On June 20, 2014, London-based British-Iranian citizen Ghoncheh Ghavami was one of a number of women to protest peacefully outside the Azadi stadium in Tehran. The group were campaigning to be allowed into the stadium to watch a men’s volleyball match. It is not illegal in Iran for women to attend sporting events of this nature, yet convention meant that Ghavami and her comrades were not granted entrance and were actually detained for their protest. Although they were promptly released, Ghavami was rearrested within days and has since been sentenced to one year in prison. Having served 5 months of this time, she was released on a £20,000 bail on November 23 and remains free until her court appeal. Despite this small victory, which followed an international campaign for her release, Ghavami may yet return to prison, where she has already suffered cruel treatment and undergone hunger strikes in an effort to be afforded her basic human rights.
Accused of “spreading propaganda against the system,” when she was finally granted her right to a court hearing in October, Ghavami not only faces up to another 7 months in prison but a two year ban on international travel. She is just one example of an Iranian activist who has fallen foul of the law for promoting equality and freedom of expression. One of the most high profile examples was the arrest of seven Iranian citizens in May for creating a video of themselves dancing to the Pharrell Williams song Happy. In September they were each given a suspended sentence of six months in prison and 91 lashes, which they will serve if they commit another crime in the next three years. Additionally, the group were made to appear on national TV to apologise for their supposedly ‘obnoxious’ behaviour.
Despite the risks, a number of Iranians continue to protest and flout government regulations on everything from dancing to wearing the burqa. Social media was used last year to spread images of Iranian men dressed in traditional Kurdish female attire, protesting a court ruling to punish a criminal by making him wear women’s clothing. This year, websites have been set up to accommodate sharing pictures of Iranian women without their burqa. Most recently, on November 28, a video of a woman dancing on a Tehran subway, with and without her headscarf, appeared online and soon went viral. Experts believe that protests of this kind are increasing.
It is not as a result of these protests, or their ensuing punishment, however, that Iran has been receiving so much media attention of late. No consensus was reached between Iran and the six world powers of the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China on a long-term nuclear agreement by the deadline of Monday 24 November. Talks in Vienna instead ended with agreement that negotiations should be extended until March 1, with all technical details agreed by July 1. If all goes to plan, an agreement will be in place by March relieving the Iranian government of a number of sanctions, while curtailing their nuclear development so that they are not such a threat to the international community.
Arguably, this promising diplomacy and cooperation is being made possible by the far more moderate approach of the relatively new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Having assumed office in August of last year, Rouhani has not only worked to achieve consensus on the issue of nuclear weapons in Iran, but made promising statements about human rights in his country. Speaking last December, the President stated, "In today's world, having access to information and the right of free dialogue and the right to think freely is the right of all people, including the people of Iran.” In addition, he has released a significant number of prisoners, given more women government positions and pledged to etablish a citizens’ rights commission. In response to the aforementioned ‘Happy’ video, Rouhani tweeted, “Happiness is our people's right. We shouldn't be too hard on behaviours caused by joy.”
All of this suggests that improvements can and may soon be made to the human rights situation in Iran. However, reality does not always match rhetoric and there is still a long way to go until Iranians can expect the human rights which many around the world take for granted. After all, while Rouhani accepted the ‘Happy’ video as an expression of fun, the state police and judicial system did not. Despite this, there is a glimmer of hope that human rights may improve in Iran in the near future. If the international community really does succeed in working together to reach a long-term nuclear agreement, they can arguably work together once more; to aid Iranian activists who have suffered for their beliefs and to help Iranian politicians create a citizens’ rights commission that properly protects the rights of Iranian citizens. In the mean time, Ghoncheh Ghavami’s prison sentence still stands. If any reader would like to encourage the Iranian government to reconsider and drop the charges against her, please follow this link to take action by sending an email.