Women's Human Rights Activism in Iran

Women's Human Rights Activism in Iran

Women in Iran have been at the forefront of the human rights movement in that country, advocating on a broad spectrum of issues, such as for reforms in the legal system that would revise provisions that hamper women's rights, for an end to execution by stoning, and for better pay and working conditions for teachers and others. Although their advocacy has consisted of peaceful activities such as participating in non-violent demonstrations and circulating petitions, they have been met with harsh repression from the Iranian government, as part of a recent pervasive crackdown on a wide range of activists, who have suffered arrest, detention, torture and ill-treatment, imposition of prison sentences and fines. As one activist Jila Baniyaghoub told the Associated Press, over the past year, the Iranian security forces have "become more and more aggressive even as women's actions have become more peaceful and more tame."

Amnesty International is concerned that Minister of Intelligence Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejeie has publicly accused the Iranian women's movement and student activists of being part of an enemy conspiracy for a "soft subversion" of the Iranian government on 10 April 2007. Despite the repressive conditions and real threats to their safety, fearless women activists persevere in their human rights work. Amnesty International has been working to support the many initiatives taken by these brave Iranian women.

One campaign spearheaded by Iranian women is the "Campaign for Equality," also known as the "Million Signatures Campaign," which seeks to reform the Iranian legal system. Although women in Iran have achieved success in education and in many professions - the majority of university students in Iran, for instance, are women - they are subject to discriminatory family laws involving divorce, inheritance and custody rights. Women activists launched the campaign in August 2006 and have been circulating petitions with the goal of collecting at least a million signatures calling for an end to these inequitable laws. Their campaign involves going door to door and talking to other women in their homes, in schools and universities and in factories. They have also held peaceful demonstrations and have been active on the Internet, setting up a number of Web sites dedicated to women's issues. Amnesty International is supporting this campaign and issued a joint statement calling for equal rights for women in Iran on International Women's Day on 7 March 2007 with Iranian lawyer and prominent human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.

In the past few months Shirin Ebadi has faced intensified persecution from the Iranian government for her courageous activism and efforts to promote women's rights in Iran. On 21 December 2008, dozens of government agents carried out a raid on the Defenders of Human Rights Center, run by Ms Ebadi to provide legal assistance to victims of human rights violations, hours before they were planning on holding an event there to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Center staff members and guests were harassed and intimidated and the center was forcibly closed. On 29 December officials identifying themselves as tax inspectors came to the Center to remove documents and computers, despite Ms Ebadi's protests that they contained protected lawyer-client information.

Ms Ebadi has also been subjected to threats and intimidation for her work. On 1 October 2008, while Ms Ebadi was in Germany receiving the "tolerance prize," the government-controlled Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) warned that she was exploiting the "patience and tolerance" of government authorities. A series of articles published in early August by IRNA made dangerous allegations against Ebadi, her family, and the Center for the Defense of Human Rights.The articles charged Ms Ebadi with supporting sexual license, promiscuity, and prostitution. They called her a Zionist agent and alleged that the international Zionist Lobby was behind her winning the 2003 Nobel Prize. The articles also claimed that her daughter has converted to the Bahai faith; Bahais are considered to be apostates by the Iranian government and are currently suffering from increased repression. On 1 January 2009 about 150 people gathered outside of Ms Ebadi's home in Tehran, chanting slogans and marking the building with graffiti.

It appears that the intensified harassment of Ms Ebadi could be a result of her contacts with U.N. human rights officials and their use of information provided by her center in a report by the UN Secretary-General on the situation of human rights in Iran. The report was released in October 2008 and contributed to a critical UN General Assembly resolution on Iran. Government-controlled media in Iran had criticized Ms Ebadi's involvement with the preparation of the Secretary-General's report for months. Following the demonstration at Ms Ebadi's home, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon issued a statement calling for an immediate halt to the persecution of Ms Ebadi.

In addition to the harassment of Shirin Ebadi, the government has stepped up its efforts to suppress the peaceful Campaign for Equality through harsh repression of several of its members. Nafiseh Azad, Bigard Ebrahimi and one other person - were arrested in a mountainous area north of Tehran on 30 January 2009 while collecting signatures for the One Million Signatures Campaign and taken to a detention center in Vozara. Judiciary agents raided Ms Azad's home in Tehran on 3 February, beating her husband, Vahid Maleki, and another women's rights activist, Elnaz Ansari. The agents seized Azad's personal property and laptop. Nafiseh Azad was released on bail on 4 February 2009 but has been charged with "acting against national security through propaganda against the state," a vaguely worded charge that is often used against peaceful human rights activists.

In another example of the government's use of severe measures to stifle peaceful dissent, Campaign for Equality member Alieh Eghdamdoust, who had been sentenced to prison as a result of her participation in a peaceful protest that took place in June 2006, was arrested on 1 February 2009 and transferred to prison to commence the prison sentence. A number of women's rights activists had been sentenced to prison terms of varying lengths for participating in peaceful protests or collecting signatures, but Ms Eghdamdoust's transfer to prison represents a disturbing development as the other activists have remained free on bail while their sentences have been appealed.

