2012 United States Winners
Dream Deferred Essay Contest on civil rights in the Middle East


FIRST PLACE: “Libyan Beaches” by Oswa Shafei, age 13, Georgia
A remarkable, unique voice emerges in this essay by a 13 year-old Libyan-American who
despite her youth offers pointed and perceptive observations about the impact of civil rights
repression. With one innocent and unwittingly hilarious question, she cuts through the insanity
of Moammar Gadaffi's four decades of brutal rule. She also exposes and explores her own
attitudes toward Libya as a young American and reveals the process by which she came to
embrace a once alien landscape and society. The maturity of the author's writing and insights
wowed the judging panel.

 

It has been six years since my first trip overseas to Libya. Back when there was no bigger issue
in my life than a lack of lemonade in the fridge, I had never yet been to Libya. I am purely
Libyan, with a mother born in Benghazi and a father hailing from Darnah. Our family’s house
was all very matching, very hot, and very clean. This was as much of the Libyan lifestyle I had
ever experienced: a dislike for disorder and the air conditioner. But my grandmother liked to
stretch out on our couch like a fat, lazy cat, and beckon to me. I had a respect for my elders,
especially older ones, so I bent down and tried to make what I could of her broken English.


“You like Libya? Yes? Libya nice, nice beach!” Every other word, she made a little noise of
agreement; she definitely believed in the words she was saying. And so I nodded my head
and smiled my biggest, crazy smile at her, but I was an evil little runt inside. I thought things
like, ‘Um, no,’ and, ‘I bet people get shot walking down those beaches.’ I never really thought
I’d get all the way to Libya, and thought even less of the possibility that I might like it there.


I was naïve but I was not completely uneducated. I knew that Libya was no joke. It was where I
was from, but it did not want to accept my family; my father had not been to Libya in 31 years,
but that was to say he was much better-off than some of his siblings. In Libya, the Shafei name
was resented by Gadaffi. My uncle, Hussein, spent his golden years, the years he should have
been growing from a young man into an adult, in a small cell. He was subject to mutilation
and witnessed the Abu Salim killings, witnessing things he would later repeat to Samantha
Powers. Another uncle of mine, Amer, fled the country when he was just a teenager, for he was
wanted and Gadaffi had made it clear that what he wanted was his blood that he longed for. My
aunt Sarah was jailed for many months, while pregnant, and endured torture and humiliation
in the Libyan prisons- or, at the time, what I thought were Libyan prisons. See, I had mentally
connected all the evil things Gadaffi was in charge of with the Libyan people. I did not realize
that it was not the good citizens endangering my family. I did not realize that it was not the man
down the street that was keeping me from a nice vacation ‘back home’ with my father. I resented

everything to do with Libya, and I thought I was doing the right thing; I thought I was sticking
up for my family. I did not realize that my family was Libya.


So then when I found myself in the very same wretched airport that graced many ‘worst
runways’ lists, Tripoli International Airport, I was less than pleased. I was also overly dramatic. I
will never forget my first words upon arriving in Libya:

 

I had slept all throughout the plane ride, so my glasses were tucked away safely into my
backpack. I was quite blind. The first sight I saw was a gigantic pop-art portrait of the infamous
Muammar Gadaffi himself. Unfortunately, due to my blindness, I did not recognize it as such;
instead, I believed it to be a common animal, and made my first mistake: I spoke much too loud,
and in English:


“Is that a duck?”


Men with scraggly beards and gelled hair turned to look at me. I panicked. I realized THAT
was Gadaffi, and began to imagine scenarios where he would jail me and set rabid dogs on me,
like they did to my aunt, just for disgracing him so publicly. My mother widened her eyes and
shushed me, but there was no need. I was stiff, pale, and shaking with fear. I did not realize that
they had only looked my way because I’d spoken in English. I did not realize that they most
likely did not even catch what I said. Most importantly of all, I did not realize that there was
widespread hatred for Gadaffi all across Libya, and that the men with the scraggly beards and
gelled hair were not evil themselves.


One thing that always bothered me when I was younger was Libyan marriage; I knew that,
because of Islam, the entire ordeal would be worked out through the families, mostly. This
puzzled me, especially in the case of my own two parents: both my parents and their families
resented The Green Book and the leader that came with it. How was this match paired so
perfectly? What if you married somebody that you hardly knew, whose family you did not
know well, and discovered later that they loved Gadaffi? How could you find out if they were
supporters? Did you casually slip it into conversation? What if they were supporters, and had you
hanged for suggesting it was right to be otherwise?


This entire jumble of questions evaporated within a week of my staying in my grandfather’s
house in Benghazi. Relatives and friends of my parent’s friends and just plain strangers were
coming up to the house to say hello and give us plates of Maghrooth and Ghrayba, delicious
Arabic sweets. My mother would invite them onto the couch, and they would chat and laugh
over many things. I was forced to sit on the couch opposite, with my two sisters, while they
gushed over how smart we must be, from America, and the conversation always quickly spiraled
towards Gadaffi.


