Monday, August 31, 2015

Iranian Hard-Liners Protest Women's Presence In Sports Stadiums

In the past, women in Iran had been allowed to attend some male volleyball and basketball games. Last year, however, they were banned from entering sports stadium to watch men's volleyball. (file photo)

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian hard-liners demonstrated in front of the Sports Ministry in Tehran on June 17 to protest the possible presence of women in sports stadiums.
The protest followed reports that a limited number of Iranian women could be allowed to attend two upcoming international male volleyball matches, including one on June 19.
Iranian women are currently banned from entering stadiums to watch male sporting events. But earlier this month, Iran's vice president for women and family affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, told the Associated Press news agency that the ban will be partially lifted and that women will be allowed into stadiums to watch sports such as men's volleyball, basketball, and tennis. 
Molaverdi's announcement followed criticism by the international soccer and volleyball officials -- as well as women's rights advocates -- that angered hard-liners who vowed to fight the initiative.
Amid the controversy, Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli was quoted by domestic media as saying that there are no new "instructions" regarding the presence of women in sports stadiums. 
Iran's official news agency, IRNA, reported that demonstrators at the June 17 protest in Tehran said allowing women to watch male sporting events is against Islam and that those behind such moves should be put on trial.
Iran's reformist Shargh daily reported on Twitter that some of the protesters called for Molaverdi to be sacked. 

The group of protesters, which IRNA said numbered less than 100, later held prayers in front of the Sports Ministry. 

The controversy highlights the power struggle in Iran between the government of self-proclaimed moderate President Hassan Rohani, who favors fewer social restrictions, and powerful hard-liners who oppose any kind of relaxation of strict social and political rules in the Islamic republic.
In the past, women in Iran had been allowed to attend some male volleyball and basketball games. Last year, however, they were banned from entering sports stadium to watch men's volleyball.
Authorities in Tehran used force to disperse women's rights activists who staged a June 2014 protest against the ban. One of the protesters, Iranian-British activist Ghoncheh Ghavami, was arrested and later sentenced to a year in prison.
Ghavami was released on bail after spending five months in jail. In April, an appeals court dropped the charges against her.
Iranian women's rights advocates have for years campaigned for allowing women to attend all male sporting events, including soccer, which is immensely popular in Iran.
Hard-liners have argued that women's presence at male sporting events is inappropriate because of the athletes' uniforms and the crude language common in the stadiums.

Iran's Nuclear 'Diplomatic Warriors' Are Back In Vogue

A wave of support for Iran's negotiators came after Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was reportedly branded a "traitor" by a hard-line lawmaker at a closed-door session of parliament in May.

Golnaz Esfandiari

"Diplomatic warriors" who defend Iran's interests, or "traitors" who sell out their country to enemies.

Both are recent labels given domestically to Iran's negotiators at sensitive international talks on a comprehensive nuclear deal that would curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

But with the June 30 deadline for a deal fast approaching, senior Iranian officials have appeared increasingly eager to present a united front, muzzle critics, and publicly back the negotiators, who are led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Defenders have included senior clerics, the head of the powerful judiciary, and several lawmakers who expressed concern that domestic criticism could undermine the Iranian negotiation team.

A wave of support for Iran's negotiators came after Zarif was reportedly branded a "traitor" by hard-line Endurance Front party lawmaker Mehdi Kouchakzadeh at a closed-door session of parliament on May 24.

Portions of a heated exchange between the two men were documented on a cellphone and posted online. In the poor-quality video, Zarif is heard reacting to a man, apparently Kouchakzadeh, who calls him a "traitor" and invokes the name of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has warned against negotiating under threat.

Zarif reacts by saying, "He calls me a traitor?"

The man responds, "I speak on his behalf."

The Iranian foreign minister then says angrily, "You have no right to speak on his behalf," adding that the supreme leader is the most influential voice.

A few days after the exchange, judiciary head Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani spoke out against undermining the nuclear negotiators since, he suggested, national interests were of the utmost importance. "Insulting negotiators or publishing closed-door parliament discussions with the negotiating team does not help the negotiations," he was quoted as saying on May 28.

Parliament deputy speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar also came to the defense of the nuclear negotiators. Speaking on Iranian state television, Bahonar said Iran's "enemy" was "cunning" and therefore the concerns of those who say they're worried over the nuclear talks were legitimate.

