, the new list declares that women who are "infertile, have too much facial hair, cyst on ovaries, womanly disorder, breast, or cervix cancer" will not be hired. The statement avoids mentioning words like mensuration or the Farsi equivalent of the cervix.
But the disqualifying "diseases" are not limited to gynecology-related matters. As usual, for women of non-Persian ethnic groups, the pressure is twice since the Ministry says it will not accept educators with "heavy accents."
By recognizing only one official language, Iran has long annihilated linguistic diversity, damaged the well-being of the non-Persian students, and guaranteed unequal access to education.
Approximately, 50 percent of grade one students in Iran have to learn literacy in a language that is not their mother tongue. Many become adults who speak Farsi with Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic or other accents.
Moreover, Iran, which outright denies the existence of homosexuals (President Ahmadinejad created an international uproar when he said at Columbia University that Iran had no gays), mentions “hermaphrodism” (intersex) as a disqualifying “illness.”
But the list does not end there. In addition to excluding most women, the LGBTQ+, a considerable number of non-Persian speakers, the Ministry of Education goes on to exclude people who are not tall enough.
As such, short people are not to become teachers in Iran. Nor do people who limp visibly.
Poor eyesight, having had bladder surgery, blood pressure, thyroid problems, spine issues, digestive system issues are also among barring conditions.
People suffering from PTSD, speech impediments, epilepsy, depression, bipolar or other psychological disorders are not to teach either. Predictably, graduates who have had a stroke, brain attack or have multiple sclerosis, prostate, or other issues are to be excluded from the Ministry.
Although last week social media backlash made the ministry promise to modify the list, the discriminatory perspective of the Ministry is yet to be upgraded.  

Despite the vital role that feminists can play in such a society, their voices are ruthlessly suppressed. They are treated as "enemies of the state" and are threatened with imprisonment on national security-related charges, as Amnesty International reported. In fact, the supreme leader called gender equality a “Zionist plot.” 
The religious dictatorship in Iran relies heavily on patriarchy to survive and not only because dictators overall are terrified by any form of solidarity and depend on division to survive. When men are watchdogs for women, the government needs to control only half of the society and the other half is an (unwitting) agent reproducing suppression. After all, empowered women are not easily silenced.
The internationally-isolated government also requires the support of religious families who believe a woman’s place is at home. And finally, the success of women movement can inspire other struggles for other social justice movements and has to be harshly punished.
Indeed, if Iranian women of diverse backgrounds were to unite and speak with one voice, they could overthrow the regime.
The political ideology in Iran has justified much discrimination in the past four decades, though the sexist laws go back as far as the 1936 civil code. Since the 1910-era Constitutional Revolution, women in Iran have struggled to achieve gender equality, to no avail.
In the 1930s, women had 14 magazines discussing their rights, and by the 1970s had gained some freedom of education and occupation. But these small achievements were taken away when Ruhollah Khomeini usurped power in Iran in 1979.
Throughout history, Iranian rulers have established control over Iran by subjugating the female body. Reza Shah, the Pahlevi Dynasty’s first Shah, ruled Iran from 1925 to 1941. He forcibly removed the hijab from women in an attempt to westernize the country.
Since 1979, the Islamic Republic has forced the hijab back onto women in order to Islamicize the country. At the micro-level, individual males in Iran have also exerted control over women’s bodies to prove their authority.
Women suffer gross injustice in areas related to marriage, divorce, and child custody. They are legally unable to work or leave the country without their husband’s permission. A woman cannot marry without her father or a male guardian’s authorization. There is little to no protection for women and girls against sexual harassments, and domestic and external violence. Early and forced marriage, as well as marital rape, is still common in the country.
After a century-old movement, women are still officially considered subhuman in the eyes of the Iranian state, and their situation seems too bleak. A glimmer of hope, however, lives within the fringe, counter cultural movements burgeoning under the skin of the country, from Kurdistan to Tehran.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Increasing rhetoric on women’s rights in Iran

My article published in Open Democracy

Increasing rhetoric on women’s rights in Iran: a positive sign or a mere campaign tool?

