Insider news & Analysis in Iran
Tensions Growing Between Female Activists and Sexist Iranian Institutions

By Edward Carney

On Monday, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported upon the sentencing of a female political prisoner by the name of Hengameh Shahidi, who has been charged with “propaganda against the state,” “insulting officials,” and “spreading falsehoods” on the basis of social media posts in which she criticized the head of the Iranian judiciary.

Shahidi was initially detained last June and has been in solitary confinement ever since. She was sentenced to over 12 years in prison on December 10, and an appeals court subsequently ordered her to serve seven and a half years of that sentence, in line with a provision of the Iranian penal code that limits de facto sentences to the longest single term among simultaneous judgments. However, the Iranian judiciary is notorious for arbitrary punishment and the violation of its own provisions, and political prisoners have been known to have their terms extended via the addition of new charges after they have already begun serving a legal sentence.

It remains to be seen whether such additional pressures will be applied in the case of Ms. Shahidi, but the CHRI report effectively raises that possibility by noting that the number of female political prisoners is currently rising. The organization’s executive director, Hadi Ghaemi, explained this phenomenon by saying, “State forces are threatened by Iranian women leading calls for peaceful reforms in the country.” He identified Shahidi as the latest target in a crackdown on such women, but other reports point to the simultaneous harassment of existing female political prisoners, as well as the potential for harsh sentencing of recent arrestees.

As one example, Iran Human Rights issued a report on Wednesday highlighting some of the latest developments in the case of Narges Mohammadi, a well-known Iranian human rights activist and opponent of the death penalty who is currently serving a 16-year sentence for her peaceful activities. Roughly since that sentence began in May 2015, Mohammadi has been deprived of medical treatment while suffering from afflictions that have grown worse as a result of the conditions of her detention.

On Tuesday, the political prisoner was reported transferred to a hospital to undergo what IHR identified as a “long-delayed surgery.” But it remains to be seen whether she will be permitted time to fully recover, since other sick and wounded political prisoners have been known to undergo premature transfers that result in additional complications after the fact. The given report reiterates past calls for Mohammadi’s release on medical grounds, noting that she requires long-term treatment outside of prison facilities.

The CHRI report concerning Hengameh Shahidi specifically identifies Mohammadi as one of at least five female political prisoners who are currently serving “lengthy sentences.” It also names Nasrin Sotoudeh, the renowned human rights lawyer who was recently handed a 33-year sentence in addition to a pre-existing sentence of five years, largely in reaction to her efforts at defending female political activists who had participated in the movement known as “Girls of Revolution Street,” which involved participants publicly removing their Islamic head coverings in violation of the law.

Sotoudeh’s case and her particularly harsh punishment underscore the fact that the crackdown on female political activists is part of a larger phenomenon of cracking down on women’s rights in general. The Revolution Street protests represent a conflict between government authorities and ordinary Iranians that is apparently still building as the former attempts to reassert hardline societal standards while young citizens exert pressure in the opposite direction.

            Students at the Forefront

The persistence of this conflict was evident on Monday when students at Tehran University organized public protests against efforts by the clerical regime to intensify enforcement of the mandatory hijab laws on the campus. Al Monitor reported that students had described those efforts as being more restrictive than ever before, and as involving the deployment of “morality patrols” on campus for the purpose of confronting, harassing, and potentially ordering the arrest of women who are deemed to be improperly veiled.

The stricter policy regarding the Islamic dress code and its enforcement was reportedly accompanied by a new set of guidelines from the regime’s Science Ministry regarding the monitoring of social media activity among university students. Those guidelines specified disciplinary action for persons who are found in violation of restrictions, thereby expanding upon the regime’s strategy for limiting social media communication among the general population.

The student body of Tehran University responded to the new sets of laws by staging a protest on Monday, which in turn resulted in clashes between activists and supporters of the regime. According to Al Monitor, the students were attacked after reading out a statement, and it was later alleged that the instigators were members of the Basij, a civilian militia organized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iran Human Rights Monitor reported on the day of the protest that the basijis had been deployed to the university campus by regime authorities, as part of the same strategy that involved the morality police force. The report indicated that students had begun observing a greater militia presence weeks in advance of the protests, and that these had often been accompanied by plain clothes agents of the Ministry of Intelligence.

The Center for Human Rights in Iran also reported upon the student protest and subsequent crackdown, quoting the aforementioned activist statement in the process. The students’ remarks highlighted the perceived importance of standing firm in the face of such clashes, which represent efforts to curtail the already very limited rights of the entire population. They declared: “It should not be forgotten that what little freedom the students have in this university in terms of their clothing is not because of the kindness of officials and administrators but achieved through nonstop resistance and perseverance by students to gain their inalienable rights.”

The latest crackdown reportedly stems from a decision by the Committee for the Islamization of Universities. But in a larger sense, it may be said to derive from the regime’s response to long-term student participation in anti-government protests including the mass uprising that began in December 2017 and continued through much of January 2018. CHRI reported that over 150 students were arrested in connection with that movement, and that at least 22 have received “heavy prison sentences” on national security charges because of their peaceful participation.

