Women in Iran’s Political Prisons — March 2020
The IPA has been collecting, validating, recording, and publishing information on Iran’s political prisoners for multiple years. The following analytical report and charts show data on female political prisoners from July 2016 to January 2020. It should be noted, however, that the data below do not include arrests from the November 2019 protests, as no systematic and reliable data on those events has been published.
In the data below, our team has considered multiple variables in order to get as immersive a picture as possible concerning the situation of female political prisoners in Iran. These variables include the prisoner’s ethnicity, religion, imprisonment location, and the activities for which the prisoner was arrested and detained. Through this data, we also hope to generate a better understanding of the influence exerted by female activists in different parts of Iranian society.
It should be noted that there is no complete connection between these statistics and the activities of the prisoners outside of prison. Other factors such as the Government’s behavior against women, also affect female political activists.
The IPA has examined the statistics of female political prisoners in Iranian prisons in one previous report, which focused on data from June 2016 to June 2018. A comparison of the current report with the previous report shows that the government is no longer preventing repressive institutions, like the state’s intelligence service, from imprisoning female activists.
In 2019, Iranian women engaged in more political participation in non-religious and socio-political fields. During this time, Iranian women endured severe and unprecedented penalties in the fight against the forced hijab, unfair laws, and defending workers’ rights.
In this report, our team has presumed a direct connection between the extent of women’s activities in a specific field and their arrest, so these two concepts have been used synonymously in some cases.
Overall, 12.7% of Iranian political prisoners have been women since IPA began recording political prisoner’s information.
According to our methodology, individuals who have been detained for at least two weeks for reasons of politics or conscience, or sentenced to prison or lashes will be recorded as a political prisoner. Therefore, those who have been arrested due to forced hijab and released after a few days without any issued verdict are not included in our statistics. The statistics include data from July 2016 to January 2020.
According to the previous report (2016 to 2018), 10.5% of all political prisoners were female. Over the last year, however, this number has risen to 19%. The greater proportion of women being detained is one of the most significant changes for political prisoners in recent years.
According to our statistics, the detention rate of women who are religious dissidents and women persecuted for membership in religious groups has decreased. At the time of the previous report, around 60% of Iran’s political prisoners had been prosecuted for membership or participating in activities of religious groups. In the past few months, however, this ratio has fallen to less than 10%.
By July 2018, six out of every ten women who were arrested were detained for religious reasons. In the past year, only one out of ten women has been arrested for religious reasons.
The figures show that:
1. Religion has quickly lost its status as one of the essential factors for women’s participation in Iranian society, and women are shifting to secular activities.
2. The government has tactically reduced its religious repression and refuses to open a new front against itself.
Between July 2016 to July 2018, more than 38 percent of female Iranian political prisoners were Baha’i.* Presently, the ratio of Baha’i women has decreased to about 18% (less than half of the previous ratio). Baha’is in Iran are persecuted in almost all cases for non-political reasons — they are typically persecuted for their personal beliefs. Once again, the above results confirmed that a new generation of women has started to engage in social and non-religious activities.
According to our data, 76% of women who were recorded as Shia (one of the sects of Islam) have been arrested for non-religious reasons. However, the overwhelming majority of Baha’i, Christian, and Darwish women have been arrested for religious reasons (belief, propaganda, invocation, or defending fellow believers). Further, in recent years, there have been reports of several Sunni women being detained in Iranian prisons because of their husbands’ activities in jihadist groups. Unfortunately, the IPA has almost no information about these prisoners.
According to government statistics, between 90 and 95 percent of Iranians are born Shia. About 5 to 10 percent are born Sunni, and the total population of other religions is less than one percent.
According to the above charts, the followers of Halgheh Mysticism did not separate from other Shia dissidents. About 53 percent of all Halgheh Mysticism prisoners were women who were arrested for supporting and following the mysticism teachings of Mohammad Ali Taheri. If we assume that the number of men and women following Halgheh Mysticism is equal, therefore, it becomes clear that men and women of Halgheh mysticism are engaging in the activities at similar rates. Baha’i women are likely in similar conditions. 41% of Iranian Baha’i prisoners are women. If we consider the Iranian government’s tendency to avoid arresting women, we can see that Baha’i women are engaging in activities at an equal or even greater rate than male activists. In addition to Halgheh mysticism and Bahai followers, the remainder of religious activists imprisoned for their activities includes about 15% Christian women activists, 10% Shia women activists (excluding followers of Halgheh mysticism), less than 4% Darwish activists, and less than 2% Sunni female activists.
