An Iranian human rights activist, journalist, and researcher has been named the Oak Human Rights Fellow for the fall semester by Colby’s Oak Institute for Human Rights.
For the past two years, Khosro Kalbasi Isfahani, who first protested his country’s oppressive regime when he was a child, has been living in exile in Eastern Europe. From there, he has helped international media outlets and human rights organizations document the continued repression and execution of those protesting the government in the uprising sparked by last September’s brutal killing by the morality police of a young Kurdish-Iranian woman, Jina Mahsa Amini, who allegedly violated the Islamic Republic’s mandatory hijab law.
Isfahani, who identifies as queer and non-binary, also has focused on LGBTQ issues in Iran, where queer identities and same-sex relations are criminalized. He has translated materials on health, gender, and sexual orientation for young LGBTQ adults into Persian, and he was involved in suicide-prevention work for that community.
During his time on campus, he is looking forward to meeting students and sharing information about the situation in his country as well as having an opportunity to step back and recharge in a peaceful environment.
“It’s going to be a huge privilege for me, to take some time away from the frontline and get some actual rest,” he said in a Zoom interview.
The heart of an activist
Established in 1997 with a grant from the Oak Foundation, the Oak Institute for Human Rights typically brings one fellow to campus each fall to engage with the community.
Valérie Dionne, professor of French and outgoing director of the Oak Institute, said she is thrilled to have Isfahani come to Colby.
“An activist is someone that is giving themself fully, risking their life, because they believe in a cause beyond anything else. They are the most generous people I know. They really are the best people on earth,” she said. “Khosro is a beautiful soul. He incarnates true activism.”
Tiffany Creegan Miller, assistant professor of Spanish and the current associate director of the Oak Institute, will become the new director. Sam Plasencia, assistant professor of English, will be the new associate director for the institute.
A family legacy
Isfahani has dedicated much of his life working toward a better and more just Iran. In a way, he was born to do this kind of work. Both his mother and father were political activists, starting before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which culminated in the overthrow of the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi by the present-day Islamic Republic of Iran. His father was jailed both before and after the revolution because of his beliefs.
“They were arrested for just holding different ideas than the people who took over the country and hijacked the revolution,” Isfahani said. “Some of them were arrested because they possessed illegal books, or because they knew someone who was part of another political party that the Islamic Republic labeled as terrorists. And some of them were put in front of firing squads or were hanged. And I grew up with stories of these young men and women, and this was part of my family’s heritage. This was my parents’ legacy.”
His father died last year of a heart attack. His mother still lives in Iran.
A journey of self-discovery
Isfahani and his father went to his first protest together when he was 9 years old during a student uprising in Tehran. A decade or so later, he was a student activist during the Green Movement in 2009, a peaceful movement referred to by Western media as the Persian Spring.
That’s when he was arrested and interrogated by the Ministry of Intelligence. When the movement was quashed by the government, the activists spent some time under the radar.
“I got time to self-reflect and came to terms with my own queerness,” he said, something that is risky in Iran. The country is considered one of the most repressive places in the world for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Two LGBTQ activists were sentenced to death last fall, and a human rights group reported in 2022 that two gay men had been executed after spending years on death row.
“I was blessed with having accepting family and friends,” he said. “I was like, OK, I know English. I have done activism. I can write well in Persian, so I should do something for the queer community.”
Using a pseudonym, he started a blog about being queer in Iran, which translated into Persian pamphlets published by groups like PFLAG and used as a resource for other Iranians.
A few years after that, he moved into journalism when he got a job writing for an English-language newspaper, and he has worked with other news outlets as a researcher, including his current post at BBC Monitoring, a division of the BBC. He also has worked with the nonpartisan think tank the Atlantic Council and ARTICLE 19, an international human rights organization that defends and promotes freedom of expression and information.
For Isfahani, though, there is a tension between journalism and the activism that has his heart.
“At the same time they were reporting the war, they were fighting it,” he said.
That’s what he has strived to do, and in many ways, it has been personally challenging to be outside of Iran during the ongoing protests and not on the front lines, where he has been in the past with his friends and family.
“I’m the one who wants to document and tell the stories of brave people who are risking their lives constantly to make the world a better place,” he said. “A place that is worthy of life.”
At Colby, he hopes to remember one of those people with a special campus event or project on September 16 to mark the first anniversary of Jina Mahsa Amini’s murder.
Since then, hundreds of protesters have been killed, including at least 70 children, he said, and 20,000 people have been arrested. The regime has continued to use brutal tactics against the people of Iran.
Despite that, the people won’t be cowed, he said.
“You see women not wearing hijab on the street. You see Iran’s leading human rights defender visiting the families of the people who the Islamic Republic executed for protesting. You see queer people taking to the streets with the pride flag,” he said. “They are pushing the boundaries. Life in the Islamic Republic over the past four decades has been a constant battle. And without any form of violence, and without any support, these people with empty hands have pushed such a brutal regime back.”
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