A 28-year-old communications grad student working on her master’s degree thesis in Iran about the country’s women’s rights movement was arrested by Iranian police and detained without bail last week.
Esha Momeni, who had been filming interviews of women’s rights advocates in Tehran, was arrested Wednesday, Oct. 15 after she was pulled over on Moddaress highway by undercover police in Tehran for allegedly passing another vehicle illegally, said Change for Equality, a women’s rights organization, in a statement.
After her arrest, authorities drove Momeni to her home and confiscated her video recordings and computer and searched the house, said Dr. Melissa Wall, adviser for the journalism graduate program who sat on Momeni’s thesis committee.
Momeni is ‘being held in solitary confinement, she’s not allowed to have contact with her parents,’ said Anayansi Prado, a filmmaker and friend who had been mentoring Momeni on the documentary. ‘She’s being held in one of the most notorious prisons of the world,’ said Prado, who spoke with Momeni on Monday, Oct. 13, two days before her arrest.
Iranian authorities ensured Momeni’s family she would be released swiftly, provided that ‘her arrest was not published,’ said Change for Equality.
The organization also reported that Esha’s parents visited the Revolutionary Courts four days after she was arrested and were told by officials that information about her case would not be released to them until their investigation was complete.
‘She hasn’t been officially charged with anything yet, and the government’s not really giving any information,’ said Prado.
Photojournalism professor David Blumenkratz, who also resided on Momeni’s thesis committee, said he considered Momeni a personal friend and was concerned about the student’s situation.
‘It’s extremely dangerous, the way they treat people in those prisons, it’s not good,’ he said. ‘I’m very worried for her.’
A friend, Hassan Hussain, has been updating a blog, for-esha.blogspot.com, about her arrest and is in contact with Momeni’s family, said Prado.
Prado said Momeni was scheduled to return to the United States three weeks ago but decided to extend her stay in Iran to visit her family.
The grad student had been recording interviews of volunteers with the One Million Signatures campaign, which demands change in Iran’s constitution to state that men and women are equal. The Middle Eastern country’s constitution currently states that men are superior to women, said Prado.
In Iran, women are ‘getting more daring, more outspoken, uniting and empowering each other,’ said Prado. She said Momeni’s documentary was focusing ‘what it meant to be a woman in the movement.’
‘(The journalism department is) very, very concerned about her safety,’ Wall said. ‘We all know she was not doing anything wrong.’
Prado said it is against Iranian law to film without a permit. The government must be notified of the purpose and content of any film project before production begins, she said.
Both Wall and Prado said they suspected Momeni may have been under surveillance because of her ties to advocacy groups.
‘I think all e-mail and phone communications are probably monitored, so you try not to say much,’ said Wall.
Prado said Momeni felt suspicious that her phone conversations were being tapped and was very careful and selective in what she told her about her documentary’s progress.
Blumenkrantz said her master’s degree was interdisciplinary and incorporates different media such as photography and film.
‘She’s really artistic; she approaches things very much from an artistic point of view,’ Blumenkrantz said.
Momeni earned her bachelor’s degree in graphic design and specialized in animation, said Wall. According to Hussein’s blog, Momeni graduated from the Arts Faculty at Azad University of Tehran in 2002. She had previously worked on a short film, ‘N-Word,’ about America’s attitudes on race, Wall said. Momeni is also trained in the sitar and has performed professionally in Iran, said Wall.
Because of the dangers of filming in Iran and the treatment of women, Blumenkrantz said the graduate studies committee ‘reluctantly agreed to support her idea.’
Momeni was aware of the risks of conducting her project in Iran, said Blumenkrantz, ‘but she kind of downplayed it and seemed very confident (that she would not) put herself into that dangerous position,’ he said.
‘I’m very worried for her safety,’ he said. ‘This is a very serious charge in the eyes of the Iranian government.’
The organization that she had been focusing on in her documentary has ‘historically been harassed and intimidated by the government there,’ Blumenkrantz said.
Prado, a documentary filmmaker, was conducting a workshop for journalism students in which Momeni attended. The student contacted her several months later asking for guidance on her thesis project, Prado said.
In spring 2007, Momeni requested funds from Associated Students for her project, which is typical for many graduate students to help fund their academic work, but A.S. denied her request.’ Momeni also contributed a photo essay to the Daily Sundial in fall 2006.
‘I was very moved by what Esha was trying to do as a woman of color’hellip; and as a filmmaker. I really felt her passion for wanting to tell a story,’ said Prado.
She said she warned the student to be careful, and Momeni assured her nothing would happen.
”They can’t do anything to me,” Prado remembered Momeni telling her during a phone conversation.
Prado said the media’s emphasis on Momeni’s American citizenship may politicize the situation further and result in further delays in the Iranian government releasing her.
‘We just really want to emphasize’hellip; that this is really a situation of a human rights violation,’ said Prado, and that the main focus is not that Momeni is American.
‘She’s a student, artist and humanitarian, and she’s being detained. This is a violation of human rights,’ Prado said.
Prado set up a Facebook group advocate Momeni’s release. An online petition has also been set up at http://www.petitiononline.com/EshaM/petition.html
Join the Anayansi Prado’s Facebook group for more information on how to help Esha Momeni:’ http://www.facebook.com/home.php?tab=5#/group.php?gid=88653140525
For updated information about Momeni’s case, visit http://for-esha.blogspot.com.