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When It's This Quiet, You Can Hear a Pin Drop: The State of Iran's Movement for Democracy on Its Third Anniversary

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Three years ago, while sipping coffee and watering my plants in my apartment in Damascus, Syria, I turned on my TV and images of the streets of Tehran erupted in my living room.

Iran's movement for freedom, human rights and democracy began with a bang on July 12, 2009. In the subsequent days and weeks, people around the world were riveted in their seats. Soon, it became clear that the mass demonstrations were about far more than fair elections.

Moments like these are both fleeting and eternal. They seem to pass quickly, like a snowflake that hits your skin and is gone, yet the impact they have is beyond measure.

In 2009, the world witnessed the most widespread expression of discontent in Iran since the Islamic Republic was first established in 1979. Now, three years later, extreme, targeted repression has forced Iran's movement into a dormant state. Over 20,000 citizens have been arrested for peaceful dissent. Iran jails more journalists than any other country. Activists and minority groups face threats, arrests and imprisonment. Today, Iran ranks first in per capita executions in the world, and every year since 2009 the numbers have gone up.

"More than 70 percent of activist leaders, from the various student, labor and women's rights movements, are either in jail or in exile. Hundreds of innocent people have been sentenced to draconian prison terms simply for expressing their opinions and beliefs," said Hadi Ghaemi, Executive Director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

What Do the Iranian People Want?

Ahmed Medadee was a high school math teacher in Iran. He is now living in California, having fled in 2011 after being arrested twice and formally charged with "disturbing public opinion" by the Iranian government. "People in Iran are suffering from the hopelessness of not achieving their desired results in the short term," he said. "They need hope and spirit. It is important that the Iranian people do not feel isolated in the international community. Perhaps most importantly, the international community should create and find new ways to communicate with Iranian people."

Like Medadee, Roya Boroumand, co-founder of the Abdorrahman Foundation, believes that media reform is a crucial step to help Iran's movement move forward. "If people outside want to help the movement in Iran, they are going to have to look a little deeper," Boroumand said. "For example, the young generation, they are more pragmatic than the last and they don't want violence. Still, I can't tell you what they want, no one knows what Iranians want."

"Until there is a free press, free education, we can't know what's really happening inside Iran," Boroumand continued. "The environment required for Iranian people to think and talk about what they want doesn't exist and hasn't existed. That's one thing we can say that Iranians are fighting for, the freedom to define themselves."

Azadi: Songs of Freedom for Iran

Salome MC is working toward getting a Master's Degree in video and experimental arts in Japan. In the last few years, she has garnered international attention as Iran's first female rapper, with songs such as "Drunk Shah, Drunk Elder" in which she quotes Taqi Bahar, one of the most celebrated Iranian poets:

It's a mistake talking to Iran's Shah about freedom. The king of kings in Iran has a religion of his own. The king is drunk, the elder is drunk, the governor is drunk, the commander is drunk. The king calls himself a Muslim and still spills innocent blood. How can this kind of cruelty be justified in Islam?

Lyrics that are openly critical of Iran's government and religious authorities can constitute a serious risk for a musician living in Iran, but they also have international appeal because of their rawness and honesty. The last time Salome MC returned to Iran for a visit she was interrogated at the airport. "It turned out okay that time but now I know if I go back, I'll go to prison," she said.

Still, Salome continues, even in exile she can help inspire the movement back home and educate her audience. "Whoever watches my videos and listens to my songs learns about what we're struggling with in Iran. I get emails from people all over, the U.S., Canada and Europe that can relate to my music. I can also give hope to people listening in Iran," she said.

She recently contributed a song to a CD compilation called Azadi: Songs of Freedom for Iran, to be released today to honor the June 12 anniversary. Go to azadimusic.bandcamp.com to download the CD for free. Contributing artists include Libyan Masoud Bwisri, who became famous playing his guitar for Libyan rebels on the front lines of the conflict; Rush and MC Amin, rappers providing the soundtrack for the ongoing revolutionary movement in Egypt; and myself, singing a song I wrote for my husband Shane and my friend Josh while I was campaigning for their release from prison in Iran.

"This is the first ever album of its kind released for and about the Iranian uprising. Our hope is that Iranians within the country will hear the messages of solidarity and hope, and that people across the world will be educated and inspired to work in solidarity for human rights in Iran," said Shadi Rahimi, who is leading the project for United for Iran.

"I never thought I'd have to leave Iran," Salome MC reflected, "but even from Japan I can participate in the movement. I've always been opposed to foreigners interfering in Iran and trying to 'free us' but solidarity is different. I hope a lot of Iranians and people all over listen to this CD and think about our struggle."

What Works?

"The arts touch people in the heart. That, more than anything, moves them into action," said Firuzeh Mahmoudi, co-director of United for Iran.

International solidarity needs to grow and adapt as the movement adapts to repression on the ground. Right now, because things are quiet in Iran, people outside who want to help are facing a different kind of challenge than we saw three years ago. What we need right now is decentralized, bottom-up support from all corners of the globe. When the room is really quiet and someone drops a pin, everyone can hear it. Everything we do can have an impact.

"One thing that really captured international attention," said Mr. Hadi Ghaemi, Executive Director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, "was the stoning case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani. Many international voices came together: media, governments such as Brazil, civil society and international human rights institutions. As the result the sentenced was never carried out. The protests saved her life."

"International advocacy may not be able to fully reverse the repression on the ground, but one can argue that it has been able to stem the trend of it getting much worse, "continued Mr. Ghaemi, "Without solidarity over the last three years we could have had a much more severe situation."

What's Next?

Though the Iranian government has been somewhat successful in silencing dissent through inhumane, unjust and brutal means, most agree that it can only last so long. "It's like the hot coals hidden under the ashes," Mahmoudi said. "You think the fire is out but it can erupt at any moment."

Of course, no one knows how long that will be. Iran's current movement has been described my some as a "cultural revolution," which by definition is the most difficult, and perhaps impossible, to repress because it is happening on the deepest, most subtle levels of the human psyche.

"The government is fighting it the best they can but there is no fighting it. They can't impose their culture on Iranians anymore," commented Boroumand. "They can jail them, kill them, but the people have changed. Cultures evolve, people are connected to the outside world and they want to live differently."

In the meantime, people around the world today are reflecting on what's happened in Iran over the last three years. Some are showing solidarity when and where they can and many more are simply listening to the silence, waiting for the next pin to drop.