I was not fluent in Arabic, but I understood it pretty well. I understood that they were mocking
him, disgracing him, and enjoying themselves while they did so. I stiffened and tried to change

the topic, because the doors to the house were wide open (it was so hot) and anybody could hear,
and the trip would be cut short because we would be killed. Well, we definitely would have been
killed if Gadaffi himself had heard us. But he was not there, he was in Tripoli. This was really
the key moment in my life when I realized: there are really no Gadaffi supporters. How could
you support a guy like him? Everybody knew of his evilness, and many had experienced it
firsthand in situations that made my family’s jailing history seem extremely insignificant. I did
notsee his total lack of support again after that trip until the Arab spring.


I cried the first day that Libya rebelled. There was one Youtube video uploaded, of men running
wildly in brazen but sheep-like flocks. They were scattered everywhere, speaking in harsh
tongues of Arabic, and there were gunshots resounding in the background. I saw man after man
fall to the ground with a grunt. What really got me, though, was the landscape. I recognized that
land! I recognized my homeland, Libya, with its sandy grounds that were mostly just packed
dust and its white stone walls surrounding every house. I recognized the random shrubs that the
men were skinning their knees running past and the small black ants that made perfect line while
walking but were currently being trampled on by the running men. I could not believe that Libya
was finally looking the way I had always imagined it before arriving there; a violent, hopeless
wasteland.


But through the tears, I saw one man. He was just standing there, in the middle of the men
running, standing there and refusing to leave his own land. I saw then that he was not alone; the
men were not running from the gunshots! They were simply backing up, before they too stood
their ground and refused to leave. I did not understand the fight, or the battle just yet, but I was
proud of Libyans. I was excited for what was to come. I was thinking: yes, Libya does have nice
beaches.


SECOND PLACE: “Who Am I to Speak out? by Kimberly Gannon, age 16, Illinois
An American teenager presents an expansive yet realistic vision of a practical solidarity
campaign to assist Iranians resisting the forced imposition of hijab on all women by law. The
author recognizes that activists collaborating across borders need talk to each other as people
and not causes - and that hardest part of solidarity activism in the US may be stepping out of
one’s own comfort zone. She notes that technology can virtually bridge the distance between
peoples and people as well as provide a platform for publicity on human rights abuses, yet she
remains equally focused on real-world activities and physical demonstrations of solidarity.

 

"My name is Kim, and I am fifteen years old. I am a cashier at Goodwill Industries and swim on
a swim team. By law, I am too young to even be a full citizen. Who am I to speak out for civil
rights in the Middle East?"

 

"My name is Neda, and I am twenty-six years old. I read obscure literature and hope to be a
singer someday. By law, I must cover my hair in public to show devotion to my god and country.
Who am I to speak out for civil rights in the Middle East?"

 

"My name is Tom, and I am twenty years old. I am a standup comedian, and my girlfriend and I
run on a cross-country team together. We both attend Michigan State University, where I hope
to become an accountant and she a chemical engineer. Who are we to speak out for civil rights in
the Middle East?"

 

Imagine young Iranians, tired of oppression, organizing a grassroots protest against laws that
force all Iranian women to cover their hair in public. Their main course of action: walking the
streets of Tehran uncovered. They face a certain brutal crackdown for this nonviolent action. So
what can we Americans do to support their brave effort?

 

A true grassroots movement requires simplicity that can reach thousands of people. It requires
the collaboration of people with different ideas and backgrounds behind one message and set
of ethics—both bound by humanity and solidarity. Bridging the cultural gap between a group
of Iranian women practicing civil disobedience and American youth with easy access to civil
rights requires a one-on-one approach through correspondence and genuine understanding. The
amount of personal interaction between American civil rights sympathizers and Middle Eastern
protesters directly correlates to the success an American solidarity movement can procure.

 

To keep the campaign rooted in integrity, it would first need to gather information --which
means direct contact with the movement’s leaders (if any), accounts from the media, any
available government records regarding the charges, the threats, the whereabouts, and any other
extraneous information that may change the story. If any human rights abuses occurred with
police harassment, a solidarity group must document them and has an obligation to incorporate
them into the campaign.

 

After establishing credibility, a group of interested American students would band together
and begin direct one-on-one interaction. Leaders would pair interested American students
with students from the Middle East, and they would begin communicating as directly as
possible—preferably through Skype, Facebook, or other social media—keeping anonymity or
circumventing the use of the Internet altogether if necessary. Initially, these conversations would
be largely apolitical —discussing family, friends, interests, hobbies, and anything that establishes
the commonality between both ends of correspondence. If possible, both parties would exchange
two photographs each—one with and without the head coverings. Such would both ends of the
conflict closer to home—the far-off Iranian women who suffer such illogical abuses and the even
farther-off Americans who can seemingly only go so far to sympathize.

 

With enough momentum, the Americans would symbolically assume the roles of their Iranian
counterparts. Instead of abstaining from the hajab and burqa, however, American women –
including non-Muslims – would spend a “Day of Solidarity” wearing them. In effect, they would

communicate their right to free expression—even defiance. They would cover their heads for
the same reason that the women in Iran chose to expose theirs. As these women go about their
day normally, they would face basic challenges that forced head-coverings may create – heat,
discrimination, loss of identity--and meanwhile their friends, boyfriends, and fellow students
would take notice. Accordingly, this image would symbolize the entire campaign: a woman in a
full-fledged hijab and burqa with the words "Who am I?" printed in block letters below. Through
the campaign, however, the Americans would already understand the humanity of their Middle
Eastern counterparts—and the eventual removal of the head covering will come to symbolize the
power of mutual understanding to enact change.

