Homa Hoodfar, an Iranian-Canadian anthropologist and professor who was arbitrarily detained in July for “feminism and national security offences”, was released after four months in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison on September 26th.
While visiting the Islamic Republic of Iran she was seized for what the Prosecutor General of Tehran ambiguously deemed criminal activity. Iran’s counter-espionage service, known as the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, accused her of being a foreign agent. More specifically, they published allegations of Hoodfar facilitating a conspiracy against the Iranian government and society.
Hoodfar’s incarceration is entangled within a larger web of harassment against feminists in Iran. Hoodfar is renowned for her research on female participation in Iranian elections. It is one of many recent example of Iran’s hardline religious and military authorities attempting to stagnate the collective action of feminists in the country. Since January 2016, there has been a stream of interrogations and threats directed at women in Iran. Over a dozen women’s rights activists have been summoned and questioned on various national security-related charges. According to Amnesty International, they are denied lawyers and often verbally abused.
Iran’s hardliners and former governments have historically repressed female activists and gender equality. There are clear challenges posed by “egalitarian Islam,” which is a reinterpretation of Islamic texts where men and women are considered equal. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intensified gendered policies by prohibiting women from studying certain post-secondary subjects, implementing stricter dress codes, and reducing accepted work hours.
The sanctioned reinforcement of traditional cultural roles means it is not uncommon nor illegal for husbands to stop their wives from working if they think their job “damages their dignity.” This reflects the fact that only 17 per cent of women between 15 and 64 are active in the labour market.
In contrast, President Hassan Rouhani’s election in 2013 created a space for feminist activists to emerge and engage yet again in public life. Though met with strong resistance, women worked tenaciously and ambitiously to bring progressive campaigns to the forefront of national conversation.
A bold publication, Zanan-e Emrooz (Today’s Women), was determined to bring women’s issues into national dialogue after being shut down in 2008. The February issue entailed a spotlight interview with Hoodfar, illuminating her work on women and elections that fuelled the debate on increased female political representation.
Changes in the political sphere became a leading priority for activists, manifesting as the Campaign to Change the Masculine Face of Parliament. Their 30 per cent quota goal for female representation in parliament led to a four-fold increase in elected women in February 2016. Another target of repression was a pedagogical website called Feminist School. The site was a forum for articles encompassing feminist theories, practices, and the state of current women’s affairs in Iran and globally.
The efforts of a vibrant feminist movement within a patriarchal climate were framed as “Western-orchestrated plots” by Iran’s conservative hardliners. Pressure was placed on collective feminist initiatives to cease their activities due to accusations of espionage and collusion with “foreign-based currents seeking the overthrow of the Islamic Republic system.”
Zanan-e Emrooz consequently suspended its publication in July. Similarly, the Feminist School stopped updating their online platforms in February. In response to the success of the Campaign for Changing the Male Dominated Face of Parliament, there were mass disqualifications of women contending for political positions.
The intimidation schemes against women have taken place under the self-proclaimed reformist government of Rouhani. In December 2015, Rouhani expressed his promising desires, “We are not doing women a favour [by bringing them into government]. This is their natural right…”
Rouhani and his government have not yet initiated substantial change, nor have they publicly addressed the surreptitious harassment of female activists. In fact, according to a recent UN Report, “the Islamic Republic of Iran has made little progress towards gender equality and has yet to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.”
The persecution of women’s rights activists, both in law and practice, has characterized Iran’s Islamic Republic for years. Keeping this in mind, every small success of activists is a step to reversing the culture of repression. Eyes and expectations will now be on the elected government to construct a space for Iranian women to act without fear of arrest, detention or prosecution.
Siobhan is a first year Master of Global Affairs candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and also holds a BA Honours in Political Science with a History minor from Queen’s University. She is passionate about global health, development, gender equity and human rights.