Interview with Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh

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.

Iran Rights Activists Face Challenges from Both Sides

By Ramin Mostaghim and Roula Hajjar
Los Angeles Times
July 26, 2011

In Iran, many human rights lawyers find themselves jailed or threatened with legal action. At the same time, some are criticized by peers who say they sometimes overlook clients’ best interests in their determination to take a stand.

Reporting from Tehran and Beirut— When Iranian activist-lawyer Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, human rights activists cheered. Here was a chance for Iranians to rally around a figure for political change and reform much as Poles rallied around Lech Walesa and Burmese around Aung San Suu Kyi, both fellow laureates.

Eight years later, the small cadre of attorneys close to Ebadi and the organization she started with her prize money, the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, are either in jail or threatened with legal action. The center has been outlawed.

Activists decry the detentions as a vengeful crackdown by government hard-liners who were incensed by Ebadi’s Nobel prize. But some human rights lawyers criticize their peers, saying the attorneys sometimes overlook clients’ best interests in their determination to take a stand.

Few of the lawyers have escaped the attention of the government. For the last two years, Ebadi has been in exile. Another human rights lawyer, Abdolfattah Soltani, has been in and out of prison for months since a crackdown against civil liberties intensified in the wake of the country’s disputed 2009 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Yet another lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, has waged prison hunger strikes between sporadic court appearances. Mohammad Seifzadeh, who once represented Ebadi in court, has been in prison since April, facing a nine-year sentence.

This month, when Iran’s hard-line Revolutionary Court sentenced prominent human rights activist Mohammad-Ali Dadkhah to five lashes and nine years in prison and barred him from practicing law for the next 10 years, few in the Islamic Republic even blinked.

Dadkhah, who was found guilty of spreading “propaganda against the regime” and plotting a “soft revolution,” was typically defiant about the sentence.

“Even if I am in jail, I will cheerfully advocate human rights, and those who put me in jail will be unhappy,” he said in an interview.

After Sotoudeh was imprisoned, Britain’s ambassador to Iran, Simon Gass, wrote an article for the embassy’s website in which he criticized Iran’s human rights record and called for Sotoudeh’s release, saying her “real crime” was “doing her job courageously and highlighting injustices that the Iranian regime would prefer stayed hidden.” In a Persian New Year address in March, President Obama called on Iranians to release her from jail.

Activists say Iran’s hard-liners have made good on private vows to make both the West and Ebadi’s circle pay for the Nobel, the first given to a Muslim woman or to an Iranian. They wanted to discourage those within Iran’s intelligentsia from pursuing Ebadi’s course, and to some extent they have succeeded. There appears to be no rush of lawyers taking the place of those jailed.

Some activists remain more optimistic, disagreeing that hard-liners had managed to scare lawyers away from representing controversial human rights cases.

“The center has succeeded in making defending human rights a common cause for all social groups, regardless of whether they are radical, Islamic, fundamentalist or reformist,” said Soltani, who is out of prison and is no longer facing serious charges. “We are ready to pay the price for practicing law to defend human rights, no matter how high the price is.”

But some lawyers believe that human rights defenders have played into the hands of the regime.

A well-known human rights defense lawyer who asked to remain anonymous says that his colleagues were not prudent or discreet enough given the climate in Iran over the last 10 years.

“In our job, when we practice law and defend our clients, our top priority is to save them from the death penalty and get a reduction of the sentence,” said the lawyer, who did not want to be quoted criticizing his colleagues. “We want to save our clients from the gallows. So it is not a matter of honor to speak like colonels in war fronts with Voice of America or BBC Persian, making our clients’ situation worse.”

He added: “It is not an honor to get yourself in jail. Our job as lawyers is to reduce the jail sentence of our clients. When we as defense lawyers receive applause from the USA and the European Union and their media, it is counterproductive for our clients.

“We are not here to look like heroes,” he said. “We are here to help human rights in an efficient way.”

Increasingly, the lawyers complain that they are being subjected to the same types of human rights violations they’re fighting. Soltani’s wife, Masoumeh Dehghan, received an official notification this month summoning her to the magistrate’s office inside Tehran’s menacing Evin Prison to clarify “some points,” Soltani recalled.

As soon as she arrived, she was hustled into jail and held for five days, in what Soltani believes was an attempt to show him how far authorities were willing to go to shut him up.

