Since 2018, Iran has detained many women activists, students, lawyers and even revolutionary insiders, such as Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who criticized the regime or participated in protests. It has picked up journalists, including Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, who provided early reporting about the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody for wearing improper hijab.
The regime has also imprisoned female lawyers who represented prominent activists, dissidents or political prisoners, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran. Amnesty International called the campaign “part of an escalating crackdown to quash Iran’s civil society.” Lawyers and others affiliated with the Defenders of Human Rights Center advocacy group have been subjected to “excessive sentences and punishments for engaging in regular professional activities,” the organization said.
Many women have been sentenced to long prison terms. They were often charged with vague crimes against the state and denied access to an attorney or a fair trial, according to State Department human rights reports. The U.N. Special Rapporteur accused the Iranian government of using “increasing levels of intimidation, arrest and detention for providing legal counsel to dissenting voices.” The following are profiles of six notable women detained during Iranian crackdowns.
Niloofar Hamedi, a reporter for the reformist Shargh newspaper who chronicled abuses by Iran’s morality police, was detained on September 22 for coverage of Amini’s hospitalization and death three days later. Hamedi was detained in solitary confinement at Tehran’s Evin Prison. “If it weren’t for her courage, the tragic incident that happened to Mahsa Amini would not have been reported to the media so quickly,” a colleague told Middle East Eye. Hamedi was charged with collaborating with the United States and “assembly and collusion against national security.” In October 2022, the Ministry of Intelligence alleged that Hamedi was a CIA agent. On May 2023, Hamedi's trial “ended in less than two hours while her lawyers did not get a chance to defend her and her family members were not allowed to attend the court,” according to her husband, Mohammad Hossein Ajorlou. In November 2023, Hamedi announced that she was going on a hunger strike in solidarity with Nagres Mohammadi.
— TIME (@TIME) April 17, 2023
Faezeh Hashemi, a reformist and member of parliament from 1996 to 2000, was detained on September 27, 2022 for “inciting riots.” In early January 2023, the judiciary sentenced Hashemi to five years in prison for "propaganda" against the government. She had also been arrested in 2009 for addressing a Green Movement protest about allegations that the presidential election and was subsequently barred from leaving the country. Hashemi was arrested again three times between 2009 and 2017. In 2012, she was sentenced to six months for “spreading propaganda against the system.” In 2017, she was sentenced to another six months on the same charge. She is the eldest daughter of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In 1998, she founded and edited Zan, the first woman’s daily newspaper, which was forced to close in 1999. In a public letter from Evin Prison in July 2023, she called on reformists and all those "dedicated to preserving the system" to boycott the parliamentary elections slated for March 2024. “If we break our spell and don’t participate in elections, we can make the rulers’ path difficult by spreading the truth and force them to change policies…and finally take back the power we have given them,” she wrote.
Bahareh Hedayat, a well-known activist, student leader and former political prisoner, was detained again on October 3, 2022 during mass protests in Tehran against the death of Amini. Hedayat had been imprisoned multiple times, including in 2020 for protesting after the Revolutionary Guards shot down a Ukrainian International Airlines flight. In December 2022, Hedayat wrote a letter, called “Revolution is Inevitable” from Evin Prison that raged against a government “that has closed off the critical lifelines of a normal and honorable life for its people, and in particular, its women…This government’s fate and essence is destruction; therefore, it must go. To tear down this criminal government will undoubtedly be costly and dangerous. Still, there’s no other recourse than to take on these costs and face these dangers.” She wrote that Iranians had gambled that the 2009 Green Movement and other reform efforts had failed to get the government to normalize relations with the world. They were “fantasies.” In response, “at every step of the way, the government insistently banged the drums of its decay.” As a result, she said, “Not only were we killed, not only were we imprisoned en masse, not only were we suppressed and driven back into our homes, but we also had to accept within ourselves the final shrapnel of political Islam.”
'Well-known student and human rights activist Bahareh Hedayat was arrested in Tehran ... Hedayat is a former political prisoner who has been arrested and imprisoned several times.'https://t.co/ODgLzuLlUM
— FiLiA (@FiLiA_charity) October 4, 2022
Soheila Hejab, a Kurdish lawyer and activist in Shiraz, called for regime change, legal rights for defendants, and ethical treatment of political prisoners. Hejab was arrested in Shiraz in December 2018 and charged with “supporting an anti-state organization.” She served five months of a two-year sentence. On June 6, 2019, ten days after her release, Revolutionary Guard intelligence agents raided Hejab’s home and rearrested her. She was detained in the women’s ward of Evin Prison. Hejab claimed that she was subjected to physical abuse at Evin. In December 2019, Hejab wrote a letter from prison that criticized the government for denying legal rights to defendants and brutalizing demonstrators during the nationwide protests. In February 2020, Hejab and 11 female political prisoners wrote an open letter calling on voters to boycott the parliamentary elections.
Human rights lawyer, Soheila Hejab is serving an 18-year prison sentence for defending women's rights in #Iran.
