Fearing Arrest, Iran’s Female Boxer Shines Light on Women’s Rights Issues

By Edward Carney

On Sunday, Al Monitor published an article examining the case of Sadaf Khadem, a female Iranian boxer who made headlines earlier this month when she won her first match against a foreign competitor after traveling to France for an officially sanctioned bout. The match was widely described as the first such opportunity for an Iranian woman, thereby lending more weight to Khadem’s victory. But despite the prior approval of Iran’s sports authority, Khadem cancelled her return trip out of fear that she would be arrested upon setting foot back in Iran.

The fears stem from the fact that Khadem competed in shorts and a tank top rather than wearing the traditional hijab, which is legally required for all Iranian women in all circumstances, even when they are representing the country in foreign competition. As Al Monitor noted, female Iranian martial artists have worn the Islamic head covering in the Olympics and other international events, while persons such as female chess champion Dorsa Derakhshani have been punished for their failure to do so.

Khadem and her Iranian-French coach Mahyar Monshipour both reported receiving threats of arrest in the wake of her un-veiled match. The pair believes that legal arrest warrants have been issued in the case, although the head of Iran’s Boxing Federation has denied this. There is, however, little reason to take this denial for granted. In the first place, Iranian law enforcement bodies often do not communicate clearly with one another about planned arrests, much less with non-law enforcement bodies. And in the second place, the Iranian regime has a long tradition of secrecy in judicial proceedings, especially those that are politically motivated or internationally sensitive.

Furthermore, there is good reason to take seriously the threat of arrest for Khadem and Monshipour because the boxer’s disregard for forced veiling laws comes at a time when the regime is eagerly trying to reinforce the Islamic dress code and other hardline principles. There is longstanding competition between social activists and regime authorities over women’s rights issues and related matters. And this conflict reached a sort of crescendo last year in the midst of a widespread protest movement.

The broader movement began on December 28, 2017 with economic protests in the city of Mashhad which quickly took on a broadly anti-government tone. But one day earlier, the women’s rights movement experienced a milestone with the start of a series of protests that would come to be known as “Girls of Revolution Street.” These demonstrations involve women removing white headscarves in public places and holding them over their heads like flags. The first known woman to do so is named Vida Movahedi, and she is currently serving a one-year prison sentence for her action.

It is hardly the most draconian sentence to be handed down to a women’s rights activist in recent months, but it is still emblematic of a larger phenomenon in which regime authorities are working to crack down on women’s rights advocacy. In fact, as Iran Human Rights Monitor pointed out on Saturday, the crackdown is so pervasive that Amnesty International recently issued a statement urging Tehran to halt its campaign of harassment, arrest, and imprisonment of female activists.

The statement also acknowledged the counter-trend among the activist community, with the organization’s Middle East and North Africa director saying, “Iran’s authorities appear to be lashing out in response to the increased defiance displayed by Iranian women and the growing peaceful popular movement against forced veiling laws in a bid to intimidate them into silence and submission.”

That campaign involves, among other things, threatening telephone communications like those that have been reported by Sadaf Khadem in the wake of her boxing match. The consequences of those prospective arrests are rarely specified but could range from just several weeks in jail to dozens of years. Last month, the well-known lawyer and women’s rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh was given a sentence of 33 years in prison and 148 lashes, on top of a preexisting five year sentence, largely in retaliation for her efforts to defend the “Revolution Street” protesters.

It remains unclear just how much of this sentence Sotoudeh will actually be expected to serve, but this uncertainty highlights another feature of the Iranian judicial system and the authorities’ crackdown on dissent. Prison sentences and other punishments are often imposed or altered arbitrarily, and sometimes the judiciary finds flimsy pretenses for the extension of sentences that have already been completed.

Although Vida Movahedi’s one-year sentence for public protest is somewhat short by the standards of the Islamic Republic, it is arguably made worse by the fact that she was held in detention for several months before a concrete sentence was ever given. The uncertainty of her case has only been compounded in recent days, as the Center for Human Rights in Iran reports that a request has technically been approved for her early release, in accordance with the law, but the actual release has been arbitrarily delayed.

This disconnect between legal standards and the government’s actual behavior may rise to the level of psychological torture, and there have been other examples of the same phenomenon in Movahedi’s case and those of other women’s rights activists. CHRI reports that she has been housed in the general prison population, among violent offenders, contrary to legal principles calling for the separation of inmates according to the nature of their “crimes.” Furthermore, the crime of going unveiled in public should carry a sentence of only two months, but Movahedi and others have had their punishments expanded by being charged with such offenses as “encouraging immorality and prostitution.”

It is a testament to the persistence of the activist movement that rising numbers of women continue to come under threat from such practices. Last week, IranWire reported upon the arrest of a mother and daughter pair, Monireh Arabshahi and Yasaman Aryani, who had appeared unveiled on a women-only subway car in Tehran to hand out flowers in commemoration of International Women’s Day. After the video went viral on Iranian social media, security forces invaded the family’s home, confiscated possessions, and arrested Aryani on the spot, then later arrested Arabshahi when she went to visit her daughter in jail.

The IranWire report also pointed out that before her arrest, Aryani – an actress as well as a social activist – was expelled from a play in which she was performing at a theater owned by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. This underscores the fact that arrest and prosecution is only one aspect of the ongoing crackdown on women’s rights. Other enforcement measures relate to cultural expressions and the spreading of propaganda related to gender roles.

Along these lines, hardliners have made concerted efforts in recent months and years to cancel performances by female singers and musicians, to enforce stricter gender segregation in public spaces, and to limit the cultural role of progressive-minded actors, actresses, and other public personalities. The famous film actress Maryam Moghaddam recently reported suffering treatment similar to that of Aryani, as she was suddenly barred from working on a movie, based on an “order from above.”

CHRI reported upon her situation, quoting excerpts from the open letter that she wrote in response to it. The report notes that Moghaddam was previously banned from acting altogether for two years, because of the role she had played in a film by the director Jafar Panahi, who was banned from filmmaking and sentenced to six years in prison in 2010 based on the socially challenging content of his work.

But even in spite of that ban, Moghaddam wrote, she has “never been prevented from working” otherwise. This observation suggests escalation of the regime’s enforcement of stringent rules that CHRI says are often arbitrarily enforced. At the same time, the further content of Moghaddam’s letter conveys the same attitude that many Iranian activists have taken toward rising levels of repression. “I do not know if writing you a letter will solve anything or make the situation harder for me but it does not matter,” she explained, adding: “It is certainly better than keeping quiet.”