At the end of her 49-day hunger strike, Iranian activist Nasrin Sotoudeh smuggled a letter from her Evin prison cell letting the world know about the 36 other female political prisoners incarcerated with her in Evin. This number is a new high. However, those women are not alone. Thirteen of them have immediate family members either in prison or under judicial pursuit. Ms. Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer, was convicted in 2010 of “spreading propaganda and conspiring to harm state security.” Her crime was representing clients such as Iranian journalist Isa Saharkhiz and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. While imprisoned, Ms. Sotoudeh began a hunger strike, which afforded a rare glimpse into the fate of female activists in Iran. However, this glimpse is not enough to convey the trauma of daily imprisonment of Iranian women in the land of ayatollahs.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamist Revolution, began his political activism in the early 1960s during the time of the late Shah of Iran’s “White Revolution.” The White Revolution was a modernization process encompassing a number of reforms, including granting women the right to vote in 1963 (almost a decade before Switzerland).
Khomeini and the Islamic establishment vehemently opposed the voting reform on the basis that Shariah law does not allow women to vote. This was and has been a point of contention between the two camps ever since.
Under the late shah, Iranian women had equal rights to vote, get an education and work in the public sphere and the seemingly mundane right to choose how to dress. They also benefited from laws that protected them from abuses of their freedom. Women were not allowed to be married before the age of 18, they were permitted to divorce their husbands, and they could be granted custody of their children. Polygamy was banned, with very few exceptions, and in all cases, the permission and consent of the first wife had to be obtained.
Before the Revolution, Iran had nearly 100 female judges. Included among them was Shirin Ebadi, who later received the Nobel Peace Prize. There also was a Ministry of Women’s Affairs dedicated to the empowerment of women and protecting their legal rights.
Immediately following the 1979 Revolution, the newly established theocracy moved to repeal the liberalized laws. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs was abolished. Women were banned from becoming judges and discouraged from becoming lawyers. Judge Ebadi and her female colleagues were sent home.
The marriage age for girls was lowered to 9, in accordance with Shariah law. Only after years of protest from Iranian women’s rights activists and international organizations was it raised to 13. Polygamy is now permitted and is, in fact, encouraged by the government. Women also have lost their right to divorce their husbands.
Female activists are regularly harassed and jailed. Following the 2009 wave of protests, in which many women served as leaders, universities became further segregated by sex.
Although women make up more than 60 percent of the student body in Iran, universities announced in September that more than 70 subjects in the liberal arts and sciences would be closed to women, including archaeology, computer sciences and business management. Last year, security forces shut down the Sedighe Dolat Abadi Library, the only independent, nongovernmental library in the field of women’s studies.
It only gets worse. In November, a newly proposed law passed the Islamic parliament’s Committee on National Security. The original language of the law banned women under the age of 40 from obtaining a passport and traveling abroad without the consent of a husband or male guardian. The committee not only approved the law, paving the way for a full parliament vote, but went one step further and removed the clause limiting it to women younger than 40.
If this law passes, Iran will become a country just like Saudi Arabia, where half of the population is quietly held hostage by the other half. It goes without saying that this law blithely contradicts the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Iran is a signatory.
Beyond the internal travesty of justice, there is genuine fear that if Iran develops even a single nuclear bomb, the Islamic regime eventually will take the entire Middle East hostage. Considering its track record, it is not difficult to assume that a country that holds its own people hostage will not hesitate to take others hostage.
Then there is another track record to consider. During the American hostage crisis, the ayatollahs in Tehran didn’t back down when faced with a not-so-firm Carter administration. However, when confronted with President Reagan’s uncompromising policy line, they relented and freed the hostages virtually overnight.
Old habits die hard with the mullahs. The Islamic regime will continue its relentless assault on women’s rights unabated just as it continues its advancement toward nuclear domination in the Middle East and the world. We must stand firm and fight oppression in Iran on all fronts.
Nir Boms is a co-founder of CyberDissidents.org. Shayan Arya is an Iranian activist and a member of the Constitutionalist Party of Iran.