“My wife has never been a political activist,” he said. “She has only been active in some charities to help orphans. That’s it.”

The detention of Sotoudeh, an advocate for juvenile offenders on death row, who began serving an 11-year sentence in January, has left her two children miserable, her husband says.

“My wife is happy to do her time for 11 years and I am ready to bear it,” said Reza Khandan, Sotoudeh’s husband. “But why should my children suffer and be traumatized? As a father, it is agonizing to see this.”

He said his 2-year-old son cannot understand why he is not allowed to stay with his mother, and when their prison visits end, he “screams and cries for hours.”

When the boy asked why his mom had not yet come home, his aunt told him that he should pray, Khandan said.

But, according to his father, he replied, “Aunt, I have prayed a lot, and in vain. Praying does not work.”

The Riskiest Job in Iran

By Shirin Ebadi
Not so long ago, my colleague Nasrin Sotoudeh was the lawyer so many of us human rights defenders in Iran would call when our government harassed us or put one of us, or one of our family members, in jail. Sadly it is now Nasrin who is in jail. The government’s accusations against her include acting contrary to “national security”, “propaganda against the state”, and “membership” of the Defenders of Human Rights Centre, an organisation I founded in 2001. The government has also accused her of failing to wear hijab, the traditional Islamic covering for women. On some of these trumped-up charges she has been sentenced to 11 years in jail, and is now banned from practising law for 20 years.

This courageous 45-year-old mother of two young children is one of many in Iran who are targeted – and punished – for speaking up for the rights of others. Women are all too frequently on the receiving end of the Iranian regime’s wrath – as we know from the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, sentenced to be stoned to death for allegedly coNasrin-Sotoudeh-frei-02mmitting adultery. But what makes Nasrin’s case especially poignant is that it raises a fundamental question about Iran’s future. If the people who come to the defence of people whose human rights are violated cannot do their jobs, who will ensure that such values as equality and justice are upheld in Iran?

Iranian authorities arrested Nasrin at Tehran’s notorious Evin prison last September, during a visit to a client who is a political prisoner. Since then Nasrin has spent most of her time in solitary confinement. To protest against her illegal arrest, Nasrin has gone on several hunger strikes. Iranian officials have denied her access to a lawyer, and for the first month she was not allowed to talk to her family, even on the phone. At one point authorities detained her husband for speaking publicly about his wife’s case.

Why is the Iranian government so afraid of Nasrin Sotoudeh? It is clearly frustrated that an Iranian woman’s work is shining a light on the deplorable human rights situation in Iran. Nasrin is fearless in taking on cases that other lawyers carefully avoid, and for that she has earned respect around the globe. She took on the case of Zahra Bahrami, a Dutch-Iranian who was arrested for participating in post-election demonstrations in 2009. Zahra was denied her right to an appeal and, despite the intervention of Dutch authorities and a call by the European Union not to go ahead, she was executed without warning on 29 January.

Nasrin was my lawyer in a complaint I filed against Kayhan, a conservative newspaper, and she also defended me when Iranian authorities seized my assets in 2009. Nasrin has also taken on cases involving juvenile executions – Iran is one of the few countries in the world that still puts children to death. Nasrin’s case, among others, is making Iran’s failure to uphold basic human rights increasingly obvious. This is why some countries are pushing for a United Nations human rights council resolution on Iran, with a special rapporteur to carry out investigations into human rights abuses there. Such a push is encouraging, but it will still take a few more countries to reach a majority within the council.

Before her arrest the authorities summoned Nasrin to the tax office and froze her assets. While she was there she realised that the government was carrying out similar “investigations” of at least 30 other lawyers. If Iran is jailing its human rights defenders we need to step up efforts to ensure that justice is upheld there. Such concrete international action would be, in my mind, the best way to honour my colleague Nasrin.

Please visit Amnesty International’s urgent action page to find out how you can help:

Essential Readings: Iran

by: Raha Iranian Feminist Collective

[Image by Farhad Rajabali] [Image by Farhad Rajabali. Originally published at Jadaliyya]

In recent years, there has been a deluge of popular English-language writings by Iranians in exile, as well as hand-wringing public policy books by U.S.-based think tank pundits, all insisting on the same basic message: Iran represents a geo-political problem of unparalleled importance. While the stated goal of these books and organizations is to educate the English-reading global public about Iran, very often the message comes laced with support for militarily enforced regime change and full-scale neo-liberalization. Case in point: the mission statement of the Iran Democracy Project, a well-established California-based think tank, claims that its “central goal is to help the West understand the complexities of the Muslim world, and to map out possible trajectories for transitions to democracy and free markets in the Middle East, beginning with Iran.”

