Mojgan Shamsalipoor fled Iran for Australia as a teenager in 2012 in order to escape sexual abuse and forced marriage to a man in his 60s. Now 21 years old, she has since married a permanent resident of Australia, and she was in the process of completing her high school education in Brisbane when she was forcibly taken to a detention center to await probable deportation.
Shamsalipoor’s advocates now argue that she must be allowed to file a new visa application while still on Australian soil, out of fear that her life would be in danger if forced to return to Iran. Her story thus serves to highlight the human rights situation in Iran as it relates both to restrictions on the rights of women and to the treatment of persons who are considered political dissenters or affiliates of the West.
In the US, this latter point has been on fairly prominent display over the preceding years and months, as Iran arrested and held captive three American citizens in addition to the former FBI agent who went missing in the country in 2007.
Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian and former US Marine Amir Hekmati were both tried in the Iranian courts on charges that related to their vaguely defined “collaboration” with the US, which Iran identifies as a “hostile power.” Thus, their imprisonment is widely regarded as a symbol of hostility toward the West and toward Western nationals. Persons close to the detainees have flatly rejected all notions that they might have been spies.
Meanwhile, Pastor Saeed Abedini is serving an eight year sentence for “compromising national security.” The judiciary’s targeting of the Iranian expatriate and convert was possibly based on his adopted American citizenship, but was certainly based on his Christian faith, which is illegal for all persons born into Muslim families in the Islamic Republic.
The Shiite fundamentalism that generates such laws also encourages the repression of women, from which people like Shamsalipoor are forced to flee. This fact was on display on Thursday when IranWire reported upon some of the latest comments by hardline cleric Sayed Yousef Tabatabaei-Nejad who used a sermon in Isfahan in late August to encourage women to avoid work and stick to the household roles of wife and mother.
These remarks reflect much broader recent trends in Tehran’s policies, which have included the elimination of access to virtually all birth control as part of an effort to push women to have large families starting at an early age. Various localities have also more strictly enforced separation of the two genders in the workplace and in public spaces including concerts and parks. This has been accompanied by increasing conflict over issues like women being barred from attending men’s sports competitions, and the enforcement of laws requiring all women to wear head coverings.
Ayatollah Nejad had previously gained attention for his extremely conservative views on women’s rights when he said that the hijab was a “symbol of women’s piety” and positively required by Islam. These remarks are of course commonplace among Iranian clerics but were made noteworthy by the fact that they came at a time when women were being attacked with acid for being insufficiently covered in public.
In the context of his latest remarks about gender roles, Nejad speculated that his views would be contradicted by women who were preparing to run in upcoming parliamentary elections. But in fact, women who are actually allowed by the authorities to run for office must invariably hold to official ideologies including the restrictions on the rights of women.
An IranWire interview earlier in the week provided evidence for this when it reported that a member of the Iranian parliament’s Women’s Caucus react with surprise to a question about changing the law so that women no longer require their husbands’ permission in order to travel abroad. Lehla Eftekhari took a similar line as Ayatollah Nejad, describing the Iranian regime’s law as a holy law that cannot be violated or changed.
Eftekhari was interviewed in context of the story of Nilufar Ardalan, who was removed from the Iranian national indoor soccer team’s roster after her husband refused to allow her to renew her passport. The incident highlighted just another of the ways in which the Iranian system allows men, especially men of authority to keep women out of public life. But this is not to say that it actively does so in every case. Lelah Eftekhari is an example of this. Marziyeh Afkham is another.
But Afkham’s career supports the same conclusion as Eftekhari’s: that a serious public profile is reserved for women who are faithful to the regime’s official line on women’s rights as well as other matters. IranWire reported on Thursday that Afkham would be taking on the position of ambassador to Malaysia – the first ambassadorial post for a woman in the history of the Islamic Republic. In order to get to this point she served in the foreign ministry for 30 years, most recently as its official spokesperson, where she effectively acted as a direct mouthpiece for the regime.
While such faithful servants may be rewarded with higher posts, the situation is dangerous for people who openly dissent from the official line. And the situation is made worse still if the person is a woman. In that case, her views buck the political establishment while her mere willingness to express them bucks the ideological establishment with respect to women’s rights. There is no shortage of examples of this, many of whom are highly accomplished lawyers and human rights activists.
But one in particular returned to the headlines on Thursday when the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported that the Iranian judiciary was continuing to enforce an October 7 court date for Narges Mohammadi despite testimony from multiple doctors indicating that she need to be hospitalized.
Mohammadi has been a frequent target for arrest and general repression over the years, for such things as here membership in an organization with the aim of ending the death penalty and her meeting in 2014 with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to discuss Iran’s human rights situation.
The latest incident highlights not only the often arbitrary application of new charges and sentences, but also the familiar Iranian tactic of using denial of medical treatment as a form of pressure on or punishment against political prisoners. The International Campaign finds that this practice has killed at least seven prisoners since 2010.
In early August, Mohammadi showed signs of neurological paralysis. Several neurologists have declared that she must be admitted to a hospital and seen by specialists, but as of now, the ailing rights activist is still bound to appear in court on October 7 to again face charges of collusion and acting against state security.