The Trouble with Helping Iran's Dissidents

TEHRAN --  Laleh entered her small apartment for the first time after two weeks of tasting prison, interrogation, release, and partial recovery. The women's rights activist bought the third-floor flat, set just off a busy highway in eastern Tehran, a year ago, after deciding that accepting her love-hate relationship with this country was easier than abandoning it altogether. Looking out of her living room window, she listened to the evening call to prayer crackle over the loudspeakers of the mosque facing her house.

Laleh had spent six of the past 14 days in the notorious Section 209 of Tehran's Evin Prison, where the Islamic Republic's political prisoners are held. She shared what she described as an electronically bugged, two-by-four meter cell with six other women activists, under the constant and disorienting glare of a fluorescent light. The only times she would leave the crowded cell -- formerly two solitary confinement chambers with the intervening wall knocked down -- was to visit the toilet and be taken to interrogation. Uncuffed and with a gray cotton blindfold over her eyes, she was led down a damp corridor to a room where up to three male interrogators would bombard her with questions.

"When they told me I was the biggest rebel in the group, I pulled my blindfold over my right eye, shocked, and exclaimed: "Really?!" Then I realized how wrong what I had just done was, pulled the blindfold back on, put my hands in my lap and asked them to excuse me," she said, giggling.

But her arrest was no joke. Although she was released, Laleh was forbidden to talk to the foreign press and warned that her file remains open. Her mobile phone is occasionally tapped. The next step in the Iranian officials' well-trod path of harassment would be to ban her from leaving the country.

But while the activists' arrest was well-noted by Farsi-language blogs and Western human rights groups, the move was met with muted condemnation by the U.S. and European governments. Focusing on Iran's poor human rights record has been used to pile pressure on Tehran, but public excoriation often has the opposite effect and hardens official positions. Recognizing this danger, supporters of the women detainees did not approach American or British newspapers during their period of incarceration, instead launching a campaign targeting only Eastern media such as al-Jazeera, and English-language newspapers in mostly Muslim countries. 

Aside from promoting women's rights, Laleh has spent the past few years as a social worker, helping Iran's forgotten and needy. They are the ones who expected so much of the 1979 Islamic Revolution but ended up getting very little. They live in poverty-stricken villages or the rambling slums accreting around the half-dozen large cities that dot the Iranian plateau.

Laleh was arrested on March 4 outside a judicial building in central Tehran while protesting in solidarity with a group of fellow campaigners who were on trial inside. Some of the most prominent Iranian women's rights activists were arrested to prevent them from attending a protest planned for International Women's Day, four days later. This year's activities were far quieter than last year's Women's Day, when riot police charged a demonstration in central Tehran opposite the City Theater, but the capital's teachers made the headlines this year with a vocal protest outside Parliament that was also suppressed.

Stepping back into her flat, Laleh feels like a different person. The prison experience has changed her. She vows to paint a blue jail door on her study's wall as a reminder of her ordeal.

"One thing that I learned in prison is that prison is not exactly prison and freedom is not exactly freedom," Laleh said. "We're not exactly free here, outside, because we're not allowed to speak, to express ourselves, to be who we are. That's why I'm drawing this door here, because here is a prison too, there's no difference."

Under Iranian law, married women have to undergo a lengthy process to be granted a divorce, and the testimony of two women is equal to that of one man. Should a woman be killed, her family is only entitled to half the blood money owed for a male victim. But Iranian women are also some of the most liberated in a conservative region, free of many of the restraints imposed upon their Saudi sisters who cannot drive a car, be employed in a mixed-gender workplace, or travel abroad without their male guardian's explicit permission. In marked contrast to the Arab world, Iranian women participate in public life far more freely and excel in private entrepreneurship.

And yet in Iran, "a woman is expected to be a commodity in the house and an instrument in society to serve men," Fariba Dawoodi-Mohajer, a prominent activist told the Iranian RoozOnline news site. "She is expected to be a yes-person, a follower, so that if she challenges this, she will be deprived of her nightly meal. They want to control women at home and in society and keep them busy through such practices as polygamy and multiple sex-partners which the laws currently allow them to do."

Iran's female activists are now also being targeted by their government for being so-called Trojan horses of Western influence. Iranian officials terrified of a Velvet Revolution inside their country have accused several activists of receiving funds from Western NGOs, and at least two were arrested upon returning from a human rights workshop in southeast Asia.

