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Iran: women’s rights activists subjected to virginity tests in prison

Female student activists continue to face time in prison for participating in peaceful protests in Iran. However now their unjust treatment is compounded with the introduction of  “virginity tests”. Saha Mortezaei has had her six year sentence upheld for “assembly and collusion against national security”. She is one of many young female students being reprimanded for engaging in political activism against the Iranian regime.

Background to the cases

Saha Mortezaei is a student at the University of Tehran, and previously held the role of secretary of the University Trade Unions’ Council of Iran. She was initially arrested in 2018 for participating in student rallies amid nation-wide protests. She was given a six year prison sentence and ban on political activity for two years in September 2018 by Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran. Whilst free on bail, Mortezaei held sit-in protests at the University in October 2019. This was against the University’s blacklist, which denied her enrolment for engaging in political activism. She was re-arrested in November 2019 at her student dormitory when the protests erupted into wider demonstrations and riots similar to those ongoing throughout Iran at the time. Mortezaei was put on trial for acting against national security and held in Evin Prison Ward 2-A, under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. She went on hunger strike for 22 days, but was then released on a bail of 500 million Tomans ($118,603 USD) in January 2020. 

Her latest court hearing at Branch 54 of the Appeals Court in Tehran has upheld her six year prison sentence, which she now must serve.

Mortezaei is not alone in her persecution. Two other female student activists were arrested and put on trial last year for charges of “assembly and collusion against national security”. Kamyar Zoghi and Marjan Eshaghi were given one year sentences at Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court. Mortezaei faces harsher sentencing because of her previous arrests and longer history of political activism.

Another notable case is that of Parisa Rafiei, a 21-year old student who was arrested in February 2018 for allegedly participating in street protests. In August that year, she was given a seven year sentence, 74 lashes, a two-year ban on travel abroad and political and social activities. Her charges were for “assembly and collusion against national security”, “propaganda against the state”, and “disrupting public order”. Whilst in detention in state custody, Rafiei spoke out about being pressured into taking a “virginity test”. 

In an open letter published on 9 May 2019, she wrote: “In a totally unlawful action during my detention, my interrogator with the approval of the case investigator sent me to the medical examiner’s office on Behesht St. for a virginity test but I stood firm and despite threats and lots of pressure, they did not succeed.”

“I insisted on lodging a complaint against this illegal request [of a virginity test] several times but the authorities refused and kept it quiet,” she said. She was then charged for this and sentenced to a further 15 months in prison on top of the seven years she is currently serving.

Why is this an issue in Iran?

In Iran, family law heavily entrenches rules and customs which restrict women’s rights both socially and economically. Laws such as the mandatory hijab rule have been imposed on women to enforce a strict religious ideology, regardless of the beliefs of the women themselves. Virginity has been considered a sign of piety in many religions for centuries, and in Iran sexual relationships are only permitted within the marriage framework. Virginity is seen as having great value and honour, and a woman is likely to be chastised if she does not “have” her virginity before marriage. “Virginity tests” – a gynaecological inspection of female genitalia under the false pretence that it can determine whether a woman or girl has had sexual intercourse – are often done at the request of parents or potential partners as a requirement for marriage eligibility. The examinations are mostly done by doctors, but can be conducted by community leaders or police and prison officers, as was with Rafiei’s case. 

The examination is an invasive practice. These customs are seen as outdated, particularly by feminist movements in Iran who argue that religious scriptures are abused by men to enforce patriarchal standards and restrict women’s freedom. Women who participate in political activism are challenging the clergy’s monolithic power and enforcement of oppressive rules, hence why many like Mortezaei and Rafiei are persecuted for speaking out.

In October 2018, the UN ruled that “virginity testing” is a human rights violation with no scientific or clinical basis. The UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), UN Women and the World Health Organization (WHO), said that “this medically unnecessary, and oftentimes painful, humiliating and traumatic practice must end.”

In some countries, the test is done on rape victims to supposedly determine whether or not a rape occurred, which the UN agencies said “causes pain and mimics the original act of violence, exacerbating survivors’ sense of disempowerment and cause re-victimisation.” The result of such tests can impact judicial proceedings often to the disadvantage of the victim, excusing violence against women and allowing perpetrators to potentially go free. 

