Reacting to recent violence against peaceful demonstrators in Iran, many MIT students have expressed their disapproval at the Iranian government — they have taken action in supporting the Iranians’ right to free speech and are mourning those who were killed.
Students made a photo display of injured protestors in Lobby 10; they attended a rally in Copley Square, and participated in MIT guest lectures; these were only a few of the ways students expressed their concern and condolences.
On the evening of June 23, the MIT chapter of Amnesty International, the MIT Lecture Series Committee, and the Social Justice Cooperative sponsored a discussion in Kresge Auditorium about the violence towards protesters, with an emphasis on human rights. Open to the public, the panel was attended by almost 400 people, including MIT students, faculty, local residents, and journalists.
Jasmine Park ’10, a representative from MIT Amnesty International, introduced the event. After providing a brief summary of the situation in Iran, Park said, “This is not a political or partisan event. This is just a human rights talk … and on things we can do to make a difference.”
Alex Hamilton Chan, President of the MIT Graduate Student Council, urged students to get involved. “Universities act as the critiques and conscience of society,” he said. “To be an effective critique and a good conscience, it takes a strong voice to speak on behalf of human values.”
Guest speakers Nazanin Afshin-Jam and Fatemah Haghighatjou led the discussion and the Q&A thereafter.
Afshin-Jam is an Iranian-Canadian singer, songwriter, and Miss World first runner up. She currently acts as an international human rights activist and is co-founder and President of “Stop Child Executions.”
Haghighatjou, a former member of the Iranian Parliament, is a leading proponent of human rights in Iran, especially women’s rights. After serving in the Iranian Parliament from 2000–2004, she was the first to resign when the anti-reform Guardian Council banned more than 2,000 reformist candidates from the seventh Parliamentary election. She currently is a visiting scholar at MIT’s Center for International Studies.
As the first speaker, Afshin-Jam recounted her childhood experiences with violence in Iran. Her father was arrested and tortured in jail for owning an establishment that allowed music, the use of alcohol, and dancing. Horrified by the atrocities of her father’s arrest, her family emigrated to Canada in 1981.
Even though she is separated from Iran, Afshin-Jam cannot ignore the sufferings of fellow Iranians from the aftermath of the recent election. She spoke against the execution of minors and the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot through the heart by a sniper while standing quietly near the protestors on the streets of Tehran. She also said that other countries can help end the violence by pressuring the Iranian government.
Haghighatjou echoed much of what Afshin-Jam mentioned, focusing on the Iranian government’s refusal to permit a full recount of election votes as demanded by the masses. Like many, she hoped that presidential candidateMir-Hossein Moussavi would bring great change by winning the election. She was shocked at the election results. According to The New York Times, only hours after the 40 million paper ballots were cast, the Iranian authorities announced that they had hand-counted 60 percent of ballots — and that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won.
Based on pre-election polls, Moussavi was the predicted winner of the election. Iran’s supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, denied claims of election irregularities and warned protesters that they will face violence if demonstrations continued.
Haghighatjou compared the current crisis to the Iranian Revolution thirty years ago by pointing out the brutal fight for human rights and political reform.
“It’s going to take a long time. They have gotten small victories. If you give them an inch, they will give you a mile,” said Ashley Nash ’11, of the Lecture Series Committee.
During the question and answer, Afshin-Jam mentioned that Twitter has helped protesters to reach out to the outside world. With the government having blocked text messages and access to Youtube and Facebook, Twitter’s microblogging service has allowed Iranians to show others the violence in the streets of Tehran, such as the video of Neda Soltani moments before her death. She encouraged attendees of the discussion to take action.
When asked what MIT students could do to help with the situation, Afshin-Jam asked students to “believe that change will happen.”
“One signature on a petition could save a life,” she said. Afshin-Jam also said that she hopes MIT students will be able to advance online social tools like Twitter to protect Iranian bloggers from being caught by Iranian government spies prowling the site.
“If I were in Iran, I’d be out there with the protesters,” said Sulinya Ramanan ’10. “None of them are scared to risk their lives, and that inspires me to do more.”
After the panel, Afshin-Jam led a candlelight vigil on the stairs outside Building 7 in memory of Neda and others killed in the protests. Following the vigil, many sang “Ey Iran,” a populist song of strong cultural significance in Iran.