It is never an easy decision to travel to Iran. I have heard both voices of approval and condemnations from various sides on my 3 visits so far. Weighing them carefully, I believe that engaging, even in difficult circumstances, is more effective than isolation.
Discussions about the most difficult topics with our Iranian counterparts are often challenging, but usually very frank.
I believe Iran is at an important cross-road, and that the world, but mostly the Iranian people, would benefit from more openness, freedom, and connections with the world. Traveling to Iran has also given me valuable insights I could never have gained otherwise.
After 7 years of failed attempts by European Parliament delegations to visit Iran, we visited Iran with a delegation in December 2013. Impressions can be found here (CSPAN video).
In June 2014 I visited Iran again in a meeting organized by the German Korber Stiftung, the report can be found here.
As a woman, a visit to a country where wearing a religious symbol is mandatory is difficult. Clearly, female political leaders visiting Iran from other countries have faced challenges about the way they dress, from conservatives, almost without exception:
Comments were made about Italian Foreign Minister Bonino and her covering of her hair.
As far as I can see not much fall-out from the way in which South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane dressed. It was actually quite similar to the way I covered my head, but please judge for yourself.
A serious discussion about what is and is not appropriate and respectful should not only be held over the heads of women. With more political, business and tourist visitors coming to the Islamic Republic of Iran, a debate on whether it is appropriate to ask visitors to obey by strict religious laws has already started in Iran. There is great variety in the way women cover their heads in Iran, and the fact that all women on the airplane to Iran cover only after landing, or the massive support for movements such as My Stealthy Freedom reveal that this is a lively issue for women in Iran first and foremost.
This morning, when I landed back in Europe after our weekend visit, and turned on my phone and social media again, I noticed conservatives also considered the way I dressed to be disrespectful and even ‘uncultured’. Many kind reactions also came in response, particularly of women in Iran who wish they had the freedom to choose their expressions of religiosity and religious garments.
It would be a shame to let this ‘controversy’ overshadow the rest of the visit. But it would have been better for critics to notify me personally when they were in the same room with me, instead of via the media. This is an open invitation to discuss any topics we may not have had the opportunity to discuss directly, on anything from culture and respect, to freedom and security.
There is still a long way to go before women are treated equally in Iran. While education and employment figures are reason for optimism, family and labour laws allow for discrimination. Political representation is also very low. We discussed with (female) Vice-President Ebtekar what she believes are opportunities for reform in this field in Iran.
The 2 day visit allowed us to focus on the state of play of the nuclear negotiations, and to also discuss other issues such as the explosive situation in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, the rise of jihadist terrorism, energy and environmental issues, and human rights.
During previous visits I had the opportunity to see more of the country, and to speak with many Iranians outside of meeting rooms. I remain convinced that the country will flourish once its biggest capital, its human capital, has more opportunities to create their own future, and to connect with the world.
Our delegation expressed hope that a successful nuclear deal can open up opportunities to engage with Iran in dialogues on human rights, or on fighting terrorism. The environmental challenges Iran faces, as well as drug smuggling and drug addiction are also areas for possible cooperation. The statement our delegation had intended to bring out can be found here. More can be read about the problems with allowing other journalists than those of PressTV into the press conference here (AFP).
It is clear that press freedom, freedom of expression, and human rights in general remain of serious concern. The repression is still very tangible, although people seem to feel more relaxed since the election of President Rouhani. At the same time, the number of executions is still disturbingly high.
It will be crucial for the EU to keep human rights on the agenda, especially after the deadline for negotiations lapses. Only with respect for people´s rights can Iran fully come back into the international community.
More on Iran:
04-04-2014 Plenary debate about Iran