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Silencing the Women's Rights Movement in Iran


Introduction

On the morning of July 17, 2009, Shadi Sadr, the prominent lawyer and women's rights activist was walking with friends to Tehran University where they planned to attend the Friday prayer led by Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Suddenly, plain clothes men jumped out of a car and threw her into it. They drove her to the Tracking Office (Daftar-i Paygiri) in the center of Tehran, which houses personnel from Iran 's Ministry of Intelligence. Later that night, they took her to Evin prison where she was held for twelve days, much of the time in solitary confinement and in unsanitary conditions.

Rotating teams continuously interrogated her about her personal life, other women's rights activists, her foreign travels, and her opinion about the recent election. Interrogators tried to pressure her into divulging the passwords to her email accounts. Two or three days after her arrest, she was told she was charged with endangering national security through causing riots (iqtishash). Three or four days before her release, interrogators blindfolded her and put her in a room where she could hear the screams and moans of about 15-20 men being beaten. The room shook with the loud noises of weapons, batons, and whips. After 30-45 minutes, they took her, still trembling, to another room for further interrogation.

A few days after her release, prosecutors read the indictment at the first mass show trial in Tehran. It named Sadr as a leader of the women's rights movement that was fomenting an alleged velvet revolution to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Sadr was stunned-these accusations and her charges were very serious and could merit the death penalty in Iran . She fled for Turkey forty-eight hours later.

The women's rights movement in Iran can trace its origins to the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 during which women advocated for equal education rights. After the Pahlavis took power in 1925, many of the demands for equality became part of their drive to modernize Iran . By the time Ayatollah Khomeini took power in 1979, veiling was no longer mandatory, and women could vote and run for political office. The Family Protection Law, passed in 1966 and amended in 1975, gave women more rights relating to marriage, divorce and inheritance.

Many of these rights were abrogated in the years following the 1979 revolution. While women were encouraged to organize during the presidency of reformist Seyyed Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005, conservative elements of the regime continued to suppress activists. The suppression increased during the first Ahmadinejad administration. Activists were regularly harassed, interrogated, arrested and imprisoned.

However, the women's rights movement not only survived put prospered. In 2006, a group of veteran activists created the One Million Signatures Campaign. The Campaign is a grassroots effort to gather signatures and educate the Iranian public on the inequalities suffered by women. Women's rights activists were successful in convincing the Parliamentary Judicial Committee to temporarily shelve the controversial parts of a "Family Protection Law" introduced by Ahmadinejad during the summer of 2008. The proposed law made polygamy easier for men, divorce more difficult for women, and criminalized the marriage of a non-Iranian man to an Iranian woman without government authorization.

The impact of the movement was also reflected in the fact that, although Iran's Guardian Council rejected the candidacy of women who sought to run in the June 2009 presidential election (as it had in all prior presidential elections), three of the four candidates permitted to run endorsed many of their calls for equality. Considering the movement as an increasing threat, the Iranian government took calculated steps during the months leading up to the election to silence women's rights activists. It closed the offices of the Defenders of Human Rights Center that had been founded by Nobel Prize Winner Shirin Ebadi, it implemented, for the first time, the prison sentence of a women's rights activist that had been imposed for her activism, and it arrested, interrogated, and detained activists. It prohibited many from leaving the country.

As reported in the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center's report, "Violent Aftermath: The 2009 Election and Suppression of Dissent in Iran ," the regime cracked down on any expression of dissent immediately after the election. It beat, killed and arrested demonstrators, and arrested many other citizens who were considered threats to the regime's power. The experience and ability of the women's rights movement to organize, and collect and distribute information both in Iran and worldwide made its members prime targets of the regime.

Sadr's arrest and detention served as a warning to other women's rights activists. In the year following the election, the regime has used the cover of alleged national security threats to attempt to dismantle the women's rights movement. The crackdown increased in frequency, magnitude and scope. The authorities arrested activists during demonstrations, and continue to arrest them in their homes and in public, often without warrants. They have searched their homes and seized their belongings. They have detained activists without charge and denied them access to their lawyers or families. Prison authorities have subjected activists to lengthy periods of solitary confinement, and lengthy and often violent interrogations. They have released some women but only after they and their families posted high bail amounts or produced financial guarantees. Other activists remain in prison. Some have been fired from their jobs because of their activism.

The members of the movement-from part time volunteers to world-renowned human rights defenders-have been faced with a stark choice-cease their activism in order to protect themselves, their families and livelihoods, or continue their work at the risk of facing criminal allegations, arbitrary arrest and detention, interrogation, torture and even death. Parisa Kakaee, a veteran women's rights activist, believes that "[t]here are three options: to become inactive, to go to prison or to leave the country." 1 Many have fled the country.

At the same time the Iranian regime attempts to dismantle the women's rights movement, it continues to propose and implement laws that discriminate against women and impose further restrictions on their already limited rights. In December 2009 and January 2010, the Judicial Commission of the Iranian Majlis revisited the Family Protection Act and re-inserted the provisions that had been previously shelved. Iranian officials also continue to enjoy impunity internationally. In late April 2010, Iran was elected to sit on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW)-the only UN body dedicated to gender equality and the advancement of women around the world.

This report examines the Islamic Republic's targeting of women's rights activists leading up to and following the June 12, 2009 election. The first section provides a short background on the women's rights movement in Iran . The second section describes the suppression of the movement leading up to the election, and the third section covers the targeting of activists following the election. The last section analyzes the regime's legal responsibility under international and Iranian law. The regime has arbitrarily arrested, detained, and interrogated activists in an effort to dismantle the movement in violaton of international and Iranian law.

[1] IHRDC Interview with Parisa Kakaee (April 14, 2010) (on file with IHRDC).

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Tagged as:

Sexual Violence, Gender Rights, Death Penalty, Political Killings, Executions, Torture, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, Punishment, Personal Liberty, Arbitrary Detention, Travel Restrictions, Due Process, Right to an Attorney, Illegal Search and Seizure, Free Speech, Right to Protest, Protests, Free Association, Child Rights, Political Freedom, Equality Before the Law, Discrimination