Notably, the nationwide uprising closely coincided with the beginning of the Revolution Street protests, and the clashes at Tehran University highlight the student population’s connection to both. While opposition to stricter enforcement of the mandatory hijab laws was the clear impetus for the students’ demonstration, CHRI reported that they also chanted slogans with broader messages. These included refrains that had previously become familiar in January of last year, such as that which identified the two factions of mainstream Iranian politics in order to inform them that the “game is over.”

            No Rights, No Moderation

This slogan is significant in that it reflects widespread disillusionment with the former description of the current Iranian president as a “moderate” or even as a “reformist.” Prominent among the features of his political platform that justified this description was a supposed commitment to women’s rights. But following his second-term inauguration in 2017, Rouhani failed to appoint a single female cabinet minister despite explicit promises to the contrary.

Speaking more generally, the Rouhani administration has coincided with a steady increase in institutional gender discrimination as regime authorities work to reassert the traditional, hardline identity of the theocratic system. Among the efforts at this goal have been statements by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei urging women to start large families at an early age and setting the stage for legal restrictions on access to contraception.

Khamenei has also played a leading role in specifying stricter rules of behavior for women in public places. In September 2016, for instance, he issued a fatwa effectively barring women from riding bicycles. Doing so, he told state media at the time, “often attracts the attention of men and exposes the society to corruption. It contravenes women’s chastity and it must be abandoned.”

This strange condemnation of bicycle-riding resurfaced this week when the public prosecutor for the city of Isfahan issued a formal ban on female cyclists. “Based on fatwas by religious scholars as well as the law, bicycling by women in public spaces is a sinful act,” Ali Isfahani told state media before announcing that he would also be setting up an Office for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, for the express purpose of curtailing the practice.

According to Iran Human Rights Monitor, female bicycle riders have been perceived as a menace for years by some hardline clerics. The newfound success of their efforts at criminalization cast further doubt upon the notion that the Rouhani administration represents a barrier to the expansion of conservative rules. What may actually represent a barrier, however, is the “resistance and perseverance” cited in the Tehran University statement. After all, Khamenei’s initial fatwa in 2016 resulted in acts of civil disobedience by women’s rights activists, and this may partially explain why the fatwa has only now been used to support a formal ban in Isfahan.

On the other hand, as the sentencing of Hengameh Shahidi, Narges Mohammadi, and others makes clear, it is at least as likely for such protest to result in serious consequences for the activist as it is for the government to respond by withholding restrictions. And the arrest of female activists – or any activists – may be accompanied not only by the threat of aggressive prosecution, but also by painful or humiliating mistreatment at the hands of arresting authorities.

Days before the Tehran University protests, one student activist sought to call attention to this phenomenon via an open letter describing her experience at being arrested for peaceful participation in the January 2018 uprising. CHRI notes that Parisa Rafiei has been sentenced to seven years in prison, 74 lashes, and a two year ban on political activities and travel abroad. But she was also nearly subjected to a degrading and procedurally irrelevant “virginity test.”

“In a totally unlawful action during my detention, my interrogator with the approval of the case investigator sent me to the medical examiner’s office on Behesht St. for a virginity test but I stood firm and despite threats and lots of pressure, they did not succeed,” Rafiei wrote in the letter published on May 9. She went on to describe how she was stonewalled in all subsequent efforts to file a formal complaint over the incident, which was not the only threat of inhumane treatment that she faced during her 21 days in pre-trial detention.

Rafiei described threats of execution and other techniques whereby authorities attempted to elicit a forced confession. She reported receiving letters from the case investigator purporting to describe the harsh conditions of the facility in which she would be detained, albeit without describing that facility. She also emphasized that these same tactics have been directed against numerous other political prisoners, and against ordinary detainees as well.

“My emphasis on political defendants in this letter does not mean that I prioritize them over regular detainees,” she wrote in a post-script after stating that it is “more necessary than ever” for the public to publicize and condemn the Iranian judiciary’s abuses of women’s rights and human rights in general. “I hope and believe that the details of the inhumane conditions governing [all] prisoners should be publicized with due diligence,” she concluded.

Meanwhile, a report published on Saturday by Iran Human Rights Monitor highlighted the fact that when a woman is accused of an actual crime in the Islamic Republic, it does not mean that she isn’t a victim of discriminatory and ideologically motivated prosecution. After noting that state-run media had recently confirmed the 88th execution of a female inmate since President Rouhani took office, IHRM pointed out that dozens of women are on death row in Iran as a result of murder convictions, but the majority of these appear to have killed men in self-defense after experiencing domestic violence or attempted rape.

A number of these sorts of cases have made international headlines in recent years, and they have typically spawned action statements by human rights groups like Amnesty International. In October of last year, Zeinab Sekaanvand was executed just two days after giving birth to a stillborn child. Her death sentence had been postponed in part because of her pregnancy, but authorities ultimately dismissed objections concerning the fairness of her trial and the existence of clear mitigating circumstances including the fact of her forced marriage at the age of 15 and her multiple, fruitless efforts to report the abuse she received at the hands of her husband.

In October of 2014, similar international outcry surrounded the case of Reyhaneh Jabbari, who was convicted of murder despite credible claims that the alleged victim, a former Intelligence Ministry operative, had been trying to rape her at the time.

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