24. July 2012–
If you're looking for a poster-girl for the new face of Berlin, Sahar Beheshti could not be a better candidate. The 28-year-old brims with enthusiasm for her adopted home town, she is a passionate talker who exudes a charm that could warm the coldest of Berlin winters.
A product manager at GetYourGuide.com, the Prenzlauer Berg-based travel experience booking firm whose multikulti staff hail from ten countries around the globe, Beheshti's trajectory into the Berlin startup scene is far from typical – campaigning to improve women's rights in her home country of Iran, she was forced to flee from her friends and family due to persecution from the political regime, which culminated in imprisonment, beatings and threats of rape. Read her remarkable story on how she fled her country and made Berlin her new home...
Fighting for womens' rights on the streets of Iran
"I was writing articles and campaigning for equal rights for women", explains Beheshti. "I was part of the One Million Signature campaign. [A grassroots movement aimed at gathering signatures from one million Iranian nationals calling for an end to the legalised discrimination against women that currently exists in Iranian law.]
"For example, women do not have the right to divorce," Beheshti explains. "OK, the law says that a woman can divorce her husband if he is addicted to drugs or whatever, but these things have to be proven. And after divorce, custody rights – the father gets full custody rights if the child is over seven years old. Also a woman can't be a witness to a crime in court. You need two women to be witnesses for a crime otherwise it's not valid – so one man or two women. So a woman is literally half a man in the eyes of the court."
Since its launch in 2006, One Million Signatures has seen hundreds of activists, mostly young, politically active women, arrested, imprisoned and even prosecuted on charges of "endangering state security". Publications such as Zanan, Iran’s premier women’s magazine were shut down by authorities for painting Iranian women "in a black light”, according to president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"The regime didn't like the campaign and so many of the heads had to flee Iran, and some were imprisoned," explains Beheshti. "I wasn't a big figure, so I didn't go to prison for this, but basically I was told that I could not continue higher education in Iran.
"Even though I had passed the examinations, I was told that I could not study for a Masters' in Iran. I wanted ultimately to get a PhD and teach at the university. And then suddenly I couldn't anymore. My future was totally taken away."
Swimming against the current
While most bright, ambitious young women in Europe are choosing which university to enrol for or which career patch to pursue, or just which party to attend, Beheshti was wrestling with the notion of having to leave her home country and family to escape the suffocation of her ambitions.
"When you grow up in such an environment, you become one of three characters: you submit to the stronger will of the society and government, to survive you grow to accept their values and live by them. You lead a double life. You pretend to be what you are not. At home you are a different person than what you portray outside. Or you decide to fight, change the situation, or as an Iranian saying goes: 'swim in the opposite direction of the current'.
"I never wanted to be in the first two categories, but being the third category is exhausting. Especially if you keep swimming without reaching the bank of the river, you are left tired and depressed."
The final, terrifying straw
The final straw came in 2007, when Beheshti, still determined to teach, found herself on the wrong side of the law during a wave of unrest over the discrimination of non-Persians in Iran – a situation that terrified her into taking action...
She explains: "From the 70 million population of Iran, around 30 million are of a Turkic nation that live in the north western provinces of Iran. When Hitler was in power in the West, Reza Shah was his avid follower and employed many similar policies – he wanted to create a ‘one’ nation with the same language, customs and beliefs.
"To do so, he chose the 'culture' of the capital as the standard and tried to rid Iran's different nations of their own cultures. This belief system is still alive in Iran today. All non-Persian nations of Iran (Turkic, Arab, Kurd, Balouch, Lor, etc) are considered a minority and denied their rights to education in their mother tongue, and are discriminated against.
"In the second year of Ahmadinejad's presidency, an insulting cartoon was published in a state-run newspaper that pictured the Turkic people of Iran as cockroaches that are unwanted in the country. The solution given in the cartoon for getting rid of these pests was to make sure they did not receive any food or supplies so they would die off. This caused an outrage in my hometown of Tabriz and several other cities. People went out into the streets in thousands and were met by the revolutionary guards.
"Two months after this incident, the streets of Tabriz were still strongly guarded. I was teaching at a language school at the time, and we were just saying goodbyes in front of the school when a group of plain-clothed guards, men and women, approached us and demanded to know how we were all related and what we were doing.
"One of my students, an 18-year-old proud boy, spoke disrespectfully to these guards and so they arrested him. Feeling responsible, I stepped in to intervene and was arrested myself.
"The one night I spent handcuffed from behind to a pipe, blindfolded, and standing for over eight hours was a night I would not wish my worst enemy to experience. I was hit and mentally tortured. They tried to make me confess things I had no idea about by threatening to rape me. I survived the night without confessing anything, and was freed around noon the next day thanks to my father's connections."