Shima Babaei, the Iranian women’s rights activist who lives in exile in Belgium, talks about the Islamic Republic system, the severity of repression and suffocation and the fact that women have no voice.
Shima Babaei’s father Ebrahim disappeared without trace 2 years ago.
By Odin Linardatou
1. How difficult is life in Iran for women?
Women in Iran face many challenges. The hijab is just one of these, though of course it is the main symbol of humiliation and discrimination against women. The Islamic government and traditional society are under pressure, and the Islamic Republic is using propaganda to institutionalize its anti-women agenda.
Girls must wear the hijab from the age of seven, which is when they face gender segregation and go to school separately from the boys. If they refuse to wear the hijab, they cannot study and are expelled from school.
The guidance patrol forces, whose duty it is to attend to the state of women’s hijab, are present in different ways in the streets, as well as in educational, medical and judicial institutions.
Stores, restaurants, cinemas and public places that serve veiled women are sealed off.
If a woman is present in a vehicle without a veil, she will face a fine and confiscation of the car. Of course, harassment is not limited to hijab: the laws on marriage and divorce do not allow women rights.
To enjoy the right to education, the right to choose a job and residence and the right to leave the country, women face challenges that only a man can solve.
If, thanks to her own efforts, a woman rises to prominence in science, the arts, sport or politics and enters world festivals and competitions, she does not have the right to leave the country without the permission of her husband or father.
A woman’s voice is forbidden in Iran. Women are only allowed to sing for other women, and they face many other problems
This is why Iranian women are the main enemies of the Islamic Republic today; they are in the front line of the struggle.
2. Has it become even harder in recent years for women to live a proper life in Iran, especially after Amini’s death at the hands of the Iranian police?
It is not easy to live under a regressive totalitarian government
Iranian women have shown their opposition to the Islamic Republic’s system and regressive laws in different ways both before and after the murder of Mahsa Amini, it’s just that their struggle and resistance has been more visible to the world after her death.
And now, despite all the threats, they are no longer willing to accept the hijab.
A 16-year-old girl, Armita Ground, was recently arrested for not wearing a headscarf on her way to school.
She was beaten by the Hijab control officers and her head was injured and she is currently in a coma. We do not respect the hijab law and we refuse to return to darkness, but we know very well that gender discrimination will not be removed for as long as Islamic laws govern Iran.
3. How strong is the regime in Iran? We have seen people protesting and being arrested over and over again for many years, and I have a feeling that nothing is changing for the better. Are the mullahs so strong? What will it take to change things? In the 1970s, protests forced the Shah to leave the country. What is so different now?
We are engaged in a revolution and we must not forget that victory will not be won quickly. Achieving a revolution requires various things. And these must be carried out, even though the severity of repression and suffocation make it impossible to organize in Iran. Still, we are making efforts to find different ways. At the same time, to bring about change in Iran, we need the support of the West—and of course I mean practical support, not just sloganeering.
4. You told President Macron that for every minute the West tolerates the Islamic Republic of Iran, another family like yours will suffer. What do you think the West should do?
One of the factors that can weaken the repression in Iran and help the protesters to win would be for the European Union to recognize the IRGC as a terrorist organization. The IRGC acts like a mafia group; it helps strengthen terrorism in the region and creates insecurity in the world. If the West does not stand up to this criminal organization today, it will soon have to confront it within its own borders.
If the weight of repression were reduced, people could strive more easily to advance their goals.
Though it has to be said that the civil disobedience on the street, with the removal of headscarves, shows that while such repression is destructive, it has no effect on the will of a freedom-loving people.
As well as including the IRGC on the list of terrorist groups, the West should refrain from paying ransom to the Islamic Republic. Because the Islamic Republic will continue to take hostages, as long as doing so will give it access to Iran’s blocked funds and as long as the hostages can be exchanged for terrorists in prison in Western countries. The West should also, as far as possible, avoid issuing visas to officials of the Islamic Republic and sending high-ranking politicians and high-ranking women to official meetings.
In short, the West should reduce its relations with the Islamic Republic at every political and economic level.
5. How important is the hijab for the Islamic Republic of Iran?
The hijab is one of the main symbols of the Islamic government. That is why the Islamic Republic is not willing to back down on the issue of the hijab. It faces many challenges in this regard, but it never officially accepts defeat.
In one Sentence: the hijab is the Achilles heel of the Islamic Republic.
I faced the hijab guidance patrol when I was 14.
They tried to arrest me, but my father managed to prevent it.
I was arrested five times due to my activities regarding compulsory hijab and human rights .
I was interrogated several times and kept blindfolded in solitary confinement in inhuman conditions.
They forced me to denounce myself for the camera and put pressure on my family.
My father was sentenced to 74 lashes and my husband was arrested, as well .
We were arrested while we were about to celebrate a wedding.
Finally, they managed to make me confess my ‘crimes’ and to having received financial support from other countries and to having been affected by them.
They tried to force me to denounce my family and I refused.
Ultimately, I was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment; my husband received the same sentence.
6. When did you decide that you had to leave Iran? That you could not go on living in that country? And how difficult was it for you to get to Europe?
We were forbidden to leave the country, expelled from university, banned from working, and finally forced into exile.
Leaving Iran has been a bitter and terrible experience for us.
Unfortunately, they continue to harass our families and they have opened a new cases regarding espionage and blasphemy. They have confiscated our funds and put pressure on my family.
7. Your father didn’t make it. What happened, Shima? Do you know what happened to him?
They forcibly disappeared my father on 21 Dec 2021, while he was attempting to leave Iran. We have had no news from him since. Before that, the most recent news I had about my father, Ebrahim Babaei, was that he was healthy and happy and intended to visit me—it had been a long time since I saw him. If anything happened to my father, the Islamic Regime is responsible. They tried to persuade me to go to the Iranian-Turkish border, so they could arrest me as well.
They tortured my family and myself psychologically: this is how the Iranian regime deals with opposition.
I lived in a Turkish city on the border with Iran for two years. I was able to move here, when I received a humanitarian visa from Belgium.
But many Iranian asylum seekers in Turkey have been in line for transfer to a third country for years, and conditions are becoming harder for them by the day.
Some have to pay and risk their lives to reach Greece, and from there other European countries, illegally. It is a risk, as they could be killed, raped, or even sent back to Turkey, but they have no choice but to leave Turkey. The situation for Iranian refugees in Turkey is desperate.
8. Do you believe the West should change its policy when it comes to Iranian refugees?
I want the West to know that Iran is not a safe country for Iranian citizens.
The people of Iran are at war with the dictatorship of the Islamic Republic. Iranian people are deprived of every social freedom and treated like second-class citizens in their own country.
Women and religious and gender minorities are not recognized and are subject to the most severe discrimination and oppression. Protesters are killed, injured, oppressed and tortured every day. Iran’s environment is being destroyed.
Economic problems are putting the people of Iran under terrible pressure.
And the cause of all these deplorable conditions is the Islamic Republic.
The West should examine all the cases relating to Iranian refugees and act accordingly.