Last week’s decision by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to charge British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with plotting to overthrow the regime when she had been told she was about to be released seems particularly cruel and arbitrary. It is also an alarming development for another woman of dual nationality currently held incommunicado in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison.
Canadian-Iranian Dr. Homa Hoodfar is an internationally respected social anthropologist and a professor emerita at Concordia University in Montreal where she taught for many years. She is 65, lost her husband last year after a long illness and suffers from a rare neurological condition that requires regular medication. Homa has written extensively on the lives of women in Muslim countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia and Egypt. She is a religious believer and a political moderate.
After an uneventful visit to Iran late last year, Homa decided to return in February. Apart from a desire to revisit her roots after an absence of several years, she wished to conduct some archival research and to observe the situation of women during the forthcoming elections to Iran’s legislative assembly. She did not realize she was walking into what has turned out to be a Kafkaesque nightmare.
In the words of her friend and fellow academic Ziba Mir-Hosseini, “Homa has become a pawn in a power struggle between Iran’s hardliners and moderates.”
It appears that religious hardliners have been badly rattled by the results of the February elections, which strengthened the position of the moderate President Hassan Rouhani. “A large number of women got into the parliament,” said Mir-Hosseini. “In Tehran the result was an absolute victory for the reformists and conservatives in coalition with Rouhani’s government.”
Yet the broadcast media, armed forces and security services, including the Revolutionary Guards, who police internal dissent, all remain under the control of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Detentions of those with dual nationality have become frequent and appear to be a ploy to restrict foreign influence, intimidate moderates and advocates of women’s rights and to undermine the elected government. “There is a battle for the soul of the nation,” said Mir-Hosseini.
The night before she was due to fly home, Homa's passport, laptop, phone and personal possessions were all confiscated. She was granted bail but required to report to Evin several times a week for interrogation over the next three months. She told her family that the tone of the interrogations varied from relatively courteous to hostile, but that they were endlessly repetitive and circular.
After three months, she demanded that they either charge or release her. On June 6, she was charged and detained. According to her London-based sister, Katayoon Hoodfar, Homa has been denied access to all visitors, including her lawyer. Iran does not recognize dual nationality, so Homa has no consular access either. Neither family nor friends had any idea what she has actually been charged with. Without access to her medication she is likely to become sick.
The charges against Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe are that, “Through membership in foreign companies and institutions, she has participated in designing and executing media and cyber plots with the aim of the peaceful overthrow of the Islamic Republic establishment.” This appears to imply that mere membership in a foreign organization constitutes collusion with a plot against those who rule Iran.
Mashregh News, a news outlet of the Revolutionary Guards, recently posted an item claiming that Homa was arrested as a “founder” of WLUML (Women Living Under Muslim Laws), whose aim is to “desanctify Islamic laws and propagate feminism.” This, says Mir-Hosseini, is false for two reasons. Homa was not a founder of this organization, which has no such specific agenda, as it is a network which includes religious conservatives as well as radicals. The posting also claimed that Homa had only been arrested by judicial officers, and only after a lengthy judicial investigation. This was completely false, says Mir-Hosseini.
Homa’s arrest seems to be part of a campaign to suppress any form of dissent in Iran, however mild, especially concerning the rights of women. Many would regard it as a flagrant assault on academic freedom and freedom of speech generally. “The hardliners want Iranians to know that just because Iran reached a deal with the West over nuclear weapons, that doesn’t mean anything has changed domestically,” says Mir-Hosseini.
Messages of support have been pouring in from the West, and also from several Muslim countries where Homa conducted research. Mir-Hosseini believes it is important to maintain this pressure. “The hardliners have realised that they no longer enjoy public support, and that undermines their legitimacy,” she says, adding that moderate Iranians are also concerned with the country’s image in the wider world.
Mir-Hosseini believes that signing petitions and writing letters of protest to governments will strengthen the hand of moderate legislators and sway public opinion in Iran to discourage such abuses of human rights.
Readers interested in knowing more or in offering support should visit the #FreeHoma website.
Paul Hoggart is a freelance writer based in London. A new edition of his novel, A Man Against a Background of Flames, is due to be published in the U.S. by the Red Hen Press later this year.