Following a 2018 attack on an IRGC parade in Ahwaz, the Iranian regime launched a mass arrest campaign seizing hundreds of Ahwazi activists and their family members. Tehran labelled many civilian Ahwazis as ‘accomplices’ of the attackers and accused them of being members of terrorist groups such as ISIS. This smear campaign targeted individuals who completely uninvolved in any movements, and pointedly ignored the fact that the actual attackers involved in the September 31, 2018 attack were all killed in action. Without hesitation or moral consideration, Iranian security and judicial authorities arrested even several Ahwazi women in connection to their husbands’ political and cultural activities.
Sepideh Gholian is a prominent labour activist who participated in the protests held by sugar cane workers in Ahwaz after their salaries remained unpaid for six months. She was imprisoned due to her advocacy for workers’ demands and labour rights and was recently released from prison. She has revealed in a series of tweets how a number of Ahwazi women prisoners were brutally tortured and mistreated in prison and solitary confinement.
This civil activist spoke about the “forced confessions” and torture and its effects on the Ahwazi women prisoners’ bodies, adding that these women were tortured because of their “Arab and female” identity.
Ms Gholian revealed on her twitter account that the torture employed against the Ahwazi female activists she witnessed in recent months was continuous and systematic, and took place during the entire time she was serving time for her news coverage related to labour protests. Some of the most common methods of torture used by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence personnel in the city of Ahwaz included beatings, psychological torture, insults, various forms of humiliation, and obscene treatment.
One of the women who had suffered through these tortures is named Makia Neisi. According to Gholian, Makia’s husband disappeared in October 2018 and has been missing since, and nobody has any knowledge of his whereabouts.
The ministry of intelligence informed Makia and her family, most of whom are in detention, that no member of her family will be released until her husband brings himself forward, which will mean his inevitable arrest and worse.
Makia now is in unspeakably dire conditions. She is the mother of three children, and all her family members are in detention, excepting one of her sisters. She works inside the prison in order to meet their needs as best she can, and has been tortured on several occasions while in detention.
Ms Gholian asserts that the authorities’ neglection of her unsheltered children, the abduction of all her family members, threats, beatings and months of solitary confinement without interrogation are among the forms of torture which Makia endured.
Ms Gholian cites another Ahwazi woman who has suffered as a prisoner, Zahra Husseini.
Zahra Hosseini (Sarkheh) is 24 -year- old, married, and has two daughters (Esra and Sana). From the Hasirabad district of Ahwaz city, she was arrested on November 26, 2018. Ms Gholian described Zahra’s condition as follows: “I have seen bruises on her hands and feet when she was moved to Evin prison for the first time to take the fingerprints. She was held as hostage by the Iranian intelligence. They want to arrest her husband and allege that he is a member of terror groups. She has been in temporary detention since November 2018 and spent five months in the intelligence detention facility in Ahwaz.”
Ms Gholian says that she was taken for interrogation one night. She was blindfolded. “But I could hear some voices. I heard the voice of a woman coming towards the interrogation room. The interrogation rooms were close, and we could hear all the interrogations, and there was no more torture than that, at all.” She continued: “On the first day of my interrogation, there was an unknown woman being interrogated, the interrogation continued from night to morning, and I remember that the interrogators wanted her to confess that she was from ISIS, and she was just saying: I am Sunni, but I am not ISIS supporter. Suddenly, the sound of the beating rang out … She was screaming, and the interrogators were hitting her hard, saying, ‘Don’t raise your voice, and confess what you are so we can leave you alone, and then we did not hear any voice.’”
Ms Gholian continued: “After two days, they took me blindfolded in a car and two other women were with me. When we got to our destination, they removed the blindfold from our eyes. I saw the two women, one of them was suffering from bruises on her face, they had brought us to take fingerprints, and we took the opportunity to talk to each other, though the guard warned us not to say anything. “We asked about each other’s conditions, we showed our wounds to each other, and we talked about our fears. In the end, Zahra said: ‘Aren’t you the one who was being interrogated two days ago in the next room? They were telling you that you are communist, and they were attacking you.’ I said: ‘Yes, my dear Zahra, and it was you whom they were trying to accuse, that you are an ISIS affiliate?’” She continued: “We have become sisters since that day, and we spent several months in the prison, which angered the security officers. Zahra was one of the hundreds of Ahwazi women who were arrested, tortured, and persecuted, in Ahwaz, for two reasons: the first is because she is a woman, and the second is that she is Arab.”
Sepideh Gholian also wrote about other Ahwazi women prisoners, such as Wafaa Heydari from Ahwaz.
Wafaa’s husband was granted asylum in Sweden, but when Wafaa attempted to flee the country in order to join her husband, she was detained at the airport and is still in jail, because her husband is Sunni. As is common in Iran, particularly with non-Persian ethnicities, the authorities arrested the activist’s wife to hold her as a hostage until such time as they can take him into custody. Yet another activist, Fatemeh Tounitzadeh, has suffered a similar fate, and has been in “temporary” custody in the infamous Sepidar prison since October 2018, without any due process or a trial. Similarly, Khulud Sabhani, a 20-year-old woman from Khafajiyeh city, has been detained since even before the attack on the parade, yet held as an ‘accomplice’ to the attack. She could not possibly have been involved in the attack since she was already in government custody when the attack took place.
