Ryma Sheermohammadi

Defending women’s rights and the rights of migrants and refugees.

Ryma Sheermohammadi’s parents are Iranian, but she was born in Saudi Arabia. She and her family moved to Spain 30 years ago, where Sheermohammadi has grown her career as a translator and interpreter. Although she has not lived in her parents’ home country, the activist has traveled on several occasions. “Before the revolution we went[a l’Iran] to Iran two or three times a year, but after the ayatollahs took power, I was only able to return once,” she explains. What unites her to her country, apart from family ties, is her work as a translator. Sheermohammadi translates from and into Persian and works on European projects on Iranian activism. In the early 1990s he was living in the Czech Republic, where he had the opportunity to meet and work with Iranian activists based there. “I was very young, but gradually I consolidated my interests and my career as an activist.” In 2004, she began working with Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights lawyer and defender who received the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. Ebadi is the first Iranian and Muslim woman to receive this award and is well noted for her struggle in defence of women’s and children’s rights.

From Barcelona, Ryma Sheermohammadi has long been working to defend the rights of Iranian women, to expand her voice and to strengthen the ties of collective struggle for freedom.

The Death of Mahsa Amini and the protests

In recent months, Iran has seen a wave of massive protests calling for the defence of human rights, and more specifically respect for women’s rights. They are the most crowded protests in the Persian country since the popular uprising in 2009 against the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was accused of electoral fraud. At the time, these protests were called the “Green Revolution”.

Now, the civil disobedience that has taken over the streets of Iran has to do with the alleged murder by the ‘morality police’ of the young woman Mahsa Amini. On 16 September 2022, 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian Mahsa Amini was arrested for not wearing the veil properly and taken to a police station to ‘re-educate’ her. While the security forces affirm that the young woman died from a heart attack—although the family at the time denied that she suffered any health problems—everything points out that it was the beating by the police authorities that caused the death of the young woman.

Mahsa Amini’s death sparked protests across the country. The popular uprising in defence of women’s rights, which lasted several weeks and had the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom” was harshly suppressed by the authorities. According to Iran Human Watch, an estimated 500 people were killed in these protests and between 15,000 and 17,000 were arbitrarily arrested. The figures do not end here. According to the same NGO, since 2023, 145 people have been executed in the Persian country.

1979, before and after

In order to understand the context of these demonstrations and also to understand the current state of the country, one has to go back to February 1979, when a series of protests brought down the regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi, at that time considered by the population to be a puppet government of the United States. A few weeks later, and after it had been voted in a referendum, Iran became an Islamic Republic. With the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in charge, a theocracy was established and the social rights acquired by women were dismantled. As Iranian political scientist, translator and writer Nazanin Armanian writes: “Khomeini’s first measure upon arriving from Paris [on fins a aquell moment vivia exiliat] was the repeal of the Family Protection Act, to recover the 1930s Sharia law [la llei islàmica] and declare the binding of the uniforming veil in order to eliminate particular identities and create a society in the image of the Islamic tribes of the 7th century Arabian peninsula.” Nazanín Armanian has lived in exile in Spain since 1983.

When the ayatollahs came to power, it was not only women who saw their rights and freedoms curtailed, but also other ethnic minorities, political dissidents (such as communists) and various groups, such as LGTBIQ, among others. Today, Iranian LGTBIQ people continue to face “systemic discrimination and violence. Consensual same-sex sexual relations continue to be criminalised with penalties ranging from flogging to the death penalty, and ‘conversion therapies’ continue to predominate,” reads Amnesty International’s report.

Repression by the regime against the population that shows any kind of dissent has been present in the life of the country since 1979 and has increased when there have been periods of protests, such as those that took place in 2019-2020 or 2021-2022, the latter caused by water shortages, power cuts and rising fuel prices. The various measures of the international community, such as the sanctions packages imposed by different countries, have had little effect on the Iranian regime, but have had devastating effects on the population, which has been living in a serious economic crisis for years.

A recent turning point in the history of the Persian country came in 2015, when the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and the European Union reached an agreement with Iran to halt the uranium enrichment programme. The nuclear agreement, led by the then President of the United States, Barack Obama, led to the lifting of sanctions. The agreement saw an end in May 2018, when Donald Trump decided to break the pact and reinstate the sanctions system. Work is currently underway to re-establish the agreement.

In the field of international relations, one of the Persian country’s latest moves has been the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, thanks to China’s mediation and support for Russia in the war with Ukraine, which began in February 2021.

