Asylum-seeker Mandana Daneshnia and her daughter haunt democracy

Every day, The Wall Street Journal runs a feature called Photos of the Day. On Monday, October 18, the first photo was of a woman throwing confetti at Evo Morales. The second photo showed riot police hauling off a student demonstrator in Lyons. The third photo was of a mother and child. The mother looks away, the child looks directly at the camera. Here’s the caption: “SEWN SHUT: Iranian asylum-seeker Mandana Daneshnia, who had her mouth sewed shut for a hunger strike, sat with her daughter before a news conference in Athens Monday. A group of about 30 Iranians seeking asylum have been on a hunger strike in Athens for weeks.”

Here’s one version of the story.

Last year, around this time, on October 12, 2009, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the situation of asylum seekers in Greece. It was entitled Greece: Unsafe and Unwelcoming Shores. Here’s how HRW described the asylum system in Greece: “Greece effectively has no asylum system. It recognizes as few as 0.05 percent of asylum seekers as refugees at their first interview. A law adopted in July abolished a meaningful appeals procedure. The effect of the new law is that a person who is in need of international protection as a refugee in Greece is almost certain to be refused asylum at the first instance, and having been refused has little chance of obtaining it on appeal. The new law leaves asylum seekers with no remedy against risk of removal to inhuman or degrading treatment, as required by article 39 of the EU’s procedures directive and articles 13 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. As a result of this legislative change, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) withdrew from any formal role in Greece’s asylum procedure.”

According to the report, Greece acted abysmally, and both the European Union and the United Nations did nothing more than withdraw and withhold. They did nothing to protect asylum seekers, they did nothing to intervene in either a draconian legal system or a Dickensian prison system. Everyone was found guilty: Greece, Europe, the United Nations. The entire `civilized’ and `democratic world.’

A year later, on September 20, 2010, Human Rights Watch returned to Greece to review the situation. What happened in the intervening year? Delay after delay. The year may have intervened, but no one else did. Not the European Union, not the United Nations. No one. What happened? Less than zero. The world stepped backwards.

Meanwhile, on September 1, 2010, a group of Iranian asylum seekers set up camp in the city center of Athens, demanding an audience, pleading for asylum. They began a hunger strike.

On Monday, October 18, after weeks of belligerent non-response on the part of the Greek government, a new government that had come in on the promise of change, six protesters sewed their lips together.

Mandana Daneshnia is one of the six: “Mandana Daneshnia, a former newspaper reporter, said she fled the country after being harassed by authorities for writing about women’s issues. She was one of the seven protesters who sewed their lips. `Women have no rights in Iran. They can’t wear what they want, do what they want, or even watch sporting events. Their testimony in court counts only for half of the one given by a man,” Daneshnia said, writing a statement in Persian, as her husband and young daughter looked on. `I have sewn my mouth to show that women in Iran are strong,’ said Daneshnia, 29, with short dyed-blonde hair and red-framed designer glasses, holding her lips with her hand when occasionally tempted to smile.”

The women in Iran are strong, whether in Iran or in Greece or elsewhere. For those women, the women in Iran, the institutions of democracy, as exemplified by the conditions of asylum seekers, are neither strong nor weak. They are lethal, and they are inhuman. Mandana Daneshnia haunts democracy. Mandana Daneshnia haunts Iran, Greece, the European Union, the United Nations, and anyone who cares about women’s issues and the reporting of women’s issues. As Mandania Daneshia haunts the `freedom loving’, `democratic’ nations, her daughter sits on her lap. How many smiling daughters must sit on the laps of how many mothers with their lips sewn together before asylum is realized?


(Photo Credit: Louisa Gouliamaki/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.