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Prominent Women’s Rights Activist Dies

October 11, 2018
Aida Ghajar
8 min read
Bakhtiarnejad's book on self-immolation and women in Iran is one of the seminal texts on the subject
Bakhtiarnejad's book on self-immolation and women in Iran is one of the seminal texts on the subject

Parvin Bakhtiarnejad, a women’s rights and civil society activist and author, has died in a Tehran hospital at the age of 56.

Bakhtiarnejad, who died in the early hours of Tuesday, October 9, was imprisoned in the 1980s along with her young child. She was tortured in prison, as was her husband, Reza Alijani, a nationalist-religious activist, who also spent years in prison.

Bakhtiarnejad’s book on women and self-immolation in Iran is considered one of the most important sources on the subject.

In the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election, Bakhtiarnejad and her family migrated to France, where she continued writing and speaking publicly on women’s rights. She also enrolled in university and started painting. Eventually she returned to Iran and died there according to her wishes. 

Bakhtiarnejad and her husband were arrested in 1986 for their activities during their involvement with a high school's Islamic Society. Reza Alijani was a member of a religious group that was critical of the revolutionary government. Bakhtiarnejad and her son, who was one year old at the time, were sent to Evin Prison’s Ward 209 and spent six months there. Her son took his first steps and learned to stand up on his own while in prison.

After her release from prison, Bakhtiarnejad established relations with the families of political prisoners and became engaged in civil rights activities. In the coming years, however, her husband was in and out of prison and Amnesty International designated him as a prisoner of conscience.

In 1995, she started her career in journalism with the periodical Iran-e Farda (“Iran of Tomorrow”) published by the Iranian politician Ezzatolah Sahabi. In 2000 the government shut down the publication, but Bakhtiarnejad continued her work with reformist newspapers and magazines including Khordad, Yas-e Now, Shargh and Etemad.

At the same time, she continued her research in women’s studies. In 2001 she published her first book, entitled Self-Immolated Women and based on her research in the western province of Ilam, which has the highest number of self-immolations in the country. 

In 2005, she wrote her second book, NGOs' Structural Obstacles in Iran. But the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance stalled publication of her third book, The Silent Tragedy of Honor Killings in Iran, for nine months. Eventually the ministry refused to issue a permit for its publication.

But Bakhtiarnejad did not yield to censorship. She published the book on the website Feminist School in electronic format [Persian PDF]. In 2013, Arash Publishers, based in Stockholm, published the book in print format. Her fourth book was entitled Violence Against Women.

Children as Tools of Torture

In an interview in 2015, Bakhtiarnejad talked about her experience in prison [Persian link]. Whenever the guards and the interrogators wanted to torment her in prison, they would take her son away from her and leave him with another inmate in another cell. “I remember one day I could hear my son crying all day,” she said. “I did not know who was taking care of him. Later I learned that they had left my son with Mrs. Saberi, who had two children of her own and her husband had been executed. This was the kind of torture that I lived in fear of.”

The guard often refused to provide her with boiling water to prepare milk powder for her son and told her to use the hot tap water in the cell. “And when I used the tap water my son came down with a sever bellyache. And when he had fever, they would refuse to give him antibiotics.” The guards, said Bakhtiarnejad, used children as tools of torture against mothers in jail.

Her son, Ershad Alijani, the baby boy who lived behind bars with his mother, now lives in France and is a reporter for the TV network France 24. “I do not remember it myself,” he wrote on his Facebook page after he received the news of his mother’s death, “but she told me that in the 1980s when we were both in prison, one day — to torment my mother — they threw me in the next cell with another woman who had been tortured so badly that she could not even move her legs. For hours I had cried and shouted ‘Wawin, Wawin!’, meaning my mother Parvin. Now she has died in Iran where she wanted to be, her last home, and I am stuck here...’Wawin, Wawin!’”

Family Pays the Price

After she was released from prison and had become an activist in support of prisoners’ families, Bakhtiarnejad complained that some female political activists looked down on women who had family members in jail but who were themselves not politically active. “Iranians only applaud women who fearlessly flail around,” she said in an interview [Persian link], while “the families of the prisoners are perhaps the first ones who have to deal with psychological injuries of the prisoners...When somebody is in prison, the pressures on the family might drive the spouse into severe depression. It might even lead to the breakup of the family. I have witnessed cases when, after the arrest, suddenly they were divorced and the divorce had less to do with differences between husband and wife than the psychological mayhem caused by the prison experience.”

