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Q+A with Freedom of Expression Awards’ nominee, Jensiat’s Mahsa Alimardani

Jensiat, the graphic webcomic designed by Mahsa Alimardani, Kioomars Marzban, Vahid Fazel and Hajar Moradi

How to make the abstract real? How to bring the growing concern of digital surveillance to life? Put a face to it. Online graphic novel Jensiat follows Leila, a young Iranian entrepreneur working at a start up. In Leila, Jensiat has a protagonist that brings the two major issues of digital security threats and sexual health awareness to the fore.

After launching in March 2016, Jensiat was swiftly censored by the Iranian government, not before amassing around 1.2 million readers. The webcomic's creators have since been nominated for a Freedom of Expression Award for Digital Activism. Ahead of the awards in April, Run Riot spoke to Jensiat’s producer Mahsa Alimardani, to discuss how it is possible to bring such abstract notions to life and into the realm of public consciousness.

Run Riot: Jensiat is nominated  in the Digital Activism category for “innovative uses of technology to circumvent censorship and enable free and independent exchange of information”. When did you set about creating Jensiat? What inspired you to use the webcomic form?

Mahsa Alimardani: We started creating Jensiat in the fall of 2015, and were able to get all our pieces together to launch by end of February 2016 (our website, security, art, blogs, etc). Seems like we made it just in time for a meeting of Iran’s filtering committee in March, since we were censored with a couple of other projects related to digital rights in Iran as well. To be honest, a colleague who worked on this project anonymously first approached me to ask me to lead this. He was a big comic book fan, inspired by Balkan graphic novels, who always wanted to create a digital rights project with an empowered female character named ‘Sheida’ at its helm. When I took over, we changed the name to Leila, and we rearranged the project to have a strong leading lady at the helm of a Internet start-up related to sexual health in Iran.

RR: Visually, it really reminds me of Marjane Satrapi’s work, especially Embroideries, where the illustrations allow you to get you a real sense of tension and the interplay of what happens behind closed doors. What do you think it is about graphic novels that help bring these discussions to life?

MA: Definitely, we had Satrapi’s Persepolis in mind when we were developing this project. Technology itself, without getting into the complexities of digital security, are difficult to write about for non-tech audiences. Satrapi definitely nailed it with the ability to convey the nuances and complexities behind the 1979 Iranian Revolution. That’s why we picked this medium to try to create this cultural shift in thinking about two topics -gender and tech issues. And I think the fact that we were somewhat successful in doing this is a testament to Vahid, our illustrator’s work. He was able to capture the emotions and tone of certain scenes so perfectly with his art that even non-Persian speaking readers were able to understand the messages or events of certain scenes in the story.

RR: Who else worked on Jensiat with you?

MA: I was lucky I was able to work with a really talented team -we had Kioomars Marzban, who’s a satirist that was part of the team that wrote Poletik, a sort of Iranian Daily Show, as well as Vahid Fazel, or lead illustrator, along with his partner Hajar Moradi at Vivido Studio.

RR: Despite living our lives increasingly online and in the abstract, why do you think it is so hard to engage people with the concerns of cyber security?

MA: It’s hard to imagine things you don’t really see -and the threats online are often abstract, or far away until we experience them, or have someone close to us go through it. In the Iranian context too, many have the impression that the dangers of physical surveillance, which is common if you are a dissident or journalist, outweigh anything you do online. They forget that online surveillance can fuel physical surveillance, or evidence against you under interrogations, or identify networks of activists (just to name a few examples).

RR: In a previous interview with Creators- you’ve said of Jensiat: “It’s not revolutionary- just a way to implement thinking about day-to-day practices and discussions.” How much do you think grass-roots, individual-led change can lead to widespread shifts in attitude?

MA: Yes, it’s very important to say our work is not intended to inspire regime change. It obviously has stated values -awareness of your online behaviours and habits, and discussions about issues surrounding being a woman in Iran -that are hard to disassociate from politics, but a lot of Iran work gets caught up in these traps, which then unnecessarily target the ire of the government. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to prevent disgruntling the government in the end, as they censored us shortly after our launch. I think shifts in attitude start with cultural, everyday habits. Our goal was to get people to start thinking about their everyday approaches to gender, technology -and hopefully cause enough self-reflection to bring about the appropriate changes.