"When U.S.-based charities ask me what they can do to support civil society within Iran, my reply to them is: absolutely nothing," said Coco Ferguson, the associate director for programs at the London-based Institute for Philanthropy. "The U.S. government's express desire for 'regime change' in Iran means that American money is understandably tainted in the eyes of the Iranian government."

Laleh vehemently denies the activists have any connection to Western groups and claims that she objects to the support offered by the Persian-language Voice of America television station, which is funded by the U.S. State Department. "Even though they kept running updates on our situation, saying we were ill, we knew that they don't care about us," said Laleh. "They want to show the violence of the regime one moment, then turn around the next and suggest how good it would be if Bush attacked Iran and changed the regime."

Many human rights advocates and the leftist intelligentsia in the West have been remarkably silent on the Iranian regime's anti-women excesses out of fear that vocal criticism will only provide fuel for American conservatives' pushing for war with Iran. But, conversely, their sporadic focus and pressure on the Islamic Republic has led to an effort on the part of the Iranian government to treat high-profile prisoners well. When the domestic notoriety of Evin Prison's Section 209 went international, the Iranian government was shamed into repainting the entire wing and knocking down walls dividing two solitary cells to create more spacious accommodation for Laleh and her fellow inmates. It's only international pressure that is responsible for such changes. Laleh welcomes this improvement, but remains extremely leery of supporting openly Western help because in doing so she opens herself to government opprobrium.

But systemic change is a long way off. Now that they've cleaned up Evin's public image, the government is sending important political detainees to a prison known variously as Gohardasht or Rajaeeshahr. Known as "the new Evin," the political prisoners sent there are mixed in with common criminals in the band-e umumi (public wing).

Laleh admits that, along with the other women activists, she received the Islamic Republic's equivalent of star treatment during her time in jail. The guards tolerated the slogans the women shouted to keep up their morale. When they discovered the notepaper on which Laleh was writing her recollections, they were angry with her but did not hurt her. (She ripped it up into shreds before they could read it.) Other prisoners were less fortunate. Those who lack influential connections, and whose names and fates were never known to the West, are left to rot. Two of these were a young couple that Laleh learned about while in Evin. They had been arrested on the street and "because they hadn't had anyone to follow up their case" -- meaning no one had exerted political pressure on the authorities -- they had been held for a year and a half in a prison cell without their file even being examined, let alone charges levied against them.

Iran is a more traditional society than in the West; church and state were never separated. Many Iranians believe that immorality must be punishable by law. Laleh and her activist friends represent only a tiny, avant garde fraction of Iran. Many of their more traditional contemporaries look upon them with horror. When I approached a group of privileged Bassijis, members of a hard-line religious militia, sitting in a nargileh bar in north Tehran's upscale quarters, and asked about the women demanding greater equality, they looked aghast.

"Human rights is a Western invention," claims Hamid Reza Hajji Esfandiari, 21, a Bassiji and law student in the holy city of Qom who aspires to be a judge. "There is no such thing. It's what the West invents to pressure Iran with when their influence isn't enough for them to get what they want through the front door."

Perhaps there is an element of truth to this. An Iranian opposition activist exiled from his country to Canada believes that the women's movement is the strongest force in a society riddled with discredited movements. "The next revolution will come from the women of Iran," he says.
The women's struggle continues even as the Iranian government becomes increasingly wary of the activities of NGOs. Last June, a vocal women's demonstration in Tehran's central Haft-e Tir Square was brutally suppressed. Baton-yielding, chador-clad ladies from the Ministry of Public Interior slapped activists and hauled them into vans or forced them to crouch by the metro station in the center of the square. Over 90 women were arrested.

In February, a group of women was prevented from attending a news workshop in India organized by an Iranian media outfit called Shahrzad News. On the last day of the two-week Persian New Year holiday, two activists were arrested in a central park as they gathered support for a projected one-million signature petition demanding of the Islamic Republic that it moderate its laws.

Out of jail but severely jolted by her experience, Laleh sees Iranian society around her with different eyes. She is experiencing a newfound tingling of indignation at what she considers its ungratefulness and the unwillingness of many Iranian women to support the cause of greater liberty. "I often ask myself why I can't be like the others who become resigned to their lot and convince themselves they are happy. I feel that it's my right to demand and expect more from this society."