Iranian Police Arrest Activist Fatemeh Sepehri, Devout Woman with Secular Views

By Ahmad Rafat

Fatemeh Sepehri — the civil rights activist who was detained in Mashhad on Sunday, Aug. 1, during a peaceful demonstration in support of the people of Khuzestan and against the security situation in Iran — was released six days after her arrest.

Security forces in Mashhad have arrested several civil rights activists, including Fatemeh Sepehri, who had staged a peaceful demonstration in Park Melat to support protesters in the southwestern province of Khuzestan, and to protest the heightened security climate in the country.

The demonstrators were also demanding the release of political prisoners.

In a telephone conversation with her family a day later, Fatemeh Sepehri reportedly said that the security forces had beaten her and other protesters and used tasers during their arrests.

A close relative of Ms. Sepehri, who spoke to Kayhan Life, said that she had undergone surgery recently and needed prescription painkillers, adding that the arrest could be detrimental to her health.

The public first heard of Fatemeh Sepehri when she and 13 other women signed a letter on June 12, 2019, urging Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to resign. Previously, 14 men, including Sepehri’s brother, Mohammad Hossein Sepehri, had written a similar letter, calling for Mr. Khamenei’s resignation.

After signing the letter, Fatemeh Sepehri received a great deal of attention because her late husband had lost his life during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88); as a result, she came to be known as a martyr’s wife.

Iranian authorities did not expect the wife of a martyr with strong religious beliefs to urge Khamenei to resign and advocate a secular democratic governing system to replace the Islamic Republic regime.

In her first interview with the media, shortly after signing the letter, Sepehri said: “People, make your voice heard, and do not wait for a miracle. Do not wait for someone to rescue you. Everyone, inside and abroad, must unite and reject the Islamic Republic and seek a democratic secular governing system. Enough is enough; the nation must rise. Four decades of the Islamic Republic is enough. Do not leave us alone.”

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Those who know Fatemeh Sepehri well say that she has been criticizing the Islamic Republic for years: after the 2009 presidential elections, she concluded that the regime was not reformable. It was then that she stepped up her political activities.

Security forces arrested Sepehri for the first time after the controversial 2009 elections, handing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term in office and sparking bloody nationwide protests.

Fatemeh Sepehri was born in 1964. Although early challenges prevented her from pursuing her higher education, she passed Ferdowsi University Mashhad entrance exam in 2004 at the age of 40 and received a bachelor’s degree in business management.

After her husband’s death, the Foundation of Martyrs and Veteran Affairs, whose task is to help the families of those who have lost their lives in war, reportedly confiscated Fatemeh Sepehri’s belongings. The organization told Sepehri that they would return the assets to her daughter, a child, once she reached legal age.

Sepehri, in the 2019 letter written by 14 women, highlighted the “sexual apartheid” practiced by the Islamic Republic.

“We seek a government that will guarantee the rights of women in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Sepehri said in the letter.

Shortly after the publication of the two letters, authorities arrested Fatemeh Sepehri, her brother Mohammad Hossein and other signatories to the petitions during a protest in front of the Islamic Azad University of Mashhad.

Fatemeh Sepehri was charged with “disorderly conduct, inciting unrest and propagating lies” and sentenced to five years in prison and 154 lashes. She ultimately received a suspended sentence and was released from prison after nine months.

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