For the population as a whole, therefore, it seems that female religious dissidents are much less active than male activists except for followers of Halgheh mysticism and the Baha’i faith.
Fields of Activity
The following chart shows that the ratio of male and female prisoners in different fields of activity has been rising since 2016. The chart shows that women have represented over 12.7% of those arrested in the past four years in the fields of women’s rights, human rights, dissidents and religious minorities, charges related to foreign governments, journalism, public activism, attending street protests, and pro-democracy political activities. Women have represented less than average in the fields of labor rights, activities related to art, cyberspace activities, opposition group membership, ethnic activities, unspecified charges or charges related to political violence, and charges of armed religious groups.
Previous statistics showed that Iranian women prefer indirect political influence through participation in public activities. Statistics from 2019, however, show that women have been more active and more involved in direct political activities, such as street protests or democratic activism.
The comparison of the two charts below (one shows the activity of female prisoners from 2016 to 2020 and the other shows the activity of female prisoners in December 2019), explains that the field of women’s activity has changed dramatically in recent years. These charts also prove that Iranian women have become more active and have challenged the government in a variety of fields including women’s rights, labor rights, and party-political activities.
The chart below shows that more than 70 percent of Iran’s female political prisoners — excluding dissidents and religious minorities — have been tried in Tehran primary courts. Although this ratio has decreased a few percent lately, there is no significant difference over the years. In total, 102 out of 144 women recorded in the IPA who had non-religious cases have been tried in Tehran courts. The figures show that Iranian women outside of Tehran are less active or have less judicial confrontations with the government. The statistics also did not show a significant difference over different time periods.
The courts of Kurdistan and West Azerbaijan have tried women political prisoners (almost all of them were Kurds with non-religious cases) more than any other city. Dissidents and religious minorities’ information is not available in the chart below due to the high dispersal of this particular group in the country and will be discussed in the following sections.
According to the charts below, IPA could not find a single case concerning a women’s trial by the three central province courts of Iran (Esfahan, Fars, and Yazd) for non-religious political reasons from July 2016 to December 2019.
Women also have been arrested in Pasargad gatherings in January 2020 and November 2019, but the details of arrests and trials are vague or not published at all. There are no examples of these arrests except in very few cases in Golestan, Khorasan Razavi, East Azarbaijan, and Kermanshah provinces.
The chart on the right below shows that most of the female political prisoners who have been arrested for non-religious reasons have been detained in Evin Prison. Concerning the dissidents and religious minorities’ place of imprisonment, Evin has a smaller share than the rest of the prisons. This significant difference means that the population of female religious prisoners across the country is more than the number of prisoners detained for political and civil activities, and that the latter group is more active in Tehran. The reason for women’s arrests is primarily due to religious reasons in small towns. These ratios did not change significantly over different periods.
The chart below shows that courts have sentenced women to death and long term imprisonment less frequently than male political prisoners. However, the number of women who are sentenced to up to 10 years in prison is above what would be expected. 12.7% of Iranian political prisoners are women, but 15% of those who are sentenced to up to 10 years in prison are women. Women above average 12.7% sentenced to up to 10 years of imprisonment.
According to the chart, Fars women are arrested more than other ethnic groups for political reasons, and for other ethnic prisoners, women with unclear ethnicity are also often Fars, Turk or Lor. According to official statistics, Persian speakers cover about 60 percent of Iranian society. As such, approximately 60% of Iranian female political prisoners should be Fars. Considering that most prisoners whose ethnic identity is unclear are Fars, the final percentage — with approximate precision — is the same. However, non-Fars ethnicities, especially Kurds, Baluchs, and Arabs, are being imprisoned at rates greater than their population ratio for political reasons. Therefore, the ratio of Fars female political prisoners compared to the number of Farsi speakers in Iran shows that non-Fars women are represented less than men in political and public activities. The chart below shows the difference by focusing on the ratio of male and female political prisoners in each ethnic group.
