Editor’s Note: Ana Diamond is a human rights advocate, political commentator and researcher at the University of Oxford. She was held hostage in Iran from 2014-2018 under the pretext of national security charges, enduring over 200 days in solitary confinement. She was ultimately acquitted. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
This week, two moments in the tumultuous and violent month-long uprising in Iran caught the international media’s attention with fresh urgency – a fire inside Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, and the whereabouts of an Iranian climber following a competition in South Korea.
Barely had the sound of sirens and gun shots faded from the prison compound when, half a world away in Seoul, the first Iranian woman to win a medal at the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) World Championships was reported missing by friends after competing without a hijab.
For many like me among the Iranian diaspora glued to our screens watching events unfold, Elnaz Rekabi seemingly used her international sporting platform to defy the mandatory dress code at the expense of her own career – and safety.
Within 24 hours of her friends’ report, a story was uploaded to Rekabi’s Instagram account, stating that the absence of her veil was not deliberate – it had “inadvertently” come off.
Many of her hundreds of thousands of social media followers, along with human rights groups, cast doubt over the statement’s authenticity.
When Rekabi arrived back in Iran at the Imam Khomeini International Airport on Wednesday, she was welcomed by a sizable crowd of Iranians, many of whom had gathered in the early hours to call her a “hero” for her brave act of civil disobedience on a global stage.
Some analysts believe that Rekabi might have been kidnapped and returned to Iran by force. The Iranian embassy in Seoul, meanwhile, said that Rekabi departed on Tuesday along with “other members of the team” and “strongly denied all the fake, false news and disinformation.”
As I reflect on my own experiences in Iran, I have faith that Rekabi indeed wanted to return home. The tide has turned and Iranians – particularly women – will no longer settle for exile or subordination.
Inside prison walls
While the Iranian authorities are quick to blame recent protests on foreign powers fomenting chaos and disorder inside the country, those of us who have lived in Iran know that this women-led uprising was a long time coming.
Women – including, I suspect, Rekabi – are no longer afraid of the prospect of imprisonment. This often happens in totalitarian states when life outside prison still feels like imprisonment, and there is very little left to lose.
I would know – I am a former inmate of Evin prison.
When I was 19-years-old and still an undergraduate student in London, I traveled to Iran to visit relatives. Soon after, in 2016, I was arrested on trumped-up charges of espionage for MI6 and alleged “infiltration” of the Iranian political system.
That political situation was very different then: the world was hopeful that the Iran nuclear deal (better known as JCPOA) might bear fruit, and Iranians were hopeful that they may see better days ahead.
So while the former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was flying from Tehran to Vienna to feign diplomacy, I was accused of “seducing my subjects” in order to conduct espionage for British diplomatic envoys.
While in detention, I endured months of solitary confinement, long hours of interrogations and a mock execution.
In the process, my identity, foreignness and womanhood were weaponized against me. I was coerced to undertake a virginity test in order to prove my innocence, and yet, it was not good enough.
When my interrogators finally agreed to move me out of solitary confinement to the women’s public ward, I was strip-searched while on my period. The minute I arrived on the public ward, I was so petrified and overwhelmed that I burst into tears.
The female political prisoners, many of whom are well-known public figures in Iran, knew what I had been put through; they had seen many girls like me come through Evin’s gates before.
In the days that followed, I quickly learned that, for Evin’s political prisoners, imprisonment at the hands of the Islamic Republic was a badge of honor. They were not particularly troubled to be behind bars; for them, Evin was where their individual freedoms came to die, but where their ideas continued to live on.
Every Thursday evening, some Evin inmates gathered together to recite a Muslim prayer. At the end of the recitation, they would also pray for the prison’s fallen martyrs.
Narges Mohammadi, who last year was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, would say that the tall trees inside the prison compound had grown not from the fertile soil nor the crystal water but from the warm blood of young lives shed on its grounds.
For many Iranians, Evin is not simply a detention site. Located in one of the most affluent neighborhoods of northern Tehran, Evin occupies a very public space in the everyday lives of many Iranians, reminding them of the presence of a penal institution that is an active enabler in the machinery of repression.
Having preceded the Islamic Republic, Evin is a historical symbol of decades of authoritarian rule the nation has endured for generations. In the midst of the capital’s hustle and bustle, it is also a physical embodiment of the censorship of those that dare to speak against the government.
How the West should respond
My friends in the West, many of whom are well-educated and conscious of Western – particularly US – interference in the Middle East, often hesitate to display support for the protests in fear of inadvertently coming across as orientalist or interventionist.
But while the US has an unfortunate record of undermining democracy in the Middle East, it would be unforgivable to dismiss the cries of help coming from Iranians at their hour of need.
The patriarchal system in Iran does not only benefit the state; as we have seen with a string of femicides and ‘honor killings’ in the country, it emboldens many men to directly subjugate women and girls, if not by word then by violence. But what could be the solution?
Many of whom oppose the current system believe the West should punish Iran’s leadership by scrapping any plans to restore the Iran nuclear deal. They consider Western attempts at reconciliation as appeasement, and perceive any engagement with Iran as enforcement of the Islamic Republic’s ideology and validation of their system of rule, including gender apartheid.
For the most part, this rings true: the more the West has displayed tolerance toward the Islamic Republic, the more the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been intolerant of the West and the Iranian public. During the peak years of the Iran nuclear negotiations, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards arrested a noticeable number of dual and foreign nationals as bargaining chips in what was later described as a revival of their decades-old tactic of “hostage diplomacy”.
While there are no perfect policy options for the current situation in Iran, there are better ones and worse ones. Complete withdrawal from any diplomatic engagement would reduce Western influence in the country, appease geopolitical rivals – namely China and Russia – and precipitate further erosion of women’s fundamental rights.
Instead, we need to amplify the voices of women on the ground and help them sustain the protest movement’s momentum.
Four decades ago, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini announced that a woman’s chador was the flag of the revolution. Now it appears that with the strength, hope and idealism of a new generation, a woman’s veil will be the flag of yet another turning point in Iran’s history.
This time, raised high and waving in the air with the whole world in awe.