The apparent spark for this trend was a nationwide series of protests that began on December 28, 2017 and involved provocative anti-government slogans like “death to the dictator.” But some might argue that the trend dates one day earlier, as December 27 marked the beginning of the “Girls of Revolution Street” protest movement, in which women removed their legally mandated headscarves publicly and held them in the air while standing on elevated structures.
Although more narrowly focused than general protests against the theocratic system, its economic mismanagement, and its repression of dissent, the initial Revolution Street demonstration sparked a number of copycat protests and related actions against the country’s forced veiling laws.
These, too, have carried on to the present day, and they appear to have generated significant backlash from Iranian authorities, who had already showed a commitment to reasserting the nation’s hardline Islamist identity, even before this latest push by the women’s rights movement.
New signs of both trends – the protest and the backlash – emerged last Friday when Iranian citizens clashed with agents of the morality police force known as Gasht-e Ershad. Iran Human Rights Monitor reported upon the incident two days later, noting that the authorities attempted to arrest two women whom they accused of being improperly veiled. The details of the supposed offense are unknown, but there is a great deal of subjectivity in terms of what constitutes “mal-veiling.”
As the women’s rights movement has developed, women have become increasingly willing to wear their hijabs loose, revealing much of their hair. This is generally unacceptable to hardline authorities, but because it is common practice, ordinary women may be surprised to find themselves targeted for harassment or arrest. Whether or not this was the case in Friday’s incident, the IHRM report indicates that the actions of the morality police drew the attention of passersby who defended the women and precipitated a new clash between authorities and average citizens.
Iranian state media reportedly confirmed that the clash took place and that the morality police resorted to firing warning shots into the air to disperse the crowd. However, this may not have been the end of popular support for the women, as past incidences of harassment by morality police have been recorded by passersby and have gone viral on Iranian social media, precipitating an even broader backlash. Many opportunities for such backlash continue to emerge, with the morality police having already arrested at least 29 women during the month of February.
IHRM pointed to one previous case, from last April, in which four women were attacked and beaten for refusing the order to step into a van supposedly belonging to the morality police. The resulting public outrage prompted responses from the Minister of the Interior and other regime officials who suggested that the government would investigate the incident and punish the agents involved. There has been no indication that authorities followed through on this promise, and indeed, the persistent unrest across the Islamic Republic points to a contrary trend of punishing those who bring attention to the wrongdoing of the regime and its supporters.
This phenomenon has received particular attention from independent Iranian media and from international human rights advocates in the midst of labor protests at the Haft Tapeh sugarcane factory. In the midst of a protest last November, the activists Sepideh Gholian and Esmail Bakhshi were arrested and subjected to beatings and torture with the aim of compelling them to record false confessions. Their statements were aired on state media to discredit the protest movement, but after the detainees were arrested they began to speak publicly about their experiences, leading to their re-arrest in January. They remain in detention even now, and organizations like Amnesty International have warned that they are at severe risk of further torture.
But this is not the only pressure that these or other activists face in retaliation for the crime of criticizing regime authorities. Earlier in February, IranWire explained that relatives and supporters of Gholian and Bakhshi had staged protests of their own after being denied any information about the detainees’ location or conditions. As a result, authorities issued a warrant for the arrest of Bakhshi’s mother, who subsequently suffered a breakdown and was transferred to hospital instead of being imprisoned. Authorities frequently use threats against prisoners’ families as a means of psychological torture while also using threats against the prisoners themselves as a means of convincing family members to avoid public statements about the situation.
Criticism of the regime’s tactics can result in the virtual disappearance of one or more parties, or it can lead to further escalation of physical or mental torture. This feature of the regime’s crackdown on dissent is evident in the ongoing trial of eight conservationists who have been held in Evin Prison since January of last year. On Tuesday, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that one of those eight co-defendants, Niloufar Bayani, was absent from three out of five court sessions, prompting questions from supporters about the current circumstances of her detention.
While there is no official explanation for her failure to appear, it seems to be connected to her previous objections to the prosecution’s use of confessions that were elicited under torture and later retracted. According to the latest reports, these forced confessions appear to be the only evidence cited by the prosecution to support the allegation that the defendant’s conservation work was a cover for espionage on behalf of foreign entities.
Despite subjecting the defendants in this case to a year of interrogation, none of them were informed of the specific charges against them until the first day of their trial, according to CHRI. Nevertheless, Bayani was taken from prison on at least one occasion and photographed in staged scenes that authorities had designed to substantiate their pre-fabricated narrative. The same treatment was visited on Maryam Mombeini, the widow of a ninth conservationist, Kavous Seyed-Emami, who was found dead in his cell under suspicious circumstances soon after the mass arrest of his colleagues.
Since the beginning of the trial, authorities have sought to add weight to the fabricated evidence by enforcing silence from the defendants and their would-be advocates. At least three people have been pressured to avoid speaking publicly about the case, and the conservationists have not be allowed to address the court in service of their own defense. It is apparently because she violated this order to highlight the use of fabricated evidence that Bayani has been held incommunicado in lieu of returning to court.
The authorities’ various repressive tactics belie any intention to follow up on promises of reform that have been made in the wake of public outcry and protest. Such promises are indicative of an impulse among some officials to pay lip service to human rights issues while taking no recognizable action in support of those issues.
Following his election in 2013 and his reelection in 2017, President Hassan Rouhani made various promises of diminished censorship and a more open Iranian society, but the Islamic Republic remains a place where individuals can face multi-year sentences for the utterance of a single phrase.
This is the situation currently being faced, for instance, by Medhi Farahi Shandiz, who was profiled by Iran Human Rights Monitor on Saturday following his transfer to solitary confinement. The article points out that the previous Monday, Shandiz participated in a protest inside Karaj Central Prison that coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution and sought to bring attention to the regime’s history of torture and executions.
His prior activism landed him in prison when he shouted the phrase “death to Khamenei” in 2010. During subsequent beatings at the hands of prison authorities, he shouted the phrase again, resulting in two new cases being opened against him, which led to a combined sentence of nine years in prison for “insulting the supreme leader.”