Duality of Identity: Roxana Saberi on Iranian Society

3575093555_1ce34cca43The Ath was packed this Wednesday as Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi gave a presentation titled “On the Streets of Tehran.”  Saberi had been living and reporting in Iran for the past six years, but in January of this year was arrested on espionage charges and placed in solitary confinement with an eight-year prison sentence. She did not have access to a lawyer and the legal process was disregarded until international protests and governmental involvement led to her eventual release. While acknowledging the magnitude of her own experience, Saberi also made it clear that many other journalists continue to be imprisoned; Iran is currently the world’s fourth-worst offender in this regard. On civilian journalism... Saberi recognized the impact of civilian journalism, citing the example of Neda Agha Sultan, the woman whose murder was recorded by a bystander and widely publicized, especially on YouTube. “Civilian journalism does not replace professional journalism, but can complement it,” Saberi said.

On youth... Saberi provided insight into the lives of Iranian youth, speaking of the young people who participated in political demonstrations, as well as those who expressed their feelings in other ways, including music. She shared a song titled “In Iran” by an Iranian rock band headed by a young man named Ashkon who was arrested for putting on a show without a permit, which Saberi asserted the authorities saw as “cultural invasion.”

Ashkon’s motivation behind the song, relayed by Saberi, provided a vivid glimpse into the concerns of Iranian youth. He spoke of youth taking their beliefs to the streets “at any price.” “But what about their lives? What about their futures? I sang this song because Iranians just need peace. Why doesn’t anyone ask, ‘Is Iran at peace?’ instead of asking ‘Is Iran making nuclear weapons?’”

On women... Saberi described Iranian women’s significant involvement in the political process, ranging from campaigning and voting to protesting, where they outnumbered the men at times. Saberi displayed a clip from a 2006 news report she had done about women in Iran. Through the clip and a series of photographs, female firefighters, police officers, and taxi drivers were introduced, showing that there is some progress being made despite the restriction of women’s rights in Iran. Opinions from Iranians on both sides of the issue were shared, including from one woman who stated, “If the woman wants to go to work, the family will have many problems.”

On children... Saberi spoke with some young girls at a Kurdish school, who want to be teachers, doctors, or police officers when they grow up. She also described the confusion that children face  with the incongruity between public and private lives, giving the example of a child being taught to hide parents’ "sins" when in public to avoid their suffering punishment or shame.

On identity... Saberi touched on the “duality, or multiplicity, of identity” in Iran. Fear of punishment by the authorities causes many Iranians to live very differently in public than in private. The resulting discrepancy between what is said in public and what is done in private can cause a lot of confusion and identity struggles.

The bottom line... The range of attitudes and beliefs Saberi encountered reveal that Iranians are a very ideologically diverse group, making the social and political situation highly complex. When asked whether a secular government, as opposed to a theocracy, is necessary for stability in Iran, Saberi asserted that she wants what the Iranians want, although there is no reliable way to determine what that actually is, nor is it likely that all the citizens desire the same thing. The speech provided a moving insight into a country whose people we would do well to understand.