Alieh Eghdamdoust was sentenced by the 15th security branch of the Revolutionary Courts on 6 June 2007 to three years and four months mandatory prison sentence and 20 lashes. She had been charged with "acting against national security through participating in an illegal gathering and disturbing public order." During her trial, Ms Eghdamdoust was asked by the judge why she participated in the protest. She responded by saying, "You should participate as well.  Why didn't you defend your daughters and wife's rights by attending the legal peaceful gathering?The appeals courts upheld three years of the mandatory prison sentence, reducing her original sentence by four months and 20 lashes; Ms Eghdamdoust and her lawyers had not even been informed of the results of her appeal, which had been decided nearly a year before her recent arrest. According to one of her lawyers, Nasim Ghanavi, the only option left for Eghdamdoust is to request a judicial review which is allowable through amendment 18 of the Law Regulating Public and Revolutionary Courts.

The appeal of four women's rights activists against their prison sentence for writing for two websites related to women's rights began on 27 January 2009. Parvin Ardalan, Jelveh Javaheri, Maryam Hosseinkhah and Nahid Keshavarz were sentenced in September 2008 to six months in jail for their writings for the sites "Change for Equality" and "Zanestan" - which is now banned. The "Change for Equality" website was blocked by the authorities for the nineteenth time earlier this month.

At least five women's movement activists have been banned from leaving Iran. Most recently, lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was banned from travelling to Italy in December 2008 to collect a human rights award. In addition, Esha Momeni, who holds joint US-Iranian nationality, was also prevented from leaving the country after her release on bail. At the time of her arrest in October 2008, she was in Iran to visit her family and to conduct research for her Master's degree thesis on the Iranian women's movement. As part of her research she had been conducting video interviews with members of the Campaign for Equality in Tehran.

"Rather than arresting peaceful demonstrators, the Iranian authorities should be taking seriously women's demands for equality before the law and addressing discrimination against women wherever it exists in the Iranian legal system," said Irene Khan, Amnesty International's Secretary General." In their joint statement of 7 March 2007, Shirin Ebadi and Irene Khan stated, "as long as women are denied human rights, anywhere in the world, there can be no justice and no peace. Recognizing women's equal rights, therefore, is an essential requirement for the creation of strong, sustainable and stable societies and ensuring that women enjoy equality with men in all areas of life is a key step to making human rights a universal reality." Unfortunately, due to the failure of the Iranian government to recognize the basic human rights of its citizens, as noted by Shirin Ebadi in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, "harassment is a fact of life for someone pursuing human rights in Iran."

Appeals to be sent to:
Leader of the Islamic Republic
His Excellency Ayatollah Sayed ‘Ali Khamenei, The Office of the Supreme Leader
Shoahada Street, Qom, Islamic Republic of Iran
Email: [email protected], [email protected]
Salutation: Your Excellency

Head of the Judiciary
His Excellency Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi
Howzeh Riyasat-e Qoveh Qazaiyeh /
Office of the Head of the Judiciary
Pasteur St., Vali Asr Ave., south of Serah-e Jomhouri
Tehran 1316814737,
Email: [email protected], (In subject line write: FAO Ayatollah Shahroudi)

His Excellency Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
The Presidency, Palestine Avenue, Azerbaijan Intersection, Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran Fax: + 98 21 6 649 5880
Email: [email protected], (Or via website)http://www.president.ir/email

Dear Your Excellency:

I am writing to you to express my deep concern about the increased harassment of women’s rights activists in Iran. I am particularly troubled by the persecution and intimidation of Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, the arrests of peaceful activists, and the implementation of a prison sentence against Campaign for Equality member Alieh Eghdamdoust.

Shirin Ebadi had been subjected to numerous threats and accusations in the government-controlled Iranian media for several months. The Defenders of Human Rights Center, that she co-founded and runs, was raided and forcibly closed by government agents on 21 December 2008. On 29 December, documents and computers were seized at the Center by other government agents claiming to be tax inspectors. It appears that the persecution of Ms Ebadi is due to her contacts with United Nations representatives when they were preparing a report on human rights violations in Iran that was released in October 2008.

Alieh Eghdamdoust had been arrested after she participated in a peaceful demonstration calling for an end to discrimination against women that was held in Tehran in 2006. She had been sentenced to three years and four months in prison plus 20 lashes in June 2007, later reduced to three years in prison. She was remitted to custody and required to commence serving her prison sentence on 1 February 2009. Nafiseh Azad, Bigard Ebrahimi and one other person were arrested in a mountainous area north of Tehran on 30 January 2009 while collecting signatures for the One Million Signatures Campaign. Nafiseh Azad has been charged with “acting against national security through propaganda against the state,” a vaguely worded charge that is often used against peaceful human rights activists.

The right to engage in peaceful activism is enshrined in a number of international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. I urge your government to cease arresting and detaining those who participate in non-violent protests and human rights activism. I call on your government to immediately release Alieh Eghdamdoust and to reverse the sentences of Alieh Eghdamdoust, Parvin Ardalan, Jelveh Javaheri, Maryam Hosseinkhah and Nahid Keshavarz.

I also urge the Iranian government to allow the Defenders of Human Rights Center to be allowed to resume its activities without delay and to be allowed legal registration. The Iranian government should abide by its obligations under international law to promote and protect human rights and should support, not attack and undermine, the work of human rights defenders.

Thank you very much for your attention to this matter.