Toronto Star: Soroya Malekzadeh wanted to test Iran’s claim to being an open democracy, so she submitted her nomination papers to be a candidate for this month’s parliamentary elections. The Toronto Star
Special to the Star
TEHRANSoroya Malekzadeh wanted to test Iran’s claim to being an open democracy, so she submitted her nomination papers to be a candidate for this month’s parliamentary elections.
The reply came from the Interior Ministry, formally disqualifying her for failing to meet Iran’s strict Islamic requirements. Now, exhausted by state harassment and imprisonment, she has submitted another set of papers, this time to the Canadian embassy in Tehran in hope of obtaining refugee status.
From a small, one-bedroom apartment in central Tehran, Malekzadeh trembles and blinks nervously as she describes her failed bid to run in Iran’s elections.
Visibly exhausted from years of run-ins with the authorities, Malekzadeh, 38, says her vocal stance on women’s issues in Iran has left her with little option but to leave.
“I have lost almost everything,” she says. “My job, my future, everything,” the medical nurse adds.
“Women can’t do anything in this country. The government tells us how to dress, whether we can see boys and what we can say … I want to go to Canada where I can have freedom.”
The former lecturer and author with a Masters degree in medicine now spends her days reading and pleading her case for asylum.
“I am not a criminal,” she says, sipping tea. “It is my choice whether I want to wear a chador.”
“Eighty per cent of Iran women do not want to be forced to wear the chador,” she says, referring to the black headdress that covers all but a woman’s face.
“Muslims in Turkey don’t wear chadors, so why should I? The government can’t tell me how to dress.”
Unfortunately for Malekzadeh, however, the Iranian government did tell her how to dress and refusing to listen cost her a chance to run for political office.
She received a letter from the Interior Ministry disqualifying her from standing for office for failing to adhere to Iran’s stringent Islamic rules.
Malekzadeh’s story is not unique. As Iran heads to the polls Friday, hundreds of candidates deemed critical of the conservative status quo have been blacklisted while dissident newspapers and journalists have been tamed or silenced.
Up for grabs are 290 seats in the Iranian parliament, or Majlis, in an election many see as a referendum on the hard-line administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
More than 100 political parties are registered in Iran, but stringent religious regulations have allowed conservatives to screen undesirable candidates.
“People are frustrated with the system … There really isn’t much choice in this election,” says a professor at Tehran University who wouldn’t to give her name for fear of reprisals.
“They don’t have faith in either the reformists or the conservatives.
“On the one hand, you have conservatives who are completely paranoid of anything or anyone they deem un-Islamic.
“On the other hand, you have reformers who are often dishonest and unwilling or unable to make change . .. . If you are a true reformer, generally speaking, you are kept from political office and can even be imprisoned.”
Malekzadeh says her open criticisms of the government have landed her in prison. Being banned from the 2008 elections was the final straw, and she says she is trying to leave Iran for Canada.
Her first major run-in with authorities was in 2004 when she published an article on women’s rights in a reformist newspaper. The article argued that women deserve equal status in Iran and should be able to dress as they like, says Malekzadeh.
She was slapped with a 15-day prison sentence and says she was beaten while in captivity.
“They kicked me in the head until I passed out. I had to be hospitalised for head injuries and a broken nose,” she says.
One year later, she was jailed again for an article on women’s rights, and one exposing drug problems in Iran. She was given 10-day and seven-day sentences respectively, but was never formally charged with a crime.
Malekzadeh says even though she is out of jail, being labelled a dissident has destroyed her career and hurt her family.
Following government orders, her university fired her from her lecturing job, and she has been forced to give up her house and move in with her sons in a small Tehran apartment.
Her degree in medicine and her strong track record as a lecturer at one of Iran’s most respected medical universities have not helped her find work.
“When the authorities are against you in this country they can take everything,” she says, showing two books she published on medicine.
“They ordered me not to go to the campus again so I can’t work anymore. My son was also kicked out of high school because of me they are hitting me from all sides.”
Without a job or political future, Malekzadeh has applied for refugee status in Canada to start a new life.
Her application is currently being reviewed by the embassy.
With elections only days away, many Iranians are often eager to express similar frustrations, but unlike Malekzadeh, they usually refuse to give their full names.
“They are a joke,” says Ali of the elections, standing with his girlfriend outside Tehran University.
“The government has hand-picked the candidates and wants to put on a show for the world it is a joke. Believe me if these elections were free and fair, the hard-liners wouldn’t even get 20 per cent of the vote.”
Instead of expressing their discontent through mainstream political lines, many young people say they simply disobey the conservative Islamic laws in secret and with the help of modern technology.
In Tehran’s subways, mobile phones are often bombarded with pornographic images sent by rebellious youngsters.
On Tehran’s streets, young women openly flout the conservative Islamic dress rules by wearing makeup, draping their veils over their shoulders and holding hands with their boyfriends.
George McLeod is a Canadian freelance journalist.