By Edward Carney
Earlier in January, two back-to-back news stories helped to illustrate the blatantly misplaced priorities that Iranian institutions maintain with regard to the rights of women. Together, the two stories illustrate the tendency of regime authorities to react swiftly and decisively in cases of perceived violations of laws concerning gender segregation and women’s behavior while remaining broadly tolerant of incidents involving rape accusations and other examples of female victimization at the hands of men.
In the first place, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that a prominent Iranian playwright and theater director was facing prosecution over his alleged use of female soloists in his latest work. Mohammad Rahmanian was summoned on January 6 to face questioning after the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps filed a complaint. The female singer who supposedly performed the song in Rahmanian’s play was also summoned and questioned several times.
The summons and the subsequent charge of “propaganda against the state” reportedly came as a surprise to Rahmanian and other people involved in the show, in part because they had received formal approval for the performance from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance after showing officials video of a rehearsal which showed that the singer, Hana Kamkar, performed her song with accompaniment from another female performer.
But this apparently was retroactively deemed insufficient by the notably hardline Revolutionary Guards, who overrode the Ministry’s approval after secretly monitoring performances of the play. “It seems like there’s some spiteful effort to sacrifice the theater community for no reason,” Rahmanian told reporters, elaborating upon his surprise at the developments. But similar arrests and similar revocations of former Ministry approvals have been fairly common place in the Islamic Republic.
This appears to especially be the case in the era of President Hassan Rouhani, whose much-debated description as a “moderate” has prompted the IRGC and other hardline authorities to make concerted efforts to reassert the nation’s Islamist identity. This effort has manifested, for instance, through crackdowns on musical performance in general, and through stepped-up enforcement of forced veiling and gender segregation laws.
Furthermore, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has personally spearheaded an effort to promote traditional gender roles, discouraging women from pursuing careers and instead encouraging them to start large families at an early age. Recently, at least two demographers were arrested by Iranian authorities for publishing research that suggested the Islamic Republic would not be able to sustain the desired acceleration of its birthrate. This led the Los Angeles Times to identify demographers as the latest group to be targeted in an “escalating crackdown on academics and activists.”
As this crackdown continues, the institutions behind it can be expected to close ranks and defend one another against accusations of misconduct. This was made rather clear when Rahmanian’s arrest was followed by reminders of systematic institutional neglect related to a high-profile rape case in which the alleged perpetrator was a member of parliament and former advisor to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
Salman Khodadadi’s accuser, 28-year-old Zahra Navidpour, was found dead on January 6, according to IranWire. The state medical examiner did not report the cause of her death, leading to speculation that she had either committed suicide or been murdered. The latter possibility is strengthened by the fact that Navidpour – the only one of four women to go public after allegedly being raped by the MP – had recorded a telephone call in which he directly threatened her, as well as begging her to retract her complaint.
Regardless of whether Khodadadi was involved in Navidpour’s death, the government’s willingness to defend him in the face of even the most serious criminal allegations has already been made apparent. Following earlier accusations of sexual harassment and assault, the Ministry of Interior banned Khodadadi from running to retain his seat in parliament in 2012. But it was shortly after that ban that the former MP was employed to serve as an advisor to the Foreign Minister. Then, in 2016, his ban was reversed by a higher authority, the Guardian Council, which is tasked with vetting candidates for high office on the basis of their compliance with the constitution, the will of the supreme leader, and the regime’s religious principles.
This fact alone goes a long way toward demonstrating the regime’s ideologically-rooted contempt for women’s rights. And Zarif’s employment of an accused rapist illustrates the failure of the supposedly moderate Rouhani administration to take an alternative stance on such issues. And this coherence between the attitudes of hardliners and “moderates” also applies to matters other than those involving women and sex discrimination. The administration has shown similar contempt for human rights issues more generally, as was underscored by an IranWire report concerning the plight of labor activist and political prisoner Esmail Bakhshi.
In the midst of long-lasting strikes by steelworkers, sugarmill workers, and other employees of major Iranian industries, Bakhshi has become something of a cause célèbre, with participants in numerous demonstrations calling for his release while independent and reformist media call attention to the torture and mistreatment he has received at the hands of interrogators and prison authorities.
As IranWire noted on January 9, Bakhshi’s account of his own torture is poised to result in a legal conflict, except the victim will be summoned to court in the role of a defendant. This is to say, the Rouhani administration signaled that it might file suit against Bakhshi, having preemptive discounted his account of torture while accepting the simultaneous denials issued by the Ministry of Intelligence and the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission.
The Rouhani administration’s blatant disregard for the rights of women and political prisoners bode poorly for those who fit both descriptions. Among them is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian dual national who was arrested on unsubstantiated charges of espionage in April 2016 at the end of a visit to her family in the Islamic Republic. This week, her British husband Richard Ratcliffe published a letter in the Independent detailing her plight and describing her three-day hunger strike as an “act of despair”.
Far from addressing her complaints regarding mistreatment and the withholding of medical care, Iranian authorities responded to the announcement of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s hunger strike by subjecting her to even greater pressure, including the cancelation of her scheduled telephone calls with her husband. But as the scheduled period for that hunger strike was ending, this transparent mistreatment did not prevent Iranian authorities from raising objections over the alleged arrest in the United States of a female journalist working for Iran’s English-language propaganda network, Press TV.
As Fox News explained on Wednesday, “Iran's state broadcaster held a news conference and launched a hashtag campaign for [Marzieh] Hashemi, using the same techniques employed by families with loved ones held by the government in the Islamic Republic.” As well as lending credence to the notion that Iran’s detention of Western nationals is motivated by a desire to use them as bargaining chips, Tehran’s outcry over the arrest of Hashemi suggests that the regime expects its citizens to receive better treatment in American jails than many receive on the streets of Iranian towns.