Iran’s War on Women’s Rights
By: Elham Gheytanchi
Wednesday 4 February 2009
ON Oct. 15, the Iranian Ministry of Information arrested Esha Momeni, an Iranian-American student at California State University/Northridge. To this day, she is trapped in Iran by officials who won’t let her leave.
She had gone there to make a documentary about women’s-rights activists - at least 50 of whom have been arrested in the last year, the latest three on Friday in Tehran.
Esha and the others are charged with "endangering national security" as "agents of Western powers" - a routine charge against human-rights activists in Iran. The regime plainly fears that a velvet revolution is underway; to prevent a mass uprising, it has been imprisoning civil-society activists with exactly this charge - participating in a revolution that hasn’t happened.
Yet Iran’s women’s-rights activists are engaged only in a grassroots social movement - the One Million Signature Campaign, which this year received the prestigious Simone de Beauvoir Award.
The campaign’s goal is merely to change Iranian laws that discriminate against women. The members - all Iranian citizens - go to public places to first discuss ordinary people’s experiences with unjust gender practices and laws and then gather signatures on a petition asking parliament to change those laws.
The activists’ demands are minimal: They seek incremental (but irreversible) changes in laws that now consider women to be second-class citizens. The goals include equal rights to divorce and child-custody; equal pay for equal work, and equal inheritance.
This is not a revolt against Islam, or Iran’s Islamic Republic - but only a fair and more-inclusive interpretation of Islamic laws. Many clerics in Iran support this cause.
Many Iranian-American students are engaged in the movement; Esha Momeni is one of them.
I first met Esha (whose name refers to Isha, the afternoon Islamic prayer) in the sociology class I teach at Santa Monica College a few years ago and was impressed with her dedication to the cause of women’s equality in her home country.
With her documentary, Esha wanted to show the world that Iran has a vibrant civil society and conscientious activists who have long fought for equality fearlessly. But her treatment makes me wonder if it is still possible to be a fearless activist in Iran.
Indeed, fear is exactly what the regime intends to strike in the hearts and minds of young activists and their families. This is the true purpose of the arrests of Esha and others, and of the further acts of intimidation that followed.
In the weeks after Esha’s arrest, her father (who lives in Iran with his family) fearlessly interviewed with Iranian and foreign media, professing pride in his daughter and her fight for equality. Then the Ministry of Information officials started threatening Esha’s family - and we never heard from her father again.
The family had to put their home on bail to get her out of the prison - only to find out that the authorities won’t let her leave the country.
Threats and intimidation are the regime’s tools to silence activists. Just recently, government-backed militias stormed the Tehran office of Shirin Ebadi - the 2003 Noble Peace prize winner. A second raid soon followed; the regime plainly hopes to intimidate Ebadi - the only person of international standing who defends the human-rights movement from inside Iran.
Meanwhile, Esha and other activists are barred from leaving the country; many more-unfortunate political prisoners continue to languish behind bars.
Will governments and other activists around the world continue to overlook such arrests and harassment? If so, the Iranian regime may ultimately succeed in suppressing all dissent.
Elham Gheytanchi is a sociology instructor at Santa Monica College.