Interview with Ryma Sheermohammadi

You often mention Táhirih Qurrat al-‘Ayn, the first woman to remove her veil and take part in poetry recitals. The mullahs murdered her in 1852. “You may kill me, but you cannot stop the process of women’s emancipation,” she said.

I find her figure very inspiring. Táhirih’s death marks a before and after in Iranian history. She was a well-known poet and scholar in her time. Many people visited her to ask her religious questions. She advocated that social principles should change as the times change. She was arrested not only for removing her veil. She was considered a threat and spent some years under house arrest. At the time she was killed she said this sentence: ‘You may kill me, but you cannot stop the process of women’s emancipation’. . I find it very inspiring and it foreshadows the times we are living in today.

How and why does the assassination of Mahsa Amini mark a turning point?

It certainly marks a turning point. Up to that point, the people behind any kind of protest or campaign were human rights activists and those fighting for women’s rights, but with the assassination of Mahsa Amini the whole of Iranian society has woken up, and both men and women are demonstrating. They are showing their outrage at what has happened. In Iran, moreover, there is a generation of teenagers who are taking to the streets. They are 15 and 16 years old, and they are fighting for their rights. The slogan behind the protests is beautiful and universal: women, life and freedom. Who can’t agree with this? It is a motto that transcends borders, a global movement.

What do you think is needed for truly transformative change in Iran?

These protests are important. Until recently, groups demonstrated on their own, indifferent to the suffering of other collectives and other groups. What is different about the movement now and what makes it so powerful is the fact that it is a majority movement. People have become aware and different collectives have come together. What is happening in Iran is unstoppable and there is no way to stop it The arbitrary arrests, the torture, the convictions…. There is no way to hide it. I have a lot of hope in the future and in the fall of the regime, as happened with apartheid in South Africa or colonialism in India. But these are slow processes, I know.

You are the translator of Mahvash Sabet, a psychologist, poet and writer who is currently imprisoned. She is part of the Bahá’í community.

Mahvash Sábet has different ingredients for being targeted by the regime. She is a steadfast and steadfast woman, honest with herself and her beliefs. This is something dictatorships do not like. In addition, she believes in the importance of education and training of people so that they can become economically independent. Mahvash loved and loves teaching and has continued this work inside prison, where she teaches practically illiterate women to read and write. She is an example of self-improvement and resilience. An inspiration. In fact, as part of a project, I have had the opportunity to work on her work with groups of prisoners in the Wad-Rass[Centre penitenciari de dones]and Quatre Camins prisons. I have worked on Mahvash’s story and his poetry with the inmates.

What was it like?

Fascinating and very exciting. They have written letters to her and a link has been established with her poetry. The end result has been a beautiful short film in which the inmates talk about her and her work.

Culture as an essential tool for creating links between peoples and cultures. As a tool to get to know and understand other realities.

Cultural work must be nourished by principles and values, which are those that have to do with the human condition. In this sense, culture is a showcase for the essence of the human being and for what really matters. When a Catalan reads a poem by Mahvash and it is explained to him or her what is behind the verses, he or she connects with the essence of that person. When this happens, it is when culture unfolds all its transformative power and acts as a balm for the wounds we all have. This is how the reality of human beings is transformed.

She has always been very much against countries negotiating with Iran, specifically against rebuilding the nuclear deal that was broken in 2018 with Donald Trump’s rise to power.

to power. I think that Western countries have a double standard: they talk about democracy and human rights, but when a society, especially in the Middle East, seeks its freedom and fights for its rights, they tend to look the other way. In particular, they look to the side of contracts and the stability of dictatorships. Sometimes they even protect them, in their own way. The citizens of these countries of the world are not looking for any other country to protect them or to intervene. What I see is that, with regard to what is happening in Iran, there is silence in the societies here. Just look at the attitude of the Iranian ambassador during the reception of the Spanish monarchy [the Iranian ambassador to Spain refused to shake hands with Letizia during a reception at the Royal Palace, which generated a lot of controversy]. Those of us who are activists have the obligation to explain to the public that no, this[l’actitud de l’ambaixador] is not cultural. We have been sold and we have accepted that contempt for women is a cultural issue and it is not. In Iran the rights of half the population are being violated: women are treated as second and third class citizens. If they want to travel, if they want to study or do anything, they need the consent of a man, through a system of guardianship. Someone has decided that this is cultural, and no, it is not. Cultures should be respected as long as they respect human rights.

For now, you cannot go back to Iran.

I am an optimist and it has to do with my view of history. have the feeling that we are witnessing the disintegration of a process. It will be slow, but I have no doubt that I will be able to go back. I believe in human beings and there are many people whose activism and struggle make change possible.

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