From problematic bestsellers to superficial fare treating Iranian politics as an impossible paradox needing U.S. expertise to be solved, what so much of this literature lacks is a historical understanding of Iranian political modernity and social movements. Without this understanding, the daily news coming out of Iran, not to mention U.S. and European state responses to that news, seems inscrutable at best and terrifying at worst.

Thirty years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution catapulted Iranian affairs to the forefront of global politics, the world witnessed an explosion of popular domestic opposition to the apparent electoral fraud of the Ahmadinejad regime and his clerical backers in 2009. Despite some mainstream coverage of these unprecedented events, not enough context was provided by a global media quick to denounce the regime’s violence but less eager (or able) to give credit to the ongoing peoples’ movements — most importantly women’s, students’, and labor organizations — that provided the strategic and moral backbone of these (as well as earlier) anti-regime protests. Frighteningly, the Iranian citizenry’s outpouring of deserved frustration and anger was painted by many in the U.S. government as a valid excuse to import the same kind of “democracy” that had been militarily delivered to the Iraqi and Afghan people. To add to the confusion, some factions of the U.S.- and Europe-based left rushed to support the Iranian state against the protesters’ accusations of systematic violence, brutal repression, and economic malfeasance, ostensibly because of the regime’s illusory anti-imperialist credentials. (For Raha’s response to this messy discourse see our recent statement.)

Despite the above, the situation is not so grim. We in Raha know that — much like in neighboring countries experiencing the Arab Spring — people’s aspirations and movements in Iran flourish despite both domestic and international pressure. Below we have put together a list of historical texts, artistic works, and links to political statements and videos that offer a richer and more nuanced understanding of Iran and Iranians.

Historical Context:

Ervand Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton University Press, 1982) and A History of Modern Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Iran’stwentieth century history is bookended by two major revolutionary movements: the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911, and what came to be known as the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The first revolution was an attempt to implement constitutional law and to curtail the Qajar regime’s dealings with then imperial powers Russia and Britain. The second revolution was an attempt to wrest power away from the repressive, U.S.-backed Pahlavi regime, which held the dubious distinction of maintaining one of the largest military and prison apparatuses alongside one of the poorest populations in the world. That is to say, in their formative stages, both revolutionary surges were attempts to fight what many Iranians have long considered their twin oppressors: este’maar and estebdaad, or external colonialism and internal despotism. Contemporary Iranian politics cannot be understood without this important historical framing. Abrahamian, one of the most prolific and thorough historians of modern Iran, provides just this context. Importantly, he also provides a detailed analysis of the Iranian left in this formative era. The first book listed here is the longer text; there really is no better introduction to twentieth century Iranian political history in English. For a shorter version of the same narrative, see the second book. (For other excellent works that cover the same era see also Iran: A People Interrupted by Hamid Dabashi and Modern Iran by Nikki Keddie.)

Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men (Wiley Publishers, 2008)

Kinzer is an American journalist who has written the most accessible analysis of the CIA-engineered coup against democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, which returned the American puppet Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the Peacock Throne. Though Kinzer’s diplomatic history doesn’t delve into Iranian sources, he adequately reveals the secret machinations that led to the overthrow of the popular Mossadegh, whose apparent crime was attempting to nationalize Iran’s oil resources. The coup remains a formative event in the historical memory of Iranians, though most in the country today are too young to have lived through it. This incident casts a long shadow that continues to lend emotive weight to the current regime’s anti-U.S. rhetoric, and fuels the necessary skepticism toward U.S. motives from those who nonetheless oppose the current Iranian regime.

Said Amir Arjomand, After Khomeini: Iran After His Successors (Oxford University Press, 2009)

For those interested in the major players of the post-Khomeini era and the changes at the level of the state, as well as those who don’t necessarily understand the important differences (and struggles for control) among powerful individuals such as Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, Rafsanjani, etc., this is the book.

