‘I could visit Iran, but I wouldn’t get out alive’
Raha Heshmatikhah and Pooyan Tamimi Arab about the situation in Iran
In 2009 there were major protests in Iran. And again in 2017 and 2019 Iranians rebelled against Ali Khamenei's regime. But never before have the protests been as massive and outspoken as those of recent weeks, and never has there been so much international attention. How do Raha Heshmatikhah, a Master's student in Clinical Psychology and Pooyan Tamimi Arab, an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies – UU community members with Iranian roots – look at the situation in Iran?
I feel so much solidarity with the people there. If they dare to stand up, then surely, as a Dutch citizen, I should also take responsibility and do everything I can. And that is exactly what Raha does. In recent weeks she didn’t get much sleep. She follows the news non-stop, travels from meeting to demonstration and from The Hague to Strasbourg. Her Master has been on the back burner as a result.
My priorities lie elsewhere at the moment. If that delays my studies, so be it. At this point I simply cannot stand by and do nothing.
The fighting spirit was instilled in Raha from an early age. As a young woman, her mother was imprisoned in Iran for speaking up against the regime. When she was in her mid-20s, she saw an opportunity to flee to the Netherlands.
I was captivated by my mother's stories and her activism and also became active as a result.
Green protest movement
Pooyan's mother fled Iran as well - his father had already died.
When we arrived in the Netherlands, I started in year three at primary school. And my mother went to university: anthropology and gender studies. Laughs:
So an Iranian feminist. With friends she visited public protests and took me along early on. Then, for instance, I saw former political prisoners on hunger strike. Such things were 'normal' to me as a child. But other than that, I was not that concerned with what was happening in Iran. Until the green protest movement started in 2009.
Then people like me, who grew up in the West, suddenly came into more contact with young people from Iran who, for instance, studied in Europe or America. To me those were very determining times, as if my past was activated. Because of the green movement, my generation was suddenly politicised; it was an emotional time.
Now that I am a bit older and have seen it so many times, I look at the protests with some more distance. But in my own way I try to do something, among other things, with research. My Tilburg colleague Ammar Maleki and I collected data in Iran several times between 2019 and 2022 by conducting online surveys that ensure anonymity for potentially anxious respondents. These data show that the protests are supported by a very significant part of the population and not, as was always claimed, only by a particular group.
Leading institutes like World Values Survey and Gallup kept coming up with absurd statistics like: '99% of Iranians identify themselves as Muslim'. Ninety-nine per cent! Seriously!? And then no-one starts to think that these figures might not be entirely reliable? The consequence is that when qualitative research shows that Iranians are not that religious at all and that they are against the regime, people wave those figures around and say: ‘No, look, 99%...’. With our data, we can now fortunately refute that.
Of course, sometimes I am also scared. The death of Ali Motamed, an Iranian electrician who was assassinated in front of his house in Almere in 2015, brought it very close to home and made me realise that the regime's clutches also reach Dutch soil. But despite my fears, I have only become more vocal and active since then. I am convinced that I am listed as an activist somewhere in Tehran. But I am the point where I think: so be it, this is just the price I am paying for it then.
I am convinced that I am listed as an activist somewhere in Tehran. But I am the point where I think: so be it, this is just the price I am paying for it then.
We are not safe abroad at all, Pooyan also thinks.
Over the past 40 years, hundreds of people residing outside Iran have been kidnapped or killed by the Islamic regime. They are also trying to blur the line between rational and irrational fear, so you can't properly assess whether you are safe or not.
But the threat also does not stop Pooyan and those around him from speaking out, participating in protests and committing themselves to Iran in other ways.
My wife, Sara Emami, created a drawing that has become a global symbol of the Iranian protests. And - impactful in a different way than the drawing - Ammar and I are now being invited by politicians to talk about our data. We try to show the information behind the figures, because although they are highly reliable, you also have to know how not to read them.
We try to show the information behind the figures, because although they are highly reliable, you also have to know how not to read them.
Furthermore, we are reaching quite a few people thanks to being quoted by the Wall Street Journal and having published an analysis in The Conversation, among other things."
Powerlessness and determination
Visiting Iran isn’t possible. Well, it is possible, but we wouldn’t get out alive, Raha says.
Communicating with family is also almost impossible. Where I check Twitter and other channels every five minutes, the internet in Iran is pretty much gone.
Where I check Twitter and other channels every five minutes, the internet in Iran is pretty much gone.
There are indeed moments of helplessness. You see so many images of people lying dead in the streets and people being beaten up. It is overwhelming. I try to turn that feeling into determination by, among other things, spreading information and urging the government to take action. Over the past 40 years, the West has constantly tried to pursue reconciliation policies with Iran and tried to maintain dialogue. It has led nowhere. Iran has been called out countless times for human rights violations and crimes against humanity, and never to any avail. I think international sanctions are now the only thing left to do.
The fact that there is now more international (media) attention will hopefully help governments to think less about their economies and more about human rights. People like me have been shouting for 20 years that you can't reform the regime. But we were not taken seriously by Western academics and governments. They always kept hoping that one way or another it could work out diplomatically. A lot of energy was put into it, but the regime proved time and time again that it was in vain.
It is heartwarming to see so many showing solidarity with my motherland now. On the other hand, I find it tragic that it has taken so long. I think if people in Iran had felt more seen and supported during previous uprisings, more could have already been achieved.
But I am hopeful for the future. We now see all strata of the population and particularly my generation, so basically Iran's future, going out on the streets. I think they are so incredibly brave. They grew up in such a struggle, have lived in oppression for so long, have never been able to be themselves, have always had to do things in secret...all that is exploding now. They will no longer be messed with.
Pooyan also sees a clear change.
I'm glad the discourse has shifted much more towards regime change. This used to be kind of a dirty word, but now you hear people everywhere saying in all possible ways: we want to get rid of this regime. No more 'let's loosen the Hijab a little', no, they are setting the Hijab on fire!
No more 'let's loosen the Hijab a little', no, they are setting the Hijab on fire!
As to whether Pooyan is as hopeful as Raha, he has to think for a moment.
I think for the short term I am not very hopeful, but I am for the longer term. Every 10, 20 years, people say 'this generation is really different', and indeed it is, but the moment of real turnaround cannot be predicted.
That things are changing is certain. Just imagine: in times of the Islamic revolution, half the population was illiterate. Illiteracy among young people hardly even exists anymore now. And half the population lived in rural areas. Now only a quarter does - in cities, you meet a lot more people who are different from you. Moreover, people are less and less religious. In that respect, I am hopeful. In fact, a new report by The Netherlands Institute for Social Research remarkably shows that Iranians in the Netherlands are the least religious of all.
Raha has an appeal to students:
Read the news, share as much information as possible, sign petitions, come to demonstrations and call on the Dutch government to take hard measures against the regime that is literally massacring its own people. No matter how small you think your contribution is - retweeting something, for example - it already does a lot!
- Event in de Balie on 29 October - both Pooyan and Raha will speak: Tegen de macht: Vrouw, leven vrijheid! - De Balie
- Conference on 8 November: ‘Islam, Gender and Society in Contemporary Iran’
- Article in The Conversation by Pooyan Tamimi Arab and Ammar Maleki