Masih Alinejad, Iranian women’s rights campaigner and founder of the #WhiteWednesdays campaign which protests against the compulsory hijab law explained to IOHR in an interview why she fights against such laws. Masih said “I am not ruining the image of Iran, I am ruining the image of the oppressors.” Her concern is not just the compulsory hijab rule, but how it is used by the “hands of government to oppress women in any way”.

“I am fighting against the most visible symbol of oppression, against the genetic code of the Islamic Republic.” – Masih Alinejad described to IOHR

She said when she first started campaigning, the authorities mocked and disregarded her, but then they started to attack her and other women who joined her. They made up false claims about her being raped to try and discredit her, tying into the long-held view that women lose value without their virginity, a justification for the “virginity tests”. She said that the backlash to her campaigning shows that “the government of Iran is scared of women who can make decisions about their body. It shows the impotent of our fight and our battle.” 

Masih spoke exclusively to IOHR on 12 February saying,

“Subjecting women to virginity tests is a very barbaric law. This law which is an insult to women’s dignity is highly contested amongst female prisoners too. Female athlete yes that I have talked to told me that they too have been subjected to forced virginity tests. Based on the account of 3 female athletes I have spoken with, not only the Islamic republic exposed them to forced virginity tests, but it has also done so by inflicting physical pain on women in unsanitary conditions. This is another way that the Islamic republic of Iran humiliates women. Worse of all, no media inside Iran talk about this humiliating and barbaric practice. Iranian women have recently broken their silence and are exposing these barbaric practices.

As you know the Islamic Republic of Iran has no respect for women’s dignity. Even the chant of “my body my choice” would land a woman in jail. This is a regime that thinks it owns women’s bodies. By taking women’s body hostage, it has written its ideology on women’s bodies.”

Treatment of women’s rights activists in prison

The concern for the jailed student activists is the treatment they may receive by prison authorities whilst serving their sentences. Women’s rights activists face harsh treatment in prisons, many held in the notoriously brutal Evin and Qarchak prisons in Tehran. 

Recently, a source close to the family of imprisoned women’s rights activist Saba Kord Afshari revealed in an interview with VOA Persian that she was beaten and dragged between wards by prison authorities. Kord Afshari, who is currently serving a 15 year sentence on national security charges relating to her removal of her hijab in public, was transferred from Evin prison to Qarchak prison on the outskirts of Tehran in December 2020. She was being held in a ward for political prisoners in Qarchak prison, but was reportedly grabbed by authorities and had her hands tied behind her back before being dragged to a ward where “common criminals” are held. 

Her family members had previously tweeted that she has been forcibly transferred between wards, separating her from her mother Raheleh Ahmadi who was detained with her at Evin prison. Ahmadi was arrested for advocating on her daughter’s behalf, and sentenced to two years and seven months in prison for national security offences. Authorities have ignored Ahmadi’s poor health, refusing to grant her leave for a procedure after she suffered shock and paralysis in her left leg. After being taken to an external hospital, doctors said she needs urgent surgery as she currently can only walk with a cane, but the Iranian authorities who are aware of her condition have not yet approved her leave.

In another case, well-known lawyer and activist Nasrin Sotoudeh was moved back into Qarchak prison on 20 January. Sotoudeh has been arrested and tried numerous times, given a total sentence of 38 years and six months in prison, plus 148 lashes, for her work defending human rights and women’s rights. She was temporarily freed on 7 November 2020, and was in hospital after her health deteriorated significantly in prison. She went on hunger strike before her release last year, and had developed a heart condition. Earlier in January, authorities told her that she could have two weeks of extended leave from the hospital to spend time with family. After this was up, instead of returning her back to hospital, authorities took her back to Qarchack prison, risking the further deterioration of her health once again.

IOHR Director Valerie Peay spoke on the issue. “Despite many women’s rights being curtailed 42 years ago with the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, many brave women such as Nasrin Sotoudeh have become lawyers and used their craft to stand up for the rights of women and those most vulnerable in society. Today many of these women languish in prison with barbaric sentences, which include lashing and torture, for standing up for cases such as a women’s right to chose to wear a hijab,” she said.

“Women all over the world must use our voices to call for their freedom so that they can stand up as beacons in Iranian society for the mothers, sisters, grandmothers and girls that deserve equal rights, legal protections and just treatment.”

*Image of Saha Mortezaei from Center for Human Rights in Iran

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