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Portraits of exile: Feminista group's ongoing struggle for justice in Iran

Written by Maryam Mirza

This story is part of a series that delves into the experiences of Iranian women in the diaspora as they pursue freedom and showcase their resilience. The story comes as a commemoration of the tragic passing of Mahsa Jina Amini, a Kurdish woman who lost her life at the age of 22 at the hands of the morality police for not fully covering her hair. This incident ignited widespread protests in Iran, which persist to this day despite escalating government oppression.

Maryam Bahrami (left) and Setayesh Hadizadeh (right) from the Feminista group in a cafe in Berlin. February 2023. Photo by Feminista

At the beginning of the protests in Iran in 2022, a group of young Iranians from Berlin, with different life experiences but all influenced by the courage of Iranians in Iran, formed a group called Feminista, which means “the feminists” in Farsi. This group demanded the expulsion of Iran’s ambassador from Germany, a reduction in Germany’s diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic, and the suspension of any negotiations, either public or behind closed doors, including the nuclear agreement. They held a round-the-clock sit-in in the fall of 2022 in front of the office of the German Green Party in the Mitte district of Berlin.

The Feminista activists had experienced sleeping in the snow and sub-zero temperatures during their 80-day sit-in that ended in December 2022. Photo by Feminista, used with permission.

The first time I met them, in October 2022, the weather was not yet frigid. However, when Feminista ended its sit-in in late December 2022, its activists had experienced sleeping in the snow and sub-zero temperatures, with very little in the way of facilities. In January 2023, I sat down with Maryam Bahrami and Setayesh Hadizadeh, two activists from Feminista, in a cafe and talked about their 80-day political sit-in.

Forty-year-old Maryam explained that, in 2013, following the disappointments of the Green Movement (a protest movement in Iran that was formed with the slogan “Where is my vote?” in 2009), she and her husband initially moved to Malaysia. In 2015, they entered Germany with job search visas, and, since both were working in the IT field, they quickly found jobs and stayed.

In 2017, Maryam returned to Iran for the first time in four years. It was then that she decided never to go back there again because of what she described as “humiliating behavior against women.” She recounted an incident at Tehran airport, “When I entered Tehran airport, the officer who was supposed to check my passport told me to take a step back. He got up, checked my outfit, and said, ‘Okay, your clothes are fine, you can enter.'”

Yet the decision to stay away from Iran did not impact her determination to stand by the people of Iran. She said, “When I read the news of Mahsa Jina Amini’s death, I immediately wanted to do something to amplify the voice of the people of Iran.”

On the other hand, Setayesh Hadizadeh, 28, came to Germany in 2016 to study energy and process engineering. She shared: “We heard the news about the killing of protesters in Iran, and one night while sitting with some of my friends, we discussed what we could do, and that’s how Feminista started.”

The Feminista round-the-clock sit-in in the fall of 2022. Photo by Feminista, used with permission.

Feminista brought Setayesh and Maryam together. They fondly recalled the atmosphere inside the protest camp, where individuals, once strangers, worked together seamlessly despite their varying political affiliations, ages, and careers. The exchange of knowledge and mutual understanding among people with different backgrounds was incredibly valuable in their eyes.

During the sit-in, the Feminista group organized concerts, performances, and various gatherings. Their primary collective demand from the Green Party, to which the German Foreign Minister Analena Berbock, who champions a feminist agenda, remained steadfast: ‘The Iranian government lacks political legitimacy, and the expulsion of the ambassador would serve as the revocation of that legitimacy,’ Maryam asserted. She recalled:

With the empathy and hope that had emerged, we were determined to rid ourselves of the dreadful monster together. The flow of events was so rapid that we hoped that change was about to happen.

Resilience amidst adversity

The hopeful anticipation of an impending and substantial change was overshadowed by a series of devastating events: the harsh crackdown on protesters in Iran, widespread arrests, and the subsequent imposition and execution of death sentences. This onslaught of oppressive actions led to a sobering reevaluation of the situation. Maryam reflected:

Our faith in foreign governments was rapidly fading. It dawned on me that political priorities might not align with fundamental human principles as much as we had hoped.

She also highlighted the extensive infiltration of the lobbies of the Islamic Republic, making it challenging to reveal their deceptive practices.

Setayesh expressed discontent with the German media, stating, “While they readily showcase my tears for the people of Iran, they scarcely cover my well-defined political stance. It seems easier for them to portray a cliché: a distressed woman concerned but unsure of what steps to take.” She also criticized “anti-fascism activists who fear that addressing Iran will invite accusations of Islamophobia, yet they fail to consider the grave impact of rape, torture, and execution on countless lives in Iran.”

Nevertheless, during a chilly evening in Berlin in January 2023, these two activists emphasized that despite the closure of the Feminista protest camp, their primary demand remained unchanged — the expulsion of the Islamic Republic's ambassador. Setayesh said:

This demand remains steadfast; only our approach has evolved. It's crucial to communicate to both Iranians and Germans that expelling the ambassador signifies delegitimizing the Islamic Republic, and their support is crucial. Europe must abandon appeasement policies and recognize that no alliance with the Islamic Republic serves the public interest, neither for the people in Iran, the region, nor the world.

When regret finds no home

People supporting the Feminista sit-in in the fall of 2022. Photo by Feminista, used with permission.

The narrative of the Feminista protest camp extended beyond mere politics; it was an emotionally charged journey for Setayesh and Maryam. Faced with the dilemma of remaining silent outside of Iran to seize the chance to revisit their homeland or speaking up for human rights and consequently forfeiting their ability to return, they opted for the latter, voluntarily embracing membership in the community of Iranians in exile. Maryam said:

It is true that since 2017, I decided not to return home as long as the Islamic Republic exists. But well, I still had the choice to return. There was no fear to prevent me from returning. However, after the 2022 uprising and my activities, that door closed. It's no longer my choice. Something has been imposed upon me. Even if I choose to return, the concern about what I might face there burdens me. I will fight but I wonder why a dictator has so much power to imprison not only the people in the country but also to imprison and inflict harm on those who have left the country.

Amid these challenges, there are no regrets. Setayesh, viewing the exile not as a mere coincidence, remarked, “I made this decision as if it were a duty.” She added, “Naturally, I foresaw the consequences and anticipated difficult days when I would yearn to be in Iran, but I believed it was the best decision, as every small step mattered at the time. It's undoubtedly disheartening, and I sense my family shares this sorrow. Yet, I hold no regrets.”

Second publication by courtesy of Global Voices, CC BY 3.0 DEED


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