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"I wanted to fly away"

Alham Abrahimnejad was born in the Northern Iranian city of Rasht in 1980, one year after the Islamic Republic was founded. Under the Iranian constitution the family takes precedence over the rights of individual women. Women are also discriminated against in several areas of the law - their testimonies are less valid in court, for example. Alham Abrahimnejad was an active women's right activist in Iran for which she was frequently beaten and thrown into prison. Two years ago she escaped to Germany. Her application for asylum in Germany was rejected by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. She has filed an appeal.

In 2008 the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees decided on over 874 asylum applications from Iranian citizens. Only 31 were recognised as political refugees. A further 293 men and women were granted protection against deportation. A total of 550 applications were rejected or broken off for other reasons. Until this year the number of applications for asylum had remained stable. In the first months of 2009 a higher percentage of applications were approved than in 2008. The Migrations Office explains this rise as a result of the increased pressures by Iran's government on people who reject Islam.

taz: Ms Abrahimnejad, would you like to be in Iran now?

Alham Abrahimnejad
: Of course. But I'd be thrown into prison immediately. They'd arrest me at the airport. I was a political activist in Iran. I have stood trial on several occasions. In Germany I asked for asylum. The regime in Iran has been holding the population captive for 30 years. It is like an animal which sucks the blood of the people. I want to fight. But I don't know how. Now I think that I can do more in Berlin. We can demonstrate, we can tell the world that there are no human rights in Iran and that women are worth nothing there.

The elections in Iran took place four weeks ago. Have you heard any news since?

All I know is that my ex-husband is in prison. I have heard nothing from my family for 14 days. The last time we talked on the phone my mother couldn't stop crying and saying: We are okay, okay, ciao, ciao.

And contact with your friends?

In the last email I got, a girlfriend of mine wrote: Alham, we are going out now, but we don't know if we will come back. We don't know if we will see you again. I don't know if they came back. So many of them were arrested or wounded. That's the terrible part, not knowing.

What political campaigns were you involved in in Iran?

Just showing your hair is a form of protest. You can be arrested for doing so. But my friends and I made demands for freedom in public. When women stand up in public and say they want the same rights as men, it is a major protest. You have to be hugely courageous because you will go to jail immediately. Once we women went and sat outside the supreme court, this is an Islamic court. We did not say anything. We just had our banners with us which said: "Female students are not politicians. We want freedom of opinion." The police turned up immediately, they started beating us and arrested some of us.

Are a lot of women politically active?

No matter how many there are, all women profit from those who have the courage to take action. We campaigned a lot for women's rights at the university. In spite of all the repression. The university was closely monitored. Once a female guard cut off my hair with garden shears. My hair was very long but it was covered with a head scarf. I thought a friend was pulling my hair. But no, it was a guard. Why are you doing that? I'm wearing a headscarf, I said. There are female guards at every entrance to the university. They give you cotton wool to wipe your face. Women wearing make-up or men with gel in their hair cannot enter the seminar room. It's such a lot of shit. I just want to be free.

Are you not free here?

I've been in Berlin for two years. I can talk and say what I like here. But as an asylum seeker, again I have no status. In Iran, as a woman I am not a human being. And in Germany, as an asylum seeker I'm not a human being. I am not allowed to leave Berlin. I am not allowed to work or go to university. I have no passport. They rejected my application for asylum.


I don't think they believed me at the asylum office. They said: Why did you protest? If you had not protested you wouldn't have problems now. When German civil servants say this, then they are asking me, as a woman in Iran, to forgo human rights.

Could you be sent home soon?

I'm really scared that this could happen. Just look at my life in Iran. I studied at the university. Once we were celebrating a birthday party with everyone in the class. The Hezbollah police stormed the party and arrested us all.


Because we were men and women.

Was the party in a public place?

It was in a private flat. The police arrested us. We were sentenced to a fine, 90 lashes and six months and one day in prison. Had it just been six months we could have bought ourselves out. But that's not possible if the sentence is six months and a day. They told me I could avoid going to prison if I married the boy whose birthday we were celebrating. It was us two that had tried to resist the police. So I got married. I had such romantic dreams. I had always wanted a big wedding with a man I love. But we were married in court. I was not wearing a white dress but a black chador.

Were you married long?

Nine days after my wedding I filed for divorce and we got divorced three years later. I got pregnant once but lost my child in prison.

Were you in prison often?

Yes often. Sometimes for two, sometimes three days, or a week. Once I was four months pregnant. We had launched a campaign in the university for women's rights. I was beaten in prison and they did worse things to me, things I cannot speak about, then I started bleeding and lost my child.

Where did you find the courage to keep on protesting for women's rights?

I've always been like that. As a child I used to protest when I thought something was wrong. I demonstrated for women's rights. Also for gay rights. My brother is gay. He has lived in the Netherlands for the past 9 years. I have lots of lesbian friends in Iran. They have nothing but problems.

Are there lots of homosexuals in Iran?

I'm sure there are, yes. I used to play handball. There were two women in my team who were lovers. One had a sex change and married the other woman. She didn't want to become a man but she had to.

I find that hard to believe.

Why don't you believe me? It's true. Someone probably wanted to find a solution for the two women. But the solution is all lies and brutality. A woman is only allowed to love a man. And she has to be married. And now the man, who used to be a woman, has the say over the other woman. That's the way it is. [The Iranian state permits sex changes and even helps to finance them – taz.]

Sex changes are allowed but homosexuality is forbidden.

In Iran homosexuality is punishable with death. Gays are hung. Lesbian woman are stoned. The Iranian papers say that stoning no longer happens. But it's not true.

