In recent years, a women’s rights movement in Iran has continued to grow in spite of aggressive attempts to stifle it. Women in Iran are at the centre of a human rights crisis which is now attracting global attention thanks to peaceful protests on social media, and the high-profile detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian charity worker from London.
Nazanin is a well-known example of the incarceration of women in Iran for political gain. She was detained during a trip to Iran, where she had travelled to visit her parents. Nazanin was sentenced to five years in prison by an Iranian court on charges of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government, which she has always denied.
Nazanin’s sentence ended in March 2021 but she was sentenced to another year in prison on charges of spreading propaganda against the regime. These charges are absurd – Nazanin is most likely being used as a bargaining chip for a long-standing debt Iran alleges it is owed by the UK.
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Women in Iran live under some of the strictest laws in the world. We cannot travel abroad without a husband’s permission. We cannot leave the house without wearing a hijab. The Government promotes patriarchal values, controls us heavily to oppress any civil movement in society, and uses women as a tool for its own political advancement, as we have seen with Nazanin.
Speaking out as a woman in Iran comes with huge risks. It is only now that I live in the US that I feel safe to stop beating around the bush and address the oppression that happens in Iran head on. It was also here in the US that I met Masih Alinejad, founder of the My Stealthy Freedom campaign. With 5.1 million followers on Instagram, she has been the most influential women’s rights campaigners in Iran. She has published thousands of photos and videos of Iranian women in public spaces without wearing hijab and encouraged social disobedience.
Because of her work, Masih cannot return to Iran. But her relentless journalism and activism has given me and many other Iranian women hope. I grew from someone who just expressed her objection to inequality in Iran with acts of personal civil disobedience, into an activist. In the past three years I have contributed to the My Stealthy Freedom campaign, facilitated women’s conferences and held workshops for activists on how to use new technology to create and distribute content.
Growing up in Iran, I loved dancing and wanted to run just to feel the wind in my hair. I wanted to laugh aloud and not be ashamed of my curves. I imagined myself to be a sexually active, independent woman and single until I turned 30. But it was not possible to be me in Iran. Many women’s rights activists in Iran have treated enforced hijab as a trivial issue. It is not. Being told how to dress by men, while they walk free, creates a power imbalance that can pave the way for domestic violence and sexual harassment, which are both very common in Iran.
It was hard not to feel like a second-class citizen during day to day life in Iran. Guards at the entrance of universities and government buildings check that women adhere to the Islamic dress code upon entry. I remember being denied entry to a government building once because I was wearing a scarf to cover my hair rather than a traditional Maghnaeh (veil). It was humiliating. Men went in unchecked.
The discrimination, the segregation, and feeling of powerlessness made me hate being a woman and made me leave my homeland. It took 10 years of living in the United States and a lot of healing before I was able to embrace my femininity and talk about the unjust treatment I experienced in Iran.
Throughout May, Amnesty International is running a London-Tehran virtual walk to raise money for and awareness of the plight of Anoosheh Ashoori, Mehran Raoof and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, men and women with dual UK-Iranian nationality being detained in Iran. The campaign aims to put pressure on the UK Government to secure their release.
There are many other women, like Nazanin, imprisoned under absurd charges in Iran. But their names are much less well known in Western media.
Imagine a beautiful day, when you are walking down the street, the sun is shining on your hair and you feel so happy that you sing and you dance. Now, if you were a woman in Iran, this harmless display of your joy could see you charged for violating three laws that are each punishable by two to 60 days in jail and up to 74 lashes. What did you do wrong? You didn’t cover your hair, you sang solo and you danced, which are all illegal for women to do in public in Iran.
These are laws that Iranian women have chosen to peacefully protest against in recent years by publishing photos and videos of themselves on social media without wearing a hijab, and dancing and singing in public. Joining a civil disobedience movement and doing any of the above in the context of a peaceful protest could land you in prison on vague charges like “disturbing public opinion” or “spreading propaganda against the regime”.
Yasaman Aryani, Monireh Arabshahi, and Mojgan Keshavarz are three women’s rights activists who were sentenced to 55 years in prison between them. They were arrested in April 2019 for removing their headscarves in Tehran underground and offering flowers to other women on 8 March 2019 – International Women’s Day.
Saba Kordafshari is another women’s rights activist who was sentenced to 24 years in prison for removing her hijab in public and “spreading propaganda against the state”.
After unjustly incarcerating women, Iran also treats women prisoners harshly. Prisoners have described being subjected to solitary confinement, denied access to medical treatment, torture and being moved to prisons hundreds of miles away from their family.
Women in Iran have become more active in the past few years but the response from the Islamic Republic’s government to their growing demands has been to clampdown and oppress. According to United for Iran, between 2016 to 2018, 10.5 per cent of all political prisoners in Iran were female. However, this number has risen to 19 per cent in 2020. The list of Iranian women in prison for political reasons is long and includes journalists, singers, lawyers, religious minorities, labour and political activists in addition to women’s rights activists.
Iran holds the record as the top executioner of women. Amnesty International recorded that 16 women were known to have been executed in 2020 in the world – nine of them were executed in Iran. Other countries executing women last year were Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Oman executing four, two, and one woman respectively.
The irony of Iran’s recent election to the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) cannot be overstated. Iran will sit on the commission for four years, ostensibly “promoting women’s rights, documenting the reality of women’s lives throughout the world, and shaping global standards on gender equality and the empowerment of women.” Electing a state that so harshly forces a dress code on women and punishes them with cruel and long sentences when they peacefully protest sends a terrible message to women’s rights activists who are already paying a high price for their work in Iran.
Nazanin’s unjust detention has rightly attracted global outcry, but it is just the tip of the iceberg. The world must not turn a blind eye to the treatment of other women in Iran who are oppressed, incarcerated and lacking basic human rights too.
Elnaz Sarbar is a women’s rights activist based in California