Why women’s rights rhetoric is suddenly on the rise in Iran, again.
Iranian women lining up to vote in the holy city of Qom. Khademian Farzaneh/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.In elementary schools, before we girls could understand why our bodies – unlike those of boys our age – had to be hidden away and covered, we were told good girls were inconspicuous. Speaking and laughter were discouraged. The only occasion in which screaming was applauded was when we were chanting: “Death to America”, “Death to Israel.”
Every four years during the presidential elections, Iranians are offered a unique level of freedom. Women who are otherwise punished for their non-Islamic dress codes are seen in photos with candidates, uncovered. Gender segregations are limited, and women’s rights rhetoric rises. The melancholic culture, whose holidays are mainly death anniversaries of some Imams, allows street celebrations. Citizens pressed under a crippling economy caused by sanctions, corruption, and mismanagement of resources, are offered a ray of hope, provided that they vote for so and so.
What do women rights mean in a country whose supreme leader calls gender equality a “Zionist plot”?
But what do women rights mean in a country whose supreme leader calls gender equality a “Zionist plot”? How is women’s participation encouraged when their very gender disqualifies them from running for the presidency? The constitution decrees the president has to be male, a believer in the Islamic Republic, and follower of the dominant sect of Islam (Twelve-Imam Shia). Thus, the greater half of the Iranian population is automatically excluded. Hence, women’s “rights” means voting, not being trusted with an important position.
The number of Iranian women working in government positions has slightly increased compared to two decades ago and this has provided a perfect propaganda tool for the state. However, influential ministers such as Maryam Mojtahidzadeh, head of the women’s ministry, talk about ‘complementary’ roles for women – not equality. To this day, a woman’s most important decisions in life (marriage, child custody, divorce, employment, traveling abroad) legally require a man’s approval: a father or grandfather, a husband, or one of the all-male judges.
To this day, a woman’s most important decisions in life... legally require a man’s approval.
Moreover, to draw voters and earn legitimacy, the government banks on horrors of invasions. Iranians are fearful that their country would be torn apart like their neighbors: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan. Women know they are the first victims of war and destruction and so they avoid reaching that point at all costs, even if that means supporting a dictator.
The prevailing myth in Iran, what the hardliners and the so-called reformists promote, is: choose between violence and reform. They undermine options such as civil disobedience or boycotting the elections. “Reformists” have offered no plan to make significant changes to the discriminatory laws of the constitution and yet they pressure the marginalised to vote for them “for stability”.
When women are legally allowed to run for lower rank positions such as city councils or parliaments, they lack the confidence in themselves and other women to trust them(selves) with managerial roles. Although globalisation, the massive population of Iranians in diaspora and access to the internet and satellites, have put Iranian women’s unfair situation in sharp contrast with the West, gender equality is not systematically taught in Iran.
Many still wonder how feminism is not “a threat to families and society”.
Hence, many still wonder how feminism is not “a threat to families and society”. Rising numbers of divorce are seen not as a protest to patriarchy, but as a negative impact of women’s relative liberation from cultural taboos.  
Although 60% of Iranian college graduates are women, they make up just 13% of the workforce. A portion of women has gained divorce and travel rights by stating those in their marriage licenses. However, the implementation of legal loopholes by the upper-middle class has not improved life for the rest of the women.
The protests to gender inequality are sometimes uneducated and misguided. Society has not been taught how everyday language is inherently denigrating for women e.g. “dakhator shohar dadan”, “They married the girl” not “The girl married”. The widespread jokes that mock girls as dullards, incapable of thinking, reproduce patriarchy and recreate the distrust in women.
Globalisation has changed much in Iran, but women are still welcomed only when they contribute to patriarchy and nationalism. The small freedom and hope offered during the election season, the massive propaganda about empowering women, the prevailing myth of ‘war or reformists’, allure women, minorities and other second class citizens to the polling stations. This, in turn, further legitimises the Islamic Republic and recreates a vicious cycle.

Sunday, April 30, 2017