Iranian activist Atena Farghadani went on trial today for her allegedly inflammatory depictions of Iranian parliamentarians in a cartoon she drew last year. She faces charges of “spreading propaganda” against the system, and insulting the supreme leader.
Farghadani was originally detained in August, when her political cartoon depicting Iranian lawmakers as apes and boars went viral on social media. After being held for months in Iran’s notorious Evin prison, she was released in December — only to be reapprehended for defiantly criticizing the actions of her captors via a YouTube video created after she won her freedom. The 12-minute film described brutal beatings and interrogations she endured as one of Evin’s many political prisoners.
The context in which Farghadani drew her ill-fated cartoon is illustrative of recent gender relations in the Islamic Republic. Through her work, she intended to show the backwardness of a government that had just banned voluntary sterilization procedures. Days before Farghadani’s arrest, legislators outlawed vasectomies and hysterectomies in an effort to increase the country’s birthrate.
Two years before the sterilization ban, Iran’s government also pulled the plug on its decades-long state-funded contraception program — one that was widely hailed as revolutionary in global health circles. As the University of Tehran’s Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi told the LA Times, “It confounded all conventional wisdom that it could happen in one of the world’s few Islamic republics.” Under the program, kicked off by a fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini, birth control had been available for free across the country since the 1980s. This caused the birth rate to dip more dramatically than any other period in modern history, ushering in the demographic era that is spooking lawmakers.
Now, Iran wants to drive up its birthrate once again. The shift seems to be motivated by a desire to spark economic growth by avoiding population contraction, even though study after study suggests that denying women access to contraceptives has the opposite effect on a country’s financial well-being. Indeed, Iran’s surprisingly liberal family planning policies helped women make societal gains even as certain legal rights were lost under the Islamic Republic. Limiting their number of children was a major reason that women in Iran make up the majority of modern universities. But Amnesty International argues that the new laws “reduce Iran’s women to baby-making machines.”
Not having access to birth control will undoubtedly disempower Iran’s women. This seems in-keeping with the messages relayed by other recent high-profile discriminatory policies, like banning women from sporting events and axing a women’s magazine for running a feature on non-marital cohabitation.
For many, Farghadani’s case will be offer a worrying indicator of the social standing of women in today’s Iran. But Farghadani’s progressive views — and embrace of modern attitudes and technology — make her a threat to traditionalists in the regime, she surely won’t be the last.