The Modern State:

Afshin Marashi, Nationalizing Iran (University of Washington Press, 2008)

Despite the often-racialist rhetoric of many stringent Iranian nationalists — who boast of an ancient greatness often pitted against Iran’s Arab, Central, and South Asian neighbors — Iran is a multi-ethnic society whose history is intimately bound up with that of its neighbors. Iran, as a national entity, is as modern a political construction as any other nation. In this text, Marashi masterfully reveals the twentieth century colonial origins of the myth of “Aryan-ness” shared by some Iranian and Indian nationalists alike, a mythology that has unfortunately colored the analysis of too many Iranian nationalists and members of the Iranian left. We in Raha believe that for Iranian politics to move forward, Iranians must abandon their insistence that they are a people apart from their region.

Darius Rejali, Torture and Modernity (Westview Press, 1994)

One of the popular tropes in U.S. and European mainstream discourses is that the Islamic Republic is nothing but a giant prison. Rejali, on the other hand, reminds us that the contemporary situation in Iran has its roots in the Pahlavi era, when prisons were modernized along American lines and the Shah’s secret police (SAVAK) was trained by the CIA. Rather than seeing the prison system (and its employment of torture) in the Islamic Republic as a barbaric throwback imposed by “Islam,” Rejali argues that Iran’s security apparatus is a direct outgrowth of its establishment as a modern state. (For an interesting interview with Rejali, see “Six Questions with Darius Rejali” by Scott Horton. Here, Rejali reminds us that, “the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979 was the revolution against torture. When the Shah criticized Khomayni as a blackrobed Islamic medieval throwback, Khomayni replied, look who is talking, the man who tortures . . . People joined the revolutionary opposition because of the Shah’s brutality, and they remembered who installed him. If anyone wants to know why Iranians hated the U.S. so, all they have to do is ask what America’s role was in promoting torture in Iran.”)

Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, Conceiving Citizens: Women and the Politics of Motherhood in Iran (Oxford University Press, 2011)

In her most recent work, Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet reveals the degree to which women’s sexuality and health has become a near-obsession of the modern Iranian state. Rather than re-hashing those gendered questions that obsess the U.S. media (such as veiling), Kashani-Sabet shows the extent to which the modern state (both in its secular and religious forms) has shaped debates on gender, sexuality, and health in Iran through a discourse on “nationalist” motherhood. That is to say, Iran – much like its Arab and South Asian neighbors – has seen a gendered nationalist rhetoric claiming that the role of women is the raising of “strong/good” (male) citizens. Gender is an undeniably critical component to understanding Iran, though probably not in the ways we have been led to believe.

Arzoo Osanloo, The Politics of Women’s Rights in Iran (Princeton University Press, 2009)

This book — which spans a later era than Kashani-Sabet’s work — examines the means through which gender has been reconfigured as part of the new state-building project of the Islamic Republic. Osanloo looks at the government’s use of human rights and women’s rights discourses, as well as how that language trickled down into the lives of women in unpredictable ways.

Social Movements:

March 1979 Women’s Protests

This documentary — made by French documentary filmmakers — offers a vivid depiction of the Iranian women’s movement amidst the revolutionary fervor of March 1979. This short film is mandatory viewing for those interested in the events of the 1979 revolution, insofar as it captures a moment when women vied for an alternative vision for post-revolutionary Iran.

Nima Naghibi, Rethinking Global Sisterhood (University of Minnesota Press, 2007)

This book offers a historical perspective on the relationship between Western women/feminism and women in Iran, with a chapter specifically about the March 1979 events featured in the documentary listed above. A must read for anyone interested in transnational solidarity and feminism that doesn’t reproduce imperial hierarchies.

One Million Signatures Campaign

This brief video gives an overview of the major grassroots women’s rights movement that began in 2006. The One Million Signatures Campaign has gained prominence as an organization that insists on non-hierarchical organizational structures and on face-to-face encounters in their daily work. They are an inspiration.

Manijeh Nasrabadi, “Letter from Tehran” (June 2010)

On the anniversary of the Green uprising, Raha-member Manijeh Nasrabadi interviewed Iranian feminist activists in Tehran about their year(s) of upheaval.

“Three Decades of Labor Struggles in Iran”

This video outlines the work of the Iranian labor movement, as well as the difficult conditions facing working people in Iran today. Also see Iran Labor Report and especially the most recent May Day statement issued by several workers’ organizations.

