The Iranian regime is continuing and intensifying its brutal crackdown on female Ahwazi human rights activists, amid a media blackout and deafening silence from the international community, including prominent exiled Iranian women’s rights activists.
Human rights groups in Ahwaz have reported that, following the recent arrest of three female activists in raids on their homes, one of whom was detained along with her younger siblings who tried to protect her, the intelligence service of the regime’s infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on Friday, 11 December detained Zeinab Sawari, a teacher and prominent Ahwazi advocate and activist for women’s and children’s rights. Sawari’s younger siblings – her brother Hamza and sister were also detained with her when they went to her defence during the raid on her family’s home in Rafi city, the capital of the Neysan district in Howeyzeh city.
On Friday evening a few hours after arresting Zeinab and her siblings, regime intelligence agents raided the home of their aunt, Fatema Sawari, in Howeyzeh city, detaining her for her participation in civil rights activism with Zeinab.
Zeinab had been involved in fundraising to help victims of the severe flooding that devastated the region both this year and in 2019, as well as campaigning for women’s and children’s rights.
The latest arrest is the latest in a series of detentions of female Ahwazi activists, with the first taking place on 26 November, when IRGC intelligence services summoned prominent human rights activist Maryam Ameri, aged 28, to their headquarters in Ahwaz city. Although Maryam, an agricultural engineering graduate who’s well known in the region for her tireless human rights advocacy, was released the same day, she was summoned again on 28 November, being detained for a few days and reportedly subjected to interrogation, during which, she told her family, the IRGC personnel reportedly threatened her with solitary confinement if she refused to sign a document stating falsely that her friend and fellow activist, Fatema Tamimi, had been receiving support from enemy states overseas via anti-regime groups in exile. Although one of the regime agents threatened her that she would be “left to rot” in solitary confinement for her defiance and would never see the light again, she repeatedly refused to sign the statement, her family said. She was subsequently released.
A few days later, in the early hours of 9 December, heavily armed IRGC intelligence agents, wearing their customary balaclavas to intimidate their victims and protect their own anonymity, carried out a raid on 39-year-old Fatema Tamimi’s home in Ma’shour city, arresting her and confiscating her personal belongings, including her phone, books, laptop, a voice recorder, and DVDs. The agents ransacked the house, as well as insulting Fatema, threatening her husband, and terrifying their two young children. She was blindfolded and handcuffed before being taken away, with the regime thugs refusing to tell her husband where she was being taken. As usual with the regime’s forces, no arrest warrant was issued and no reason given for her arrest. He has not been able to obtain any information about her whereabouts since she was arrested.
Following Fatema’s arrest, Maryam Ameri was rearrested in another raid on her family’s home, taken for interrogation. Ameri’s family reported that the masked IRGC agents handcuffed and blindfolded her, as well as confiscating various personal belongings including her laptop, CDs about her cultural activities. She was taken to an unknown regime detention centre, with the IRGC refusing to give her family any details.
In addition to their aid-fundraising and women’s rights activism, Maryam and Fatema have worked on several Ahwazi cultural programs together, cataloguing traditional Ahwazi folk songs and producing short documentaries about Ahwazi culture and history, with Fatema delighting parents across the region with her recordings of traditional Ahwazi children’s songs. The two women also coordinated on writing a book of traditional short stories for children in Arabic, distributing hundreds of copies for free to poor and disadvantaged Ahwazi children. The women also raised a lot of money to help those affected by the terrible flooding that devastated much of the region in 2019 and 2020, causing massive displacement and loss of farmlands and crops. These activities have enraged the regime which marginalises Ahwazi history and culture, outlawing education in Arabic, and depicting campaigners for Ahwazi rights as troublemaking separatists and insurgents.
This year’s flooding has once again wreaked havoc across the region, with the dilapidated sewage network that has not been upgraded for decades buckling under the pressure, leaving streets and roads flooded with stinking wastewater mixed with the floodwaters, leading to concerns over possible disease outbreaks in the region already suffering due to poverty and hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Activists like Maryam Fatema have been working tirelessly to catalogue the horrendous situation and help those affected, with the regime angered by this solidarity amongst the long-suffering Ahwazi people and particularly by female activists.