RR: Cyber security is often described as a Feminist issue because of the imbalance in how digital harassment and surveillance is focused on women. How do you believe we can change this in the near future?

MA: I think change begins in the little things we can control. I don’t think anyone has reached “perfection,” or the trendy term that folks use now of being “woke," when it comes to gender sensitivities. I think the key lies in the fact that we (both men and women) can make mistakes, but we have the ability to listen to those around us that we are/could be potentially hurting, and try to do better. The greatest danger that I see amongst a lot of people in terms of gender imbalance is them thinking they are incapable of gender discrimination and ever questioning their own behaviour. The attitudes that ripple into the digital world start in places like workplaces, even of the tech companies or digital rights NGOs themselves that are promoting these values. Online, women have been more prone to digital harassment, and I’m glad to see some tech companies are starting to take some steps to mitigate this within the infrastructure of their platforms -I know Twitter has rolled out an abuse detector that suspends accounts, although imperfectly. So it’s a start in what I hope are continuing efforts.

There’s also a segment of the population that does not understand what exactly harassment means, or the implications it has for its victims. Engraining this kind of education in schools, and with kids at an early age I think should be a given that doesn’t often happen. As someone who has been the target of online harassment, I’ve come to understand the problem is often a byproduct of mistreated mental health illness -at least in the one particular case I was involved in. I’m not an expert in social services or psychology, but I would have to guess creating more resources would be a start in preventing these individuals from manifesting their problems online. The issue of surveillance targeted against women by abusive partners was a topic we breached in one of the episodes of Jensiat as well. While we worked on trying to empower the woman to counter this risk, it takes a different approach to change perspectives of ownership and control in these scenarios, and I’m not sure where to start on changing this type of behaviour, besides going back to my earlier point of promoting a culture “listening, and doing better.”

Jensiat's team with Mahsa on the right

RR: Jensiat was censored by the Iranian government- is it still available in Iran?

MA: No, I just checked again right now. It is still censored. At least we know someone in government has read it. Hope they enjoyed reading!

RR: So our readers can better understand the similarities and differences, could you briefly outline the ways in which censorship occurs in daily life in Iran?

MA: There are different layers of censorship. There is press censorship, which on a day-to-day basis manifest in self-censorship to prevent journalists and agencies from persecution (although it happens often). There’s censorship over television, and the most illustrative example would be the broadcast of sport matches, or the Oscars, where the exposed skin of women is blacked out. Online, many websites are censored, Facebook and Twitter being the most notable ones, alongside the websites of organizations the government deems as antagonistic to the regime (such as Jensiat), as well as certain news websites the government has enmeshed with western conspiracies to topple the regime (such as Voice of America Persian, BBC Persian, etc). Censorship in the daily life of Iranians however has enough material to fill a book, but I’ll keep it at that.

RR: Whether abstract or actual, what are the goals you are fighting for?

MA: I like to think we could live in a world where people can be critical and capable of self-reflection, nuance and empathy that would allow us to live together peacefully. But that is broad and abstract, and I feel a little bit naive answering this question in full. I do dedicate a lot of my time to digital rights, so that is my mine goal most of the time. But there is no all-encompassing solution to online freedoms, so it’s a constant process.

RR: It’s International Women’s Day today- who are the individuals that inspire and motivate you to help women?

MA: I’m constantly inspired by the women around me who actively work to empower each other. I’ve been lucky to have been surrounded by these type of women growing up -and I make a point of surrounding myself with these kinds of female friends in my adulthood. I grew up with three generations of role models -my grandmother, mother and sister. They are each incredibly hardworking, career and family oriented individuals, who’ve always inspired me to towards following my passions, working hard, and learning how to be a loving and empathetic person. I have to highlight my grandmother however, who’s story I always love showing off. She broke against tradition in a family that expected her to get orient herself towards marriage and children. She got married at the age of 18, as was expected of her by her family and had children, but she balanced this with university education and later a career managing a division of the Iranian oil company in the north of the country. I like to think for her generation she was pretty rad.

 

Index on Censorship's Freedom of Expression Awards take place on 19th April, you can find out more about them here. Jensiat is nominated under the category of Digital Activism. You can visit Jensiat's site here. Mahsa Alimardani is the producer of Jensiat, Iran editor for Global Voices and also works with Article 19. Follow Mahsa on Twitter here, Global Voices here and Article 19 here.