 

Shortly thereafter, the American correspondents and their supporters would join together on
their “Night of Solidarity” for an all-night candlelight vigil, in which speakers would recount
his/her Iranian personality in a short speech. With the first lines, the speaker would humanize
her. “My name is Saeda, I am twenty-one years old and study journalism at the University of
Tehran. I have two brothers and one younger sister, the latter who wants to grow up and be just
like me. In my spare time, I write music and discuss music theory with friends.” After a slight
pause, if the protester suffered any human rights abuses, the speaker would state them here.
Finally, the speaker would proudly lift off her head covering, exposing her identity to the crowd,
and proclaim “Who am I to speak out for civil rights in the Middle East?” Every second of the
protest would be documented via webcam, and the Iranian protesters would receive a live feed.
The protest would also attract media coverage—and awareness would thus spread even further
throughout both regions.

 

The efficacy of the "Who am I?" movement would extend beyond traditional goals of civil rights
and unity. Its demonstrations could take place anywhere, anytime, practically indiscriminately-
- without political connotation or social strata. Such is the essence of solidarity: In an ever
more interconnected world, we seek an altruistic commitment to each other and collaborative,
tangible means in realizing it. And for those outside the Middle East? Perhaps the "Who am
I?" movement will hit home—giving candid evidence that the Arab Spring is more than simply
abstract mobs fighting for even more abstract principles of civil rights and democracy. For the
first time in a generation, protest can go beyond large gatherings, demonstrations in front of
political summits, or simply chanting “Free Iran” in picket lines in front of the White House;
demonstrators can now appeal directly to the hearts and minds of both whom they stand for and
whom they stand against. Most importantly, however, demonstrators could find their voice in
the crowd—exploring and intensifying their stance on freedom in the face of global need. The
campaign would challenge each of its demonstrators: “Who am I to speak out for civil rights in
the Middle East?” But every grassroots civil rights movement has ultimately and efficaciously
begged the same question: Who are you not to?

 


THIRD PLACE: “Reformer in a Paradoxical Paradise by anonymous, age 22, California

In profiling a dissident from the United Arab Emirates who has spent time in jail simply for
publicly calling for political reforms, the author also captures the "paradoxical paradise" of a
Persian Gulf dictatorship that will soon host branches of the Louvre and New York University.
Having spent time in the UAE herself - and suffered under the regime's stunted legal system -
the essayist (who requested anonymity) notes that the emirate's desire to attract visitors offers
important leverage for activism. A regime craving "international visibility" exposes itself to
pressure by civil rights campaigners seeking greater liberties for citizens as well as for the more
than 80% of UAE residents who comprise the emirate's disenfranchised majority.

 

Ahmed Mansoor is one of the prominent human rights activists in the United Arab Emirates
(UAE) for his work that actively seeks the promotion, protection, and realization of civil and
political rights in his country. In addition to being a member of the Human Rights Watch Middle
East and North Africa Advisory Committee, Mansoor is an online activist via his blog, “Helpless
UAE National” and Twitter. In April 2011, UAE security forces arrested Mansoor on accounts
of breaching the country’s security policy by criticizing officials and involvement in the first
UAE petition that called for, “an elected parliament with legislative powers” (Wall Street
Journal). This report seeks to profile Mansoor’s work, the challenges that passed and have yet to
come, and recommendations for future campaigning while answering the question: What can I
do to support his cause?

 

PROFILE: Ahmed Mansoor’s activism is based around his work with the Human Rights Watch
in the Middle East, especially in his native country: the United Arab Emirates. Through direct,
non-violent action and his publications via HRW reports, his personal blog, and Twitter, the
regional human rights subjects that Mansoor addresses include, but are not limited to freedom of
speech, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, and fair elections.

 

Following the December 2010 Revolution in Tunisia and the ensuing Bahrain Revolution in
February 2011, Mansoor and over 130 other Emirati citizens signed an online petition addressed
to the UAE government that, “called on the UAE president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, to
introduce universal, direct elections for the Federal National Council and to give it legislative
powers” (The Guardian). Currently in the UAE, the rulers of the seven emirates grant, after
careful selection, a group of citizens the power to vote. Within weeks after posting the petition
and sending it to the relevant officials, Mansoor received death threats as well as a work request
to relocate to Pakistan (Mansoor). Little did Ahmed Mansoor know what was yet to come.

 

At 3:50 AM on April 8th, 2011, Mansoor was awoken from his slumber by cries from his
security guard. “He said there are there are three policemen waiting for you in the main entrance.
I told him are you sure they are policemen? He said yes. […] they are suspecting your car and
would like to take it […] I refused to go down from my apartment and started writing this email.
Not sure if they took the car or not, I will soon know. The scenario is that if they take it, they can
put whatever they like inside and make a case against me. I’m declaring here that my car is clean
of unlawful material” (Mansoor). That following morning, Mansoor was arrested for criticism
of the UAE government and encouraging demonstrations. In a secret hearing, Mansoor and other
UAE activists were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment under violation of UAE Penal Code
176 for publicly insulting government officials (IFEX). Since his actions were deemed a security
threat, there was no possibility of appeal (Reporters Without Borders). After eight months in
prison, Mansoor and other pro-democracy activists were released on the 27th of November.