Following the detention of Maryam Ameri and Fatema Tamimi, IRGC intelligence agents carried out another raid on a third female activist’s home, this time in Falahiyeh, in the early hours of Thursday, 10 December, arresting 19-year-old Azhar Alboghbiesh. When her younger brothers, Abbas and Reza, aged 17 and 18 respectively, tried to protect their sister from the regime officers’ brutality, they were beaten and detained along with her, with the officers reportedly firing their guns into the air to intimidate her other, already terrified family members. As with both Ameri and Tamimi, regime officers ransacked the family’s home, confiscating Azhar Alboghbiesh’s personal possessions, including a laptop, phone and books.
While the regime is particularly targeting female activists, it is also continuing with its usual persecution of other prominent Ahwazi figures, including the widely admired writer and civil rights activists 30-year-old Abbas Saeedi, who was detained last month in a raid on his family’s home in Hamidiyeh the early hours of 11 November. When his elderly grandmother protested at the regime agents ransacking the house and asked about the reason for the raid, they responded by hitting her, breaking one arm and a rib, leaving bruises on her chest and neck.
The agents also confiscated not only Abbas Saeedi’s phone and personal items, but the mobile phones of all the family members.
Saeedi, a short-story writer and leading activist, has worked as a reporter for local Farsi and Arabic-language websites as well as running a Telegram channel called ‘Shakhabit’, where he publishes his work. He was previously arrested for his writing a few years ago, with the regime now rearresting him. Since his arrest last month, his family have been unable to find out where he is being held or on what charges.
It should be noted that while most female Iranian dissidents and activists in Iran and in exile are silent on the regime’s repression of women, some, like Sepideh Gholian, the feminist and labour activist, currently jailed by the regime once again for her dissent, have spoken out in solidarity with Ahwazis and written about the regime’s anti-Arab racism and bigotry towards them and its efforts to slander them as extremists and terrorists solely due to their Arab ethnicity, and regardless of their religious or sectarian affiliation.
In her harrowing recently published book about her time in prison as a dissident, Gholian wrote about how the prison staff would reserve their most brutal violence and vicious abuse for her Ahwazi fellow prisoners, calling them ‘terrorists’, ‘ISIS’, and ‘Wahhabis’ amongst other terms, and even labelling the newborn baby of one woman who gave birth in prison as an “ISIS terrorist” simply because of his mother’s Arab ethnicity. Gholian also recalled how Ahwazi prisoners were routinely accused of being separatist insurgents and ‘foreign agents’ working on behalf of regional Arab countries to subvert Iran.
Speaking with DUSC, Mehdi Jalali Tehrani, an Iranian human rights activist based in the USA, said that exposure to the Iranian regime’s incessant ultranationalist, Persian supremacist discourse has even affected the mindset of politically liberal, ethnically Persian Iranian dissidents, including feminist activists, leading them to unconsciously adopt the regime’s profoundly chauvinistic worldview which refuses to even recognise the state’s racism and oppression of Ahwazis and other ethnic minorities; Tehrani said that this, in turn, means that while these Persian dissidents and activists may accept Ahwazi female activists as fellow Iranian citizens speaking against the regime’s and its predecessor’s misogyny or oppression of dissent, they cannot (or will not) see or acknowledge the same activists speaking about their experience of racist oppression at the regime’s hands since they refuse to recognise its existence.
Since successive regimes have promoted this Persian supremacist worldview, refusing to recognise or address the 1925 annexation of Ahwaz, creating an alternative, ‘revised’ history in which Ahwazis were simply always Iranians, this means that most Persian Iranians follow suit, dismissing Ahwazis’ heritage and history as “separatist fantasy”. This means, Tehrani said, that Iranian female dissidents experience a different reality of Iran to that of their Ahwazi peers; for most Persian Iranians, the decades before the current regime meant greater freedom, while for Ahwazis it meant a more secular version of the same injustice, racism and oppression.
