HRA Press Release: International Women Human Rights Defenders Day and their Challenging Path in Iran

“Growing up in Iran, amidst the complexities of a society deeply entrenched in patriarchy and religious conservatism, I saw the stark disparities and injustices faced by women and other marginalized groups. It was the quiet resilience of the women in my community, facing systemic discrimination yet persisting, that lit a fire in me.”

On the 29th of November, the United Nations commemorates and pays homage to women human rights defenders. It is imperative to acknowledge that all individuals engaged in the cause of human rights confront inherent risks and threats to their lives as they endeavor to combat various societal injustices. On the 18th of December 2013, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) passed a resolution pertaining to Women Human Rights Defenders. This resolution underscores not only the pivotal role these women play in championing human rights but, crucially, sheds light on the perilous threats and dangers they confront, particularly in the form of rape and sexual violence. These egregious acts may be perpetrated by state actors, law enforcement personnel, security forces, and non-state actors within their vicinity.

The prevailing unequal power dynamics based on gender have rendered women vulnerable to abuse and victimization as a consequence of their unwavering commitment as defenders of human rights. Furthermore, it is essential to recognize the lack of reporting on these atrocities, primarily stemming from limited access to justice and the pervasive stigmatization of sexual violence. In conclusion, the resolution emphasizes the imperative of adopting a gender-based approach to safeguard women human rights defenders, addressing the distinct risks and security challenges that women encounter in their pursuit of justice.

Human rights defenders in the Islamic Republic of Iran, who advocate for an end to systematic discrimination against them, as well as socio-economic and legal reforms to ensure their rights and justice, face numerous challenges in their efforts. Journalists, activists, writers, and various other individuals striving to promote and safeguard human rights confront various forms of abuse, violence, and legal challenges.

Over the years, the Iranian government has implemented more restrictive measures, particularly affecting women, leading to a harsh crackdown on human rights defenders. Following the death of Mahsa Jina Amini, there was a brutal crackdown on protesters and activists. Human Rights Activists (HRA) has identified 26 women human rights defenders currently imprisoned with judicial convictions, with sentences ranging from one to ten years. Additionally, HRA has identified 5 individuals awaiting sentencing. Notably, a significant number of lawyers are either currently detained or have already received substantial imprisonment sentences. In May 2023, 394 lawyers condemned the intimidation and issuance of arrest warrants for four public defenders in Shiraz. The intimidation of public defenders and human rights lawyers has been a longstanding issue in Iran. This was evident in the case of Saleh Nikbakht, the family lawyer for Mahsa Amini, who was sentenced to one year in prison for “propaganda activities against the regime” due to his interviews with foreign media outlets. In these interviews, he discussed the plight of kolbars in Iran, criticized the treatment of political (security) prisoners, among other topics. Furthermore, Saleh Nikbakht’s objection to the “forensic medical expert opinion” in the Mahsa Amini case was deemed an instance of the charge of “propaganda activities against the regime.”

There exists a pronounced peril for women’s rights advocates who defy the hijab law by choosing not to adhere to it in order to exercise their freedoms. Since the inception of the 2022 protests, these defenders have been systematically targeted, yet they persist in their struggle against gender-based discrimination. Despite the continuous implementation of new measures by authorities to penalize women who defy the prescribed dress code and other discriminatory laws, these advocates tenaciously continue their pursuit of rights.

Among the eminent human rights defenders is Narges Mohammadi, the laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize 2023, who has a substantial history of recurrent arrests due to her activism. Her most recent apprehension transpired on November 16, 2021, during a commemorative event honoring Ebrahim Ketabdar, a casualty of the November 2019 protests in Karaj. Mohammadi received an eight-year prison sentence, seventy-four lashes, two years of exile, and various social restrictions. Furthermore, her time in prison was marked by physical assaults for non-compliance with hijab laws. A letter authored by Mohammadi from within the confines of the prison was presented as evidence, wherein she detailed instances of female detainees experiencing sexual harassment by security forces during the arrest and interrogation process.

In a conversation with HRA, a women’s rights activist stated, “My journey into human rights advocacy began not from a place of choice, but necessity. Growing up in Iran, amidst the complexities of a society deeply entrenched in patriarchy and religious conservatism, I saw the stark disparities and injustices faced by women and other marginalized groups. It was the quiet resilience of the women in my community, facing systemic discrimination yet persisting, that lit a fire in me. But as a woman in this field, my challenges are doubled. Not only do I confront the usual risks of a human rights defender – surveillance, legal harassment, and public vilification – but I also navigate the added layer of gender discrimination. In a society where my voice is often dismissed or subdued, speaking out for others’ rights becomes an act of defiance against the very fabric of our traditional norms. My greatest fear? That one day, the cost of this defiance might not just be my freedom, but my life.”

In a recent development, two prominent female journalists received a cumulative sentence of 25 years of imprisonment. Niloofar Hamedi, a correspondent for Shargh, was arrested on September 22, 2022, for publishing a photograph of Mahsa Amini in a comatose state, thus gaining notoriety as the first to do so. Subsequently, Elahe Mohammadi was apprehended on September 29, 2022, following her journey to Saqqez and coverage of the funeral of Mahsa Amini.