Asef Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran (Zed Books, 1987) and Street Politics: Poor People’s Movements in Iran (Columbia University Press, 1997)

Bayat is the pre-eminent scholar of the remarkable democratic people’s councils (shuras) that emerged in the wake of the 1979 revolution, as well as other working class struggles in the Islamic Republic. Again, these books give a sense of the revolution as a contested struggle over the future, rather than a homogenous movement under Khomeini’s thumb.

Nader Hashemi and Danny Postal, eds, The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (Melville House, 2011)

Featuring important pieces by some of the most vocal commentators on the Green Movement that began in 2009 (among them Hamid Dabashi, Mohsen Kadivar, Juan Cole, and a number of green activists based in Iran), this anthology includes essays that were circulating during the most active months of the protests, and thus serves as both primary and secondary documentation of this democratic protest wave.

Manijeh Nasrabadi, “Gender, Class and Security Politics in Iran”

This talk from a February 2011 NYU teach in sponsored by Social Text considers the impact of the Arab Spring on the volatile situation of repression and dissent in Iran.

Fiction and Poetry:

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, Missing Soluch, translated by Kamran Rastegar (Melville House Press, 2007)

Written just a few years before the 1979 revolution, Missing Soluch is among the masterpieces by Iranian novelist Mahmoud Dowlatabadi. Focusing on life in a small village in Khorasan, Iran, this novel beautifully reveals the limitations and failures of the Pahlavi development project as well as the dynamics of a working class family. Dowlatabadi was himself a sympathizer of a major revolutionary Marxist guerrilla organization in the late 1970s; though this novel doesn’t deal explicitly with those politics, it is nonetheless mandatory reading for those interested in pre-revolutionary life in Iran.

Forugh Farrkhzhad, Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzhad, translated by Sholeh Wolpé (University of Arkansas Press, 2007)

Forugh Farrokhzhad is one of the most beloved modern Iranian poets. Her work explores sensuality and femininity unlike that of any other writer; her poetry features both lyricism and a sense of the ironic that few have matched. Her short film, The House is Black, is also a masterpiece. She is for many of us a feminist and anti-authoritarian hero.


The Prison Papers of Bozorg Alavi, edited and translated by Donne Raffat (Syracuse University Press, 1985)

Bozorg Alavi was a well-known novelist and among the founders of the Marxist Tudeh party in the 1940s. This book includes his Scrap Papers From Prison, the first Iranian prison memoir as well as a classic of Iran’s modern literature. Alavi’s brilliant, Kafka-esque narrative serves as a damning reminder of the first Pahlavi monarch’s authoritarian policies and reveals the degree to which political repression had been entrenched in Iran before the filling of the prisons of the Islamic Republic.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Shah of Shahs (Vintage Press, 1982)

This is a movingly written and politically astute account of the conditions that led to the 1979 revolution. Kapuscinski, a journalist who wrote about many anti-colonial revolutions, travelled to Iran in the final years of the Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign. His account chillingly portrays the paranoia among ordinary Iranians due to the ubiquitous presence of the Shah’s notorious secret police force (SAVAK), as well as the poverty and despair created by the Shah’s “modernization” policies.

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (Pantheon, 2003)

This bestselling graphic memoir (also an animated film) chronicles the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath through the eyes of a young girl whose parents are leftists. Satrapi gives a nuanced account of Iranians’ twin struggle against foreign intervention and internal despotism while also telling a moving coming of age story that challenges many Western assumptions about Iranian women and society.

Shahla Talebi, Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran (Stanford University Press, 2011)

This newly published book is arguably the best memoir written in English by an Iranian about Iran, though it will almost certainly not receive the praise that more sensational fare has received. Talebi is an activist who spent over a decade in Iranian prisons, first under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s reign, and then again for many years in the Islamic Republic. Unlike texts such as Prisoner of Tehran and My Life as a Traitor, which seem to believe that the Islamic Republic created repression out of thin air, Ghosts of Revolution is an explicitly political book that recounts the important historical events that have shaped both the pre- and post- revolutionary years. Talebi is a sensitive storyteller and politically savvy narrator who reminds us that notorious Iranian prisons Evin and Ghazal Hesar are part of the same political universe as the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay; unfortunately, the Islamic Republic doesn’t have a monopoly on repression or torture, despite what some of its detractors may think. On the other hand, this book should serve as an eye-opener for those who naively want to believe that the Islamic Republic represents a successful revolutionary/people’s movement. If you read only one book off of this list, this should be the one.