In Tehran’s words, “These Ahwazi female activists have no mutual reference points with a Tehran-born feminist now writing from European capitals. For them [Persian-Iranians], ‘The Shah’s age was good. We had everything. Curse those who rebelled against the king.’” This means, despite their shared antipathy to the current Iranian regime and support of women’s rights, that the worldview of these two women – a dissident Iranian feminist in the West and an Ahwazi feminist and activist in Ahwaz – are diametrically opposed, Tehrani said, with the Iranian feminist who sees Shah-era Iran as an ideal for women actually denying the rights and equal humanity of Ahwazi women for whom it merely meant a different flavour of oppression. For Ahwazis, there has simply been a change in oppressor.
Tehrani said that far greater awareness is needed in Iran and internationally of the incredibly dark and painful experience of Ahwazi women and Ahwazis generally, who have endured almost a century of oppression and injustice at the hands of successive Iranian rulers, made doubly bitter due to its not even being acknowledged by the wider world. For example, he said, if an Ahwazi female activist’s mother or grandmother grew up illiterate and impoverished, she could have blamed these injustices on the repressive authoritarian rule of the Shah. Activists now are more likely to be literate and educated. However, they still suffer from the same repression, they are simply better informed about the historical and contemporary underlying reasons, and must constantly fight to overcome the double injustices of racism and of political oppression, as well as the regime’s misogyny. Other than the regime’s misogyny, Persian-Iranian women don’t face or even acknowledge the existence of the same obstacles, Tehrani said, adding, “It’s clear why these two women are the opposite of each other; one side is unable to acknowledge the existence of the other.”
Noting that the regime’s bigotry also extends to other minorities and that it also uses other pretexts for crushing dissent, a Kurdish feminist activist from Iranian Kurdistan, whose name is withheld to protect her identity for safety reasons, said, “The regime has different ‘repression codes’ or pretexts for each part of this country so it can use its slanderous propaganda to discredit everyone who dares to speak out against its oppression and its racist policies. For example, in Tehran, the code for repression is using false accusations that dissidents are Israeli and American mercenaries and in the Ahwaz region it uses false accusations of ‘separatism’, or ‘insurgency’, slandering activists as mercenaries for Saudi Arabia and ISIS, that’s its code there for suppressing Ahwazi activists.”
Appealing to the public, she said, “Dear ones, don’t be fooled by this regime that wants to convince you to follow in its footsteps with these codes. The majority of these Ahwazi women’s rights activists have Bachelor’s degrees and are extremely well informed about cultural affairs with years of experience working in this field. All their activities in this field can only take place with the permission of culture and guidance organizations, but the IRGC seems to be another, the darker government in the rotten heart of the regime of the Islamic Republic for which neither permission nor peaceful activity is important. Whenever you see anyone calling Ahwazi activists separatists, you should know that they are from the regime and usually put pictures of Cyrus and Pahlavi on their profiles to legitimize their work.”
The lack of any censure or condemnation of the regime’s abuses towards Ahwazi activists from international human rights organisations or even from leading Iranian dissidents in exile is widely seen as emboldening the regime in its brutality and anti-Arab racism towards the indigenous people of Ahwaz and in the scope of its attacks on Ahwazi civil society in the region which is among the poorest in Iran and globally.
A number of prominent Western human rights campaigners and activists have also spoken out in support of the brutalised Ahwazi women, condemning the silence on this issue from feminist groups and humanitarian organisations in the West on this issue and on Ahwazi rights generally. In a statement to DUSC, Irina Tsukerman about these latest arrests, a New York-based human rights lawyer, wrote: “Once again, the women’s rights organisations and media remain silent on yet another series of arrests against women activists in Ahwaz.”
