Ramita Navai: No turning back from Iran’s women-led uprising

Ramita Navai in Iran in 2005, at a time when women journalists were temporarily allowed in to report on football matches

Up to 20,000 people have now been detained as a result of the protests that have wracked Iran in the past three months. Those who have been detained have been subject to physical and psychological torture, rape and been made to make forced confessions. Some, including 22-year-old Mahsa (Jina) Amini whose death sparked the current protests, have died in custody.

The British-Iranian investigative journalist and documentary maker Ramita Navai knows only too well what those who have been detained are facing. She has been detained by the Iranian authorities several times over the years.

Her first arrest came just after she had started working as Tehran correspondent for The Times and was covering the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.

“I was at a rally with a lot of other journalists and I was interviewing some Iranians. Before I knew it, two undercover intelligence agents had taken me away; none of my colleagues saw me being taken. It was a terrifying experience. They took me to an abandoned warehouse with broken windows and flexes hanging from the ceiling and there was an armed man standing outside the room. They took all my possessions and carried a table and chairs into the room before starting with a good cop/bad cop routine. It was very manipulative psychologically and was designed to break me. They started telling me that I had been asking anti-revolutionary questions and said I had been telling people how to answer. It was all lies but I was utterly unprepared for this.”

Her interrogators asked her whether she had heard of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian photojournalist who had been killed in police custody shortly before Navai had arrived in Iran.

“Every journalist knew what had happened to her and they were hinting that I would suffer the same fate. I was so petrified I started sobbing.”

Navai was one of the lucky ones. A few hours after being taken, one of her journalist colleagues, Jim Muir of the BBC, noticed she was missing and started talking to the Iraniansat the rally. One whispered to him that they had seen her being taken away.

“He phoned up the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance and said we know you have got her, you had better release her otherwise I am going to cause a fuss about this.”

Navai was released shortly afterwards.

Since then Navai has won numerous awards for her documentary work, including an Emmy for her PBS Frontline documentary Syria Undercover in 2012 and a Royal Television Society Journalism Award for her documentary on tracking down refugee kidnap gangs for Channel 4.

But it is Iran, the country of her birth, where her heart lies.

Her 2014 book City of Lies, which won her the Royal Society of Literature’s Jerwood Award for non-fiction, tells the stories of ordinary Iranians forced to live extraordinary lives: the porn star, the ageing socialite, the assassin and enemy of the state who ends up working for the Republic, the dutiful housewife who files for divorce, and the old-time thug running a gambling den.

Tehran, the City of Lies of the title, is described with romantic nostalgia but rails against the hypocrisy of the regime.

Navai feels there is “no turning back” from the current protests.

“This time feels very different. I think the protests are unlike anything we have ever seen. Significantly, they span all social classes, ethnicities and the protests have happened in every one of Iran’s provinces. The protests have been a unifying force, uniting Iranians of all colours against the regime. I don’t think the regime will fall imminently although I do think something has shifted and there is no going back from that. I think a very different future for Iran has now become a reality in a way that it wasn’t a year ago.”

She adds, “The most organised groups seem to be the Iranian feminist and women’s rights networks because they have been used to mobilising for such a long time. They are used to being arrested and imprisoned. They issue secret missives and are coordinating with some of the activists in prison.”

Navai and her mother Laya at a demonstration in London in support of the Iranian protests

Navai believes it is the moment for Iranian women and those of Generation Z in particular.

“The women’s groups were crushed in 2009 – they were a thorn in the side of the regime. What we are seeing now is a strengthening and a rising up,” she says. “In 2009, it was people my age who were and are very fearful of the regime. The younger generation – Generation Z – are absolutely fearless. My generation always felt like they had something to lose. The regime is brilliant at playing this game of giving people just enough freedom to shut them up. This younger generation have grown up in a very different world, a completely connected Iran in which they have been influenced by global popular culture.  They know what is out there in the world. They know all the opportunities that should be open and available to them and they are angry and they are fearless.”

She believes a sexual awakening is also happening in Iran.