In her own words: "When a pen does not write about injustices, it must be broken.” #FreeIranLawyers pic.twitter.com/bTKsLhFfEs
— The Rights Observatory (@observatoryihr) June 25, 2020
In March 2020, Hejab was released on bail. Five days later, a Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced her to 18 years in prison for four offenses, including “gathering and planning against national security” and “joining opposition groups to defend women’s rights.” Hejab reported that she was severely beaten after her appeal. She also claimed that an interrogator threatened to kill her. In an audio message in June 2020, Hejab called on Iranians to demand their rights and take action against a regime that has “committed terrible murders.” In April 2022, social media users launched a twitter campaign supporting Hejab in her hunger strike with the #SoheilaHungerStrike. Hejab wrote in an open letter that she saw “no choice but to begin another hunger strike” even though she had lost the use of some of her organs in previous hunger strikes. On December 28, 2022, Ehsan Ghadiri, a human rights activist, reported that Hejab had been “taken to the Kermanshah Court of Justice while she was sitting in a wheelchair with injuries to her back and legs as a result of being beaten.”
Elahe Mohammadi, a reporter for the Hammihan Daily, was detained on September 29 for her media coverage of Amini’s funeral. She was charged with collaborating with the United States and “assembly and collusion against national security.” In October 2022, the Ministry of Intelligence alleged that Hamedi was a CIA agent. At her trial in May 2023, her lawyer, Shahab Mirlohi, alleged that Mohammadi was mistreated in prison, including long periods in solitary confinement. On Oct. 22, 2023, the Iranian judiciary sentenced Mohammadi to 12 years in prison.
Narges Mohammadi, president of the National Council of Peace and Vice President of the Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC), has been arrested five times. She was detained twice in the 1990s after establishing the Illuminating Student Group of dissidents at Imam Khomeini University. As an engineer and journalist, she later wrote critical essays about the regime’s restrictions on women’s rights. She joined the DHRC in 2003. She was arrested in 2009 for membership in the DHRC. In 2010, she was detained again and spent a month in solitary confinement until she was released for medical treatment. In October 2011, she was charged with “colluding against national security, generating propaganda against the state, and being part of the DHCR.” She was sentenced to 11 years, later reduced to six years.
In May 2015, she was arrested and charged with “gathering and colluding with intent to harm national security,” “spreading propaganda against the system,” and “founding and running an illegal organization.” She was sentenced to 16 years, later reduced to 10 years. In prison, Mohammadi staged multiple protests over conditions, especially the lack of medical care. She was released on October 7, 2020 after the court commuted her sentence.
On May 19, 2021, six months after her release from prison, a Tehran court sentenced Mohammadi to 30 months in prison and 80 lashes for propaganda, defamation and “rebellion.” In November, she was placed in solitary confinement and new charges were levied against her, including spying for Saudi Arabia. In January 2022, she was sentenced to an additional eight years in prison and 70 lashes for “assembly and collusion to act against national security.” The trial only lasted five minutes. In October, she was sentenced to an additional 15 months in prison for “propaganda against the state.” In November, her book “White Torture: Interviews with Iranian Women Prisoners” was published to call attention to the physical and mental abuse suffered by women prisoners. In October 2023, Mohammadi was the second Iranian woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She was unable to attend the award ceremony in Oslo on December 10 due to her imprisonment.
Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyers and critic of Iran’s judicial process, abusive treatment of women and the death penalty, was first arrested in September 2010. She had been representing families of demonstrators killed by security forces in the 2009 protests over allegations of fraud in the presidential election. She was charged with “propaganda against the system” as well as “acting against national security.” She was initially sentenced to 11 years in prison sentence but given early release in September 2013.
In 2013, Sotoudeh co-founded the Campaign for Step By Step Abolition of the Death Penalty, known by the Farsi acronym LEGAM. LEGAM was established to advocate legislation that would abolish capital punishment. In June 2018, Sotoudeh criticized Iran’s Criminal Procedures Regulations, which forces defendants facing security charges to select a lawyer from a list pre-approved by the judiciary. On June 13, 2018, she was arrested again. She was sentenced to five years in prison charges of “espionage in hiding” issued in absentia in 2015, membership in the Defenders of Human Rights Center and “encouraging people into corruption and prostitution.” In March 2019, she was convicted of seven offenses and sentenced to 148 lashes and 33 years in addition to the earlier five-year sentence.
In March 2020, Sotoudeh wrote an open letter for International Women’s Day. She called for an end to Iran’s “systematic” violation of women’s rights and appealed to the Iranian and U.S. governments to set aside their rivalries for the sake of their female citizens. On August 17, Intelligence Ministry and judiciary agents raided Sotoudeh’s house and arrested her 20-year-old daughter, Mehraveh Khandan, on charges of “insult and assault.” Sotoudeh was arrested again on October 29, 2023, during a furlough from prison, while attending the funeral of Armita Garawand, who was beaten to death by the morality police in Tehran. Fars News Agency, run by the Iranian armed forces, reported that Sotoudeh was arrested because she was “violating hijab rules and acting against the psychological security of society.”
Photo Credits: Hashemi from Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons