The women’s rights activist Darya Safai has become the first Iranian-born politician to enter the Belgian parliament: She was elected in late May to the Chamber of Representatives in Brussels, representing the center-right Flemish nationalist party, Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie or N-VA (New Flemish Alliance.)
Born in Tehran in 1975, Safai grew up in Iran, studied dentistry at Tehran University, and actively participated in the student protests against the Islamic regime in 1999, when she was arrested and held for 24 days in solitary confinement. Released on bail, she fled the country via Turkey and settled in Belgium with her husband, a leader of the student protest movement. Together, they started a dental practice. A Revolutionary Court in Iran would later sentence her to two years’ imprisonment.
Safai has remained an outspoken advocate of women’s rights. In 2016, she made headlines at the Rio Olympics when she refused to put away a banner she unfurled during an Iranian men’s volleyball game. The banner denounced Iranian legislation that bans women from attending all-male sports events in stadiums.
The party she now represents in the Belgian parliament, the N-VA, was founded in 2001, and defines itself “as a relatively young political party that promotes a modern, forward-looking and democratic form of Flemish nationalism.”
The Belgian daily l’Echo recently described Darya Safai as “the perfect alibi of the Flemish nationalists: feminist and of Iranian descent, she campaigns against ‘the influence of Islamism and its symbols’ within society.”
Yet Safai told the newspaper that she would “never accept to be used by anyone,” and added: “The N-VA wants me for what I am. It is a party that makes room for people like me.”
“As a victim of Islamism,” she added, “I want to defend and promote women’s rights. Islamism damages and rips apart our society. People no longer understand each other, but they must nonetheless work hand in hand to unite around a common identity based on their achievements.”
She said she did not see herself as a foreigner and felt at home in Belgium. “When you start out,” she said, “you must fight to succeed, learn the language as well as the house rules. Success is one of the best ways to fight racism.”
In 2014, Safai launched the “Let Iranian Women Enter their Stadiums” campaign to highlight Iranian laws banning women from watching men in stadiums. She started attending high-profile sporting events around the world, holding banners and wearing T-shirts bearing her slogan. (That same year, Ghoncheh Ghavami, a 26-year-old British-Iranian woman, had been jailed for trying to attend a men’s volleyball game, and spent five months in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.)
“Women are not permitted to watch all-men sports in Iran,” she said at the time, “because it is deemed against Islamic law to see the bare legs of men. Stadiums are also viewed as culturally unsuitable for women. However, women are not prosecuted for watching male sports on TV.”
“The law makes me ashamed as an Iranian,” she added. “Iranian people don’t have cultural problems, yet the law makes it seem as if we are one of the most culturally backward people in the Middle East. It is just insulting for my people.”
In December 2016, during a ceremony held at the Belgian Senate, the Belgian Secretary of State for Equal Opportunities awarded Safai the title of “Women of Peace” for her efforts to promote women’s rights.
Safai’s book “Lopen tegen de wind” (“Running against the Wind”), the story of her life and fight against discrimination of Iranian women was published in October 2015.