“We are talking about this being a women-led uprising, partly this is because this sexual awakening has changed the socio-cultural dynamics for Generation Z. In real terms, virginity is not the thing it used to be. So many couples are living together outside marriage that the Supreme Leader’s office issued an edict saying how immoral it is. These are ordinary Iranians, not just the middle and upper class. There has been this massive socio-cultural shift. Generation Z are used to different social norms and strictures and they are not going to be told what to do. They want full autonomy not only over their bodies but over their lives.”

In the intervening years, Iranian people have become even more resourceful than in previous protests.

“This is what 43 years of a repressive and censorious regime have done,” says Navai. “Most Iranians have VPNs [virtual private networks]. There are occasional blackouts – not all VPNs keep working so they have to change them. Iranian exiles are paying for that service, sending login details to Iranians within the country to help them mobilise. They have also been mobilising in quite interesting ways using social media but actually also old-fashioned meet-ups.”

The recent public expressions of protest by leading Iranians, such as the actress Taraneh Alidoosti and a women’s basketball team, are “hugely significant”, she believes.

“They are emboldening the protesters to rise up against the regime,” she says. “I also think these high-profile protests and the world’s media and social media are a really important tool for this uprising. It is the oxygen that is keeping these protests going. Without the world watching I think the regime would be far more brutal. It has already been very brutal. It hasn’t unleashed its might yet and I am scared that it will.”

In many revolutions, it is when the military switches sides, abandoning their loyalty to the leaders under pressure from the people that real change happens. Indeed, some experts have speculated that change will only come to Iran when that happens. However, there are good reasons to think that may not happen.

Iran’s regular armed forces number around 420,000 plus another 300,000 or so who are reservists who can be called up.

What is perhaps stopping them from switching their loyalty is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, set up by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.

“You have 100,000 to 150,000 soldiers who are the Revolutionary Guard,” says Navai. “It was set up to ensure loyalty to the Supreme Leader and the state and act as a counter-balance to monitor the ordinary forces. These Revolutionary Guardsmen are better trained, far better equipped and are far more loyal – they are ideologically motivated and answer directly to the Supreme Leader. It will be a big turning point if the army turns, however I think that could also result in a bloodbath.”

There are also the Iranian regime’s allies beyond the country’s borders – the Shia militia in Iraq and Hezbollah.

What is clear from Navai’s City of Lies is the widespread hypocrisy of the Iranian regime. It tells stories of clerics using prostitutes and the ubiquity of porn.

“This is one of many reasons that Iranians have had enough,” says Navai. “The regime is not only corrupt politically, it is corrupt morally. While the state enforces laws that govern its citizens’ most intimate affairs meanwhile people in power do as they please. You have people in power whose children are partying in Iran and across the world, doing drugs, wearing whatever they want and having normal sexual relations that are not allowed under the regime. It is this hypocrisy that people are finally fed up with.”

Who is 2022’s Tyrant of the Year?

At the end of every year, Index on Censorship launches a campaign to focus attention on human rights defenders, dissidents, artists and journalists who have been in the news headlines because their freedom of expression has been suppressed during the past twelve months. As well as this we focus on the authoritarian leaders who have been silencing their opponents.

Last year, we asked for your help in identifying 2021’s Tyrant of the Year and you responded in your thousands. The 2021 winner, way ahead of a crowded field, was Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, followed by China’s Xi Jinping and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad .

The polls are now open for the title of 2022 Tyrant of the Year and we are focusing on 12 leaders from around the globe who have done more during the past 12 months than other despots to win this dubious accolade.

Click on those in our rogues’ gallery below to find out why the Index on Censorship team believe each one should be named Tyrant of the Year and then click on the form at the bottom of those pages to cast your vote. The closing date is Monday 9 January 2023.





Tyrant of the year 2022: Ali Khamenei, Iran

If you were in the Iranian capital Tehran on Friday 23 September, you would be forgiven for thinking that Ali Khamenei was a popular and misunderstood leader. That day, thousands of Iranians marched through the city waving Iranian flags and holding high photos of Khamenei and his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

“This is a classic from the authoritarian playbook,” says Index’s associate editor Mark Frary. “How often do you see such pro-government rallies in truly free countries? You have to wonder what pressure they bring to bear on the people present to agree to take part in events which are clearly designed to drown out true protests.”

