In 2013, millions of Iranians voted for Hassan Rouhani as president, after eight years under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. During the campaign, supporters of Rouhani advocated for what they called a new “Hope Government.” His platform offered a series of promises: His administration would improve the economic situation and Iran’s relationship with the world, remove sanctions, eliminate limitations and restrictions on cultural activities, respect the rights of citizens, and engage women in public life and decision making. Furthermore, he promised to establish a Ministry of Women’s Affairs in his new cabinet.

Today, as we approach the end of Rouhani’s government, how should historians and scholars evaluate the economic, political, and social situation over the last eight years? The issues of women’s political participation and social freedom, which were promised by Rouhani, especially during his first campaign, are of particular importance in this regard.

Women’s political participation in decision making

All of the members of Rouhani’s cabinet during the eight years of his presidency were men. In his first term he only appointed three women as deputies: Masoumeh Ebtekar at the Department of Environment, Elham Aminzadeh as the president’s legal deputy, and Shahindokht Molaverdi as the deputy for women and family affairs. Soon after her appointment, Aminzadeh was replaced by a man, Majid Ansari. Molavardi, in turn, resigned in 2017. During Rouhani’s second term, there were two female deputies in the cabinet, for women and family affairs and the legal deputy.

President Rouhani had promised to establish a Ministry of Women’s Affairs, but instead appointed Molaverdi as his deputy for family and women’s issues. In 2017, when Ms. Molaverdi expressed her ideas regarding women’s issues, she was not only removed from her job, but also sentenced to two and half years in prisonin December 2020. She was charged with “providing classified information and documents … with the aim of disrupting the security of the country” and “propaganda against the state,” as well as “encouraging corruption and prostitution and encouraging individuals to commit sexual perversions.”

What actions and statements on the part of Ms. Molaverdi resulted in her prison sentence? One of the cases that led to the charges against her was “concluding a contract with the United Nations Population Fund.” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a proponent of population growth, opposes the U.N. Population Fund, which among other activities provides access to birth control. Ms. Molaverdi was also pursued for her support for the UNESCO Document 2030 UNESCO and Sustainable Development Goals, which she defended as a way to educate girls and boys equally. But Ayatollah Khamenei, for his part, was a serious critic of the document.

Another “criminal action” by Ms. Molaverdi was her praise for the Girls of Enghelab Street and her consideration of their protest movement as a “civil protest.” This statement made her the focus of considerable conservative criticism.

Ms. Molaverdi’s efforts at reform did not come to fruition and instead she paid a heavy price — she was sentenced to prison — while President Rouhani remained silent.

Closing women’s magazines and blogs and arresting journalists and activists

In Iran, activities in support of women’s rights, such as writing articles or starting campaigns, associations, or women’s clubs that criticize the laws, is considered a major crime and a threat to national security. During Rouhani’s campaign in 2013, women were promised more freedom to express their concerns and needs — they were promised that the situation would change.

After eight years of Rouhani’s presidency, however, women’s rights activists do not have the right to their own publications or to cover women’s issues. Several publications have been banned and there are many examples of female journalists and human rights activists who have been arrested: Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer imprisoned in 2018, was given a 38-year sentence for defending women’s rights activists. Narges Mohammadi, a civil rights activist, was imprisoned from 2016-20. Bahareh Hedayat served 6.5 years in prison (from 2010-16) for co-founding the peaceful “One Million Signatures” campaign to end gender-based discrimination and is now sentenced to four more years for peaceful protests. Solmaz Ekdar, a journalist, social activist, and defender of children’s and women’s rights, was arrested in June 2015; she has a history of working with the newspapers Shargh and Bahar. Minoo Mortazi Langroudi, a women’s rights activist from the Mothers of Peace Forum and a member of the National Religious Activists Council, has been sentenced to six years in prison and two years of deprivation for political and civil activities. The number of women journalists and human rights activists who have been arrested and sentenced to prison in Iran remains far too high, and while it may not have increased during Rouhani’s government, it certainly has not decreased either.

The magazine Zane Ruz (“Today’s Women”) was banned just for running a story about cohabitation, a practice commonly referred to as “white marriage.” In cyberspace, women’s rights activists and audiences also witnessed frequent filtering of websites. For example, the sites for the “Feminist School” of ZanestanChange for Equality, the Equal Family Law, and Bridges for Women were among a number that were filtered and closed by court authority. The result of banning and filtering these sites was to limit women’s rights activists from even peacefully expressing their ideas and having debates online.

