By Firouzeh Ramezanzadeh
Shaparak Shajarizadeh, a 45-year old Iranian woman, was arrested in January after removing her headscarf in public in protest against the mandatory Islamic hijab law. Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi sought a 20-year prison sentence for Mrs. Shajarizadeh after she posted pictures of herself on social media without a headscarf. A Tehran court sentenced her to two years in prison and gave her another 18-year suspended jail sentence.
Shajarizadeh told Kayhan Life that she was inspired by Vida Movahed and other Iranian women whose peaceful protests against the mandatory hijab launched the “Girls of Enghelab Street” movement. Shajarizadeh said she was also impressed by the Iranian-American journalist Masih Alinejad who started “My Stealthy Freedom,” an online movement opposed to the mandatory hijab. Using the hashtag #whitewednesdays, many people have posted pictures and videos of themselves wearing white headscarves or pieces of white clothing as symbols of protest.
Shajarizadeh said: “Masih Alinejad’s first video of the White Wednesday campaign piqued my interest. Up to that point, only special interest groups, rights activists, and journalists had advocated the rights of women. In December, ordinary women came out in force demanding their freedom to choose. I became very interested in the campaign, because it urged everyone to get involved.”
Shajarizadeh stopped her social and political activities after security forces placed the leaders of the Green Movement under house arrest and brutalized street protesters who questioned the outcome of the 2009 presidential elections. Instead, she became an animal rights activist. Shajarizadeh clashed with local authorities over her campaign to save homeless cats and dogs in Tehran’s 7th District.
“I didn’t become interested in the women’s rights movement until I turned 40. I started sending video and film clips to Alinejad’s site only two weeks after the launch of the White Wednesdays Movement. I also published those pictures on my Instagram page to protest the mandatory hijab. Within a short time, I began to receive threats which I ignored,” Shajarizadeh noted.
She explained: “It was on a Wednesday when Vida Movahed stood on a pillar box in Enghelab street and removed her headscarf. I wasn’t in Tehran at the time. It was around Christmas, and my son was on his school holiday. I was also suffering from severe back pain. A few days later, Alinejad launched her #girlsofenghelabstreet. I taped a video, asking women to follow Vida’s resistance model instead of wearing and removing white headscarves.”
Shajarizadeh said: “I went to one of the intersections around Gheytariyeh street every Wednesday for two months. I’d remove my headscarf and photograph and videotape myself standing in one spot for a few minutes. I really wanted to go to Enghelab street, but I had my son to think of, and also my husband pleaded with me not to do it. One of my photographs was widely republished. The New York Times contacted me and asked if they could publish one of my photos.”
Many Farsi-language and foreign newspapers including the New York Times interviewed Shajarizadeh.
“One day, a friend of mine and I visited the same pillar box where Vida had stood on in Enghelab street. We wanted to place some flowers on that spot. My friend was leaving Iran, and she wanted to remove her scarf in a symbolic gesture. She found a spot at a roundabout close to Gheytariyeh, and I stood at a nearby intersection,” Shajarizadeh said: “Police approached us while I was filming. My friend had a flight to catch the next day, so I motioned her to move away. They arrested and interrogated me for two days, but I didn’t tell them my friend’s name.”
Shajarizadeh said: “My parents reacted badly when they first saw my videos on the Voice of America and BBC Persian. We had a huge argument and stopped speaking to each other. At the time of my first arrest, I hadn’t heard from my parents for a while. My father had even threatened to take me out of his will.”
She added: “A few days later I found out that the authorities had prevented my father and my attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh [Human rights lawyer currently in prison] from visiting me at Gharchak women prison. I was in solitary confinement at the time. On the fifth day of my hunger strike, they finally let me see my father. I was in tears and told the prison officials that I didn’t want to see my dad. The deputy warden pleaded with me to change my mind, and I finally agreed to see him.”
Shajarizadeh explained: “The authorities wanted to use my father to get me to end my hunger strike. I was not well at the time. He cried uncontrollably. A glass window separated us. I apologized to him, but he stopped me and said that he was proud of me. The deputy warden kept pacing back and forth behind my dad, saying that I should think of my child and end my hunger strike. However, my dad signaled with his hand that I should remain steadfast and strong.”
“When I first arrived at Gharchak, I discovered that Atena Daemi [jailed human rights activists serving a seven-year sentence since 2014] and Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee [jailed writer, activist serving a six-year sentence since 2016] had been on hunger strikes. The prison authorities had isolated them from the general population. There were three small solitary confinement cells at this prison. There were three dervishes in the other cells. I was in a bigger cell with four dervishes who had been transferred a day before I got there on February 20. These four women had been badly beaten and needed urgent medical care. However, prison officials didn’t help them for a week. Some of them were bleeding badly. They were between 20 and 60 years old,” Shajarizadeh said.
