In a program that aired late on Saturday, Iranian state TV broadcast a “confession” by Sepideh Rashnu, a 28-year-old writer, journalist and editor, and opponent of forced hijab. It is not clear when, where and in what circumstances the short film was recorded.
Rashnu was arrested earlier this month, shortly after a video circulated online of her being accosted on a Tehran bus by a veiled woman named Rayeheh Rabiei. The latter was trying to rebuke Rashnu for not covering up her hair, and reportedly assaulted her before threatening to report her to the IRGC. Rabiei was then forced off the bus by onlookers.
The “confession” video showed Rashnu, her hair now covered with a dark brown shawl, sitting directly in front of camera but avoiding looking into it. Speaking in a low voice, she states that she sent the video from the quarrel on the bus to Masih Alinejad, a US-based women’s rights activist, who had immediately reposted it and praised Rashnu’s courage.
The confession video was broadcast as part of a report by Ameneh Sadat Zabihpour, a notorious “interrogator-journalist” who produces propagandistic reports for the IRIB justifying political detentions. Rashnu’s gaunt face and body language suggested that like others before her, she had been coerced into reading from a script.
No fewer than three women who took a stand against mandatory hijab have been shown “confessing” on state TV in the past few days. Notably all of them “repented” and criticized Masih Alinejad. Alinejad is well-known in Iran as the founder of the White Wednesdays and My Stealthy Freedom campaigns. In 2015 she received an award from the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy for "giving a voice to the voiceless and stirring the conscience of humanity to support the struggle of Iranian women for basic human rights, freedom, and equality".
Alinejad herself was the target of a foiled kidnapping plot by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence last July. Then on Friday just gone, an apparent would-be assailant with an AK-47 was arrested outside her home in Brooklyn.
Earlier on July 27, Ali Khan-Mohammadi, spokesman for the Headquarters for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Setad-PV), threatened those who send videos to Masih Alinejad with prison sentences of one to 10 years.
Both Sepideh Rashnu and Rayeheh Rabiei were recording the shouting match on the Tehran bus on their phones. Rashnu’s video shows Rabiei shouting at her: “You’re filming to send it to Masih Alinejad? What can Masih do for you? I’m sending this film to the [Revolutionary] Guards. We’ll see what they do to you.”
It appears that either Rabiei made good on her threat, or someone else did it for her. The IRGC-owned Fars News Agency promptly reported that Rashnu had been arrested on the same day, before sunset, along with other “members of an organized anti-hijab network” with links to Masih Alinejad.
The picture used by Fars for the report was a still from Rayeheh Rabiei’s video. And of the other three Iranian women recently paraded on television, at least two are understood to be among those who stepped in to defend Rashnu on the bus.
The tape that aired on the IRIB has been met with revulsion from Iranian observers online and there are fears it could have been extracted under torture. “In the film you could clearly see marks of torture on Sepideh Rashnu’s faces,” tweeted Sahar Morgen. “The ‘film’ was a montage, mixing in scenes from other films to frame Rashnu. She was only in it for 30 seconds.”
Toomaj Salehi, a popular protest rapper, tweeted two pictures: one of a smartly-dressed Rashnu posing for a picture in makeup, and another of her ashen, downcast face as it appeared in the broadcast. “Just look at the difference to the innocent woman’s face in [these] two pictures, and see what they’ve done to her in a few days,” he wrote. “It is not without reason that the people have reached this level of anger. People no longer want justice. They yearn for revenge, and the source of this anger is the regime itself and its crimes. This anger is sacred.”
Pouria Nouri, a documentary filmmaker and the brother of imprisoned dervish Kasra Nouri, wrote of the past fortnight, while Rashnu was being held in an unknown location: “In those days we were writing ‘Where is Sepideh?’ she was here in front of the camera. They fabricated a scenario for someone who’d boarded a bus to get on with a normal day in her life, and who wanted freedom of dress.”
The journalist Hedieh Kimiai also said Rashnu’s physical appearance suggested that she had been tortured. In a separate but related post, Kimiai also criticized Iranian reformists, some of whom have claimed the fight over forced hijab “pits people against each others”.
Among others, this idea was put forward by the reformist activist Marzieh Azarafza in a debate with Masih Alinejad on BBC Persian after the video of the bus altercation came to light. Others have dismissed same the notion before Kimiai. “Some say this is people fighting other people,” wrote the Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi. “No, this is a fight between a corrupt and tyrannical regime against a people who’ve had enough.”
IranWire's founder Maziar Bahari produced a documentary in 2012 about the practice of extracting forced confessions in Iran. You can watch it in the window below.