Serial acid attacks against women with “bad hejab

In the fall of 2014 in Isfahan, a series of attacks were carried out against women by unknown motorcyclists, who sprayed their heads and faces with acid. The attackers were encouraged by some Friday Imams who argued that as Muslims they were responsible and should take action to prevent “un-Islamic” behavior by women wearing “bad hejab” in public. Women’s rights activists in Iran reported that at least 460 women have been attacked with acid, and some of the victims’ faces were completely damaged.

campaign began in Iran against the acid attacks. One of the campaign’s speakers told me in a phone call, “None of attackers has been arrested since we think it was organized and supported by the state. At least we can say no effective investigation have been taken to identify the criminals.” Photos and video footage of the victims have been posted on social media, in which they explain how they suddenly got acid sprayed in their faces. Among the victims were girls as young as two years old.

What was unnatural and surprising was the reaction of government officials: Instead of investigating or arresting the criminals — those carrying out the acid attacks — the women activists who started the campaign against the attacks were themselves arrested. Indeed, Rouhani’s government and other “reformist” decision makers did not even mention the acid attacks, as if nothing had happened. But the Revolutionary Guards arrested the women’s rights activists who started the campaign against the acid attacks and they were sentenced to prison. For example, the student and women’s rights activists Fereshteh Toosi, Parastoo Beiranvand, Zahra Khandan, Mahdieh Golrou, and Soha Morteza’i were arrested in the winter of 2014, after protesting against the serial acid attacks.

Iran’s uncertain future

Iranians have repeatedly been given hope that reform could lead to a better future, one with economic progress, less inflation, and a peaceful relationship with the U.S. and the rest of the world. But time and again these hopes have been dashed. The reform movement that began in 1997 with the election of Mohammad Khatami is now ending with Rouhani’s presidency. Today we have enough evidence to say confidently that even if a real reformist government were elected, it would not have the power to carry out real reforms. The record of the Rouhani government over the past eight years is the reason a majority of Iranian women and men, including those from a wide range of social, cultural, and religious backgrounds, have decided not to vote in this year’s presidential election, set to be held on June 18. Going forward, we can expect to see more violations of women’s and civil rights, more poverty, more people arrested and sent to prison, as well as more civil disobedience and more popular protests. The trajectory is clear. The only question is how long it will continue and how it will end.

Dr. Fariba Parsa specializes in the political ideologies of democracy and civil movements in Iran. She is a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Iran Program, works at Yorktown System Groups as a Farsi instructor, and is the founder and president of the nonprofit Women’s E-Learning in Leadership (WELL). The views expressed in this piece are her own.

Fariba Parsa

Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

MEI

The world must not turn a blind eye to the treatment of women in Iran who are oppressed, incarcerated and lacking basic human rights too

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.

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 campaigner 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 clamp down 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.

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By Elnaz Sarbar

Elnaz Sarbar is a women’s rights activist based in California


inews

Opinion by Masih Alinejad and Roya Hakakian

Masih Alinejad is the founder of the #WhiteWednesdays campaign in Iran. Roya Hakakian is the author of “Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran.”

For the past 42 years, Iran’s clerical leadership has defended the regime’s harsh Islamic dress code by claiming that mandatory wearing of the hijab is women’s best defense against men’s sexual advances. Yet over the past few weeks, Iranian women have offered up a devastating rebuttal of that claim — by coming forward to accuse employers, colleagues and even some senior officials of sexual crimes and harassment.

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‘Women in these videos are braver and angrier than before,’ says Masih Alinejad

Iranian women are sharing videos of themselves removing their headscarves in public, despite a recent ruling they could face 10 years in jail for doing so.

Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and prominent activist based in the US, started a social media campaign in 2014 encouraging women in Iran to share self-portraits without the Islamic veil, which she then goes on to share on her Facebook page called “My Stealthy Freedom”.

Ms Alinejad said campaigners had carried on sending her pictures and videos even after Tehran’s Revolutionary Court ruled they could face up to 10 years in prison on Monday.

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On 8 March 1979, more than 100,000 women gathered on the streets of the Iranian capital to protest against the new Islamic government’s compulsory hijab ruling, which meant that women would henceforth be required to wear a headscarf when away from home. The protest was held on International Women’s Day, and the images show women from all walks of life — nurses, students, mothers — marching, smiling, arms raised in protest.

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