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Anti-Hijab Protests ‘Changed Iran and Its Prisons’, Says Freed Researcher

The protest movement that erupted in Iran last year has transformed the country both outside and also inside prison, a French-Iranian academic, who returned to Paris last month after being held in the country since 2019, told AFP.

Fariba Adelkhah was finally allowed to leave Iran in October after a four-and-a-half year ordeal that began with her sudden arrest in 2019 and saw her spend years in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

But there she was also able to witness the courage of her fellow women inmates, who included this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Narges Mohammadi, amid the “Woman. Life. Freedom.” protests.

Female political prisoners have often sung together in a show of defiance, Adelkhah, who was released from prison in February but remained unable to leave Iran for months, told AFP in an interview in Paris.

That movement “has changed Iranian society and also its prisons,” said Adelkhah.

The movement, calling for the end of Iran’s imposition of a headscarf on all women and clerical rule, was sparked by the death in Iranian custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September 2022.

She died after being arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s dress rules for women.

Iranian security forces have cracked down on the protests in the country, killing hundreds, according to rights groups, and have executed seven men in cases connected to the protests.

Adelkhah said that in Evin the resistance movement brought together people from all walks of life — including rights activists, environmentalists, political opponents, and representatives of religious minorities.

“We became united by this cause,” said the 64-year-old researcher in Iranian Shiite religion and politics.

She herself was arrested on June 5, 2019, at Tehran’s airport, where she was waiting for her companion Roland Marchal. Neatly-dressed security agents “very respectfully” asked her to follow them, she said.

Several hours later she was questioned for the first time, her head “facing the wall.”

‘Psychological humiliation’

She would be subjected to many other interrogations in the future but she was never hit, Adelkhah said.

“This happens very often to men, but I never heard women mention it when I was detained,” she said.

“But the absence of physical violence does not prevent constant psychological humiliation,” she quickly added.

Others including rights activist Mohammadi have spoken of the sexual abuse of detainees in prisons.

The researcher was eventually sentenced to six years in prison. A five-year term was handed down for “colluding with foreigners” and one for “propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” she said.

Marchal, a French sociologist specialising in sub-Saharan Africa, was arrested together with Adelkhah. He was released in March 2020 as part of a prisoner exchange between Tehran and Paris.

“I still don’t understand what I was accused of,” sighed Adelkhah, smiling.

While in jail Adelkhah, along with another prisoner, Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, staged a hunger strike that lasted 50 days.

They were among some two dozen Western passport holders held in Iran in what activists and some governments have termed a deliberate strategy of hostage-taking.

Some have now been released, including all the American detainees, but around a dozen Europeans are still believed to be held, including four French nationals.

‘Space of combat’

The “Woman. Life. Freedom.” protest movement has seen women prisoners defy prison authorities in Evin.

In the jail, located in the hills of northern Tehran, female prisoners are bareheaded when they are among themselves, but are required to cover themselves if a man enters or if they have to go to the hospital.

After the start of the protests, “nearly no one wore the veil” when a man entered, said Adelkhah.

On Wednesday, Iranian prison authorities have blocked the jailed rights activist Mohammadi’s hospital transfer for urgently needed care over her refusal to wear the compulsory hijab, according to her family.

Adelkhah praised the 51-year-old journalist and activist, seen as one of the women spearheading the uprising who has been repeatedly jailed and has been imprisoned again since 2021.

She said Mohammadi has turned prison into “a space of combat, of protest par excellence”, adding that she was “more heard” in jail than when she is outside.

The researcher was still in Iran when Mohammadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in early October. She said she saw “smiles” in the streets.

While the government quashed the daily protests with its repression, the slogan “Woman. Life. Freedom.” has become part of Iranian culture, she argued.

“The Islamic Republic is forced to give ground over many things,” said Adelkhah.

Today like-minded Iranian women greet each other when they go out without their headscarves. Before it was “unthinkable,” said the researcher.

Now they tell each other: ‘”You are so beautiful!'”

Source : France24