But he added that it was an "injustice" to accuse the negotiators of selling out Iran's interests.

'Fatal Poison' Of 'Discord'

On June 10, hard-line senior Qom-based cleric Nasser Makarem Shirazi warned over divisions over the nuclear talks. The cleric was quoted by domestic media as saying that "discord" was "a fatal poison" in dealing with "the enemies who wish to collapse [the] nuclear deal between Iran and the West."

Two days later, on June 12, hard-line cleric Ahmad Khatami went to great lengths during Friday Prayers in Tehran to express his backing for the negotiators, which he described as "the children of the Iranian nation." "They are warriors of the diplomacy front, and everyone should help them carry out their duties," he said, adding that nuclear negotiators should not be branded "traitors."

Friday Prayer sermons in Iran are said to hew closely to talking points provided by the office of Supreme Leader Khamenei, who has called the negotiators "children of the revolution" and given his blessing to the talks despite his stated distrust of the United States.

In a speech also on June 12 , Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi said the nuclear negotiators would "never" cross the red lines set by Khamenei, who has the last say in all state affairs in Iran.

Moslehi said that "unfortunately, while the supreme leader supports the nuclear team, some try [to pretend] as if in the negotiating process [the negotiators] have sold Iran's interests out to the foreigners." Moslehi also decried calls for public protests as unnecessarily sowing division.

Closing Ranks

Elements in Iran that have been critical of the negotiations had generally kept a low profile amid reported progress in the talks. But those naysayers have seemingly become more vocal amid hints of a stall in recent weeks and criticism by officials of what has been described as excessive Western demands, such as access to Iranian military sites.

Such criticism was alluded to in a May 20 speech in which Supreme Leader Khamenei said he would "not give permission for foreigners to come and speak with the scientists, the prominent and dear children of the nation."

Days after Khamenei's remarks, dozens of hard-liners took to the streets of Tehran, Mashhad, and other cities to protest under the banner "We Will Not Give Permission," a phrase they borrowed from Khamenei's speech.

More protests were reportedly being planned.

But on May 30, state media quoted Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli as warning that no demonstrations on either side of the nuclear argument would be allowed.

Meanwhile, public attacks on Zarif have continued, including by people suggesting via the Internet that while Iranians were fighting against Saddam Hussein's army in the bloody Iran-Iraq War, Zarif was breezily studying in the country they call "the Great Satan." 

The criticism could increase as the deadline nears.

"If a good deal is reached, then there would be less criticism; but if they reach a bad deal, [negotiators] will come under greater fire," says a Tehran-based analyst who does not want to be named. At the end of the day, he adds, how the establishment sells any emerging deal will be the key.

In the abovementioned Friday Prayers sermon, Ayatollah Khatami said the government should not label any criticism or protest gathering as an attempt at "character assassination."

In fact, he said, such gatherings could give Iranian negotiators more leverage in their talks with Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, and Germany. But he added that the nuclear team should not be "weakened" by demonstrators.

Acclaimed Iranian Musician Denied Tehran Concert In Brewing Culture Row

Kayhan Kalhor plays in Wahdat Hall in Tehran in July 2010.

Golnaz Esfandiari

An iconic U.S.-based Iranian musician was set to delight music lovers in Tehran this week in what reportedly would have been his first concert in the country of his birth for several years.

For fans of Kayhan Kalhor, it sounded too good to be true. And unfortunately for them, it was.

The planned June 9 concert by Kalhor, a Grammy-winning virtuoso of the kamancheh, a traditional Iranian bowed string instrument, was called off after police tasked with overseeing public events failed to issue a permit.

The news broke two days before the planned concert, in which Kalhor was to be joined by the New York-based string quartet Brooklyn Rider.

The website, dedicated to news about Iran's music scene, reported on June 7 that police decided not to sanction the event due to "security considerations."

Kalhor, meanwhile, was quoted by the website as saying that as long as Iran's "culture and art" was hijacked in a power struggle between different political factions, he would refrain from engaging in any cultural activities in the Islamic republic.

A day later, on June 8, the head of the music department at Iran's Culture Ministry criticized the decision not to issue a permit for Kalhor's concert.

