by: Semira N. Nikou
Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, a women’s rights activist, is a founding member of the Stop Stoning to Death Campaign and the Iranian Women’s Charter. She was director of Entesharat-e Banoo (Banoo Publications) and Entesharat-e Jamee Iranian (Iranian Society Publication). She was the director of the Association of Women Writers and Journalists NGO. She is currently a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
- What is the status of female political prisoners in Iran?
Human rights organizations have reported around 300 female political prisoners since the Green Movement’s emergence two years ago. The accuracy of this statistic is uncertain since some women have chosen not to publicize their arrests.
We know that around 80 women’s rights activists have been arrested since 2009. At least 34 are still in prison. Examples include student activist Bahareh Hedayat, journalist Jila Baniyaghoub, and human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. Others have been temporarily released but are still waiting for their final verdicts.
Extended prison sentences and/or punishments are an issue. Before the 2009 presidential election, prison sentences were usually less than three months—a worst case scenario being two years of house arrest. But since the election, the same crimes have been punished with years of imprisonment and the number of people arrested has increased. Currently, the shortest prison sentence has been six years. Baniyaghoub, for example, has been banned from pursuing journalism for 30 years.
Circumstances in Evin Prison are also dire. All 34 women reside in one room. They have to sleep on the floor. Before the Green Movement, prison standards were far better—higher quality of food, sanitary environment, warm clothes, more living space, etc. Now, that is not the case.
- On what grounds have female political prisoners been arrested?
They have been accused of being a threat to national security. The regime targets activists from all spheres who can in some way keep social movements alive. The regime does not want the Green Movement to benefit from any other movements. The regime has always targeted women’s rights activists but the rate greatly increased after the emergence of the Green Movement.
- Women were at the forefront of the 2009 demonstrations that produced the Green Movement. What is the current status of the women’s movement two years later?
Since Iran’s 2009 presidential election, the women’s movement has focused on the status of female political prisoners and the daily government crackdowns. Women’s rights activists have broadened their human rights efforts. They are pursuing their cases not just in Iranian courts, but also in the international arena in their attempt to confront state violence with non-violence.
These activists simultaneously continue to battle gender inequalities, which are getting worse. Inequalities still exist in family laws favoring men, gender segregation in universities, and the exclusion of women from educational opportunities.
- Have the women’s rights campaigns changed since two years ago?
The Green Movement and the women’s movement have influenced each other. Before the Green Movement, the latter focused only on gender equality.
The Green Movement broadened the discourse on equal rights—which women’s rights activists had been pursuing for decades—to democracy. Religious and ethnic minorities such as the Turks, Kurds, and Arabs, and other movements, such as the labor and students movements, began to speak about civil rights. The women’s movement, for its part, worked to ensure that the discourse on democracy included issues of gender inequalities.
The women’s movement increased its activities in human rights organizations—both in Iran and internationally. There are many human rights organization in Iran but they often function in secret. They spread information through social media and various other networks.
A number of Iranian women’s rights activists, after leaving the country, now work either in international human rights organizations or have created their own organizations. One example is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and former judge, who still focuses on human rights issues while residing outside Iran.
Interestingly, however, the Green Movement did not push the women’s movement from a social movement into a political movement. The women’s movement has not joined any political movements active inside or outside of Iran.
- What is the status of the One Million Signatures Campaign, which seeks to collect one million signatures to change discriminatory laws against women in Iran?
The campaign is still functioning but has had to change tactics. It now functions underground because of the heightened government crackdown. Many of the campaign’s members have also become active in the Green Movement, helping to further democratize the opposition.