Authorities released Shajarizadeh on February 28 after she posted a $24,000 bail. After her release from prison, Shajarizadeh ran into an unexpected problem with her son’s Italian school.
She explained: “The school held its annual Nowrouz celebration. Before going to school in the morning, my son asked me to show up on time for the festivities. I was getting ready when someone from the school called asking me not to attend the event. I asked them to send my son home because he expected me to be in the audience during the anthem. The school principal called me back, asking if my son could stay for the celebration.”
Shajarizadeh added: “A month later I wanted to accompany my son during his school visit to the Louvre Museum in Tehran. School administrators said that, given the recent events, the Italian Embassy had told them not to allow me to enter the school. Since my arrest, I’ve been to my son’s school only once. Meanwhile, state-sponsored websites have accused me of being a spy for the Italian government.”
Police arrested Shajarizadeh again on March 17 but released her later the same day.
“They arrested me on some trumped-up charges and took me to Evin prison for interrogation,” Shajarizadeh recalled. “They also detained my husband. I was under a great deal of emotional and psychological pressure on that day. They, however, released me the same day.”
Shajarizadeh then recounted her ordeal in Kashan. She said: “I went for a short holiday to Kashan and Yazd with my son and a friend of mine. During our visit to the Fin Garden, a woman cautioned my friend and me for not wearing headscarves. I ignored her and continued videotaping a water fountain. The woman persisted and this time spoke to my friend who told her to mind her own business which started a heated argument between them. As I turned my camera towards the woman, her husband attacked my son and me. I published the video clip online.”
Shajarizadeh added: “Security police suddenly appeared out of nowhere. We took refuge inside the Fin Bath, but the couple followed us. The woman’s brother-in-law started beating me. People intervened and took him off me. I posted a live video that night speaking about the incident, the people who attacked us and the regime’s policies. Five security officers met us when we went to a nearby hotel for lunch the next day. They informed us that someone had filed a complaint against us. They had impounded my car and said that they’d explain the charges at the police station. I told them I wouldn’t go anywhere without my husband. I telephoned my husband and my lawyer Mr. Behzadi.”
“I told the security officers that the man and woman had beaten my son and me. They said that I could file a complaint against the couple if I wanted to. Mr. Behzadi advised me to do just that. However, when I went to the police station, I found out that no one had filed a complaint against me. The officers asked me why I had removed my hijab. They mistreated us. They also urged my friend not to speak to me at all. My son was crying and screaming during the entire episode,” Shajarizadeh recalled.
Shajarizadeh said: “They took us to the only branch of the Kashan’s prosecutor’s office which was open outside the normal hours. They had compiled a massive file on me. At the outset, the prosecutor told me that I’d be remanded in custody unless I posted a $35,000-bond. I asked him what the charges were to which he replied ‘inciting unrest and prostitution.’ He kept asking the security officers how many people followed me online and had seen my videos. I refused to pay the bail.”
“I had already posted a $24,000bbail after my first arrest on espionage charges. The case was going to trial sometime in June. So I told the prosecutor that I wouldn’t talk without my lawyers present and wouldn’t sign anything either. He said they would keep me in jail. They reduced the bail to $2,400 for my friend on the condition that she’d take my son with her,” Shajarizadeh explained. “They handcuffed my son in front of me. He was screaming through the entire ordeal. They had confiscated my friend’s mobile phone and belongings. She stood outside the police station shouting until they returned her phone. They, however, seized my headphones.”
Shajarizadeh said: “When I arrived at Kashan prison, a guard told me to use the toilet. They locked the door from outside when I went in. I spent the entire night there curled up against the sink. Around midnight a prison officer came and spoke to me for hours, asking me why I had removed my headscarf.”
In conclusion, Shajarizadeh spoke about how she had severed ties with many people around her. She said: “I cut my ties with many of my acquaintances, most of whom only thought about fashion, makeup, cars, and money. They had started to talk behind my back, saying that I was crazy. Some even said that I had neglected my duties as a mother. Curiously enough, most of these women had been, at one time or another, cautioned by the morality police for not adhering to strict Islamic dress code or wearing too many makeups, but that didn’t stop them from being mean-spirited, judgmental and condescending towards me, which I found to be very hurtful.”
Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi