by Anna Violante
On 28 July, the Italian movement in solidarity with last year’s Iranian protesters, “Woman, Life, Freedom”, sent a letter to Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, Italian Foreign Minister, Antonio Tajani, European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen and the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Rome. “Since 16 September 2022”, the letter begins, “when Mahsa Amini* was killed in Tehran while in the custody of the ‘Moral Police’, nothing has changed! The ‘Moral Police’ continue to torture, rape, hang …” and after urging Iran’s Supreme Leader, Alī Ḥoseynī Khāmeneī, for an immediate halt to the executions and an end to repression, it concludes: “We ask the Italian Government, in the persons of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, to take a decisive position towards the Iranian regime. We ask the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to implement all initiatives within the competence of the Union to ensure respect for fundamental rights in Iran.”
So far only the Iranian Embassy has replied, on 9 August. The prompt and lengthy response is what one might expect from the Iranian regime, filtered through a diplomat’s typical mildness. “We respect the concerns expressed about developments in Iran, whether they are the result of legitimate reflection on respect for human rights and democracy, or merely the expression of a political attitude and tendency,” writes Ambassador Mohammad Reza Sabouri, but he soon lists a series of unacceptable attitudes on the part of Western Countries and tensions with the US and Israel, to end by claiming peaceful normality in his Country and suggesting that the protesters were manipulated by foreign powers, if they were not terrorists. No mention of torture, police killings, detentions and executions.
Why was his the only answer to the letter? Following the UN Economic and Social Council’s (ECOSOC) decision on 14 December 2022 to remove Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) for the remainder of its four-year term until 2026, and despite the numerous demonstrations of solidarity by civil society around the world and appeals by human rights organisations, no head of state has seriously addressed the atrocities committed against women and young people who have dared to speak out against the regime. NATO Countries and Israel leaders seem to be more concerned about disrupting Iran’s nuclear energy research than standing up for the rights of Iranian women to freedom and life. These include prominent female politicians such as Giorgia Meloni and Ursula von der Leyen.
One woman who has instead taken up the cause of Iranian women’s rights is the Italian actress Marisa Laurito**, who was the promoter of the first event in support of the Iranian protesters in early January, who collected over 170.000 signatures for “Woman, Life, Freedom” in Italy and one of the authors of the 28 July letter. Atlas of Wars had a long conversation with her.
Why do you think Mrs Meloni and Mrs von der Leyen haven’t replied to your letter?
I think they don’t answer because there must be underground interests we don’t know about, and as an ordinary citizen without political knowledge I can’t stand it. After a year of Mahsa Amini’s death, of this revolution, of young people being beaten, raped and so on, of demonstrations all over the world – we’ve done them too, we’ve spoken, we’ve been received by Italian Parliament – nothing has happened.
Giorgia Meloni and Ursula von der Leyen are women and mothers, shouldn’t they be sensitive to the problem?
You can’t close your eyes to what’s happening in Iran, especially if you’re a woman. But the discourse is very complex. I think there are economic reasons they cannot ignore. It’s also clear that our initiatives don’t make many headlines. It’s as if the news are asleep. They’re anaesthetised, and I don’t understand why. If the newspapers don’t write about us, the authorities feel excused from having to listen to what we say. In Iran, it’s the same as before. And it’s not the only situation like this in the world, there are also tragedies involving children who are kidnapped to sell their organs and engage in the sex trade. We are surrounded by horrors, I don’t understand why European Governments overlook them all.
What did “Woman, Life and Freedom” do before writing the letter?
After two flash mobs in January, we went to the Italian Parliament in May, where we were promised that they would look into the matter. Then, on 22 June, together with other associations and human rights defenders, we gathered in front of the Iranian Embassy. We wanted to hand in the thousands of signatures we’d been collecting since January. The police wouldn’t let us. They didn’t even let us gather near the Embassy. There were only a few of us, but they protected the Embassy by the trouble we could cause them. And you know what? There’s a camera leaning against a pole that looks like a gallows. It’s as if a man’s head was hanging from it. We photographed it and I showed it on TV.
What do you plan to do next?
I won’t give up the fight. I’ve taken this as a job now, I can’t stop for my conscience. Nothing will happen, authorities will never respond to us, but I don’t want to reach a certain age and think I haven’t done anything. I have footage to prove that nothing has changed in Iran. This is not a “cultural tradition”, as Ambassador Reza Sabour told Italian President, Giorgio Mattarella, when he was invited to the Italian Parliament, it is called something else, it is called murder, dictatorship, horror. Last year they arrested the film director Jafar Panahi***, the whole world of cinema moved for him, even Francis Ford Coppola appealed for his release, but European Governments turned a blind eye.
What about 16 September, Mahsa Amini’s death anniversary?
I know that Milan and Rome are going to take to the streets on the 16th. I’m trying, together with some Iranians, to convince everyone to have one big demonstration instead of 3 or 4 scattered in each city. Unfortunately it is complicated because the Iranian opposition is not united. There are monarchists, there are leftists. Some say: “I don’t want to be with those who want the return of the Shah”, others “I don’t want to be with those who pretend to be left-wing but are infiltrated by the Ayatollahs” and so on. I think that in any case all the demonstrators are against the ayatollahs and they should march together. It would be useful to have a big demonstration so that the press can take an interest.
And after 16th?
I told you, I won’t give up the fight. What I would like to do, but I don’t know how yet, is to make the movement international. Judges, artists and intellectuals are also members of the association, but we lack popular figures who can touch people. Not everyone wants to compromise. I called famous actresses and singers, friends in Portugal, in France, in America, who refused to do the spot I had made, in my opinion out of fear. At the moment, my friend and colleague Tosca (Tiziana Tosca Donati, an Italian actress and singer, ed.) and I are the only popular names interested in continuing this fight. The Government ignores us, do we bother them? I don’t care. What worries me is that I’ve already given several interviews, and I know that the press gets tired of interviewing only me after a while. I want other artists to join my cause. I’m glad that this interview will be published in English, so that an international actress can join me and we can finally create a scene.
* On 16 September 2022, 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini died in suspicious circumstances in a Tehran hospital. She had been arrested the day before for allegedly not wearing a hijab as required by the Government. Eyewitnesses reported that she was severely beaten and died as a result of police brutality. Her death was followed by a wave of mass protests.
** Italian actress Marisa Laurito, best known to Italian audiences for her role as a TV comedian in a revolutionary variety show in the 1980s with the musician, actor and presenter Renzo Arbore, began her acting career at a young age with the Neapolitan playwright and renowned director Eduardo De Filippo. After dozens of films and TV shows, she is now the artistic director of the Teatro Trianon Viviani in Naples, where she organised the first Italian flash mob “Woman, Life and Freedom” on 7 January 2023.
*** Iranian award-winning director Jafar Panahi was arrested in Tehran in July 2022 and sentenced to six years in prison after being found guilty of promoting “propaganda against the Islamic Republic”. A letter from him in jail was read out at Venice film festival. On 1 February 2023, he began a hunger strike demanding his release from prison. He was released 48 hours later.
On the cover photo, demonstration in front of the Iranian Embassy in Brussels (Belgium), following the death of Mahsa Amini © Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock.com