Until All Are Free

On Sunday more than fifty women’s rights activists were violently beaten and arrested for exercising their rights to freedom of expression. These courageous activists had gathered in front of one of Tehran’s courthouses to protest the unfair trial of five other women who were leading their struggle against inequality and legal discrimination.

The illegal mass arrest could prove to be an important turning point for their difficult fight for equal rights. They had recently initiated a “One Million Signatures: demanding changes to discriminatory laws” campaign, aimed at fighting legal discrimination against women in Iran. The first law that had become a target of this campaign was the punishment of stoning for women found guilty of adultery.

According to the initiators the campaign aimed to collect one million signatures by June 2007 and was widely successful in the planned activities include door-to-door petitioning as well as conferences and rallies. The campaign operated a website (we-change.org) on which Iranian men and women over 18, inside and outside Iran could sign the campaign petition. The all powerful Islamic Republic state soon had to block access to their website in the interest of “national security”.

This was not the first time that the Islamic State panicked about their disciplined and organized movement. The campaign was to be officially launched on August 27, 2006, with a seminar titled “The Impact of Laws on Women’s Lives,” but the Iranian security forces prevented the event from taking place. The first public protest of the campaign took place on June 12, 2006. The Iranian Police and Judiciary responded immediately with violence and arrests.

Human Rights Watch reported: “The Judiciary filed charges against the women’s rights activists following a public demonstration to protest Iran’s discriminatory laws against women in Tehran on June 12, 2006. The security forces prevented peaceful demonstrators from gathering and advocating for women’s rights. Police agents beat the demonstrators with batons, sprayed them with pepper gas, marked them with color spray, and took 70 people into custody.”

The detainees were released later but Iran’s judiciary announced holding a trial for some of the detainees. Again Human Rights Watch reported: “On March 4, the Judiciary will hold a trial for five women charged with “acting against national security by participating in an illegal gathering.” The women on trial are: Nusheen Ahmadi Khorasani; Parvin Ardalan; Sussan Tahmasebi; Shahla Entesari; and Fariba Davoodi Mohajer. In addition, the Judiciary has charged at least four other activists, Alieh Eghdamdoost, Bahareh Hedayat, Delaram Ali and Azadeh Forghani, with the same offense but has not set their court date.”

The campaign was further intensified when three women’s rights activists and journalists were arrested at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport en route to a journalism workshop in India, last February. Two of the three, Talat Taghinia and Mansoureh Shojai write for online journal Zanestan (“Land of Women”), an Iranian web-based journal that advocates for women’s rights. The third woman, Farnaz Seify, runs a popular feminist blog. The women were escorted from the airport to their homes, where their computers, notes, and books were seized, and were then put in prison. They were released the next day, without their belongings or passports, to face a hearing in two months.

The campaign decided to respond to all this violence and harassments with a public protest on March 4, 2007, showing their solidarity with the five outspoken women on trial that day. The leaders published a public statement titled: We Look to the Future, and asked all activists to show up in front of the courthouse and protest the unfair and unconstitutional trial of the women’s rights leaders. The Iranian regime again responded with violence and mass arrest.

It is time for all the international organizations and NGOs to protest the unlawful and unconstitutional actions of the Iranian regime. The world must demand an immediate and unconditional release of all women rights activists. The Judiciary must immediately end its prosecution of women’s rights advocates for exercising their right to freedom of speech and assembly.

Governments and corporations that continue to do business with Iran must start facing to their responsibilities and suspend all relations and contracts until every one of these women are free. Arrest and torture of peaceful human rights advocate should not be tolerated even for one day. Only a worldwide protest and immediate political action can bring about the release of the brave and selfless advocates of women’s rights in Iran.

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