Since April 2016, the Islamic Republic has been holding the Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Evin Prison on charges that she had played a leading role in an “infiltration network” committed to the “soft overthrow” of the theocratic system. Such terminology covers a broad range of activities that would not be recognized as crimes in most other countries, and no specific evidence has ever been cited to justify accusations of espionage or the resulting five-year sentence.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s imprisonment appeared to stem from her past affiliation with the British Broadcasting Corporation. However, this affiliation did not involve work as a journalist or in connection with journalists, and by the time of her trip to visit family in Iran she was employed not by the BBC but by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. That charitable organization has no missions in the Islamic Republic, and there has never been any indication of a professional motive for the visit in which Zaghari-Ratcliffe took along her then-two-year-old daughter.
The charity worker is one of at least a dozen Western nationals currently being held captive by Iranian authorities for no apparent reason other than their country of origin.
Additionally, numerous Iranians have been targeted for arrest or state-sanctioned harassment because of their ties to American or British individuals or groups.
The tensions behind these and other such incidents have been escalating in recent weeks and months, as the British government has resisted Iranian ultimatums concerning US sanctions and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The US pulled out of that agreement last year, while the UK and five other signatories promised to help Iran keep it alive. But the regime has since expressed frustration with the inability or unwillingness of the UK and the European Union to disrupt American pressure tactics. Last week, Tehran began violating the deal by exceeding limits on its amount of stockpiled nuclear material, and officials promised more violations in the following days.
Together with British criticisms of other Iranian activities, the lack of progress in the nuclear and economic spheres may be contributing to the growth in tensions and thereby influencing Iranian decision-making as it concerns British nationals and their affiliates inside the Islamic Republic. This may in turn have made authorities even more hesitant about admitting a high-profile British visitor than they would have been otherwise. For what it is worth, Joss Stone reported that the authorities who turned her away were polite and even apologetic while doing so, but this only goes to show that there is misalignment between the attitudes of individual citizens and bureaucrats on one hand, and the official policies and unofficial statements of high-ranking government authorities on the other.
Even though Stone’s British citizenship may have been a contributing factor in her immediate deportation, the primary issue was more likely her gender. On social media and in remarks to the press, the singer noted that the authorities appeared unwilling to accept that she was not planning to put on a public performance. Female solo acts are banned throughout the Islamic Republic, although there is no formal law to this effect on the books. The regime has been cracking down with rising levels of intensity upon women’s rights activism as well as non-traditional artistic expressions, both of which authorities tend to associate with the “influence networks” supposedly operating at the behest of Western governments.
In May, a woman by the name of Negar Moazzam made international headlines after Iranian authorities moved to prosecute her for singing in public during a tour of the historic village of Abyaneh. Around the same time, it was also reported that female musicians had been banned without warning from performing at a charity concert in Qazvin Province, even though their pre-arranged performance was to be as part of a mixed-gender ensemble. This is technically permitted under the censorship rules of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, although in practice the authorities have demonstrated extreme sensitivity in many cases, as by ordering female performers blurred out of televised performances.
The apparent expansion of restrictions on female singers and artists reflects the broader trend in conflicts between the government and the citizenry over women’s rights.
Indeed, artistic expressions are far from being the primary battleground in this conflict. Generally, the main focus of both the regime’s repression and the public’s efforts to push back against it involves the much more ordinary self-expression that comes with one’s choice of clothing. Since shortly after the Islamic revolution of 1979, women have been required by law to wear Islamic head coverings in all public spaces, and volunteer militias have been empowered alongside multiple security forces to confront, harass, and ultimately arrest women who remove their veils or are deemed to be wearing them too loosely.
On Thursday, Iran Human Rights Monitor reported that the regime had “ramped up its measures to suppress Iranian women under the pretext of improper veiling,” with 2,000 “anti-vice teams” being formed for that purpose in Gilan Province alone. The Revolutionary Guard commander for that province reported that more than 28,000 women had already been confronted over such issues this year, and approximately 2,300 had been compelled to sign written statements promising greater compliance with the regime’s expectations in the future.
Despite this, and despite the fact that charges have been filed against at least 64 women in Gilan Province, the increased repression is also contributing to more public resistance, as evidenced by the criticism accompanying the viral spread of videos on social media that depict women being violently accosted over “improper veiling” by government and civilian authorities. This criticism has no doubt helped to fuel the various examples of active protest that have been recorded in recent months, including the acts of civil disobedience by opponents of forced veiling known as the Girls of Revolution Street.
Beginning at the end of 2017, some women’s rights activists began standing on utility boxes and other elevated structures in public spaces to remove their white veils and hold them over their heads like banners. Several of those women have been charged with crimes including “encouraging prostitution and immorality,” and some face multi-year charges. Nevertheless, associated protests are still reported regularly, and the same type of civil disobedience has been applied to other areas of women’s rights, with the apparent aim of overwhelming the system’s ability to continue enforcing its gender-related restrictions.
This was the explanation given by one Iranian journalist who spoke to ABC News recently about a business startup in Tehran that allows both men and women to rent bicycles, in open defiance of authorities’ attempts to discourage and criminalize female riders. “To make changes, sometimes we campaign to let the policymakers hear us or to increase awareness, said Niloofar Hamedi, who writes about women’s issues and female athletics. “But sometimes, we just keep doing what we want without shouting it out, and it slowly leave conservatives no way but to accept us.”
The report gives the impression that the long-term impact of that strategy remains up in the air, with some people worrying that the bike share’s recent success could be fleeting while others anticipate more local officials joining those who have already learned to tolerate or embrace such things despite the stark opposition at the federal level. Still, with the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard wielding virtually absolute authority over all matters of national policy, it will ultimately take more than local acceptance to change the status of women’s rights.
Significant nationwide changes will also be needed in order to reduce the criminalization of foreign nationality and foreign associations, or to guarantee that changes to local culture will be reflected in the treatment of foreign visitors like Joss Stone.