 

ANALYSIS: Mansoor demonstrated courage and initiative to advocate for civil rights in the
UAE even though it comprised his safety, financial stability, and family honor. He faced
numerous challenges by choosing to speak up against the UAE government including:
developing a large supporter base, overcoming technology restrictions, and rebounding from
negative publicity.

 

In terms of developing a large supporter base, Emiratis only comprise around 10% of the
country’s population and are highly protected by the UAE government. Each Emirati citizen
receives a monthly stipend from the government including payroll benefits that overshadow
other coworkers based solely on their Emirati citizenship, free schooling through to higher
education, land allotments, and interest-free loans for houses (Ali). While many Emiratis enjoy
the aforementioned privileges, they are at the expense of certain civil liberties, such as the right
to vote and freedom of speech. In light of these circumstances, Ahmed Mansoor and other civil
rights activists within the UAE have faced the challenge of gaining widespread support because
the currently population is significantly small in number and the citizens benefit greatly from the
government, so they are not as compelled to fight for civil liberties.

 

In terms of overcoming technology restrictions, Mansoor faced constraints on his freedom of
speech regarding his internet posts and social media outlets. In the UAE, the telecommunications
industry is dominated by giants Etisalat and du. Both companies have extensive control over
SMS, phone, and in internet communications. Internet material is monitored by request of
the government in order to filter and block any inappropriate content, from sexual music
videos to political propaganda criticizing the UAE. However, there are loopholes for Dubai’s
telecom control through social media and VOIPs and political dissent can exist momentarily on
mainstream social media until the government blocks it. Mansoor faced several hindrances with
technology, notably social media technology, when expressing political dissent.

 

Finally, another challenge that Mansoor faced was defamation via local news sources. Although
his high-profile position with the Human Rights Watch enabled his cause and case to be

covered by international media such as CNN, Amnesty International, and Reporters Without
Borders, Mansoor was still subject to at least 17 counts of slander and defamation by the UAE
government.

 

Mansoor has already experienced some of the repercussions of speaking out against the UAE
government, and he will continue to face challenges regarding his civil rights activism especially
since his criminal record for political dissent has not been expunged. Since his pardon from the
UAE and release from prison, he has already faced the challenge of his recent denial to visit
Kuwait. In the future he will be closely monitored by the UAE government moreso than before.
He will also continue to face harassment and smear campaigns since the UAE is regarded as one
of the most “stable” countries in the Middle East, as well as a popular tourist destination, the
government will go to great lengths to protect their image among Emiratis and tourists.

 

RECOMMENDATIONS: UAE civil rights activists, organizations, and Mansoor have done
an excellent job of articulating flaws in the system and their demands, organizing and forming a
support base, and garnering international media attention. However, he could further his cause
for rights in the UAE by taking advantage of the precarious position of the UAE’s blossoming
tourism and services industries.

 

In the past few years, the UAE has begun to diversify its industries by moving away from
petroleum and into tourism and services. Recent reports have shown that the majority of people
working in private industries in the UAE are comprised of expatriates. From developed and
developing countries alike, there have been several cases of expatriates being denied similar
human rights. Mansoor could further reach out to these groups and find common interests in
order to develop the large constituent base he needs and income for the cause. It seems as though
the power of the UAE rests in the sheer number of expatriates helping to grow its economy- if
they do not work, how will the UAE support itself?

 

Last year I studied abroad in the UAE and the best word I can think of to describe my experience
is, “paradox”; there were many extremes, economically and politically. Additionally, as a victim
of sexual harassment in the UAE I found the legal system extremely arbitrary and difficult to
navigate. I empathize with Ahmed Mansoor’s activism and find it inspiring because I believe
that the UAE’s citizens, and visitors alike, should be granted basic civil liberties such as the
freedom of speech to criticize the government without fear of repercussion and the right to vote.

 

In order to help assist Mansoor’s cause, it is important to spread awareness to people who invest
in the United Arab Emirates either via tourism or business. People vote with their money, and
by traveling to the UAE and spending their money there they are promoting the human and civil
rights abuses that go on under their noses but which the government works so hard to cover
up. Therefore, I would help spread the truth about the UAE, my personal experience, and the
experiences of Mansoor and similar activists via social media and face-to-face contact. I believe
that the best way I can be effective about helping Mansoor’s cause is by working within my

capacity as a student through the relevant networks. Within the next decade will be the UAE’s
completion of Saadiyat Island, a residential commercial project boasting a Guggenheim, Louvre,
and New York University campus, the UAE will reach a new height of international visibility
and I hope increased civil rights for the UAE are included in that vision.

 

 

 

 

THIRD PLACE: “A Dream Undeferred” by Harrison Lee, age 17, Maryland

A young filmmaker brings the Arab Spring back into focus by profiling an American journalist
who ended up spontaneously joining the Libyan uprising - and paying the price with weeks spent
in solitary confinement inside Gadaffi's prisons. The remarkable dedication of an American who
gave his all to a deadly struggle for freedom far from home clearly has a profound impact on
the filmmaker. While US media coverage of Libya has basically ended, this short video returns
American viewers to the scene of a dramatic effort to overthrow a brutal dictator and achieve
basic civil liberties.