The September rallies were a largely unsuccessful attempt, at least outside Iran, to distract attention from widespread protests in the country following the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, detained by Iran’s notorious Gasht-e Ershad

“These so-called ‘morality police’  uphold respect for Islamic morals, including detaining women who they see as being improperly dressed, such as wearing revealing or tight-fitting clothing or not wearing the required hijab,” says Frary.

Since then the country has been wracked by protests, which have been violently subdued. Oslo-based NGO Iran Human Rights say that a minimum of 448 people, including 60 children, have been killed in the protests. Many of those paying the ultimate price for protest have been women.

The Iranian authorities have been trying to keep a lid on the news by shutting down the internet in the country. Iran’s parliament has also been working on a draft bill that seeks to impose further restrictions on internet access for people in Iran, including criminalising the use of virtual private networks.

Iran: Rouhani’s insistence on faster internet has staying power

(Image: Meysam Mim/Demotix)

(Image: Meysam Mim/Demotix)

President Hassan Rouhani is fond of rhetorical flourishes that promise Iranians freer access to virtually all forms of information, from satellite television to uncensored books to a less tightly-regulated press. While in all of the aforementioned areas his policies have failed, or failed to exert themselves, there is one domain where the Rouhani government has pushed forward seriously: securing Iranians better and faster internet connections, including mobile internet that would enable them to properly use the smartphones they buy with such enthusiasm.

In remarks to a group of clerics on Monday, Rouhani presented the internet as crucial to the nation’s progress in both science and academic research, areas that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has also identified as paramount to Iran’s development. “We cannot cannot close the gates of the world to our younger generation,” Rouhani said.

He warned that if Iran refuses to tolerate the technological needs of a savvy young generation now, “we will have to do it tomorrow. If not, the day after tomorrow.”

Though Rouhani has backtracked on a number of cultural reforms in the face of fierce hardline opposition, he has been steadfast in backing his internet ideals with hard policies. In the past two weeks, the government has granted 3G and 4G licenses to the country’s two main mobile operators, and has in recent months also permitted internet providers to increase bandwidth on home connections.

One reason why the president has been more willing to back the provision of higher speed internet is that so far, it has come at a more reasonable political price. Because service providers still implement government filters, the state censorship regime that prevents Iranians from accessing websites deemed “immoral” — everything from Facebook to many Persian news sites — will remain in place. While faster connections do mean that Iranians can more nimbly use proxy servers to get around the state filters, the speeds are still slow by developed world standards, requiring great patience from those wishing to use the internet to its full capacity. But 3G and mobile internet remain issues highly contested by hardliners made nervous by the challenges of filtering mobile devices.

Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makaram Shirazi last week issued a fatwa declaring high-speed and mobile internet haram, later comparing mobile internet to “muddy water” that requires filtering. Rouhani has sought to bypass these concerns by making the case for the internet’s importance as a research tool for scientific progress. As Rouhani joked in an 30 August press conference, the speeds that the country’s clerics are advocating are slow enough to make someone waiting to download an article fall asleep.

This framing of the issue is a canny approach, for it challenge Khamenei to back up his ardent support for Iranian scientific empowerment with policies that might otherwise make him uncomfortable. This past July at a meeting with university professors, Khamenei praised the work of the country’s “scientific movement”, saying that it “has achieved great objectives and become recognised on the international scene”.

By linking the objectives most dear to Khamenei to his own objective of pulling Iran out of the internet dark age, Rouhani is carving out a political space where his goals are seen to overlap with those of the supreme leader.

When the Committee for Determining Criminal Web Content sought to block access to the popular mobile messaging tool WhatsApp, Rouhani intervened. While this certainly endeared him to young Iranians who used the messaging service widely, Rouhani also risked riling the National Telecommunications Company, which is losing revenue as Iranians turn to cheaper foreign alternatives for messaging.

In the battle over control of the internet, there are multiple institutions across political factions vying for a role, with the competing financial interests of various mobile, 3G and telecoms providers underlaying the fray. But what’s clear is that Rouhani has chosen the internet as one of the rare areas where he will back rhetoric with clear policy.

This article was published on 4 Sept, 2014 at indexoncensorship.org