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Student Arrested in Iran Shines light on Gender Equality Issues

New America Media, News Report, Julian Do Posted: Oct 27, 2008

Editor's Note: The arrest and detention of Iranian American graduate student Esha Momeni in Tehran two weeks ago has brought worldwide attention to the focus of her work: the women's movement in Iran. Julian Do is a reporter for New America Media.

Esha Momeni wrote in the summer of 2007: As I stroll along the streets of my city, I feel like a bride, a bride that is walking towards a new promise, the dream of equality. The city Momeni was referring to is Tehran and her dream of equality is for the women in Iran.

I met Esha Momeni, an Iranian-American graduate student at Cal State Northridge (CSUN) last year when I was a guest speaker in her media seminar class. I can still recall her zeal and passion as she explained her research into womens rights issues in her motherland.

When CSUN journalism professor Jose Luis Benavides emailed me last week that one of his students has been arrested in Tehran, I immediately thought of Momeni. Apparently she was back in Iran for over two months to work on her masters thesis, a documentary film about womens rights issues in Iran, and was detained by police on October 15. After confiscating all of her videotapes and computer, the Iranian authorities took her to the infamous Section 209 of Evin Prison, the same jail where Iranian American Princeton scholar Haleh Esfandiari was detained for 105 days in 2007. Momenis family contacted the Revolutionary Court in Tehran but was told that her case was still being investigated.

After a week of media coverage and increasing condemnation from many human rights watch groups from around the world, the U.S. State Department acknowledged that it was monitoring Momenis case when Secretary Condoleezza Rice was in Long Beach to attend a womens rights conference last week.

Women and equality are two mutually exclusive words in many parts of the world. In the Middle East, most nations have both written and non-written laws specifically barring women from attaining higher education, driving cars, voting, assuming public offices, and dressing in Western styles.

"Iran is very different from other Middle Eastern nations when it comes to the women's movement," says Pari Esfandiari, founder and editor in chief of Irandokht, a Los Angeles-based online media outlet about Iranian women. "Before the 1979 Revolution, Iranian women had relatively equal legal rights with men, which was a phenomena. But that all changed after 1979 revolution."

Esfandiari adds that the women's movement is viewed as a threat because it is challenging the government to change discriminatory laws, which deny women from getting their fair share of justice in the society.

But, for generations Iranian women have been breaking down gender barriers from accessing to education to holding government positions and voting. The current theocratic Iranian government hasnt been as strict as their counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Today, the social landscape in Iran is a paradox even compared to Western nations: women are now 65 percent of the total university students and out of the field of 7,000 registered candidates in the recent Iranian parliamentary election held in March, almost 600 of them were women.

Momeni is very proud of being an Iranian woman and takes pride in the advancement of womens rights in Iran, says Professor Benavides. However, she has been disappointed about the stereotypes portrayed by Western media about women in Islamic countries and in her country. So, she thought by doing a documentary film on the feminist movement in Iran, it might somehow make a small difference.

Momenis parents were foreign students in the U.S. when they met and she was born in Los Angeles in 1980. Though Iran was still reeling from the turmoil of the 1979 Revolution, her parents decided to move back to Iran and took Momeni and her sister with them. Before coming back to the U.S. to attend the graduate program at CSUN in 2006, according to the blog created by her Iranian American friend and colleague Hassan Hussein, Momeni earned a Bachelor's Degree in Graphic Design from Azad University of Tehran in 2002. Her interest in womens rights issue was evident back then when she produced two filmed entitled "Adam and Eve's Banishment from Heaven" and "The Little Prince and Me."

Mayar Zokaei, managing editor of Javanan International Weekly, a bi-lingual Farsi-English publication based in Los Angeles, thinks Momenis arrest has a lot to do with the current political tension between Iran and the West. Its a sensitive time, so anything perceived as potentially revolutionary within the society would be taken very seriously by the political establishment.

According to The One Million Signatures Campaign or Change for Equality (TOMSCCE), one of the leading womens rights organizations in Iran, some of womens many complaints are: Under Iranian law a 9-year-old girl can be tried for an adult crime, whereas the age for a boy is 15; a man can serve as a witness to a crime while a woman cannot; women are prohibited to be financial guardians of their children while men are free to practice polygamy and divorce their wives at will; and the legal age for a father to marry off his daughter is 13, although he can seek permission from courts if he wants her to marry earlier.

TOMSCCE is also the same organization that Momeni has been involved with both in the U.S. and in Iran and is a focus of her documentary thesis.

Photojournalism professor Dave Blumenkratz, who is one of Momenis thesis committee advisors at CSUN, says: Esha Momeni is a bright and energetic student. Her passion in the womens rights movement is clear. But her documentary is more about the women in Iran by profiling certain feminist leaders. Its a student film, not anything earth shattering that the government should be concerned about.

Ever since Momenis arrest, international organizations like the Human Rights Watch, the World Organization Against Torture, Feminist Peace Network, and her department professors and fellow students at CSUN and friends have been trying to generate a global awareness of her situation and encourage people to write to their elected leaders as well as directly to Irans Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian Embassies around the world.

Anayansi Prado, a Latina filmmaker who feels a kinship with Momenis passion of the womens rights, has been mentoring her on the documentary project. Prado worries about Momenis safety as she is being held in the Evin Prison, one of the most notorious jails of the world. All of us are praying that she would be unharmed and released soon.

Prado set up a Facebook group advocate Momenis release. An online petition has also been set up as well.

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