 

 

“A Dream Undeferred” is my belief, in video form, that freedom is a basic human right which
cannot be suppressed if a government is to properly protect its citizens. I chose to speak with
Matthew VanDyke, a journalist who became a freedom fighter in the Libyan civil war, because
he had witnessed government oppression and taken a stand against it. From his perspective,
Moammar Gaddafi’s regime had greatly abused its powers in order to silence the voice of the
people and protect its own interests. Quieting unrest either meant imprisonment, torture, or
execution. Matthew witnessed and experienced how Gaddafi treated his people, and he could
not stand by and watch as his friends were beaten and killed, fighting against an enemy which
had ruled Libya with an iron fist for 42 years.

 

One of my primary objectives was to instill in viewers the need to understand the situation
in the Middle East through the example of Libya. It’s commonplace for Western citizens to
overlay their own values and beliefs on the lens of democracy and freedom overseas. The issue,
however, is that they’ve never lived in countries like Libya or Syria where civil rights are nearly
non-existent. Thus, they do not understand the complex nature of the political and cultural
situation in each country, leading to a disconnect between supposedly beneficial actions from
Western nations and an observed positive impact on civil rights.

 

My other primary goal is to bring the Arab Spring back into focus. With the victory in Libya,
Americans have forgotten that the revolutions are still on-going and, in some cases, have evolved
into civil wars. Now more than ever it is important to observe, understand, and work to aid
these civil rights activists as they dislodge long-standing, oppressive regimes. Freedom is a

right every person should own. However, it has become a distant prospect as Americans have
quickly forgotten that the fight to end abusive governments still rages. Without our support, the
rebellions will fade into obscurity and will never receive the support they need to finally realize
their dreams of freedom.

 

As much as this film was produced for the scholarship, I also had a deep-seeded interest in the
Arab Spring. I understand the ramifications of freedom in the Middle East; I am a firm believer
in letting the people elect how their country is run rather than Ba’athist and other party dictators.
But I also believe the West should not put its own expectations on the Middle East. The citizens
of each country are to determine their own future. It is not our job to decide that future for them,
we should support them as they would want us to. That is my core message for this film, and I
hope this film is as informative as it was inspiring to produce.

 


THIRD PLACE: “LGBT Pioneer in Iran” by Sophie Wilkowske, age 17, Minnesota

While the subject of gay rights in the West is a question of how much equality should be
guaranteed by law, this essay reminds readers that homosexuals do not have even the right
to life in Iran. By profiling one activist, she brings the conversation down from the statistical
level to the “real life hurt and oppression of living people.” She lays out moral arguments as
well as concrete steps Americans can take to support homosexuals in Iran. Will the US gay
rights movement help those being killed for their sexual orientation in Iran? The essay suggests
that while Americans have the tools of activism as a birthright, overcoming apathy may be the
biggest challenge.

 

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad drew incredulous laughter and contemptuous boos
when he announced to an audience of Columbia University students that there are no gay
citizens of his country. “In Iran we do not have homosexuals like in your country,” Ahmadinejad
insisted. “We do not have this phenomenon” (AFP). The comment quickly become one of
those flash-in-the-pan pop culture oddities—parodied on Saturday Night Live, fodder for
clever headlines in news blogs. It stuck because now, in the 21st century, the notion that any
geographical border determines whether or not LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender)
citizens exist is ludicrous. This is the reason it was picked up, parodied, and eventually
discarded. But it is also the reason that the Ahmadinejad’s remarks underscore a far deeper
problem: a civil rights crisis in Iran for LGBT citizens.

 

This is where the work of Iranian queer activist Arsham Parsi comes in. Parsi knew, like so many
gay people, that he was different from a young age (Biography). In the US, this might entail fear
of being ostracized at school or shunned by a church community. Parsi worried instead about
the very real punishments that Iran inflicts on its queer citizens—flogging, hanging, stoning. “I

became obsessed with stoning,” he recalls now. “Would it hurt? How long would it take to die? I
began to imagine myself buried in sand to my neck waiting for the rocks to hit me. I believed this
was how my life would end. I was 14” (Biography).

 

In the face of so much adversity, fear, and silence, Parsi saw possibility in the act of reaching
out. He connected with those like him in an online forum called Voice Celebration—online
because a physical meeting, with Iran’s notorious secret police as part of the equation, would
be impossible. Later, the group became Rangin Kaman, “rainbow room” in Persian—later the
Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization. Parsi assisted a doctor with a study of HIV Iran’s secret
but—contrary to Ahmadinejad’s assurances—extant gay community. He confronted the specter
of gay teen suicide that haunts us all around the world, by acting as a counselor and mentor to
queer young people who had literally nowhere else to go (Simpson).

 

Somewhere inside, though, Parsi knew he could not keep doing this work forever. In 2005, he
left Iran for Turkey, having been tipped off that the police were looking for a gay activist named
Arsham. Even in a city the size of Shiraz—Parsi’s hometown—he knew that could only mean
himself (Simpson). As he left the country, Parsi mourned. A home is a home, after all. A country
is more than its laws, however unfair and inconvenient they may be. A country is its people—
LGBT people included.

