Rattled by two years of labor strikes and feminist protests, the Iranian government is trying to smash opposition. But popular outrage and global solidarity have forced recent retreats. Seven journalists and activists were released on bail in late October while their cases are appealed. These cracks in the fortress of despotism give hope to the women, workers, socialists, Kurds and other oppressed people in Iran’s prison cells.
At the same time, U.S. sanctions against Iran increase hardships for working people. Teachers, truckers, and oil and sugarcane workers are standing up against low or unpaid wages, inflation, layoffs, and arrests of labor leaders. Women radicals have taken part and led many of these efforts. This poses a real challenge to Iran’s highly policed, constricted, patriarchal norms.
Here are stories of a few of the brave sisters who are paying a huge price for daring to fight for freedom.
Sanaz Allahyari — Sanaz Allahyari and her husband Amir Hossein Mohammadi-Fard are writers and founding members of an on-line student journal Gam (Step). Gam covers labor protests, feminist activism, Marxist economics, philosophy and art. In January 2019, Allahyari and Mohammadi-Fard were arrested and imprisoned. Indignation within Iran and protests by international human rights and journalism organizations won the couple’s release on bail on Oct. 26. When they stepped outside the prison, friends and supporters courageously greeted them with a revolutionary song:
Burn the cage
And free the birds and the messengers
There is a sleeping storm in the blood of the broken people
The stars will surrender the night to the bright Dawn
Sepideh Gholian — A freelance journalist, Gholian is a civil rights activist and veterinary student. In November 2018, she was arrested for reporting on a protest by the Workers Union of Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company — an illegal independent union. She had been building solidarity actions in collaboration with union leader Esmail Bakhshi, who was also arrested.
After being released on bail in December 2018, the two went public about the torture they suffered, including threats of rape against Gholian, and their forced televised “confessions.” In retaliation, both were re-arrested the next month, along with Gholian’s brother Mehdi.
In September 2019, Sepideh Gholian was sentenced to 18 years and Bakhshi to 14 years and 74 lashes, prompting protests by sugarcane workers and their supporters. Gholian went on a hunger strike from Oct. 20-25 to protest unbearable conditions and harassment of her family. Authorities promised to meet her demands and she was freed on bail on Oct. 26. Bakhshi was released a week later. Sepideh Gholian was re-arrested at a protest on Nov. 17.
The May Day Three — On May 1, 2019 police arrested more than 35 activists at a demonstration organized by 20 independent labor organizations outside the Iranian parliament in Tehran. Most were freed within days or weeks, but feminists Marzieh Amiri, Neda Naji, and Atefeh Rangriz were detained on charges of “disrupting public order” and “acting against national security.”
Amiri, a journalist who was arrested while covering the demonstration for a reform newspaper, was tried on Aug. 13 and sentenced to ten-and-a-half years in prison and 147 lashes.
Regarding Rangriz and Naji, an anonymous source told the Center for Human Rights in Iran, “Atefeh and Neda are women’s rights activists, whose presence at the Labor Day rally in solidarity with the workers irked the Intelligence Ministry.”
Atefeh Rangriz was sentenced to eleven-and-a-half years in prison and 74 lashes. She managed to post bail, but the government refused to let her out. She retaliated with a hunger strike that began Oct. 6.
“I will turn my body into a weapon against all these injustices,” she declared in a letter published in the Iranian media. “I will endure this suffering to break the wall of silence that represents the quiet death of civil society and our cries for justice. … I will conclude with the words that have echoed throughout our downtrodden history: Death or freedom.” Her plight sparked outrage in Iran.
More than 80 labor unions around the world have spoken out for the May Day demonstrators. Sixteen members of Iran’s Parliament, including four female deputies, challenged the harsh penalties.
The pressure forced the government to release Marzieh Amiri and Atefeh Rangriz on bail in late October while their cases proceed to appeal.
Neda Naji remains in prison and is expected to go on trial before the end of 2019.
Zeynab Jalalian — In Iran, Kurdish political prisoners are treated with extreme harshness for their resolute drive for self-determination as the largest landless indigenous group in the world. Zeynab Jalalian was arrested in 2008 for her activities with the political wing (as opposed to the military wing) of the Kurdistan Workers Party. She was found guilty after a sham trial that lasted only minutes in which she had no lawyer. She received a death sentence that was commuted to life in prison without possibility of parole.
Jalalian has endured systematic abuse, torture and solitary confinement for refusing to “confess” armed actions. She lost her sight and is suffering from life-threatening medical conditions due to denial of treatment.
Keep up the pressure! To see a totalitarian government forced into even partial accommodations is a reminder of the importance of speaking out even when the odds seem impossible. Keep the heat on to defend the brave feminists, workers, oppressed minorities, students and dissidents of Iran!
Write the Iranian government to demand immediate unconditional release of all Iran’s political prisoners:
- Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Sayed ‘Ali Khamenei, email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
- President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, email@example.com
- Judiciary of the Islamic Republic of Iran — High Council of Human Rights, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations, email@example.com.
To learn more about female fighters and prisoners in the Middle East and North Africa, see the Alliance of Middle Eastern and North African Socialists at allianceofmesocialists.org.