“It shocked all of us because we were so hopeful,” said Pouya Alagheband, describing the moment he first heard that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected president of Iran. The engineering grad student and board member of the Iranian Association at the University of Toronto was part of a group of about 280 Iranian students who travelled to Ottawa to vote in the now-disputed June 12 elections.
Ahmedinejad’s victory is considered suspect by many who believe the announcement was too soon for votes to have been properly counted and that rival candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi was more popular. Mass protests have faced harsh crackdown by government forces, with debated numbers of civilian casualties and an estimated 200 protestors imprisoned.
In Toronto’s Iranian community, international students and homegrown Iranian-Canadians have the daunting task of determining what the diaspora can do to make a difference in Iran. Before the uprising, many of those eligible chose to boycott the election in objection to what they view as a corrupt system. At a panel discussion at OISE on June 28, student leaders and activists gathered to discuss the issues raised by the election.
Mahdi Takaffoli, a doctoral candidate at Ryerson University, said the boycott is not a “political solution.” Though the system is far from perfect, he said, the path to change is through electing progressive leaders like Mousavi. Takaffoli said that if people had not voted and been invested in the election, the current uprising would not have happened. “I do not like the experience of revolution,” he said, adding that violence is not justified by political ideals.
Donya Ziaee, whose Master’s thesis at York University examined gender and labour in post-revolutionary Iran, didn’t vote but didn’t boycott the election either. “As a personal choice, I chose not to vote. I didn’t feel that any of the candidates offered anything that was significantly progressive,” she said.
Though Ziaee can see why many support Mousavi over the other candidates, she is critical of his politics and his “utter inability” to reach out to grassroots movements. “We see a movement that claims to be political and yet fails to mention many different dimensions within itself: the gender dimension, the class dimension, the ethnic dimension. These have all been banished from our discussions.”
Reza, a PhD student in molecular biology who did not want to divulge his last name, agreed that the uprising is not just about the election, though it was a significant trigger. “Many forces are merging behind Mousavi now because they see the opportunity to form a stronger opposition. The youth in Iran want more freedom in choosing their way of life and expressing their beliefs. Women in Iran have been asking for equal rights with men for a long time.”
Despite their diverging opinions, all interviewed in this article condemned the violent crackdown on political protestors. As York doctoral student Salah Hassanpour put it, “Any member of any type of armed forces established by the Islamic Republic who has so much as laid a hand on a single person, in our eyes, is already and without question guilty of crimes against humanity.”
With translation by Arash Azizi