Hunger Strikes and Female Leadership Show Defiance of Iranian Regime

Amnesty urged readers to write to Iran’s supreme leader over the case of Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Nekounam, a dissident cleric who was arrested in January 2015 after criticizing a fatwa that supported restrictions on the internet and the flow of information in the country. After being initially sentenced to two years in prison for charges including “insulting the supreme leader,” his sentence was arbitrarily extended to five years. The first sentence was the result of a 10 minute trial and the second was announced after a prosecutorial appeal of which neither Nekounam nor his lawyer were informed. 

 The 68-year-old prisoner believes that this extension to his sentence was issued as punishment for his filing a formal complaint over his mistreatment at the hands of interrogators and prison authorities, as a result of which he experienced worsening medical conditions. Nevertheless, he responded to the new situation last month by initiating a hunger strike, which had gone on for 31 days by the time that Amnesty issued its urgent call to action. 

Nekounam was transferred to hospital on January 13, but is still being denied access to specialized medical care despite having suffered both a stroke and a heart attack while in solitary confinement. Doctors have warned that he is in severe danger of suffering a second stroke and falling into a coma. 

Other hunger strikes have apparently had moderate success in recent weeks, although their participants have sometimes been brought to the brink of death before action was taken. Earlier this month, Arash Sadeghi ended his hunger strike after more than 70 days, thanks in part to support from civilian activists who helped pressure the regime to grant temporary release and a retrial to his wife, who had been ordered to serve a five year sentence over the contents of a personal journal. 

Sadeghi’s was not the longest recent hunger strike. It was exceeded by Ali Shariati, who ended his after 75 days last week. But in that case, no clear action had been taken on his case; instead, the protest ended at the urging of loved ones and fellow political prisoners. On the other hand, a 39-day hunger strike by Saeed Shirzad also ended last week, as a result of authorities offering promises that the abuse of political prisoners in Rajai Shahr Prison would end. There is no indication that those authorities took subsequent action to curtail such abuses, however, and Shirzad has vowed to resume his protest if his demands are not seriously addressed. 

Even an inconsistent record seems to have an encouraging effect on fellow political prisoners, especially in light of the attention that human rights groups and certain news outlets are giving to the collective action. On Monday, for instance, the hunger strike tactics were highlighted by the Christian Times in the dual context of women’s empowerment and the pursuit of religious freedom in the Islamic theocracy. 

The article named Maryam Naghash Zargaran as a female Christian leader who has is suffering political imprisonment alongside other types of activists and has held two recent hunger strikes over the denial of medical treatment. After initially being granted a hospital stay, she Zargaran was reportedly returned to prison early and against the advice of doctors, as is common practice in similar cases. She also had her prison sentence arbitrarily extended to compensate for the time spent on medical furlough. 

The Christian Times article notes that at least 193 Christians like Zargaran were imprisoned in Iran just last year, and that the country has been ranked as the 8th most dangerous in the world for Christians. Nonetheless, the number of Christian converts has apparently been growing in recent years, as another testament to the same defiance of government will that is on display in the broader phenomenon of hunger strikes. 

That defiance is further underscored by the female leadership that the Christian Times points to. And this is by no means limited to Christian groups. Indeed, the leading Iranian resistance group the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran is led by a moderate Muslim woman, Maryam Rajavi. But the Iranian regime has reacted aggressively to this phenomenon with recent efforts to clamp down on women’s rights and broaden restrictions on the co-mingling of men and women in public places. 

Feminism is frequently cited as an existential threat to the regime. This claim is made directly by critics of the regime and indirectly by the regime’s officials themselves, who have made accusations of feminism the grounds for various recent political imprisonments. One such arrest was that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the Iranian-British dual national and charity worker who was detained before leaving from a visit to her family and accused of trying to foment a feminist “soft overthrow” of the Islamist regime. 

The Washington Post reported on Monday that Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s five-year prison sentence was upheld on appeal. But that report also underscored that the case against her was based in large part on false or absent evidence. For instance, the judiciary declared that she had functioned as a leading recruiter for the BBC’s Persian news service, but the BBC maintains that she was never an employee of the organization.  

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s two-year-old daughter was with her during her visit and has been prevented from leaving the country to rejoin her father. The Post indicates that British Prime Minister Theresa May raised the issue of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s imprisonment in a conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in August. But the UK government’s action has otherwise been sparse, in an apparent contradiction to the rising levels of pressure that human rights groups and domestic Iranian activists are striving to bring to bear on the regime.