She said that such cases often do not make the news and nobody pays them any attention. The prisoner becomes a “hero,” while the family pays the price.

Besides her efforts to support the families of political prisoners, Parvin Bakhtiarnejad was a prominent activist in Iran’s women’s movement. One of her most important contributions was, again, her research into women’s self-immolation — a mostly ignored subject despite the fact that it has been quite prevalent in some areas of Iran.

In her book, she writes that according to the nurses she interviewed, self-immolation is often not reported. If it was, she said, the statistics would be shocking, so authorities register deaths caused by suicide, self-immolation and honor killings as “accidental."

According to Bakhtiarnejad’s research, before committing suicide, women often complain about the conditions under which they live. Perhaps, she wrote, they hope that suicide will free them from violence and discrimination and that is why suicide is more prevalent among Iranian women than it is among men.

In an interview with Radio Zamaneh [Persian link], Bakhtiarnejad said self-immolation is a kind of protest and revenge. The woman “sets herself on fire in full view of people close to her to show her anger over the violence done to her.” According to her research, this has become so common in some areas of Iran that sometimes children playfully copy these examples and set themselves on fire. In 2015 it was reported that Iran has the highest rate of suicide and self-immolation in the Middle East. However, the authors of these reports have not stated where these figures and statistics come from, so this claim cannot be substantiated.


Rebuild the Movement from Inside

Parvin Bakhtiarnejad and her family finally decided to leave Iran in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election, when they emigrated to France. At that time, the arrests of protesters and the forced emigration of other activists practically brought the women’s movement in Iran to a halt. In an interview [Persian video], Bakhtiarnejad talked about what she believed must be done to revive the movement. “Somehow we managed to build something for the women’s movement,” she said. “In the hard times under the two-term presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, what we had built did not fall down and it persevered. Every day it shows itself in some way and every day it says ‘I am the same demands that were posed a few years ago and I have not budged.’ The banner on top of this edifice is still flying but we must rebuild it from inside.”

“Political and social changes move slowly and we must not blame people for this,” said Bakhtiarnejad. “We must start by critiquing ourselves and prove to people that we are qualified to sit with them and talk ... We blame despotism for every flaw and believe that we have no need for change, improvement and mental house cleaning. Violence is like a solid ground but when you remove one layer you find another hidden layer below it. You might not see the layers below but they do exist.”

Clearly, immigration did not stop Bakhtiarnejad’s efforts to support women’s rights in Iran. She began attending college in France and started painting to “calm” herself, she said. She has posted some of this work on her Instagram page.

She was one of the first so-called nationalist-religious Iranian women who did not wear hijab while living in France to show her solidarity with women in Iran who fought against the country’s mandatory hijab laws. But after many years, she decided to return to Iran by herself because she was deeply attached to the land where she was born and where she fought for civil rights.

After her return to Iran, security forces repeatedly summoned and interrogated her, despite the fact that she was suffering from thalassemia and embolism, which had led to her undergoing two surgeries while living in France. And it was this illness that eventually killed her. Thalassemia sapped her energy but, as her husband Reza Alijani wrote after her death, “she gave all she had for freedom and justice” and “the love of her country and its people never left her.”


More on the fight for women’s rights in Iran:

Women’s Rights Activists behind Bars, October 1, 2018

Friends Fear for Activist 50 Days after he Started Hunger Strike, September 18, 2018

Husband of Prominent Lawyer Arrested, September 5, 2018

The Saga of an Iranian Peaceful Activist, August 30, 2018

Human Rights Lawyer Charged With Assisting Spies, August 16, 2018

Decoding Iranian Politics: The Struggle Over Compulsory Hijab, May 1, 2018

Guards Arrest “Revolution Woman” Maryam Shariatmadari, April 27, 2018

Exclusive: Interview with Revolution Woman Narges Hosseini, March 2018

Khamenei Dismisses Hijab Protesters as “Insignificant and Small", March 2018

Anti-Hijab Protester Sentenced to Two Years in Prison, March 2018

The Regime’s Tactics Against Iran’s “Revolution Women”, February 2018

People Want the Choice on Hijab — But the Regime Won't Listen, February, 2018

The Man Who Joined Revolution Women, February, 2018

Iran’s Prosecutor Dismisses Hijab Protesters as Childish and Ignorant, January, 2018

More Women Protest by Removing their Hijabs, January, 2018

The Woman Who Stood Up Against Forced Hijab, January, 2018




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