On Tuesday, NDTV published a video interview with Heena Sidhu, a competitive target shooter from India. In the interview, she explained her view that the wearing of a hijab should be strictly a matter of choice, and never the legal requirement that it is throughout the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although she also expressed support for her teammate who arranged to put on the hijab and take her place in the competition, she maintained that her personal convictions could not allow for her to gratify the repressive law.
In the wake of Paikidze’s boycott, Sidhu’s move may be seen to reflect widening awareness of women’s rights issues in Iran. Apart from chess and shooting, the international controversy has already come to encompass soccer and volleyball, with both FIFA and the International Volleyball Federation being variously urged to take punitive action against Iran over its refusal to allow women into stadiums to watch men’s competitions.
However, pressure from human rights groups has had, at best, limited impact upon these organizations. Meanwhile, Iran has only intensified its enforcement of forced veiling laws and the segregation of men and women, not only at sporting events but also in a variety of public spaces. This segregation also reflects a general crackdown on women’s rights and an attempt to discourage women from playing a role in public life. In 2014, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei instituted a series of policies aimed at restricting access to birth control and providing women with incentives to remain in the home and start families at an early age.
In what appears to be one of the latest examples of this trend, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps recently exerted pressure on an Iranian university to fire a female instructor named Hengameh Shahidi during her first day on the job. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, that endeavor was supported by a hardline organization known as the Delvapasan movement. The IRGC justified its call for Shahidi’s dismissal by referencing threats that had been made against her by Delvapasan.
These threats ranged from plans to disrupt the operation of the university, to the declared intentions of throwing acid on Shahidi if she attempted to continue teaching. In late 2013, a series of acid attacks were launched against women who were apparently perceived as wearing their hijabs improperly. Reactions from the likes of the National Council of Resistance of Iran linked these incidents directly to government efforts to empower civilian hardliners for the enforcement of religious laws and standards.
The legacy of these acid attacks is a strong indicator that contempt for women’s rights was driving the campaign against Shahidi in particular. But it is also possible that she was targeted primarily because of her status as a former political prisoner. In either case, the actions against her, both by the IRGC and its civilian supporters, are indicative of a much larger crackdown on perceived threats to the country’s enforced religious and political identity.
That crackdown has been directed against a wide range of public statements and social activities that support or praise anything that might be regarded as un-Islamic or pro-Western. One of the latest examples of this is the extensive effort put forth by Iranian security forces to obstruct a gathering and protest near the tomb of the pre-Islamic Persian leader Cyrus the Great. On Monday, the Associated Press reported that Iranian officials had confirmed the detention of some of the participants in that gathering, although the number of detainees and the nature of the prospective charges against them were not specified.
A BBC report on the same incident the following day did little to clarify the details of the regime’s reprisals, other than by saying that a number of individuals had been arrested for “violating the values of the Islamic Republic.” But the BBC also seemed to suggest that the expansion of the crackdown has spurred an expanded backlash against it.
The annual celebration of the birth of the founder of the Achaemenid Empire has been a popular outlet for nationalist sentiment that is not focused on the 1979 Islamic revolution. Iran has shown little tolerance for such celebrations of the country’s pre-Islamic history, but the BBC reports that this year’s gathering was larger than its predecessors. More than that, it was used as an outlet for protests against the current theocratic system, with much of the crowd having been heard to chant slogans describing the leadership as enemies of free thought.
Of course, Tehran is able to effectively counter the message of these sorts of gatherings via its extensive media and propaganda network. That network has a wide array of celebrations to broadcast which are focused on the revolutionary history of modern Iran. And the image of those celebration is bolstered by the presence of dedicated hardline organizations like the Delvapasan movement.
Such organizations have also taken a leading role in local-area crackdowns on certain progressive trends, as evidenced by the quantity of concerts that have been forced to be cancelled after objections from hardliners, especially in and around the clerical center of Qom. But on a national level, the Iranian judiciary has done its part in preventing the spread of music, not just via performance, but also via the cultural battleground of the Iranian internet.
Two brothers, Mehdi and Hossein Rajabian, are currently serving six year sentences in Evin Prison over their establishing and operation of the online distribution platform Barg Music. Their charges of “propaganda against the state” and “insulting the sacred” were justified by the fact that the music found on their site had not been approved by censorship authorities, featured vocals by solo female singers, and included foreign-based Iranian musicians accused of being “anti-revolutionary.”
The significance of this to the culture war in today’s Iran has made the Rajabian brothers subject to ongoing pressures including the denial of medical treatment and their separation into different wards of Evin. On Monday, it was reported that the brothers had ended their hunger strike, begun in response to these conditions, after being assured that their complaints would be addressed. But after two months since that promise, Mehdi and Hossein report that conditions have only grown worse, and that they are planning to resume the hunger strike they were “tricked” into ending.
In the meantime, others are sure to join them, including regular prisoners suffering from the appalling conditions of the Iranian criminal justice system, as well as political prisoners whose harsh sentences and treatment reflect the ongoing crackdown.
Also it was reported on Monday that Robin Shahini, one of several Western nationals arrested for “collaboration” with foreign governments, had resolved to maintain a hunger strike until the point of death if his 18-year sentence was not overturned on appeal. Shahini also reported, through a source that spoke to the International Campaign, that he blames Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for his current situation.
Soon after his 2013 election, the supposedly moderate president declared that Iranian expatriates would be welcomed back into their homeland and should have no fear of reprisal. But Shahini and others have been arrested without apparent cause while visiting family in Iran or traveling on business. The Rouhani administration has taken no recognizable steps toward discouraging these arrests or intervening with the judiciary, and has thereby contributed to the widespread doubts about the administration’s willingness or ability to act contrary to the hardline crackdown.