Esha Momeni, a CSUN mass communications graduate student who was imprisoned and later under a travel ban in Iran, returned to the United States on Aug. 11.
As she sat in CSUN’s Valley View News studio Aug. 13 awaiting the start of her first interview since arriving in Los Angeles, the conversation revolved around her plans to see the latest Harry Potter movie. It was as if she had never left.
As tape rolled and the producer said, “You’re on,” the light chatter subsided. Harry Potter became an afterthought as the realities of the experience of having been imprisoned surfaced.
“I didn’t believe I was leaving (Iran) until I got into the plane, they closed the plane’s door and started going,” Momeni, 29, said.
Momeni was imprisoned in October 2008 while working on her master thesis project on the women’s rights movement in Iran. At the time of her arrest, she had been conducting interviews with women’s rights activists from the One Million Signatures Campaign.
“This campaign is working to change discriminatory law against women in Iran. They collect signatures plus they talk to women and men and try to improve common knowledge about women’s issues,” Momeni said.
She was charged with propagandizing against the regime.
The day of her arrest and Evin Prison
It was 9 a.m. on October 15, 2008 when Momeni was on her way to interview a young women’s rights activist. She was thinking about the questions she wanted to ask the interviewee when an unmarked car pulled her over.
“In a minute there was one guy with a gun sitting next to me in the car,” said Momeni. “I opened the door and I ran out of the car and I sat in the middle of the highway and started screaming.”
After gaining control of Momeni, the men drove to her family’s home, an address she hadn’t shared with them. While there, they collected her research, film, computer and all other documents pertaining to her thesis project.
Momeni’s mother returned home as the men gathered her daughter’s materials from their home.
“I remember her face. It was so hard for her,” Momeni said. “Especially when I left with them… it was so hard.”
Momeni was taken to Evin Prison for 28 days, 25 spent in solitary confinement. She was provided one or two books, one being about torture, and the occasional pro-government newspaper.
“Basically, it’s another torture just reading those newspapers,” she laughed.
She also had 19 interrogations during her stay at Evin Prison, interrogations which sometimes lasted all day.
To pass time, Momeni said she would memorize poems written on the walls of her cell and sing songs.
She shared a story of a day when one of the few televisions in her prison section broadcasted a song and all the inmates, men and women, started singing along. “It was inspiring,” she said.
After 28 days in prison, Momeni was finally told she would be released. However, she had mixed feelings about leaving as she was reluctant to part with some of her fellow inmates.
One of her inmates, an Armenian woman, had seen many people come and go while she remained imprisoned. Momeni and the woman said an emotional goodbye.
“We cried. We hugged each other,” Momeni said.
As Momeni waited in a different cell to be released from her prison section she could hear her friend weeping out loud. “The moment… it wasn’t that pleasing,” Momeni said.
Though conditions were tough, Momeni believes she was treated better than other inmates because she holds dual citizenship as an Iranian-American and because she is in the majority as a Muslim.
Released, under a travel ban
Momeni was released from prison in Nov. 2008 and returned to her family’s home but at times felt as though she were still in prison.
“It seems you’re free but in fact your whole life is under control, or at least they give you this feeling they’re watching you,” she said.
She said that after her release, she had three more interrogations. “It never ends,” she added. At one point, Momeni stopped answering phone calls.
Initially, reports stated Momeni would be returning to the U.S. within a week of her release from prison. But then her passport was seized and she was placed under a travel ban. She was asked to “work with them” by giving an interview.
“I think they wanted to get my interview and edit it with my own films and use it for their own propaganda,” she said. “I refused to do that.”
In the interim of her release from prison and her return to the U.S., Momeni was able to see the many efforts by her colleagues, friends and political activists to get her back in the U.S. In her absence a candlelight vigil took place, letters were written, petitions were signed and she was the first to be awarded the Academic Freedom Award at CSUN.
“I was surprised. I was surprised and then I started crying,” she said. “Still when I see the pictures, when I see my pictures all around the campus… I was so happy.”
“I was overwhelmed,” she added. “For the first time I felt American.”
Also, during her wait for the travel ban to be lifted, presidential elections took place in Iran. Protestors took to the streets to refute the re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Momeni said the spirit in Tehran as the elections approached was one of open dialogue and debate.
A supporter of candidate Mehdi Karroubi, Momeni said she voted for him because he was the only person who questioned the laws discriminating against Iranian women. She found Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad’s main competition going in to the election, to be fairly conservative in his viewpoints. However, she said it was clear there was more Mousavi support than there was for Ahmadinejad.
Momeni said she has no doubt that the Iranian people didn’t choose Ahmadinejad.
“You could tell Mousavi supporters were 10 times more than Ahmadinejad supporters. So when the results came out we were all shocked. All of us,” she said. “We were expecting some cheating but not to this extent.”
“On Saturday, the day after the election, we came to the street and we saw people marching down the street and so we joined them,” she added. “In that moment I kind of felt like, I’m relieved. At least I let it out.”
Reception to her return to Los Angeles
There was only one false start when Momeni was notified the first week of August that she could return to Los Angeles. A week before actually returning, she’d packed her bags and went to the airport only to learn that she still wasn’t eligible to fly.
Dr. Melissa Wall, CSUN journalism graduate adviser, said she learned of Momeni’s return from her fiancé Hassan Hussain, but was reluctant to get excited.
“I knew other activists that had gotten on the airplane and were dragged off,” said Wall. “I feared that. I said, ‘I’ll really only believe it when I actually see her.’”
Hussain learned of her possible return the day before she arrived.
“I had an idea that she might come home Tuesday but to be honest, because in the past they would tell her she could and then not allow it, I didn’t really believe it until I saw her at the airport,” Hussain said.
“I can’t explain how it felt, other than to say how happy I was,” he added.
Former mass communications graduate student Anasa Sinegal was thrilled to hear of Momeni’s return home as well.
“I found out yesterday when Esha called and spoke with my mom,” said Sinegal, who helped organize November’s candlelight vigil at CSUN in honor of Momeni.
“To be honest, last week after the joyous return of the journalists from North Korea, I was upset because I felt like, ‘Have they forgotten about Esha?’” she said. “The last thing I expected was to have her home this week. It has been a very happy couple of days and I just am excited to see her as soon as I can.”
Momeni’s fiancé Hussain was also concerned with giving Momeni a warm welcome-home.
“It was important for me to let Esha know the support and love she had at CSUN,” Hussain said. “Talking to her when she first was released, I was disturbed to hear her ask if people were angry or upset with her. I made sure she knew that no one was angry with her or blamed her for anything, and instead showed so much support.”
When asked whether this ordeal has made her withdraw from her efforts to increase women’s rights in Iran, Momeni reflected on one of her interrogation sessions.
“One of the interrogators told me, ‘Ms. Momeni, you have a simple flu. And our duty is to prevent it from (becoming) a serious disease.’ I want to tell you that now I have cancer.”
Momeni plans to return to her studies at CSUN this fall. And now that she’s home, Hussain said she is the same person he knew.
“There are no changes in her spirit that I can see. She is as feisty and strong as she was when she left, perhaps even more so,” he said.