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Iran's election hits close to home for W&M student

  • Hanif Yazdi
    Hanif Yazdi  Hanif Yazdi (center, green shirt) joins other Iranians living in Dhaka and Sachetan Nagarik to form a human chain, demanding true democracy in Iran.  Photo courtesy of Hanif Yazdi
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In the days and weeks that followed Iran's election, the world watched as protests and violence filled the country's streets. For one William & Mary student, the conflict hit especially close to home.

Hanif Yazdi, a senior majoring in history at William & Mary, spent most of his summers growing up in Iran. Though he was born and raised in the United States, most of his family members are from Tehran, and he holds an Iranian citizenship.

He visited the country again just this winter, "speaking to a wide variety of human rights activists, journalists, students and professionals."

"I was attempting, for the first time, to see the country beyond my usual stays with family," he said. "I even had the chance to speak to Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi about her work in Iran."

Ebadi visited William & Mary in 2006. "When I told her I was studying at William and Mary, she immediately recognized the College and described her fond memories there," Yazdi said.

Yazdi is currently spending the summer in Bangladesh, conducting research on Bangladeshi society, culture and developmental programs and working to set up a William & Mary student exchange program there. He is also working with students from in Princeton and Rutgers Universities on the "em[POWER] project," which seeks to covert trash in landfills to methane and compost and then use those resources to fund services in communities surrounding the landfills.

When it came time to vote in Iran's presidential election on June 12, Yazdi did so at the Iranian embassy in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

"I was proud to play my part, proud to ride a wave of hope that was sweeping our world," Yazdi said. "More than anything, I believed that this election would bring us a more just, humane, and representative government."

However, following the election, the reformist candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, contested results that said incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won, and Mousavi publicly called for demonstrations.

"What followed was the biggest public outcry since the 1979 revolution," said Yazdi.

The demonstrations continued even after the country's "supreme leader" -- Ali Khamenei -- demanded that the Iranian people accept the election results.

"This type of public defiance of Khamenei was unprecedented and the authorities responded violently," he said. "The ensuing clashes left resulted in numerous deaths. Most public was the killing of Neda, a philosophy student who was shot by a sniper and whose death was captured on YouTube. She has since become a symbol of the government's brutal response."

Yazdi's own grandfather -- Ibrahim Yazdi -- was taken from his hospital bed and jailed for his political beliefs.

"He has since been returned to the hospital, but hundreds more colleagues, professors, journalists and dissidents are still behind bars," said Yazdi. "This has been the widest, most sweeping crackdown in decades and there is no end in sight."

Yazdi said that being in Dhaka during this time was an "extremely frustrating experience."

"The Iranian authorities shut down all cell phone access to the country, and even speaking on landlines was unstable and unsafe (as the government monitors conversations)," he said. "My main news sources were Twitter and Facebook. Through these sources, I got minute-by-minute updates on how the situation was unfolding. Videos of police violence (especially that committed by the Basij militia) quickly appeared on YouTube. It was a dramatic experience, especially when Twitter feeds fell silent or friends on Facebook disappeared for days on end."

Though Yazdi could not participate in the protests in Iran, he wrote an op-ed for Dhaka's "Daily Star" newspaper "to appeal to like-minded activists in Bangladesh to stand in solidarity with their fellow students in Iran."

"There is a perception in Dhaka of Ahmadinejad as a hero who has stood up to American bullying and of Mousavi as a Western agent," said Yazdi. "I knew that I could not easily dismantle that perception, but what I could do was raise awareness about the violence being meted out against students."

Additionally, Yazdi and some of his friends organized a rally outside of the National Museum in Dhaka to condemn the violence.
"About 25-30 people attended, we achieved good media publicity and I hope we inspired discussion," he said. "Organizing the rally also put me in touch with the activist  community in Bangladesh, people working on everything from garment workers' rights to equal rights for the country's ethnic minorities."

The summer experience has had a major impact on Yazdi and his future plans.

"My future career trajectory is going to be affected in a big way by the challenges I see facing this country, and by the way I see young people attempting to address those challenges," he said.