Insider news & Analysis in Iran

By INU Staff  

INU - On Thursday, the Washington Post published a report upon the American chess master Nazi Paikidze’s plan to boycott the Women’s World Chess Championship scheduled to take place in Iran in February. Although Paikidze’s announcement already reached the media last week, the Washington Post article provides additional information, including more recent clarifications from the chess champion, in response to criticisms suggesting that she is anti-Iranian, anti-Muslim, or refusing to respect foreign cultures.

The article quotes her as saying via an Instagram post, “Some consider a hijab part of culture. But, I know that a lot of Iranian women are bravely protesting this forced law daily and risking a lot by doing so. That’s why I will NOT wear a hijab and support women's oppression.” 

With this as a starting point, the Washington Post went on to highlight some of the protests that Paikidze was referring to, including the renowned My Stealthy Freedom campaign, in which Iranian women remove their veils privately and published photographs of themselves on public social networks such as Facebook, which is technically banned in Iran but still accessed by much of the population. 

Iran is widely regarded as being in the midst of a crackdown on dissent and pro-Western social trends, with feminism and women’s rights being particular targets. In June, the Iranian-Canadian anthropology professor Homa Hoodfar was arrested while visiting family and conducting research in Iran, and was detained for nearly four months, during which time she was accused of trying to foment a feminist “soft revolution.” 

Apparently in fear of such a revolution, Iranian authorities have taken a number of measures and issued various statements aimed at further curtailing women’s rights. These include increased segregation of men and women in public spaces, restrictions on access to birth control, more intense enforcement of forced-veiling laws, and harsh punishment of female activists. Last month, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei also issued a statement prohibiting women from riding bicycles in public places. But this quickly spurred new protests, with women posted images online of themselves riding bicycles, accompanied by statements declaring their intention to continue doing so. 

But the danger associated with such protests is made evident by the nature of the “offenses” for which women have been punished in certain high-profile cases. On Thursday, the USA branch of Amnesty International published an article detailing the six-year sentence handed down to writer and human rights activist Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee. She was arrested alongside her husband and fellow activist Arash Sadeghi, by men believed to be Revolutionary Guards, acting without a warrant. 

After the initial arrest, the couple was taken to their home, where authorities ransacked their residence and confiscated personal belongings. In the course of the raid, the authorities discovered a fictional short story that Iraee had written describing a woman who watches a true account of another woman being stoned to death, and becomes so upset by it that she burns a copy of the Quran. Although the story had never been published, the judiciary sentenced her to five years in prison for “insulting Islamic sanctities,” plus an additional year for “spreading propaganda.” 

The Amnesty report notes that the Islamic Republic has publicly defended stoning as being “effective in deterring crimes and protecting morality.” It also notes that at least one woman in Iran is currently awaiting a sentence of stoning. Iran News Update recently reported upon other ways in which the Iranian establishment openly rejects international standards of criminal justice and human rights, including by sentencing juvenile offenders to death and by enrolling children in the Basij militia. 

Although Iraee’s case is certainly indicative of an ongoing problem of the suppression of women’s rights, it is also arguably an example of other aspects of the current crackdown, which has targeted writers, artists, and journalists in large numbers. On Wednesday, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported that one imprisoned journalist, Issa Saharkhiz had been hospitalized for heart disease since March 9 but nonetheless began a hunger strike on October 2 over the authorities’ refusal to grant him conditional release as allowed by Iranian law. 

Saharkhiz has served more than half of his 21 month sentence, although he was initial sentenced to three years in prison for his activities as a reformist journalist, before that sentence was reduced on appeal. However, he is also awaiting trial on charges of insulting the judiciary chief and president, but the International Campaign notes that it is not clear when or how that additional trial will be carried out. Iranian political prisoners are often subject to arbitrary charges, sometimes brought at the very end of a previous sentence, to justify extending one’s time in prison. 

Saharkhiz was one of four journalists arrested on the same day in November, along with another man who was apparently arrested in order to put pressure on his brother, a dissident journalist living outside of Iran. That mass arrest was widely cited as a clear example of intensifying repression of the media throughout Iran. And of course, there have been additional signs of the same trend since then. 

In another article on Wednesday, the International Campaign reported that the government of President Hassan Rouhani was preparing to introduce two bills to parliament that would further restrict freedom of the press. One of these bills, the Media Affairs Commission bill, was apparently drafted in part by Iranian intelligence authorities, and as such seeks to consolidate all control over journalism into state hands. Critics have declared that its passage through parliament would effectively kill independent journalism in the country. 

The other bill, known as the Comprehensive Mass Media Regulatory Plan, codifies extremely vague criteria for the legal prosecution of journalists, such as promoting “deviant, anti-Islamic” media outlets, individuals, or groups, either inside or outside the country. Such terminology is clearly open for interpretation and allows for abusive authorities to punish any journalism that expresses an opinion that they deem to be harmful. 

In practice, this already happens, but in light of the Media Affairs Commission bill, there may soon be even fewer protections for independent journalists, since the bill threatens to destroy the Association of Iranian Journalists, which is essentially the closest thing that Iranian professionals have to a legal labor union. 

 

Given the number of Iranian journalists currently in prison (at least 55, according to the website Journalism is Not a Crime), as well as the number of activists who continue to risk imprisonment or worse in the midst of an ongoing crackdown, it seems likely that independent journalists will continue to do their work in the Islamic Republic regardless of future changes to the law. But for international human rights groups and other Iran-watchers, these sorts of contributions to the crackdown are just further reasons for the international community to support the actions of persons like Nazi Paikidze who seek to bring Iran’s human rights abuses to light.

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