Iranian who was arrested for hijab protest absconds country, seeks asylum

The actions earned Jangravi a three-year prison sentence.

Azam Jangravi poses during an interview with Reuters, at the unknown location, February 7, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Azam Jangravi poses during an interview with Reuters, at the unknown location, February 7, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One year ago, Azam Jangravi took off her hijab and waved it above her head while standing atop an electrical transformer in a busy Tehran square. It was an act of protest to denounce Iran’s strict Islamic laws that restrict women and general life in Iran, and limited her ability to live freely within her own country.
The actions earned Jangravi a three-year prison sentence.
A crowd formed. People shouted at her to come down. She knew all along that her arrest was imminent, but she went through with her intentions anyway.
“I kept telling myself, ‘You can do this, you can do this,’” Jangravi recalled in an interview, carried by Reuters. “I was feeling a very special kind of power. It was as if I was not the secondary gender anymore.”
Even with the very real possibility of going to prison, Jangravi believed that going through with her protest would create a better world to live in for her daughter, now eight years old.
“I was telling myself, ‘Viana should not grow up in the same conditions in this country that you grew up in,’” Jangravi said. “[My mother] told me that the revolution caused a great deal of sexism, and they separated men and women.” Jangravi wanted a different fate for her daughter.
Her inspiration to go through with the protests came after two women activists were arrested on the same street for similar offenses.
“Throughout 2018, the Iranian authorities waged a particularly sinister crackdown against women’s-rights defenders,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa research and advocacy director at Amnesty International. “Instead of cruelly punishing women for demanding their rights, the authorities should put an end to the rampant and entrenched discrimination and violence they face.”
After her protest, Jangravi was arrested, fired from her job at a research institute and sentenced to three years in prison for promoting indecency and willfully breaking Islamic law.
Authorities also threatened to take Jangravi’s daughter away from her.
Since Iran’s Islamic Revolution 40 years ago, women have been forced to cover their hair for the sake of modesty. Violators are publicly admonished, fined or arrested.
Jangravi was one of at least 39 women arrested last year in connection with hijab protests, according to Amnesty International, which said another 55 people were detained for their work on women’s rights, including women who tried to enter football stadiums illegally and lawyers advocating for women.
Before her sentence was scheduled to begin Jangravi decided to flee the country, accompanied by her daughter, by employing the skills of a human-smuggler.
“I found a human-smuggler with a lot of difficulty. It all happened very quickly, I left my life, my house, my car behind,” she said.
Jangravi is not the first protester to voice an opinion on the “forced hijab laws.” Last year, many women took their peaceful protest against the strict dress code to the streets, holding their hijabs aloft high above the crowds for all to see.
MALE AND FEMALE protesters have been taking part in the “White Wednesday” protests, inviting both sexes to wear hijabs, veils and bracelets in solidarity with those who feel the law is discriminatory and unethical. “White Wednesday” is also for women who choose to wear their hijabs and veils, but reject the notion that all women should be forced to conform to wearing them in public.
“What the last year has shown is that people in Iran, especially women, are no longer afraid to go out and protest, whether in large numbers or through lone acts of protest,” said  Amnesty International’s Iran researcher Mansoureh Mills. “As the authorities try to clamp down on these peaceful acts of resistance, we are likely to see more and more women and men being arrested, detained and prosecuted for demanding their rights.”
Jangravi’s desperate attempt to leave the country after her arrest could easily be justified by reports from Amnesty of brutal treatment by Iranian prison guards.
According to the organization, protesters face “bitter backlash from the authorities, facing violent assault, arrest and torture and other ill-treatment. Some were sentenced to prison terms after grossly unfair trials.”
Amnesty cited the case of Shaparak Shajarizadeh, who “was sentenced to 20 years in prison, 18 of which were suspended, for her peaceful protest against forced hijab. She fled Iran after she was released on bail and has since described in media interviews how she was subjected to torture and other ill-treatment in solitary confinement and denied access to her lawyer.”
It also noted that “Nasrin Sotoudeh, the prominent human rights lawyer and women’s rights defender who represented Shaparak Shajarizadeh, was herself arrested on 13 June 2018 for defending protesters against forced hijab.”
Iran’s economy has faced instability in recent months, with the national currency, the rial, fluctuating in value, making it difficult for many Iranians to make ends meet.
Sporadic protests linked to the tough economic situation have been led by truck drivers, farmers, workers, merchants and teachers, occasionally resulting in violent confrontations with security forces.
“The Iranian authorities carried out a shameless campaign of repression during 2018, crushing protests and arresting thousands in a wide-scale crackdown on dissent,” Amnesty said. “Over the course of the year, more than 7,000 protesters, students, journalists, environmental activists, workers and human rights defenders – including lawyers, women’s rights activists, minority rights activists and trade unionists – were arrested, many arbitrarily.”
Iran’s economy has been particularly hard hit by US sanctions that were reimposed November 5, after the United States withdrew from the 2016 Iran nuclear deal in May.
Many of these workers were arrested, and some were threatened with the death penalty, for demanding better working conditions and higher wages.
“From underpaid teachers to factory workers struggling to feed their families, those who have dared to demand their rights in Iran today have paid a heavy price. Instead of ensuring workers’ demands are heard, the authorities have responded with heavy handedness, mass arrests and repression,” Amnesty’s Luther said.
Jangravi is now awaiting approval on a request for asylum from an undisclosed location outside of Iran.
“Of course we don’t expect everyone to climb up the platform in Revolution Street,” she said. “But this made our voices heard by the entire world. What we girls did made this movement into something that continues.”
Reuters contributed to this report.