New York-based international human rights lawyer Irina Tsukerman commented: “This is yet another area in which the international community has failed Ahwazi Arabs. The so-called human rights organisations and women’s rights activists and feminists have no interest in the fate of unjustly held and abused Arab women, and those of them who also face the additional religious discrimination as Sunni. Denial of due process, forced confessions under torture, and political hostage-taking of these vulnerable members of an already discriminated segment of the population should be subjects of international pressure campaigns on Iran. Nevertheless, we never hear anything about these cases. On the contrary, there is an incentive to hush up inconvenient stories and to focus on relatively superficial causes such as the forced hijab issue in Iran. That issue, while it does highlight the regime’s discriminatory treatment against women in general, detracts of the far more horrific things that happen away from the cameras, and in particular with the women who are not known to the West and do not have any hope of grabbing attention of the Western media and major human rights groups. Furthermore, the hijab issue is an easy way to unite Western women’s rights activists and create an endless and circular debate over whether “hijab” is a religious or a cultural issue, while women in Iran face everyday hardships and horrors that make this issue seem minor by comparison. Harassment, and abuses in prison are hardly ever mentioned, and yet they destroy these women physically and psychologically. The attacks on Ahwazi women in jail have a devastating effect on their families. The children are traumatised as well by the separation from their mothers and from having to watch the abhorrent treatment of the women. What is particularly abhorrent is the sight of the self-proclaimed radical feminists like Codepink visiting as guests of the Iranian government, singing praises to the ayatollahs, diverting the world’s attention from these horrors by fact-free outrage campaigns against Gulf States, while keeping mum on the fate of the women in Ahwaz, in particular, these prisoners. They help whitewash Tehran’s deliberate crimes against Ahwazi families, and they should be shamed and sanctioned by the society for facilitating crimes against humanity that the regime perpetrates on a daily basis with their endless stream of fake news and pro-regime propaganda.”
Ahwazi rights groups have reported on other Ahwazi women prisoners as well, such as Masoumeh Saidawi, a 48-year-old married woman detained since early October with her entire family. Susan Saidawi, 45- year- old, has been in ‘temporary’ detention with her entire family since early October.
Ms Sakineh Sagouri, a 34-year-old from Ahwaz city, Kian district, is married and has one child. Sakineh Sagouri was held in Evin Prison for several months before the parade incident in Ahwaz, and was later released on bail but was arrested again after the parade attack.
Elaheh Darwishi, a 19-year-old from Toster city (Shooshtar), has a 7-month-old son. Elaheh was arrested from early October 2018 while pregnant and kept by the regime’s Ahwaz-based intelligence agency for six months and then transferred to Tehran overnight. Hassan Darwishi, who is Elaheh’s husband, is one of the individuals accused by the Islamic Republic of attacking the parade in Ahwaz.
Zahra Shajirat, 37- year- old, is married with three children, has been in ‘temporary’ custody since November 2018. In addition to these names, 11 other Arab women were released on bail until the end of the trial and the verdict, due to their participation in the protests on April 2, known as ‘Dignity Uprising’.
The Iranian regime has always sought to exert pressure on Ahwazi political and cultural activists, especially those who are in exile, by arresting their family members and threatening them to hold them hostage if they continue their activism. As an example, Security forces arrested Ms Leila Shawredi from Ahwaz in her home on November 25, 2019. The arrest is said to have taken place in order to place pressure on her brother, Nasser Shawerdi, a television anchor for Ahwazna TV based in the Netherlands. Ahwaz Intelligence Service agents want Nasser Shawredi, known as Nasser Aziz, to stop his work as anchor aforementioned television. Otherwise, his sister will remain in prison.
Attorney Aaron Eitan Meyer commented that “Article 76 of 1977’s Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions requires the regime to not only provide special respect and attention to any women imprisoned, while section two thereof specifically states that ‘Pregnant women and mothers having dependent infants who are arrested, detained or interned for reasons related to the armed conflict, shall have their cases considered with the utmost priority.’ The regime claims that these detentions are the result of the attack. Giving the regime the most minimal benefit of the doubt, then Protocol I should be applied, and these women protected to the fullest, since Article 1 section 4 thereof explicitly provides that its protections extend to ‘armed conflicts in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes in the exercise of their right of self-determination’. There is more than ample evidence that the Iranian regime is occupying Ahwaz and subjecting its ethnic Arab inhabitants to systemic racism and other discrimination, and viciously suppressing any attempt to exercise their right of self-determination. Therefore, since Iran ratified Protocol I on December 12, 1977, it is bound by those provisions and is in flagrant breach of its international legal obligations.”
Ahwazi activists have been documenting the Iranian regime’s crimes against the Ahwazi people both within and without its borders, but the regime’s crimes against Ahwazi women go beyond even the other depredations committed for decades. The regime is in breach of its international commitments, and defies fundamental morality itself. And since the regime is only escalating its crimes, the international community must abide by its own legal obligations and take direct legal action against the regime. This must stop.
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. You can follow him on his twitter account: https://twitter.com/samireza42
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Dur Untash Studies Centre.