"Not giving a license to an Iranian musician who has worked hard to promote Iranian music in the world is not right in our view," Pirooz Arjomand said in an interview published by the hard-line Tasnim news agency.

Arjomand said that the necessary consultations had been made with Iran's Foreign Ministry, and that the visa issues for the musicians had been taken care of.

He added that the police should explain the decision, and that the move runs counter to the policies of President Hassan Rohani's government aimed at encouraging cultural diplomacy.

"With this approach by the police, we have to close the doors of cultural interactions with the world," Arjomand was quoted as saying.

The incident is the latest in a series of concert cancelations in Tehran and other Iranian cities that appear to be related to pressure from hard-liners who criticize the government's cultural policies as too liberal. 

Iranian media have reported that more than a dozen concerts have been called off in recent months.

On June 10, a concert by well-known Iranian musician Parvaz Homay was canceled, Iranian news sites reported. It would have been Homay's first performance in eight years.

The website reported that those who purchased tickets for Homay's concert received a text message a few hours before it was to begin informing them that the event was called off until further notice following an order by Iran's judiciary.

The pressure is seen as an attempt by hard-liners to hurt Rohani, who has promised greater cultural and social openness and less censorship.

A Tehran-based journalist with a reformist daily told RFE/RL in February that like the Iranian government's negotiations with world powers over its nuclear program, the cultural sphere had become an "Achilles heel" for Rohani.

"When concerts are canceled, musicians face problems, books don't get published, and so on, Rohani is being blamed and accused of being incompetent," the journalist said.

Arjomand of the Culture Ministry told the Tasnim news agency that police had also failed to issue a permit for a concert by the popular French band Gipsy Kings.

He added that there were other similar cases that have not been publicized, though he did not provide details.

Conservative Cleric Calls Iran's Veiling Policy Wrong-Headed

A conservative Iranian cleric has sharply criticized enforcement of the obligation for women to wear the Islamic head scarf, or hijab, since the 1979 revolution and the creation of Iran's Islamic republic.

For more than three decades, Iranian clerics and officials --mostly men -- have praised the purported benefits of the hijab while employing punishment, including violence, to force women to fully cover their hair and body in public.

As a result, tens of thousands of women have been harassed physically and verbally, detained, or forced to pay fines for noncompliance with the state-imposed dress code.

Enforcement usually intensifies during the hot months of summer, when hard-liners frequently call for more action against women who are pushing the boundaries by showing more hair and wearing tighter and shorter coats.

Hojatoleslam Mohammad Reza Zaeri, a former editor of the popular Hamshahri daily, agrees with his conservative fellows that hijab is a "value" that they claim keeps society safe. But he acknowledges what critics have long argued: that the policy of enforcement has been a failure.

Speaking last week on the compulsory hijab at a seminary in Qom, conservative home to many of Iran's senior clerics, Zaeri was quoted by Iranian news sites as saying: "I strongly believe that the policy of mandatory hijab has been totally wrong."

The cleric, who has authored two books on the hijab, added that giving women a choice would make it easier to convince them of the perceived benefits.

"If the hijab were free, there would have been more respect for its sanctity," Zaeri said at the May 27 seminar.

He said promotion of strict Islamic dress would be easier in Jakarta than in Tehran or Qom, for instance, because the hijab is not compulsory in Indonesia.

He also said the popularity of the chador, which is being promoted by Iranian authorities as the "superior hijab," has been on the decline as most women opt for scarves and short coats.

Zaeri has made similarly controversial remarks before, including in an hourlong debate focused on the hijab that was aired on state-controlled television in March.

"It's as if I closed the door of this room and told you that you had to stay here for three hours and watch a movie, then I repeatedly explained to you that this movie had won an Oscar for its artistic value. When you're forced into [something], the praise is meaningless," he said on the show.

In a May interview with the conservative, Zaeri said Iran's Islamic establishment had put too much focus on the hijab while neglecting the issue of "social justice."

He said he agreed with those who suggest that seeing women who are not properly veiled leads to "sexual excitement" among young people and "trauma and emotional abuse" in society.

But he questioned whether seeing luxury cars and homes was not a greater source of distress in a society in which many are struggling with economic problems. 

In another debate held last year, Zaeri said a dialogue with what are often described as "badly veiled" women was more important that talks with the United States.