 

Eventually, Parsi ended up in Toronto after making his way through the UNCHR (United
Nations Refugee Agency) process. The complexity of the process coupled with its absolute
necessity for queer Iranians inspired him to use the foundation of Rangin Kaman, since renamed
the Persian Gay & Lesbian Organization and registered abroad as an NGO, to create a group
that would help refugees successfully navigate the prospects (Biography). The Iranian Railroad
for Queer Refugees was born in 2008, named in homage to the vast Underground Railroad that
smuggled African Americans to safety around the time of the American Civil War. Since 2008,
Parsi been a shepherd in that fundamental, ancient, and sadly still essential pursuit of searching
for sanctuary, even if it means uprooting an entire life. Iran is not a safe place for an LGBT
citizen to live with any degree of openness. This is evidenced by the hundreds of refugees that
Parsi and the IRQR have helped find safety in the four years since the organization’s founding
(Biography).

 

But civil rights for Iran’s LGBT population is more than a question of mathematics. “The Iranian
queer community” is not a victim of abstract injustice; it is the real life hurt and oppression of
living people. It is Mahtab, Saleh, Nima, Bahram, Mehrdad, Shahyad, Hadi, Sohrab, Farzam,
Saeid, Ali, Babak, Ehsan, Arash, Mahyar, and Navid, and countless more (Arsham Parsi).
Thousands of gay Iranians have been executed since the 1979 revolution. Thousands more live
in fear. It is a civil rights crisis forty years in the making, and the easy aphorism that “time cures
all” is grossly untrue; time has exacerbated the injustice. So what can we do?

 

We must remember, here in the United States, that the LGBT rights movement is not confined
to our own country by any means. The tense balance between religious tradition and LGBT
progress that exists in this country exists as well in many Middle Eastern countries, and on an
especcially amplified scale in the theocratic Iran. We must realize first the interconnectedness
of queer communities around the world, and the importance of information. Parsi tells a story
of a man he met in Toronto who recognized him and promptly slapped him in the face. Parsi,
to calm him down, talked to the man, telling his life story and explaining that gay people are
not evil people. After two hours of talking in a Toronto subway, the man kissed him, and
thanked him (Simpson). Sharing our stories—as LGBT citizens ourselves or as allies—makes
the most profound of possible impacts. And though Washington is more than 6,000 miles from
Tehran, we can make a difference too by writing letters to diplomats, prime ministers, UN
officials, and legislators—all of their functions are intertwined. A UNCHR decision to change
refugee qualifications could leave hundreds of LGBT Iranian citizens without recourse, and a
seemingly routine change in US immigration code could make protected refugee status for queer
Iranian refugees nearly impossible. We have the great fortune of living under democratically
run national and international governmental systems, and often it is not a lack of avenues for
expression but a lack of participation that leads to silence on crucial issues like this. This must
not remain the case; the responsibility to help oppressed communities around the world falls
fairly and squarely on our own shoulders all.

 

American poet Langston Hughes asked, in his poem Harlem, “What happens to a dream
deferred?” (Hughes). If we are silent, nothing happens. It “dries up, like a raisin in the sun,” as
more LGBT exiles are denied refugee status. It “sags, like a heavy load,” as more Iranians are
executed. However, silence is not the only option—and thanks to the work of Arsham Parsi and
innumerable other brave Iranians, it is not the reality. Hughes’ poem seems bleak, but he finishes
by asking, “Or does it explode?” (Hughes). Civil rights progress is far from inevitable. Dedicated
reformers with active support from all around the world are what turn its gears. So, what happens
to a dream deferred—the dream of an Iran that is both a safe haven and a home for its queer
citizens? Left to simmer long enough, it inspires action on the part of courageous individuals.
And then it explodes into being.

 

HONORABLE MENTION: “Veiled but Vocal Tunisia”
By Alexandra BetGeorge, age 22, New York

The author explores the dichotomy between social freedom and political expression in Tunisia
by describing her first hand experiences and observations both before and after the Tunisian
revolution. She discusses how decades of suppression made the idea of political change
seemingly impossible to conceive and how, after Mohammed Bouazizi, Facebook exploded
with political content and commentary. The essay uses the example of a youth-let NGO to
demonstrate the new political freedom in Tunisia and its challenges in the post-revolutionary

period, particularly as the path to political empowerment remains skewed in favor of a long-
established Islamist party.

His face was once everywhere, but shown only in approved places and approved ways. The
evening before the fall 2009 presidential election, trucks drove through the streets of Tunis
with illuminated banners depicting the face of the perpetual incumbent, President Ben Ali and
blaring sirens to announce his certain victory. I took a picture of these trucks from my classroom
window and posted it to my Facebook wall. When I arrived home, my host sister asked me
to take it down. “Why?” I asked. Her forehead was furrowed with concern, and there was
fear in her eyes. Although the photograph contained state-approved images of the President,
its presence on Facebook unsettled my host sister because my profile wall was not a state-
approved location to display images of him. It was a known fact that Ben Ali’s regime monitored
Facebook, and had arrested people for posting material that criticized the president’s politics.

So much has changed in Tunisia since I took that photograph down from my Facebook wall.

