By Shannon Clarke
Photo by Shannon Clarke
A small but attentive group listens as Houri Shaba describes her work as a labour activist in Iran. She is soft-spoken, but her story easily overpowers the echoes of activity from outside the conference room filtering in with the latecomers. She talks of being ignored on the way to her job at a textile factory, ridiculed for being a working woman. She talks of women who received multiple marriage proposals to get them back in the home. And then she describes Fahima Taghadossi, a fellow activist, who was arrested and executed.
“She was just one of them,” Shaba explains. “She was the first one I thought of.”
Fahima Taghadossi was part of a group of women activists Shaba worked with in Iran, women she describes as brave and smart.
The panel discussion, Women and Labour in Iran, is part of a series of lectures hosted and organized by Human Rights in Iran at Ryerson.
I meet the group, assembled on a few couches in Ryerson’s student centre, after a bit of searching. At one point, we have to talk over singing from somewhere in the centre. Less than a year old, the group doesn’t have an office or designated meeting place. Each of the panel members keeps some of the group’s paraphernalia at their houses and personal spaces, and keeps the group members in the loop through Facebook, email and Twitter.
“We do what we can with what we can,” says executive Cassandra Thompson, a third-year sociology student.
The group was formed last spring, by director Azar Masoumi and a few friends, after the elections in Iran in 2009.
“I realized that young people wanted to express their views,” she says. “They wanted a space to talk about issues.”
Although Ryerson already has the Iranian Students Association, they prefer not to take any political sides in order to reach as many Iranian students as possible.
“Most human rights issues are political,” says Masoumi.
So, after gathering the required 50 signatures and organizing an email list, they started talking and planning. Their first event, on queers in Iran, brought no less than 30 people. Part panel, part orientation, their email list grew. Each week they meet, first discussing the issues themselves, then brainstorming ways to raise awareness on campus and in the community on issues that need attention.
“We usually focus on minority groups, so women come to mind,” says member Sepideh Dibadin.
The next panel this month will discuss sex workers in Iran. The goal is to present sex work as a legitimate business and not necessarily the oppressive work of victims, and to connect the rights of women with the rights of sex workers.
Their events are often attended by people with some connection to the Iranian community and come with some background knowledge of the issues at hand. At the Women and Labour panel, the questions and comments are so in depth and inquisitive, the group has to cut the Q&A short. But that is not the expectation. HRIR has collaborated with groups at the University of Toronto and York University but, explains Tayaz Fakhri, they try to distinguish themselves as a more inclusive group. Many of the events at U of T and York are held in Farsi. HRIR is also unique in that Thompson, an active member and executive, is not of Iranian background.
“We’re very lucky to have her,” says Fakhri, who is also managing editor of Persepolis, the only Iranian student newspaper in Toronto. Masoumi and fellow sociology student Sarah Serajelahi both contribute.
With the end of the semester only months away, HRIR is hoping to attract new members. The group is only in its infancy, with many of its current members in their third or final years. HRIR stresses the inclusion of people of all races, religions, backgrounds, political beliefs and knowledge.
“None of us are experts,” says Serajelahi “We just care about human rights.”