By: Ali Akbar Dareini, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Homa Badr takes notes for her news stories in Braille, forming the words with a piercing tool and special perforated frame. Her mission: to promote knowledge among Iran’s blind and highlight the problems and dangers they face in daily life.
Her newspaper, Iran-e-Sepid, or White Iran, is believed to be the only Braille daily in the Middle East, operating in a region — and in a country — where the public has little understanding of the difficulties of the sightless.
“People in Iran have yet to recognize the blind’s white cane and learn how to treat them,” said Badr, blind since birth. “Some people do help us but still there is no law in Iran to protect our rights.”
The problems of Iran’s blind are many. Blind men and women have trouble meeting because of Islam’s strict separation of the sexes. Guide dogs are expensive — and dogs are regarded as unclean in Islam. Even navigating the streets in Tehran and other cities can be perilous because of the many potholes and bumps.
Iran-e-Sepid Chief Editor Soheil Moeini, blind since a childhood accident, said his paper’s goal is to educate and help the sight impaired.
“Our priority is to improve the general knowledge of the blind so that being blind does not prevent them from knowing and learning what the clear-sighted know,” he said. “We also seek to promote the rights of the blind and familiarize others with how to respect and treat us.”
Iran-e-Sepid is classified as a reformist daily supporting President Mohammad Khatami’s program of social and political freedoms, and Moeini is cautious in his editing to avoid a shutdown of the paper by Iran’s hard-line judiciary.
“We support presidential reforms but write in a moderate language because there will be no substitution if Iran-e-Sepid is closed down,” said Moeini.
Joking, he added: “Press court judge Saeed Mortazavi doesn’t know Braille. This gives me hope our paper will not be closed down.”
Mortazavi has been behind the closing of more than 80 reformist publications since April 2000, soon after hard-liners lost control of the parliament in elections and made greater use of institutions they still control.
Launched in 1997, Iran-e-Sepid reaches more than 4,000 readers out of an estimated 500,000 blind Iranians. The paper carries a summary of the news, and inside pages focus on social and cultural issues, especially those related to the blind.
It has five blind reporters, and most other staff also are blind. The newspaper publishes six days a week, operating with government subsidies.
Moeini complained that the paper suffers from the sanctions imposed by the United States, which maintains that Iran supports terrorism — a charge Iran rejects.
“Our printing presses are old and worn out. Last year, we tried to buy modern Braille presses from the U.S. but we fell victim to U.S. sanctions,” Moeini said. “At least, Americans could have excluded Braille presses from sanctions. It runs contrary to humanitarian purposes.”
Badr, who holds a master’s degree in history from Al-Zahra University in Tehran, says she depends on her touching skills to help describe events and places she covers. She writes on a Braille typewriter.
Among the problems of the blind that Iran-e-Sepid has focused on are those stemming from Iran’s rules as an Islamic republic and from the lack of any basic law about the blind.
Badr, who is 27 and single, is particularly concerned that many blind people never marry because they have no way to meet. In Iran, blind men sometimes marry sighted women, but it rarely works the other way for blind women.
That means the women’s best hope of finding husbands is in mixed gatherings of the blind sponsored by social organizations. But strict restrictions imposed by hard-line clerics ban socializing of unrelated men and women.
“In almost all educational places, blind men and women are kept separate to conform with Islamic laws. But I think that’s only a shallow interpretation of Islam that harms us greatly,” Badr said.
She said she doesn’t understand why young blind people are kept apart since the logic of the separation is to prevent flirting and lascivious looks.
“We don’t see anything. And there is no bad look among blind men and women,” she said.
Moeini, who works as well at Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency, pointed out one problem for the blind in Iran is that most of those over 40 are illiterate, though young blind people have been taught to read.
He said his paper is trying to win support from authorities for a bill that would define the rights of the blind for the first time.
The Agricultural Jihad Ministry recently agreed to allow guide dogs for the blind, but Badr says it’s of no use in Iran.
“A dog will not warn you of millions of potholes, bumps, and puddles in every street. And a majority of the blind can’t afford buying a dog,” she said.