Having spent a college semester studying in Tunisia, a summer working at an NGO there, and
returning twice to visit the country before and after the Arab Spring has provided me with an
opportunity to understand where it was and appreciate how far it has come. Tunisia did not start
in a miserable place with regard to human rights before Ben Ali’s deposition. My host sister
had reason to be scared when she saw the picture I had posted on Facebook, but she and other
young Tunisians could say nearly anything else they wanted on Facebook, except material Ben
Ali’s regime deemed subversive. This material related to either religious extremism or negative
commentary about the current government. Expression of material on these subjects was also
forbidden in public spaces. Despite the regime’s censorship of political expression, Tunisians
were free to express themselves socially. Tunisia has a long history of social tolerance for ethnic
and religious diversity and lifestyles, along with a moderate version of Islam, both of which
the authoritarian government mostly supported. These two cultural attributes have established
Tunisia as a bastion of relative freedom in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region.

My greatest fear for Tunisia before the Arab Spring was a gradual shift toward a slightly more
conservative Islamic society propelled by a very subtle but growing interest in the Gulf’s Islam,
because the silent secular majority had not learned to express their political opinions under
authoritarian rule. This alarmed me, because Tunisian culture traditionally allows a great degree
of liberty in lifestyle choices that many other MENA countries do not. Women have less freedom
than men in most Islamic societies, and many conservative Muslim women wear veils. The
freedom of social expression that veiled Tunisian women enjoyed in public before the regime
change portrays Tunisia’s paradoxical identity as a socially open Muslim nation. Thus, seeing
veiled women expressing themselves with little restraint in public Tunisian space will serve as a
strong indicator that Tunisia had retained its social openness in the future. Interestingly, the same
authoritarian rule that enabled veiled Tunisian women to express themselves in public space also

caused dissidents to suppress their behavior as much as possible.

During the time I spent in Tunisia before the Arab Spring, I saw firsthand how the dichotomy
between social freedom and political expression was routinely practiced in public space. In
the crowded, dark, and smoky room of the local karaoke bar I frequented in the summer of
2010, it was socially acceptable for veiled women to freely take the stage to sing ballads or
pop songs. While Tunisia’s moderate Islam enabled veiled women a great degree of liberty to
express themselves in the social sphere, my Tunisian friends would speak in low voices, at our
table in the back of the room, about people they knew whose Facebook accounts were hacked
and singers exiled to France for criticizing Ben Ali’s regime. It seemed to me that my friends
believed merely recounting stories of the regime’s actions against dissidents was a dangerous
act. This fear destroyed their hope for freedom altogether, so that my friends never discussed
any ideas—even theoretical ones— for taking action against the government’s harsh political
censorship, in public or in private. It was as if they found the idea of political change to be
impossible because decades of suppression had left Tunisians incapable of expressing their
political views.

That December, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself aflame in protest of Ben Ali’s harsh political
suppression. The fire then spread to Tunisian Facebook walls that exploded with political
commentary. Tunisians had finally broken through their fear of political expression. My friends
told me during many Skype conversations of nongovernmental organizations and political parties
appearing everywhere in the months after the revolution, reassuring me that Tunisia’s new-found
desire for political expression was a genuine break with the past.

Since the Arab Spring, my fear of a shift toward Islamic conservatism remains, but it has
changed so that I fear any religious influence in the Constitution that may permanently harm
Tunisia’s cultural openness and chances of securing freedom of political expression. The
majority of the new hundred-plus political parties were leftist and secular, but Ennahda, the
country’s leading Islamist party, had the advantage of a thirty-year history and was well-
organized. This experience enabled Ennahda to communicate its platform with more strength and
clarity than the multitude of secular parties. Perhaps another reason Ennahda gained a significant
number of followers was that many Tunisians wanted to express their religious conservatism by
supporting a party promising to integrate Islam into the government after decades of persecution.
In the end, Ennahda won the plurality in the fall 2011 elections for Tunisia’s Constituent
Assembly, which will write the new government’s constitution - a significant drawback in the
country’s path toward free political expression, and a possible sign that my fear from before the
revolution would come true.

Since the Arab Spring, I have seen many reasons to hope that the constitution produced at the
end of 2012 will outline a government guaranteeing Tunisians the right to express themselves
politically and maintain their traditional social tolerance. The most powerful of these is an
experience I had at a meeting earlier this week with a youth-run nongovernmental organization

called Sawty (i.e. “My Voice”). It endeavors to promote young Tunisians’ wide-ranging opinions
on social, economic, and political issues and protect their freedom to do so. I attended one of
Sawty’s first meetings last August and wanted to see how it had progressed since my last visit,
so I stopped by the Tunis office earlier this week to talk with the staff. They told me about the
ongoing success of various programs. I then asked how Sawty hoped to see a pluralistic society
develop in the next year despite the growing numbers of religious extremists in Tunisia. A
woman responded, saying that she felt the best way for her to maintain her relationship with
God was as she personally saw fit, without any government interference. Her name was Haifa,
and she wore a veil. Haifa had brought the same freedom of expression she could enjoy as a
veiled woman in Tunisia’s social sphere to its political one, showing that the country had both
maintained its special identity despite Ennahda’s efforts to steep the Constitution with Islamic
principles.