Letter from Tehran

by: Manijeh Nasrabadi

[Originally published on This interview was conducted in Tehran by Manijeh Nasrabadi of the Raha Iranian Feminist Collective one year after the green uprising. For more from the Raha Iranian Feminist Collective, see their “Essential Readings: Iran”]

On June 12, 2010, the tense one-year anniversary of the post-election uprising that made the color green an international symbol of a people’s democratic aspirations, hundreds of special security forces stood shoulder to shoulder along Tehran’s major boulevards and squares with knives, batons, and walkie-talkies ready. Nonetheless, the evening traffic from Imam Square to Revolution Square swelled well beyond the normal numbers of commuters, as families, friends, and co-workers engaged in a moving protest without signs, slogans, or any visible scrap of green. “My purse was full of green balloons that my sister and I were going to release into the crowd,” said one stay-at-home mother who drove along slowly, honking her horn to show her opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration. “But we saw the faces of the security forces and we didn’t dare.” The standoff described above reveals both how deeply the dissent runs in this society and how easy it would be to draw pessimistic conclusions about the possibilities for progressive change in Iran.

At this crucial moment in Iran’s history, when the gap between popular discontent and the ability of the opposition to accomplish reforms threatens to swallow what remains of the green movement’s momentum, the experiences of Iranian feminists, who have long had to organize under conditions of crisis and repression, may offer a vital perspective on how to move forward from here. Indeed, for Iranian feminists, June 12th (the 22nd of Khordad on the Iranian calendar) evokes a longer, less well-publicized history of resistance. It is also the four-year anniversary of a watershed moment in the contemporary Iranian women’s movement, when activists protested against gender discrimination in Tehran’s Haft-e Tir Square and were beaten by police. More than fifty people were arrested, but the One Million Signatures Campaign was launched in the aftermath, and it managed to develop networks of activists in cities across the country despite the toll of government repression.

Through educational workshops and grassroots petitioning in public places and private gatherings, the Campaign gathered support for changing ten key laws that constitute women as second-class citizens in Iranian society, including divorce, child custody, and inheritance laws. On the occasion of this double anniversary, I sat down with Delaram, Homa, and Nahid, veteran Campaign activists in Tehran, to solicit their reflections on the turbulent years behind them, the relationship between the feminist movement and the broader “green” movement, and the prospects for advancing the struggle for gender equality under the current security crackdown.

Far from a homogenous entity, the Campaign has been a space of vigorous debate over strategy and tactics – including over what position to take during last year’s elections. Each of the women I spoke with had taken a different approach. “We had faced so much repression previously that it wasn’t easy to judge if we should participate at all in last year’s election season,” said Delaram, who spent several days in jail after the protest four years ago. She still faces a sentence of two years, ten months and ten lashes for her role in protesting gender discriminatory laws – a sentence the government could decide to carry out at any time. Campaign workshops were attacked repeatedly over the past four years, and some members lost jobs or were kicked out of school. It wasn’t until the night of the first televised presidential debates, when support for opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi manifested in large street processions of young people decked out in strips of green fabric, that Delaram realized “the mood of the country had changed.” She decided to vote for Moussavi because it seemed like he might actually win. “It felt like our revolution, like the bad memories of the past thirty years were draining away,” she said. Most Campaign activists initially backed Mehdi Karroubi, successfully conducting their petition drive among his supporters.

Homa was studying at Tehran University at the time, the center of the ongoing student movement, and cast a protest vote in favor of the relatively progressive positions Karroubi had taken, helping political prisoners and supporting minority rights. Nahid, who was a leftist during the 1979 revolution, took the most unpopular position, boycotting the election altogether. “I thought if we voted, it would only give legitimacy to this government,” she said. No matter whether they had voted or not, or for whom, all three women experienced the shock and anger that accompanied the purported poll results, and joined the millions of people who publicly refused to accept them. But as Campaign activists were swept up by the green wave of protest, their own work ground to a halt. “People said forget about gathering signatures, let’s go into the streets,” Delaram remembered. Homa laughed and added, “People said, if you get a long prison sentence, don’t worry. This government won’t last more than a year or two.”

The Campaign risked becoming irrelevant as people could point to the mass demonstrations and say, “Women are at the front of the movement, men are following them. What more do you want?”Delaram explained. “But a movement is not feminist just because there are a lot women participating in it.”