Within detention facilities, encompassing alleys, streets, and temporary detention centers during interrogation, women often find themselves subjected to crude sexual harassment and verbal abuse of a sexual nature. Notably, the transfer of women from Qarchak Prison to the Shapour Detention Center has been identified as a significant factor contributing to the prevalence of such abuse. Shapour Detention Center stands out as one of the most notorious and intimidating detention centers in Tehran, renowned for its “technical interrogations” characterized by physical beatings, hanging, and torture to extract confessions—practices that have resulted in a substantial number of reported deaths during interrogations.

In the course of talking with HRA, a of women’s rights voiced; “I was drawn to human rights work out of a sense of profound injustice. In Iran, where the legal and cultural tapestry is woven with threads of gender inequality, being a woman and a human rights defender is like walking a tightrope. Every step is measured, every word weighed for its potential repercussions. Unlike my male counterparts, my activism is often seen not just as a political stance, but a betrayal of my ‘inherent’ feminine nature and societal role. My family fears for my safety, and they have every reason to. I’ve been threatened, harassed, and I live under the constant shadow of possible arrest. But it’s the small victories, the incremental changes, and the hope of a more equitable future that keep me going. The hardest part? Knowing that despite our efforts, the system is designed to be against us, and the road to equality and justice is steep and perilous.”

Underscoring the urgent need for concerted action to address the grave risks and intimidation faced by women human rights defenders in Iran. It is imperative that Iran signs and ratifies the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), signaling a commitment to gender equality. The government must prioritize the protection of women human rights defenders, recognizing their invaluable contributions to society. Additionally, we urge Iran to expeditiously implement the General Assembly resolution on safeguarding women human rights defenders, aligning itself with the global pursuit of justice and human rights.

Below is a list of individuals who are currently imprisoned with judicial convictions as of the time this report was written

  1. Narges Mohammadi – Human Rights Activist – A total of ten years in prison – Evin Prison
  2. Fatemeh Sepehri – Civil Activist – A total of nineteen years of penal imprisonment, the severest being eleven years – Vakilabad Prison, Mashhad
  3. Sepideh Qolian – Civil Activist – Three years and three months in prison – Evin Prison
  4. Farideh Moradkhani – Civil Activist – Three years of penal imprisonment – Tehran Rehabilitation Center
  5. Anisha Asadollahi – Labor Activist – Five years of penal imprisonment – Evin Prison
  6. Nasrin Javadi – Labor Activist – Five years in prison – Evin Prison
  7. Raha (Rahleh) Askarizadeh – Women’s Rights Activist – Two years in prison – Evin Prison
  8. Sarvnaz Ahmadi – Child Rights Activist – Three years and six months in prison – Evin Prison
  9. Zahra Sayyadi – Child Rights Activist – One year in prison – Evin Prison (currently on medical leave)
  10. Nasim Sultan Beigi – Journalist and Activist – Three years and six months of penal imprisonment – Evin Prison
  11. Saeedeh Shafiei – Journalist and Activist – Three years and six months of penal imprisonment – Evin Prison
  12. Golrokh Iraee – Civil Activist – Five years in prison – Evin Prison
  13. Maryam Akbari Monfared – Civil Activist/Justice Seeker – Fifteen years in prison – Semnan Prison
  14. Niloufar Hamedi – Journalist – Thirteen years in prison – Evin Prison
  15. Elahe Mohammadi – Journalist – Twelve years in prison – Evin Prison
  16. Nahid Shirpisheh – Civil Activist/Justice Seeker – Five years in prison – Zanjan Prison
  17. Vida Rabbani – Journalist – Six years and fifteen months in prison – Evin Prison (currently on medical leave)
  18. Zahra Tohidi – Journalist – One year in prison – Evin Prison
  19. Hoda (Zahra) Tohidi – Journalist – One year in prison – Evin Prison
  20. Zeynab Hamrang Seyed Baglou – Union/Civil Activist – Five years in prison – Evin Prison
  21. Reyhaneh Ansari Nejad – Labor Activist – Four years in prison – Evin Prison
  22. Atikeh Rajabi – Union/Civil Activist – Two months – Vakilabad Prison, Mashhad
  23. Hajar Saeidi – Labor Activists – One year in prison – Sanandaj Correction and Rehabilitation Center
  24. Soha Mortezaei – Union/Civil Activist – Six years in prison – Evin Prison
  25. Maryam Darysi – Union/Civil Activist – One year and three months – Currently free under electronic surveillance
  26. Rahleh Rahemipour – Civil Activist/Justice Seeker – Five years of enforceable imprisonment – Evin Prison

The following is a list of individuals who are in custody at the time this report was written, and who have not yet received a verdict.

  1. Nahaleh Shahidi Yazdi – Child Rights Activist – Kerman Prison
  2. Razvaneh Ahmad Khan Beigi – Civil Activist – Qarchak Prison, Varamin
  3. Lili Sadat – Women’s Rights Activist – Arrested in Mashhad in November 2022, no information about her release has been found.
  4. Ovin Rasti – Women’s Rights Activist – Arrested in Marivan in September 2022, no information about her release has been found.
  5. Armita Pavir – Union/Civil Activist – Tabriz Prison

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For further inquiries please contact Skylar Thompson, the Director of Global Advocacy and Accountability at Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRA) at skylar[@]hramail.com