Have you witnessed a stoning?

When I was much younger. I was with my mother in the graveyard. Suddenly I saw a woman, buried up to her neck. I asked my mother what was going on. She pulled me away immediately. But I saw it. I saw the Mullah throwing a huge stone at the woman's head. I saw it and I couldn't breathe.

Have you seen an execution?
Once, when I was on holiday in Northern Iran. There was a gathering of people. I wondered what was happening. It was an execution. Why are you watching this, I said. I used to know a woman called Delara Darabi, she lived next door to my parents in Rasht. She was executed in May. She had been in prison for six years for allegedly killing someone when she was 17 – she didn't do it.

You were born in the city of Rasht, near the Caspian Sea. How were you raised?

Free thinking was allowed in my family. My parents had been to university. I have always known that using your brains helps you to to understand what's going on in the world. My parents are the best and my brothers are great. When I left my father's home to get married, that's when the problems started.

Did you love your husband?

In a way, yes. But I had problems with his family from the outset. It's your fault, they said. You're a trouble-maker. My husband was also politically active, but they blamed me for everything. We were so young. He was 18, I was 20 when we had to get married.

Were you able to finish your studies, even though you were married?

Yes. I studied something like accounting at an academic level. There's no equivalent here. I have now signed up for secondary school in Berlin and hope that I can now join the 10th grade (14-15 year-olds). After six years at university, I am now in 10th grade. I am not allowed to study here because I still waiting to hear if I have won my appeal. But I want to improve my language skills. That's why I'm going to school.

Your generation grew up in with the Islamic Republic. Are there lots of people like you who are sick of the regime?

Lots of people think like me. We just can't express our opinions. But my cousins in the US can. They can do what they want. They can run around without headscarves. They can hang out with boys. They can wear bikinis in the sea. None of this is allowed in Iran. In Iran girls can only go out without a headscarf up to the age of 9. In school they have to wear headscarves from the age of seven. I also worked as a teacher. My class was girls only. I allowed them to remove their scarves in the privacy of the classroom. But the director came along and put a stop to it. I said to her that these were seven-year-old children. The director - it was a woman - said: The men outside could see in. So I handed in my resignation.

Private and public life are not compatible in Iran. With your family abroad and the Internet, would you say that you also have a virtual life as well?

All these different lives make me crazy. Where can I live? I can't live in Iran. I can't live in Germany. I can't live in the Internet. What can I do? Can I continue living my wonderful childhood? Can I continue living my political life? Who am I? Half of me is in Iran. My arm in is in the Netherlands with my older brother. My thoughts are with my friends, my ex-husband. And my head is here in Berlin with my younger brother.

Your little brother lives in Berlin?

He has been living with me for seven months now. He's homosexual. His asylum application was accepted after just three weeks. Homosexuality is a recognised reason to flee your country. But being a women's rights campaigner who is subjected to repression, is not considered sufficient grounds for leaving. I consider this undemocratic. In Iran women are fighting for their dignity. And we are thrown into prison for doing this, and we are beaten. Women are punished for everything: for smoking a cigarette, for wearing sandals, for riding a bicycle, for tucking trouser legs inside boots in the winter, for walking hand in hand with a man who is not your husband. We are always being punished. Either that or we have to bribe the police to leave us alone.

Are there many Iranian refugees who are as young as you?

There are lots. But not as many as 30 years ago, when the Mullahs came into power. Back then Germany was generous with asylum. In those days people who fled the country had been fighting for a political ideology. But we, we are fighting for a civil society which respects people. And refugees today have to pay so much money to the people who get you out. Around 10,000 euros.

Do you believe that your application for asylum was rejected because they are not taking you seriously?

No, because they do not take women's rights seriously. I don't think that they count my political activism as political activism. The woman at the asylum office asked me: Why did you come to Germany, Iran is so beautiful? I said: Do you think I would choose to come to a place where I can't work, where I can't study, where I have to sit at home like an old woman? In Iran I had a job, I had a car, a flat. At the asylum office they then asked me: Why weren't you involved in dangerous work in Iran? I said: I'm not a terrorist. They said: You have to have been involved in dangerous political work in Iran before you are eligible for a passport. Can Neda, the woman who was shot three weeks ago in Iran because she was on the streets protesting, is she now eligible for a German passport? Neda was also fighting for women's rights. We have so many Nedas in Iran.

When the elections started in Iran, were you aware that this would trigger a protest movement?

We'd been waiting for a day like this. For 30 years the people have wanted to do something against the regime. But they couldn't. There was too much repression. Then suddenly they were all there with green bands around their arms, on their heads or green T-shirts. I say: Green is not our soul but we can use it to say that we want things to be different.

What is the soul of the protest movement?

Democracy. We want equal rights for all people and democracy. If you have both these things, you can have everything.

What does democracy mean to you?

I want to be able to live what I am. I want to be able to say what I want to say. I don't want to fear saying something. I want everyone to be able to speak freely. In the newspapers too. As a child I wanted to become a pilot. I wanted to fly. Fly away. Fly away from the place where people are not free.

You wanted to fly away, but where will you land?

I write poetry. But now in Germany my poetry has become heavy. One of the last poems I wrote goes something like this: I seek a land without lies. I seek a land without fear. I seek a land where blood is not the currency. I seek a land of freedom. I seek.

And the last poem you wrote?

It was not a political poem, it was a poem about love.


This article originally appeared in German in the Tageszeitung on 11 July, 2009.

Waltraud Schwab
is a reporter for the Tageszeitung.

Translation: lp

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