Middle East

Jailed Women Activists Go on Hunger Strike in Tehran's Evin Prison

In this picture from June 2006, an Iranian inmate peers from behind a wall as a guard walks by at the female section of Evin Prison. As the photographer notes, from the road the prison is easy to miss. A small outhouse and a sign saying "Evin House of Detention" give no hint of the huge complex of guard towers and cells that lies behind. (Photo: Atta Kenare / AFP-Getty Images)

Once again, Evin Prison in Tehran, Iran, has drawn the attention of human rights activists; this time the notorious jail—infamous for housing political and social figures—is holding 10 women on hunger strike.

Almost one month has passed since the doors of ward 209 were shut on women's rights activist Mahboubeh Karami and nine other women; and the Iranian judiciary still has not presented the legal basis or accusations on which the detainees are being held.

"It has been weeks since I have officially accepted to defend the case of Ms. Karami, but I have not succeeded to visit my defendant yet. Nor am I aware of the charges against her," said Hooshang Poor Babaee, Karami's advocate lawyer.

On the fourth week of their detention, the 10 female inmates, exhausted by the grave conditions, began a hunger strike to protest the "illegal approach" of the judicial and prison officials.

In an interview with the United States-funded Persian-language Radio Farda, Sadigheh Masaebi, Mahboubeh's mother talked about the last conversation she had with her daughter: "'They are killing us here,' she [Karami] told me on phone. She said that her body is full of bruises, and the ten of them are crawling into each other in a tiny cell. She said that she and the nine other inmates are going on hunger strike from Sunday [July 6]."

Karami is 39. The ages of the other inmates range from 17 to 70, according to what Karami has told her mother.

The women were arrested during a protest against "economical corruption" in Tehran. But Karami has denied any involvement in the protest, and said her presence in the tumultuous area had been entirely coincidental. She said that she was passing through the area on a bus when the police and plainclothes officers stopped the vehicle and arrested them.

"'The police stopped the bus in front of the Mellat Park. Then they began hitting the windows with their batons and forced the driver to open the doors. They attacked a man in the bus. I could not keep silent and when I protested, they took me in too,'" Mahboubeh's mother quoted her daughter as saying.

Those demonstrating in Mellat Park were protesting the June 11 arrest of Abbas Palizdar, who had accused several senior Iranian officials of financial corruption in speeches he made at universities in Hamedan and Shiraz in May. He had been involved in a parliamentary Judicial Inquiry and Review Committee that had conducted an investigation into affairs of the judiciary. The protest had been organized by foreign-based opposition television channels that the Islamic Republic considers illegal and decadent.

Faced with intense pressure from the United States and its allies, which are pushing for political changes in the oil rich country, Iran said that such gatherings as well as the activities of those American-based stations are aimed at undermining the national security of the state; thus, it preserves for itself the right to confront them.

At a news conference on June 14, the head of the Tehran Judiciary, Ali Reza Avaie, confirmed that 200 people had been arrested during the protest. He said that those who were innocent or suspected of minor crimes would hear about the status of their cases within a week.

Mahboubeh Karami is a part of the One Million Signature Campaign, a women's rights movement in Iran that seeks to collect a million signatures to protest the discriminatory laws against women.

Although there has been a number of reforms in Iran's Islamic and judicial codes concerning women's rights, placing the country way ahead of other Muslim states, many political, social, and economic codes still in place, including the right of inheritance and marriage, are viewed as favoring men.

The Iranian authorities have never officially expressed opposition to the activities of this equal rights movement; nevertheless, tens of women's rights activists have been arrested on varying charges, such as undermining national security and promoting propaganda against the system.

According to one of Karami's fellow campaigners, who did not want to be identified, Karami's activities as a women's rights activist have led to complications because it's a case that could become a "golden" opportunity for the Islamic system: "Now they [the authorities] have found the chance to generalize this accidental arrest and try to link our independent movement to foreign sources. This is a good opportunity for them to intensify the crackdown."

The campaign said it refuses to accept any kind of foreign aid in their activities and believes that "change" is only possible through the forces inside Iran.

Women's rights is considered one of the many integral parts of the Islamic Shariah codes; thus, a major change to its religiously-drawn legal system will be viewed as a fundamental retreat on "holy moral values"—something that the ideological system of the Islamic Republic of Iran refuses to accept.

According to the Tehran-based Committee to Defend Human Rights in Iran, during the past year 31 women activists have been summoned to court, 41 activists have been detained, 9 have been sentenced to prison, ordered to pay fines, and given lashes (later suspended). Almost all of the Web sites promoting equal rights have been filtered and banned.

As for Karami, her case remains open even as the gates in the tall walls of the prison remain tightly closed on her and the nine other women, all of whom are now spending their days and nights going hungry in their plight.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Niusha Boghrati.