Nahid was particularly wary of the possibility that the feminist movement might dissolve into the green movement. “I protested in front of the Interior Ministry. I visited the families of people who were arrested. I joined all of it,” she said, referring to the mass post-election demonstrations. “But I didn’t wear green. I’m part of the women’s movement and I didn’t see any of the candidates do more than pay lip service to women’s rights.”Delaram pointed out that, “before the election, some people in Karroubi’s campaign raised the slogan that the hijab should be voluntary. But after the election, this slogan disappeared.”

The tension between large mobilizations for empowering universal ideals – popular chants in Iran last summer called for freedom and an end to dictatorship – and the struggle for women’s liberation is especially pointed here given the hard lessons feminists have drawn from the last time there was such widespread resistance: the 1979 revolution. In the spring of that year, marches for women’s rights were labeled pro-Western and met with violence. As the green movement gained strength and shook the nation, “it started to feel just like thirty years ago,” Homa said. “No one focused on women’s issues.”

In an attempt to better understand how women ended up betrayed by a revolution they helped to start, Homa asked her mother why she ever agreed to wear the hijab. “She said she and her friends didn’t even think of questioning it at the time.” “I can tell you from personal experience,” Nahid offered. “At the time of the revolution, I thought we were fighting for a classless society, for full equality, and that when we achieved this, women’s problems would be solved as well.” Nahid spent seven months in jail in 1981 for her left-wing activism but it wasn’t until twenty years later that she heard the word “feminism” and joined the women’s movement (eventually landing her back in jail for five days after the June 12th protest in 2006). “Now my criteria for political struggle has changed,” she said. “It’s less important to me if you call yourself ‘left’ or ‘right’ then if you ask, for example, where the discrimination lies in the divorce laws.”

With the weight of history hanging over them, and the regime launching a full-scale attack against the popular movement – 5,000 people were arrested in the eight months following the elections, including 138 female civic activists – Campaign members struggled to figure out how to continue their work. Two months into the uprising, about fifty of them gathered to discuss what to do. “Every moment we thought security might burst in and, if fifty activists in Tehran were all arrested together, we would have lost everything we’d worked for,” she said. It was a disorienting meeting in which Campaign members raised doubts about petitioning against the ten laws – their organizational raison d’être. “We debated whether petitions had any meaning anymore,” Delaram said. “Activists who had collected signatures before didn’t feel confident to go into the streets to talk about changing laws. People were out in the millions; some people were getting killed and we’re going to say, ‘Sign this paper?’ A paper demanding change from this parliament? This administration?” More than even the threat of arrest, the idea of trying to convince people protesting their stolen votes that signing a piece of paper could change anything was paralyzing.

Last September on Jerusalem Day – one of a series of official government holidays seized by the opposition as another opportunity to protest – Delaram and others showed up with placards and slogans condemning discrimination against women. The results were disappointing. “You could talk to individuals and they might be interested or even agree, but we couldn’t make these issues a priority on the streets,” Delaram said. This was the only time it was safe enough to attempt such an open approach, as the ratio of government supporters to protestors was small enough to make a violent police crackdown impractical. In the meantime, Campaign activists were being arrested and questioned about women’s rights organizing, especially those who also participated in the student movement and the Kurdish struggle for minority rights. At least three Campaign members are still in jail. “We were and are in a crisis situation,” Delaram said. “But we have to remember that the Campaign actually began in a moment of crisis in 2006, when America was seriously threatening to attack Iran, and we didn’t know what we would do if that happened.”

I asked all three women what they thought of current US foreign policy towards Iran, including the latest round of sanctions passed by the UN Security Council. “The sanctions won’t overturn the government,” Homa said, “but they will make our lives harder.” She paused and added, “I don’t want to say all American organizations are bad; certainly the government has had a negative effect, but even many progressives have had a negative effect on Iranian civil society.” All three women voiced their concerns about the international attention the Campaign has received over the last year and a half. In particular, they were uncomfortable with what they called a distorted image of Iranian women that was taken for granted by Western feminist groups and others – an image they felt was perpetuated in part by Iranians who live abroad and publish overly negative generalizations about the situation of women in Iran. “It seems there is a fantasy in America about helping Iranian women,” Delaram said. “They say they want to help free us,” Homa said, “as if they are liberated and, if we’re lucky, we’ll someday catch up.”

The Campaign has been selected for prizes it did not seek out, including, in 2009, the Feminist Majority’s Global Women’s Rights award and the Simone de Beauvoir Prize in France. Activists in Iran decided to return all of the prize money. As Nahid explained, “We are a grassroots movement on a shoe-string budget and we are independent. If you take money from here and there, it undermines your work.” “If they want to help spread news of our activities in the foreign press, that’s great,” Delaram said, when I asked what kind of support would be useful. “But people need to have relationships with activists in Iran, to understand where we are coming from. We have a movement. It’s true that we are working in very difficult conditions, but, my question is, what are you doing to organize for women’s rights in America?”She then offered an example of what she considered to be productive solidarity – the response to Iranian feminists’ call for support on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2010. Using Facebook, Twitter, and the web site, they asked that articles, demonstrations, and other events being organized around the world on that day focus on the slogan “Freedom and Gender Equality in Iran.” Individuals and groups from India, Pakistan, Malaysia, the US, and a host of European countries signed on. “To me this said, ‘Let’s struggle together, protest together for women’s rights everywhere,’” Delaram said. “It was not about pity for women in Iran or Afghanistan.”

Not long after March 8th, the Campaign held another meeting and adapted its organizing strategy to the new realities of increased security. “No longer can we go into parks and collect signatures,” Homa said. With public petitioning out of the question, and large membership meetings too risky, they decided to divide up into smaller, more agile groups – each one focused on a particular discriminatory law – that could operate with less probability of arrest. New volunteers can join whichever group they choose and most communication happens over email, still a safer bet than using the phone. Every few months, members will try to bring the smaller groups together for an overall assessment of their progress. Campaign activists have been encouraged by some important, if relatively minor, successes. Signatures are coming in again, workshops are happening for the first time in months, and interest in the Campaign is growing again. Recently, Delaram led a workshop of eighteen people who wanted to learn about gender discrimination. This was an improvement in numbers over the last few months, and many of those who showed up were family members of protesters who had been killed or jailed over the last year. “The people who are coming to these workshops now are much more serious than those who would come two or three years ago,” Delaram said. “You get the sense they will stay committed until the end.”

While these efforts may seem small compared to the overwhelming nature of the Ahmadinejad administration’s crackdown, they occur within the context of persistent political dissent that continues to broaden and deepen. “Now people don’t feel like they’re in a country where no one cares or tries or wants to change anything,” Delaram said. “People feel they are in a society on edge.” The question for the Campaign is how to tap in to this widespread sentiment and introduce the subject of gender equality into the discussion. In their efforts to rise to this challenge, members are engaged in an intense period of intellectual work, producing articles for their web site,, which take stock of the history of the women’s movement in Iran, assess their own four years of work, and explore strategies for coping with increased repression. “I’m writing an article about how the center of our movement has to be maintained in Iran,” Homa said, after listing the names of Campaign members who have had to go abroad due to safety concerns. “I talk about how this is not the first time the shape of our activities has had to change,” she said. “This may be the biggest change, but we’ve had hard times before.” Reflecting on what she and the others have accomplished in the four years since the Campaign was launched, Delaram said, “It’s true that we don’t have a million signatures; we have far fewer. But we’ve spoken with millions of people. They may not all agree with us, but more people understand that these laws [that discriminate against women] are not in their interests.”

All three women took pride in the fact that the Campaign had survived a series of crucial tests – from the imprisonment and exile of leading members, to the offers of money from Western feminist groups, to internal debates and disorientation – and was still functioning. Losing the ability to operate in public spaces has forced them to rely once again on the word-of-mouth, person-to-person organizing strategy with which they began. “I first heard about the Campaign from Homa,” Nahid remembered. “After that, I never missed a meeting.” As the tension of the June 12 anniversary recedes, the perspective advocated by Delaram, Homa and Nahid – that of slow, patient educational work and signature collection combined with a long-term view of political and social change – may enable the women’s movement to survive and even deepen its impact, despite the odds. “The Campaign started from zero and now, if we got to five, this is progress,” Homa said. “We want to continue to bring women’s issues to the forefront of popular consciousness,” she added. “I am thinking about the future generations.”

Special thanks to Delaram, Nahid, and Homa for their generosity and trust, and to Nasrin for help with transcription.