When graduate student Esha Momeni left for Iran in September to work on her thesis project about the women’s rights movement in the Middle Eastern country, her friends and colleagues were concerned about her safety.
Friends of the 28-year-old Iranian-American student said they knew it might be risky, but they never thought Momeni would end up in jail.
Dr. Nayereh Tohidi, professor and chair of the Gender and Women’s Studies department, said she had tried to convince the student not to go to Iran because of the government.
Tohidi is also involved in the California chapter of the One Million Signatures campaign, the organization Momeni was working with that seeks to change Iran’s constitution so that men and women will be seen as equal. She had met with Momeni several times to advise her on her academic work.
‘I have nothing to worry about, I’m not doing anything wrong,’ Tohidi said Momeni told her.
Despite the risks, the student ‘was determined to better the lives of Iranian citizens,’ said 27-year-old UCLA graduate student Peyman Malaz, who has known Momeni for about five years.
Momeni was born in Los Angeles but moved back to Iran with her family, eventually earning her bachelor’s degree in graphic design in 2002 at Azad University in Tehran, Malaz said.
She married in Iran, but ‘Esha was never eager to talk about it,’ Malaz said. The marriage was ‘tainted by domestic violence,’ but instead of becoming a victim to her experience, Momeni instead used it as inspiration to help others, he said.
Momeni ‘had a lot of trouble (trying to) get divorced’ because in Iranian law, only the man is allowed (that) right, said Malaz. Her difficulties inspired her to ‘change the laws that are discriminatory against women,’ he said.
‘The most important reason for Esha’s being drawn to women’s issues was her personal experience of a life full of violence,’ said Momeni’s mother in a prepared statement through Change for Equality. ‘From every standpoint she was superior to her husband, but she was forced to put up with him.’
After her divorce, Momeni returned to the United States to continue her education, said Malaz. Because she was American-born, Momeni never felt any culture shock because she was familiar with cultures. Rather, it was Americans’ view of Iranian women that influenced her decision to focus on the women’s rights movement, he said.
‘She was trying to correct this image of Iranian women,’ said Malaz. He said she was ‘stunned by the stereotypes of Iranian women’hellip; seen as weak’ and submissive, he said. ‘She decided to make her thesis project as a personal exploration to show that (it wasn’t true),’ said Malaz.
Yassmin Manauchehri, a UCLA alumna, met Momeni through the One Million Signatures campaign.
‘She was always surprised when she saw people here (in the U.S.) having this picture of Iranian women as part of arranged marriages’hellip; or just women who stay at home,’ said Manauchehri. ‘She knew that wasn’t true’ because neither she nor the other women she knew were that way, Manauchehri said.
Momeni’s mother said her daughter ‘wanted to show her professors and American friends how powerful Iranian women are’hellip; and how much progress (they) have made,’ and that people in the U.S. ‘have absolutely no idea about the situation of women in Iran and that they confuse us with Afghan women’hellip; For this reason she chose to write her thesis about active Iranian women.’
A little under two weeks later after her arrest and her initial phone call to her family, her friends and lawyer still have not yet spoken to the CSUN graduate student. She was imprisoned in Iran on Oct. 15 by undercover police for allegedly passing a car illegally on a highway.
Manauchehri said the government still has not released any information and even her lawyer has not been allowed to read her case’s documents.
Tohidi said she was told by Momeni’s family and friends that the student was given books to read while in jail, ‘which is a good sign,’ she said, because she is not in total confinement.
Dean Goodman, a Reuters reporter, was jailed for roughly a month at Evin prison in 2005 while he was on vacation in Iran.
Goodman, who does not know Momeni, said he wanted to dispel any fears that the student may physical tortured.
The cell he was held in was ‘fairly small’ and he was given three to four blankets, which he used as a bed, he said.
‘They served pretty good meals there; they take food quite seriously in Iran,’ Goodman said.
Prison officials confiscated his glasses, he was not allowed to have writing or reading materials and the light remained on the entire time, he said.
‘It’s an interesting psychological test,’ he said. ‘I pretty much stared at the wall for three or four weeks.’
He also was only allowed a brief phone call to his parents.
‘The worst thing was I was not allowed to contact the outside world (like) the Red Cross, the U.N.,’ Goodman said.
‘It was kind of a shock for me’hellip; because I know Esha is not doing anything illegal,’ Malaz said about finding out Momeni was arrested. ‘She was just trying to work on her thesis’hellip; (it didn’t) have any political objectives.’
Manauchehri said she too was shocked and in ‘disbelief because she hadn’t really done anything’hellip; (being arrested) under the guise of a traffic infraction was just strange,’ she said, especially because she was being held in a section of Evin prison infamous for holding prisoners whose ‘cases are political in nature.’
The university is also working with government officials to assist in Momeni’s case.
Harry Hellenbrand, provost and vice president of Academic Affairs, said the university has contacted Congressman Brad Sherman, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein for assistance, along with the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations.
Campus President Jolene Koester also released a statement about Momeni on the CSUN website.
‘We are in support of the efforts of the U.S. government in their efforts to secure Ms. Momeni’s immediate release,’ said Koester.
Human rights organizations are also appealing to the Iranian government for the release of Momeni, who is currently being held in solitary confinement.
Amnesty International and World Organization Against Torture both issued appeals urging Iranian officials to release Momeni immediately.
Tohidi said politicizing Momeni’s case may hinder her release and that it is important to realize that the organization the student is involved with is one that is ‘homegrown (and) indigenous’hellip; it has nothing to do with (trying to force) Western policies’ on the Iran.
‘We need to’hellip; raise our voices in a way that can help, rather than harm’ Momeni’s situation, said Tohidi.
Momeni’s case is ‘fortunately’hellip; very simple and transparent,’ she said. ‘Her project is mainly for her thesis, she has not signed any contract to make her film for propaganda’hellip; or commercial reasons,’ and her documentary only focuses on the women’s rights movement, Tohidi said.
Since One Million Signatures began two years ago, roughly 50 people involved in the campaign have been arrested, said Tohidi. Most of them have been released, but none of them were ever charged with any wrongdoing, she said.
‘She has not been a part of any political parties, any clandestine movements,’ Tohidi said. ‘She has done nothing wrong.’