Observing Human Rights in the Middle East

Tony Lee – The AsiaN Correspondent

It becomes evident when traveling in war zones and isolated areas that the most vulnerable in such places are women and young children.

In January, on a train bound from Mashhad, Iran, to Tabriz, I met a woman who looked to be in her 30s. Her name was Amir Nedai.

1Amir and I were sharing a 4-bed passenger cubicle with another couple from Iran; on a ride that would take 24 hours until our destination. Unlike Amir’s short stature, her husband was quite tall. He must not have liked the idea that his wife would be in the same cubicle with a foreign man (he and Amir were placed in different sections),because when he came inside our room, he did not even greet me.

It felt like Amir’s husband did not even want his wife and me to look at each other. Still, while her husband remained distant, Amir seemed rather comfortable sitting next to a foreigner and after a short while, introduced herself. I discovered that she was an Armenian Iranians and a Muslim.

Many Armenian Iranians live in Northern Iran according to their own political and religious customs. And like the Kurds, most are farmers that work in the mountainous regions.

The train arrived at the stop where Amir and I would get off. Before I left, I gave the couple that were with us a pen with The AsiaN logo. Outside the train was a complete wasteland. There were no trees, only old buildings amidst dusty grounds.

Born and raised in the minority Armenian community, Amir grew up poor in rural Iran. Before she was even an adult, Amir was married off to a wealthy merchant from Mashhad. Upon leaving her family, she had to give up the Armenian religion she had been accustomed to as a child and accept Islam as her new faith. The ride that we had been on was her first train back to the home of her birth in ten years.

After thanking me for The AsiaN pen that I had also given her, Amir left to be with her family.

2On many of my visits to war-torn regions, I met with several women like Amir and even now, remember each one; each story. The years that Amir spent in the war zone flash through my mind often.

Three years ago, in Karimabad, Pakistan. Two Ismaili Muslim women looked on at the village festival. Ismaili Muslims are known to be more relaxed about their Islam laws compared to Sunni and Shia Muslims. It seemed strange that these women were like visitors in their own village, only allowed to peek at the ongoing festivities. It pained me.

3Last month in Mashhad, Iran. At night, women can only leave the house with their husband or with a male in the family (photo taken January 10th).

Song Hye-jin, known as “The Angel” to Pakistan media, founded the second women’s Muslim university in Gilgit, Pakistan. She continues to aid in the education of Muslim women.

Frequent clashes between the Sunni and Shia occur in Gilgit and have resulted in many casualties. Gilgit is known for being a major war-zone with its history of disputes with India such as the Kashmir war. Moreover, with its conservative religious background, women are not allowed to receive education. It was in this context that Song Hye-jin was able to persuade the local Muslim Imams of the need to create a women’s college.

4When I was in Pakistan, I met Song as she was teaching her last course at the college. Her students were crying and I could feel their passion in learning.

Their tears were evidence of how much they desired to be educated. Tears began to well in my own eyes.

5The scene I came upon in Cizre, Turkey. A woman was polishing shoes in the middle of the city plaza. The closer I was to her, I could tell this was not her job. The woman had brought her son along with her to the city to earn some money polishing shoes. As the woman’s son brought her the shoes, she caked each shoe with polishing cream.

6I will never lose this photo. The second women on the right side is the Mayor of the Turkish city of Nusaybin. This photo was taken as I came across a rally. It was here that I found out the other side to the accusation that the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) cooperated with terrorist factions. This group was falsely accused of having pro-terrorist tendencies and were banished from their homes. This photo was taken last January.

7At the rally were many elderly women. They cries rang throughout the demonstration that they had been wrongly accused and did not deserve the treatment they had received. The women were part of the “Mothers of Kurdish Girls” movement. Later on, I heard that the Nusaybin region was bombed into a heap of ashes.

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