Place of Residence
As noted in the Courts section, the IPA did not find any case of female political activists being tried for political reasons in Esfahan, Fars, and Yazd provinces. The chart below also shows that about half of Shiite female political prisoners have been held in Evin prison, so it is likely they lived in Tehran or nearby cities. By eliminating Shiite religious dissidents from this chart, Evin’s and Tehran’s share of prisoners increases to 70 percent. Therefore, there is a direct connection between living in Tehran, engaging in political and public activities, and getting arrested.
This connection is particularly important because there is a high correlation between living in Tehran, being of the Fars ethnicity, and having Shiite religious affiliation. It is possible we are mistaken about emphasizing the Shiite faith or Fars ethnicity for women’s social and political activities, when in reality living in Tehran may be the determining factor. Comparing the social and political participation of Kurdish-Sunni women in Marivan with the social and political-social participation of women in Qom or Yazd can prevent the rash conclusion about a direct connection between being Shia and being more engaged in political activities.
– It seems that Shiite-Fars women living in Tehran have a more active social presence, especially in fields where the government is not interested. This report does not discuss the factors concerning women’s appearance in political and public fields and their arrests, but, living in Tehran seems to be the most significant variable that makes women get more engaged in political and public activities. In comparison, this could be the result of living in huge cities and the natural weakening of anti-feminine structures that restrict women’s social participation.
– The proportion of women among the Fars ethnicity and prisoners of unknown ethnicities is greater than the proportion of other ethnic groups.
– If we exclude women arrested for their religious activities or beliefs, women who are Shiite or have an unspecified religious affiliation are arrested at a greater proportion than women of other ethnic groups.
– Followers of Halgheh mysticism and Baha’ism may experience equal situations in religious activities. Christians, Shiites (other than Halgheh Mysticism followers), Dervishes, and Sunnis, have been arrested less frequently and have also had fewer arrests due to other activities.
– The government would likely prefer not to arrest women activists in smaller towns as much as possible.
– The number of female religious prisoners has decreased in the past year. Formerly, six out of every ten women recorded in IPA were arrested for religious reasons, but now only one in ten women are getting arrested for religious activities.
– The claim that women’s social participation is confined to the religious field is not true.
– Female political and civil activists working in non-religious fields are more likely to be located in Tehran.
– The prevalence of dissident women and religious minorities detained throughout the country is high.
– According to official statistics, if we estimate Kurdish-speakers at around seven percent, the percentage of Kurdish political prisoners should also be very close to this number. Kurdish women seem to be far less political in inter-ethnic activities, considering that Kurdistan has the most political activists when compared to other Iranian cities (35% of male prisoners). About 40 Kurdish women out of every 1,000 Kurdish political prisoners have been arrested for political reasons. In previous statistics, the ratio was 25 to 1,000.
– The number of Kurdish women arrested for party activities has increased. In previous statics, more than half of female political prisoners had been charged with cooperating with MEK (Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization). Women who were accused of cooperating with MEK have received severe sentences.
– Women’s appearance in ethnic activities is still low, but the number of women arrested for the activities of Arab and Turk parties has increased. Baluch women still have very little to no role in party activities.
– Women’s involvement in women’s rights, human rights, journalism, civil activism, street protests, democratization activities, and labor activities are impressive. Narges Mohammadi, Nasrin Sotoudeh, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraei, Atena Daemi, Shahnaz Akmali, Yasaman Aryani, Saba Kord Afshari, and Neda Naji are some of Iran’s most famous female political prisoners that we can put in this category.
– Although Iranian women still prefer indirect political influence through participation in public activities, they had more direct political influence in 2019. The number of females arrested for participating in protests or pro-democracy political activities has increased.
– Almost 30 percent of those imprisoned for defending women’s rights are men.
– About 10 percent of those imprisoned for defending workers’ rights are women, contrary to previous statistics. Most of these women have been sentenced to more than five years in prison. The government seems to be trying to show its displeasure with women’s entry into labor activities by intensifying repression.
*As a methodological note, IPA may use variables such as the domicile of the prisoner or other proxies to determine religious faith when this information is not available.