"How come we're ready to hold talks with Ashton" -- a reference to former EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, who at one point led international nuclear negotiations with Iran -- "out of necessity and compulsion but we don't see this necessity in our social issues?" he asked.

A young woman in the Iranian capital told RFE/RL that the cleric had a point.

"He's right that the policy has failed, [authorities] have failed to convince us to respect the hijab -- we wear head scarves because we have to, not because we want to," she said.

However, she added that she believes if women were given a choice in Iran, the majority would go without the hijab. She said that the authorities "know it -- that's why they use force."

Last month, senior Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi suggested that the Islamic establishment could not exist without the compulsory hijab. "If one day the hijab is removed [from Iranian society], the establishment will be removed, therefore there should be investment on the issue of hijab," the hard-line cleric was quoted as saying on May 25.

In recent months, hard-liners critical of the social policies of Iranian President Hassan Rohani have increased their warnings about improper veiling. Rohani, a self-proclaimed moderate, has spoken in favor of the hijab while offering some criticism of the use of force to impose it. 

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

The Eyes Have It: Iran's Health Minister Performs Surgery On Opposition Figures

In addition to working on Mehdi Karrubi, Health Minister Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi (above) also reportedly performed eye surgery on another outspoken critic of the Iranian regime, university professor Zahra Rahnavard.

Iran’s health minister has performed eye surgery on an opposition leader who has been under house arrest since 2011, the government critic’s son told RFE/RL.
Mohammad Taghi Karrubi, the London-based son of reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi, said his father underwent a cataract operation this week in Tehran performed by Iranian Health Minister Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi.
The younger Karrubi told RFE/RL that Hashemi, an ophthalmologist, had examined his father's eyes in recent months and promised to provide a follow-up consultation to the opposition leader after the surgery.

Mehdi KarrubiMehdi Karrubi
Mehdi Karrubi
Mehdi Karrubi

The son said he did not want to read too much into the fact that a government minister personally treated his father, who remains under arrest for challenging the Islamic establishment in Iran.
“I see it more as [Hashemi’s] personal approach and personality,” he said in a telephone interview. “But the atmosphere inside Iran has also changed.” 
Hashemi also reportedly performed eye surgery on another outspoken critic of the Iranian regime, university professor Zahra Rahnavard, who remains under house arrest together with her husband and fellow opposition leader, Mir Hossein Musavi.
“Mother’s eye was operated by Dr. Hashemi; no one from the family was there with her,” the couple’s daughter, Narges Musavi, wrote in a May 29 post on her Instagram account.

On May 28, the opposition website Kalameh, which is close to Musavi, reported that Rahnavard’s eye surgery was performed by “a physician trusted by the government.”
Musavi, Rahnavard, and Karrubi were placed under house arrest in February 2011 after their calls for a demonstration in solidarity with large antigovernment street protests in Egypt and Tunisia. They have not yet been formally charged.
The three repeatedly challenged the Iranian establishment over the disputed 2009 reelection of former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and also criticized postelection human rights abuses.
During his election campaign, current Iranian President Hassan Rohani promised to work for the release of the three activists.
Iranian hard-liners have spoken out publicly against their possible release. 

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Photogallery Revamped Khomeini Shrine Shocks Even His Fans

A debate has erupted over the merits of a grand expansion and renovation of a mausoleum to honor the late founder of Iran's Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, forcing an official defense of the project.

Angered by fresh images of the shrine, which lies on the southern outskirts of Tehran, Iranians have questioned whether the famously ascetic leader of the 1979 revolution would have approved of such an "extravagant," presumably costly facility.

Even ardent Khomeini supporters are among the critics.

The photographs of the palacelike construction show a high ceiling decorated with tiles and glitter, and new latticework alongside the tomb for Khomeini's remains.

Some shared the images on social media with quotes from Khomeini and his allies about living simply and modestly. There have been comparisons with palaces built under the Pahlavi regime that the 1979 revolution, led by Khomeini, brought down.

"Is this the mullahs' idea of a simple lifestyle?" one man asked sarcastically on Facebook.

Another suggested that what was needed was a museum to remind everyone of Khomeini's "crimes" and not a "palace" to celebrate the man who took Iran back to the "dark ages."

