Was This the Poem That Sent a Young Iranian Woman to Prison?
An award-winning poet has been taken into custody by Iranian officials after a video of her reading a poem critical of the head coverings women must wear in the Islamic Republic of Iran went viral.
Hila Sedighi was arrested at a Tehran airport Thursday upon return from a trip to the United Arab Emirates, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights, a nonprofit advocacy group based in New York City.
“Artistic expression is under unprecedented assault in Iran,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the group’s executive director, in a statement. “The Iranian Judiciary is incapable of tolerating the peaceful expression of its own citizens, seeking instead to intimidate and silence them with arrests and imprisonment.”
The most recent poem posted to Sedighi’s blog sits alongside a photo of her without the modest coverings (presumably from when she has traveled outside Iran), and in verse she chafes at the attentions of a government that is interested in issues such as a woman’s modesty while corruption grows. Here, the opening stanza, translated from Farsi:
The wind blew away your house
And, you still worry about the wind blowing in my hair?
The myth of which cave’s sleepers has you intoxicated so?
Why are you sleeping?
A hundred tribes go to ruins while you sleep
The scandal about the kingdom’s thieves is everywhere
But, with your two hands, you still hold on to the two ends of my shawl
The rest is at the bottom of this page. Sedighi gave an emotional reading of the poem that was widely shared on Facebook and Twitter—here’s an English-subtitled version of her reading.
The Tehran crowd watching the reading interrupts a few times with applause, but the mood among the Iranian leadership is hardly supportive. Iran’s long tradition of poetry places writers like Sedighi in a place of particular cultural prominence—the graves of poets Hafez and Saadi are also prominent monuments, and Iranians young and old can recite poems that are hundreds of years old.
In 2012, Sedighi was honored for her commitment to free expression by advocacy group Human Rights Watch, along with two other Iranians. With her arrest, all of them have now seen prison time for that expression.
In arrest after arrest since the historic nuclear deal in June, the regime has targeted poets, artists, and journalists in recent months—which Iran watchers are interpreting as the reproach of powerful hardliners, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who are opposed to rapprochement with the West since the end of diplomatic relations with the U.S. in 1979.
This past October, poets Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi—who are also both doctors—were jailed and sentenced to 99 lashes for shaking hands with members of the opposite sex. Both were given lengthy prison sentences, nine and 11 years, respectively. Other poets have been arrested and released without charges in recent months. Additionally, a handful of sentences for lashes and six years in prison were given to other artists, including documentary filmmaker Keywan Karimi and music producers Mehdi and Hossein Rajabian and Yousef Emadi.
Journalists have long been targets of the Islamic Republic, including Iranian American Jason Rezaian, who was imprisoned July 22, 2014, while working in Iran as a reporter for The Washington Post.
On Friday, 25 top news leaders—from The Associated Press to BuzzFeed’s top editors—signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry calling on him to work to free Rezaian by cashing in on current leverage.
“Americans are fortunate to live in a nation that respects the role of reporters and the tenets of journalism,” the letter reads, calling independent journalism a “fundamental human right.”
The same might be said of poetry.