FARNAZ SEIFI – REBELLION IN IRANIAN CYBERSPACE
Farnaz Seifi was a one of the first woman of a small group of pioneers who, in 2003, dared to start a blog in Farsi, the language of Iran. With her blog, ‘Amshaspandan’, she strongly criticised the Iranian regime and the oppression of Iranian women. When the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in 1979, Persian women lost all their rights. In her Internet diary, Farnaz, who was a student and journalist at the time of writing her blog, gave a no-holds-barred account of the tough reality of her everyday life as a young woman in the Islamic Republic. In doing so, she launched a discussion platform for emancipatory demands and personal freedom of expression.
To begin with, there seemed to be no restrictions on Internet freedom in Iran. The Iranian blogosphere exploded in a way unrivalled in any other Arab country. And although the Mullah regime demonised the Internet as a product of western decadence, it didn’t take the government long to discover the possibilities of using the Internet for its own interests. Even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has his own blog.
But just six months after Farnaz started her blog, the Iranian government started cracking down on bloggers who failed to toe the official line – the first regime in the world to do so. Blogs were shut down, and there were arrests, tortures and criminal prosecutions. Farnaz’s blog was censored, and soon after that it was shut down. The women’s rights activist was a thorn in the Mullahs’ sides. She received death threats, and attempts were made by every imaginable means to intimidate and silence her. But Farnaz did not give up.
She was one of the founding members of Iran’s first Internet magazine. With this magazine, a wide readership was given access for the first time to articles and information about Iran’s women’s movement, and gained a completely new perspective on Iranian society and the enormous contradictions within it. But the censorship authorities banned the production of the magazine. When Farnaz and her colleagues failed to comply with the ban, the regime came down hard. On her way to an Internet workshop in India, Farnaz was arrested at the airport in front of her horrified family, and marched off in handcuffs like a dangerous criminal. Farnaz was taken to the infamous Evin Prison, a notorious torture jail from which many activists do not return alive. For several nights, a blindfolded Farnaz was interrogated deep in the bowels of the prison. The main complaint was her blog texts. After several days she was released, against payment of a substantial bail, and charged with subversion and collaborating with foreign powers. Farnaz’s only option was to flee.
As Farnaz boarded a plane in Tehran in spring 2007, dressed in a manteau, the full-length coat obligatory for women in Iran, she had a foreboding that it could be good-bye forever. When Farnaz talks about the day she left Iran, you can feel her deep sadness for the loss of her family and her homeland.
After Farnaz completed her course in media studies in Holland, the young Iranian came to the attention of the Deutsche Welle organisation in Bonn – owing to her commitment and her in-depth knowledge of the political and social situation and the use of the Internet in Iran. Deutsche Welle persuaded her to join them as producer of the interactive team on the ‘Deutsche Welle Persian’ programme. Since then, Farnaz Seifi has lived in Bonn, and through Deutsche Welle she has met up again with some of her comrades-in-arms from the Iranian women’s rights and blogger movements alongside whom she was fighting for equality in Iran. In Bonn, these friends have become a little corner of home for her, and they help her deal with the loneliness that has been her constant companion throughout the long years of separation from her family.
With her tireless dedication to her cause in exile, Farnaz endeavours to improve the situation of Iranian bloggers, both male and female. Working closely with ‘Reporters Without Borders’ in Paris, she fights for the many Iranian bloggers and journalists who have had to flee Iran. They also work together to campaign against arrests, imprisonment, torture, and the threatened execution of dissidents in Iran. Virtually every day, Farnaz receives news of further arrests via SMS, Skype or email. The sentences handed out are becoming more and more harsh. Hundreds of activists, both male and female, have been locked up, convicted and sentenced to long prison terms because of their demands for emancipation and their battle for human rights. More people were executed in Iran in 2011 than ever before. Many of those executed are young activists like Farnaz Seifi.
The memories of the violence that the Iranian demonstrators experienced when they demonstrated for justice following the Ahmadinejad-rigged elections haunt Farnaz day and night. In exile and helpless, she witnessed via the internet how the biggest protest movement since the 1979 Revolution, organised using Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, was brutally crushed. And how many of her friends were imprisoned and killed. The images of the police beating helpless demonstrators with heavy clubs, and the many dead, have been burned into her memory. All her hopes for a change and a possible return to her homeland were shattered in the blink of an eye.
In exile, the Internet has become her virtual homeland. But Farnaz is aware of how risky her commitment to her cause is for her family as well. Her parents in Tehran have been threatened and subjected to repressive actions on several occasions as a result of their daughter’s internet activities. Farnaz lives in constant fear for her family. The pressure from the national security authorities became so great that Farnaz was forced to shut down her well-known blog, and to make her appearances on the Internet anonymously. Having blogged under her real name from the very beginning, and convinced of the democratic potential of daring to do so, this was a difficult step for her. Farnaz now blogs under a pseudonym. But despite this setback, she is not giving up.