"They've built a palace for the leader of [slum-dwellers]?!" read one comment posted on a forum posted on 

The news site had asked its readers to react to the images and comment on whether the site matched the status and ideals of Khomeini, who is referred to as "Imam Khomeini" by his admirers.

Many wrote that the "imam" himself would have disagreed with such a construction, while others said that the site damages Khomeini and his legacy.

"I wish they would have spent the money to promote Khomeini's ideas," wrote a reader.

Criticism also came from conservative media.

In a May 18 op-ed piece, Masih Mohajeri, the editor in chief of the conservative Jomhuri Eslami daily, said that a recent visit to the mausoleum had left him disturbed for days.

"The very wide area, the ceiling and the strong foundation, the thick concrete walls around [all] grabbed my attention so much that I wasn't able to engage in pilgrimage as usual," Mohajeri wrote.

He added that he has no doubt that the growing complex -- which includes a hotel, several halls, shops, large and small domes, and other structures -- is ill-suited to be Khomeini's resting place.

Mohajeri said a "simple shrine" is sufficient as a pilgrimage site for Khomeini's admirers to pay their respects and for commemoration ceremonies on the anniversary of his death.

The conservative website called the project reminiscent of houses in "Hollywood films" or "the myths of Persian kings."

Alef said the expansion of the site at a time when many Iranians are suffering economically could engender pessimism among the poor about Khomeini's legacy.

But Mohammad Ali Ansari, who oversees the complex, dismissed the criticism as unfair at a May 26 press conference.

Ansari said that "millions of people" visit Khomeini's mausoleum: "Could we hang a sign and write on it that since the imam led a simple life, we wouldn't do anything...?"

"The truth is that people have demanded something different of me in the past 25 years," he added.

Ansari said the shrine, which he described as a "magnificent and national project," has been built to last "500 years."

He also discussed plans to mark the 26th anniversary of Khomeini's death on June 4, when he said some 800,000 people are expected to visit the shrine.

He said 400 foreign guests will attend the ceremony to unveil the newly renovated shrine. 

He didn't say how much the project has cost.

-- Houshang Jeirani and Golnaz Esfandiari

Prison To Exile: Iranian Journalist Banished To Provincial City

Ahmad Zeidabadi (left), a prominent Iranian journalist and political activist,on his release from prison last week. he was reportedly

Iranian authorities have sent a celebrated journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi into internal exile after nearly six years in prison, dashing the hopes of his family and displaying continued intolerance for freedom of speech in the Islamic republic.

Zeidabadi, widely respected and seen as upholding the honor of Iran's journalists and intellectuals, was arrested in the 2009 state crackdown that followed the disputed reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad as president in June of that year. 

Zeidabadi and scores of other intellectuals and political activists were tried on charges that included plotting to overthrow the Islamic establishment.

Zeidabadi, a former student leader, was sentenced to six years in prison, five years in exile in the northeastern city of Gonabad, and a lifetime ban from journalistic, political, and social activity.  
After completing his prison term last week, the 49-year-old father of three was banished to the northeastern city of Gonabad -- and reportedly had to personally cover the cost of his transfer there.

Zeidabadi's family and supporters had hoped that the exile sentence would not be enforced. But ahead of his release, authorities had reportedly told his wife, Mahdieh Mohammadi, that he would be sent directly to Gonabad.

The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the move as a continuation of the persecution of Zeidabadi by Iranian authorities.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the world's most oppressive countries," the head of RSF's Iran desk, Reza Moini, said in a May 22 statement. "It does not limit itself to arbitrary arrests and sentences, but also imposes 'complementary sentences' on its citizens with the aim of silencing them forever.”

Zeidabadi won the 2010 Golden Pen award from the World Association of Newspapers and the 2011 UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize for his commitment to freedom of expression and democracy and for showing courage in the face of persecution. 
Media reports said Zeidabadi was tortured in prison and held in solitary confinement for several weeks.

It is widely believed that Zeidabadi's criticism of Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and of the supreme leader's lack of accountability, is among the main reasons for his arrest and the pressure against him.

Zeidabadi's association with opposition figure and defeated presidential candidate Mehdi Karrubi is also believed to have angered Iranian authorities.

Karrubi, an outspoken critic of the Iranian establishment, has been under house arrest since February 2011.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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