“The latest arrests of four activists, along with their brothers and sisters, has gone by unnoticed and unmentioned in human rights circles, as if there is a media blackout as if there is a taboo against raising the issue of Ahwazi women’s rights in Iran. By contrast, media have been saturated with commentaries concerning women rights’ issues in Arab-majority countries.”
“This is ironic given the amount of coverage given to the anti-chador campaign initiated by Iranian women’s rights activists like Masih Alinejad. However, serious abuses, torture, and unlawful imprisonment against Ahwazi women, issues of serious systemic abuses of women’s rights and racial discrimination, appear to be of no interests.”
“No one group should have a monopoly on media coverage, and these human rights defenders should have no qualms about highlighting and investigating genuine and legitimate claims of abuse anywhere in the world, not just in places or regions or among groups that are convenient for political reasons or due to social fads.”
On the subject of the upcoming change of administration in Washington and how this might affect policy towards Iran’s regime, Tsukerman wrote, “The future members of the Biden administration should learn the lessons of the past and actively work with all human rights groups, not just pro-regime lobbyists and fake reformists who only promote their own activists and shut down or smear other voices, in order to stay true to the stated agenda of upholding and being responsive to human rights issues around the world, rather than single-handedly empowering evil and destructive regimes by remaining silent on abuses in favour of seemingly lucrative deals.”
In related news, Ahwazi human rights Telegram page, KhakZedegan warned in its daily news summary on Friday that the Iranian regime has escalated its oppression of Ahwazis by engaging in a wave of arrests targeting cultural and human rights activists and their family members. In the latest gross infringement on human rights, it reported, the Iranian regime recently also arrested another civil and cultural activist Adan Bayanat, who was working as a translator in Tehran, as well as the poet and cultural activist Mustafa Jamal Helechi., who was arrested in early November.
Helechi’s family have appealed to international human rights to exert pressure on the regime to reveal his fate and to allow his family to visit him and check on his safety. His family added that his wife gave birth shortly after his arrest, and he has yet to see his child. He was apparently arrested in connection with presenting a poetry programme broadcast on social media platforms and hosting poets from various parts of Ahwaz.
Other cases reported by KhakZedegan include Ahwazi children being detained without cause by the regime, such as 15-year-old Amir Dabat Kaabi, who was arrested in a raid by regime forces on his family’s home in the village of Beit Khashan, south of Ahwaz.
Another Ahwazi teenager named as Muhammad Nasir Albuabadi, was arrested on 5 December in a raid on his family’s home in the Koura neighbourhood, north of Ma’shour city.
In addition to detaining Albuabadi, the regime forces ransacked his family’s home and confiscated his and all his family members’ phones.
In both cases, the regime took the child detainees to an unknown destination, refusing to give their families any information on their whereabouts or the charges on which they were being held.
Other recent regime arrests of Ahwazi activists reported by KhakZedegan include that of civic and cultural activist Hassan Sharifat, who was seized in front of his family a raid on their home in the town of Jarahi in the northern Ma’shour district on 4 December, with the house being ransacked and many of his possessions confiscated or broken. He was taken to an unknown destination.
At around the same time as Sharifat was arrested, three other Ahwazi activists from the impoverished Malashiya neighbourhood in the West of Ahwaz city – 23-year-old Sadiq Khazraji, 24-year-old Ali Fakher Amouri, and 36-year-old Jalil Khayoun Karushawi – were detained in regime raids on their families’ homes in the area, KhakZedegan reported, with the regime forces ransacking their homes and confiscating their phones in the usual way. All were taken to an unknown destination.
Finally, KhakZedegan reported the detention of another Ahwazi citizen, who is not even involved in activism, 57-year-old Farhan Heidari, who was detained whilst awaiting a flight at Tehran airport and taken to an unknown destination. Heidari, a resident of Al-Firdous neighbourhood of Ahwaz was about to travel to Turkey before going to Kuwait, where he has been working for years.
By Rahim Hamid and Ruth Riegler
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Samireza42.
Ruth Riegler is a Scottish writer, editor and supporter of universal freedom, democracy and human rights who previously lived in the Middle East.