As unrest simmers, Scotland's Iranian diaspora look on

Some 6,000 Iranians live in Scotland, including those who fled during the revolution, students, refugees, and Scots.

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    From left: Firooz, who fought in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s, and Shabi Forsyth, 24, a law graduate [Robert Somynne/Al Jazeera]
    From left: Firooz, who fought in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s, and Shabi Forsyth, 24, a law graduate [Robert Somynne/Al Jazeera]

    Glasgow, Scotland - "I was not a dangerous person. I was not very active but in my community, there was a group of girls who were very active and together we just wanted some very basic things," says Tarooneh, who found herself in Glasgow in October 2007 after five months spent in London on a short-term visa.

    With a two-year-old son, she sought political asylum from her homeland after her husband informed on her to the intelligence and judicial services for her beliefs and political activities.

    Tarooneh, who is withholding her last name to protect her family, was not in a political party but worked with friends, other students, writers and cartoonists, seeking gaps in the Islamic Republic's political space to open discussions about individual liberties in the country they love.

    But she was branded subversive and had to choose between imprisonment and a flight with her son to Scotland.

    She is now among around 6,000 Iranians who live in Scotland.

    Protests that have spread across Iran made memories of escape and homesickness flood back to the mathematics doctorate, who had to move nine times and had her son protected by Scottish police as he attended primary school.

    Hers is a story that represents the most recent of the waves of migration to Scotland for the community, which is made up of old emigres who fled in 1979, dual nationals, political refugees and second and third-generation Scots.

    For Tarooneh, who lives in Glasgow as a mathematician with her now 12-year-old son, the same things she fought remain important.

    "We wanted to challenge the divorce rights and laws, the rules surrounding the hijab and freedom of practise and the right to change your faith," she says.

    "We wanted the government to allow more rights for people with different faiths - even no faith," she says.

    'Reform? It is possible but …'

    Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution in 1979 was in many ways a rejection of the liberal Western narrative of women's rights as the bedrock of modernisation.

    His earlier objections to the Shah's White Revolution of reforms were that they disturbed the family and gave women a say in the political life of the country.

    Yet the Islamic Republic permits women the right to vote in elections and stand for the Iranian parliament, or Majles.

    However, Tarooneh is cautious about reform in the light of the recent protests, which she says are rooted in economic and social concerns.

    Figures from the country's interior ministry claim more than 230 demonstrations took place in 80 towns and cities nationwide in December and January, with a majority in Tehran, Isfahan and Khuzestan.

    Of more than 100,000 participants, 94 percent were men. Analysts have claimed this was because harsher punishments were handed to women.

    Some 30 percent of slogans were about economics and 70 percent targeted the political structure, the ministry said.

    Saeed Hajjarian, a leading reformist strategist, predicted more anti-government protests over the next three years, saying the failure of reformist politics could spell a serious long-term threat.

    "Reform? It is possible but the fundamentals need to change, they need to change these things," says Tarooneh.

    "You can say that the republic changed from religious righteousness to pure politics."

    Claiming that she didn't "support the monarchy", Tarooneh explains: "What is important is you don't hear the same thing from Iranians. There is incredible political diversity."

    'I am Glaswegian, but 75 percent of my thoughts are still in Iran'

    From recent arrivals and dual nationals to old emigres and second-generation grandchildren, Iran's recent protests ignite the same mixture of fear and hope.

    What unites the different sections in cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh is both a distinct national pride and the celebration of the cultural achievements of Iranians around the world.

    Shabi Forsyth, 24, is Scottish, Iranian and a law graduate.

    Her mother came to Scotland aged 14 and her view into the recent unrest is subtly political, but one of an intrigued and distant observer.

    Her family members are Bahai, a persecuted religious minority that has faced discrimination since the revolution.

    Forsyth's focus is on women's rights.

    Like a lot of Iranians in Scotland, Forsyth shies away from the partisan nature of the debate around Iran that plagues the online forums and social media.

    In her view, the fight for better rights and understanding is clouded by the political competition between the Islamic Republic and its Sunni counterpart, Saudi Arabia.

    "We know generally that if more women are in politics and their voices are heard on the streets and in power, then a society benefits, the country gets better", she said.

    Firooz, a former naval captain who fought in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s, believes the recent unrest could be the beginning of a larger movement.

    "Young people are sick and tired of incompetence and corruption", he said.

    "It doesn't matter where they sit on the political spectrum. I think this is the start of something. We don't know what, but it is the start."

    He runs the Scots Iranian Association from Glasgow, which connects Iranians of all ages and occupations and helps them relocate and enjoy cultural expression.

    Born in Iran's northwest, he has worked for Glasgow City Council for 20 years as a chartered surveyor, having built a new life after seeking political asylum in the UK in 1985.

    Being second in command of a naval vessel comprising 130 men, he was docked in Glasgow at a shipyard now producing for BAE systems.

    On the last day, he was due to go back to sea, he left his ship dismayed at the conduct of the war by Iranian authorities.

    He grew to love Glasgow, living in the city as it underwent reconstruction during the 1980s with its many bypasses and regenerations.

    "I am Glaswegian, but 75 percent of my thoughts are still in Iran."

    Although some nostalgia remains in older sections, there is a deep commitment to an Iranian identity that is democratic and inclusive.

    What most want is the chance for their home of Scotland and their Iran to both reach their potentials.

    Follow Robert Somynne on Twitter: @RobertJSomynne

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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