For me, the presence of a veiled woman at the junction of politics and civil society in Tunisia is a
strong indication that Tunisians have truly begun to learn how to protect their society’s openness
and the freedom of political expression they have gained since the Arab Spring. While my fear
of Islamic influence in the government remains, Haifa’s convictions and presence at Sawty
also provide me with much hope for the Arab Spring movement’s future success under a new
government that will sustain the newfound political freedom for which the Tunisian people have
fought so hard. As I return home this weekend, I can only imagine the positive influence Tunisia
will have across the MENA region if it succeeds in extinguishing the fire Mohamed Bouazizi
sparked by delivering the long-deferred dream of free expression to its people.

 

 

HONORABLE MENTION: “My Experience as an Afghan Woman”
By anonymous, age 21, United States

Poignant testimony from an Afghani who felt compelled to leave her homeland in order to gain
an education. Her determination to overcome opposition on a personal level – coupled with her
inability to change attitudes – gives the essay a sense of both inspiration and outrage.

 

I was born in a conservative Afghan community where women are treated as second class
citizens. I am the third daughter of my parents. In the Afghani community having one or two
daughters is acceptable, but if a mother delivers a third daughter, people think there is something
wrong with her and they do not welcome the new baby in a proper way. My parents were the
first couple to have three daughters in a row at the time in their community, so people were
unaccepting of the situation. My gender has been an issue for me throughout my entire life.
When I was born my extended family was so disappointed that they didn’t come see me for one
month, because they wanted my parents to have a son that would take care of them in the future.
My father did not give me a name for three days, as he was uncertain about my gender at first.
He soon accepted having three daughters, though, and named me “Diba,” which means a piece

of silk. Silk is very expensive and valuable in Afghanistan. He thought the name was adequate
for me because my family was unhappy about my gender, but he was confident that I would be a
unique and valuable person in the future.

When I was in first grade in school, the Taliban took over Afghanistan and closed all of the
schools for girls, so I could not continue my education because of my gender. My family
immigrated to Pakistan and I started school there. My parents had to pay for school, because
school was not free in Pakistan. My extended family, especially my uncles and grandfather,
disagreed with the idea that women should gain knowledge. Instead, my extended family felt
women should cook, clean, take care of the family, and raise children. They told my father
not to pay for his daughters because they thought we were going to get married one day and
leave him. However, my father is an educated person who thinks women should be given equal
opportunities as men. So he paid for my sisters and my education. In 2002, when the Taliban
regime was destroyed, we came back to Kabul, where I finished high school.

Since my family had financial issues, I decided to work. Again, because I am a woman my
community disagreed with me working outside of the house. My extended family thinks a
woman working outside of the house is against Islamic law and Afghani culture. Despite this, I
decided to fight for my rights and go against the culture and tradition. I applied for several jobs,
and I got a job in a legal organization. My extended family was very upset about me working
outside and they called me prostitute. In the office I worked with very conservative people
who also treated women as second gender. There was a big gap between men and women in
the office. Women were expected to wear long dresses, not talk to the men in the office, or
laugh loudly. Men got higher salaries than women, sat in the front seat of cars, and got new
computers and good offices. Women had to sit in the back of cars and did not get good supplies
or equipment in the office. I was frustrated by the inequality, so I left the organization and joined
a bank.

In the bank, because I was young and a female, my co-workers did not respect me very much and
sometimes ignored my ideas. Some of my conservative colleges told me that I should stay home,
because they felt uncomfortable working with me. I worked more than men in the office, but I
got less compensation. The man in the office whose job I replaced was paid three hundred more
dollars a month than me.

As my family’s financial situation got better, I decided to attend college and work at the same
time. I went to a private college, studied very hard, and got good grades. In my class there was
a group of boys who thought that women should not study and did not need to gain a higher
education. As soon as the boys realized that I studied very hard and was doing well in college,
they started to harass me and told me to stop studying and leave college. I was threatened and
beaten by them. It came to the point that I had to hide from the boys because they were trying
to find me and kill me. In order to save my life, I made the hard decision to leave my family in
Afghanistan and come to the United States.

Women in Afghanistan are victims of unjust treatment; their status is one of the worst in the
world. Most men believe that women should not have any rights, so there is a big difference
between how men and women are treated in the country. A man can do anything he wishes, but a
woman must follow the man in charge of the house. Women and girls like me suffer from human
right abuses and live in constant fear of being trafficked into prostitution. Women are forced into
arranged marriages, often to settle family debts or disputes, and they are victims of sexual and
domestic violence. Even though the Afghanistan constitution and Islamic laws do not require
women to be treated as second-class citizens, people are unaware of this and believe that the
Afghanistan constitution and Islamic laws do approve of treating women as a second gender.

Being an afghan girl myself and always being regarded in Afghanistan as a second-class citizen,
I think it is horrible that women in Afghanistan are treated unfairly. Women have always been
considered second-gender by men, but now women need justice and should have the power
to make their own choices. Women do not need to be controlled by men; they are tired of this
injustice and cannot tolerate it anymore. My wish is that one day Afghan women will have equal
rights and will never be forced to leave their loved ones because of their gender, as I was.




CONTEST ESSENTIALS

WINNING ESSAYS FEATURED IN NEW BOOK!


Culled from five years of AIC's essay contest, the "Arab Spring Dreams" anthology highlights young thinkers who offer fresh insights on where the region is headed – and where it could go.
Features commentary from Nobel Laureate Lech Walesa and Gloria Steinem.

Purchase a copy of the book.