Twenty-four-year-old Iranian activist Yasaman Aryani has been unjustly imprisoned since April simply for removing her hijab in public. She now faces a 16 year sentence.
On March 8th, 2019, International Women’s Day, 24-year-old Yasaman Aryani, her mother, and another woman walked into a women-only car on the Tehran Metro carrying a basket of white flowers. A widely posted video showed their movement through the car: Yasaman, dressed in a bright red sweater and matching lipstick, plucks a bloom from the box, drops it into a sitting woman’s hand, then bends to kiss her cheek. “Happy International Women’s Day!” she says to the camera with a wide smile and blows a kiss. She radiates energy and joy, even as the moment changes her life. Unlike the other women in the metro, Yasaman has no hijab covering her short, reddish hair. Going bareheaded in public — the simple act of choosing for herself what to wear — landed her in prison facing a sentence of 16 years.
Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, it’s been a crime for women to appear publicly with hair uncovered; punishment can include prison time, flogging, and fines. Yet nothing has stopped women from demanding their rights, including freedom from compulsory dress codes. In December 2017, a woman climbed atop a Tehran utility box, waving her hijab on a stick. Others have stood in public waving their scarves or shared videos of themselves walking bareheaded through city streets. On “White Wednesdays,” women have posted photos of themselves dressed in white, a sign of protest.
In response, officials have cracked down hard, arresting dozens of activists. In March 2019, longtime civil rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has represented many female protesters, was sentenced to 148 lashes and a staggering 38.5 years in prison. [For Nasrin’s story, click here.] Yasaman, who loves acting and mountain climbing, has been jailed before. In August 2018, she was arrested with other activists at a Tehran protest while helping an old woman who had been thrown to the ground by police. Charged with “disrupting public order,” Yasaman was sentenced to a year in Evin Prison — notorious for holding Iran’s political prisoners and for its rampant human rights abuses. When she was released early last February, she denounced it as “a show” to bolster the image of the Iranian government with the international community.
Time in prison did not deter Yasaman from raising her voice. She soon publicly posted videos in protest of forced veiling laws. In one, she tells the camera, with a wide grin, “The rain is so beautiful, why would I wear a hijab?… I encourage all girls to remove your hijabs and enjoy the spring rain.”
A month after her Women’s Day video spread online, Yasaman tweeted that she had been cut from a play in which she’d been cast. Two days later, security forces raided her home, confiscated her laptop and cell phone and arrested her. When her mother, Monireh Arabshahi, traveled to the Vozara detention center to ask about her daughter, she was arrested, too. Denied access to their lawyers, on July 31, they were convicted by a judge known for his harsh verdicts of “spreading propaganda,” “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security,” and “inciting and facilitating corruption and prostitution.” (Mojgan Keshavarz, the mother of a nine-year-old, was arrested at the same time and received a sentence of over 23 years.)
In prison, Yasaman has faced nightmarish conditions. She’s been held in solitary confinement, denied calls from family, and threatened with the arrest of other family members if she did not recant on camera and express “regret” for allowing herself to be influenced by “foreign agents.” In Qarchak Prison — where she and her mother are now held with over 2,000 women and some children — the lack of proper food, medicine and medical care has led to dangerous epidemics. Political prisoners are housed with criminals. In August 2019, nearly 200 inmates wrote to Tehran’s Director General of Prisons that conditions were so wretched some prisoners had taken to injuring themselves as a way to cope with emotional pain, anger and frustration.
Yasaman and her mother are appealing their verdict and sentence; if the verdict is upheld, they are expected to serve 10 years. Human rights experts have condemned their conviction, and the United Nations has called on Iran to release the women.
On August 3, Yasaman’s mother, Monireh, sent a defiant letter from prison: “I am actually happy that in the fifth decade of my life I have been able to pull aside the veil that for many years covered my thoughts, ideas and beliefs. And today … I feel like a free bird.”
But for the moment, that freedom remains a metaphor, and Monireh and Yasaman, who wanted what any 24-year-old wants –– the right to define her own life — remains behind bars.