Iranian activist and physician Farhad Meysami marked the 50th day of his hunger strike, causing alarm among activists and social media users about his health.
Meysami was arrested July 31 by the Intelligence Ministry for creating and distributing buttons expressing opposition to mandatory veiling. Meysami has been accused of having badges saying he was against the compulsory hijab, of “collusion and conspiracy to threaten national security”, “disseminating propaganda against the establishment” and “insulting the hijab, an essential sacrament of Islam”. He has also been charged with “provoking women to appear without hijab in the street”.
Initially, Meysami spent 16 days in solitary confinement before being transferred to a quarantine area for three more days, thereafter moving to the public area of Evin. After the period in solitary confinement, where he began his hunger strike, Meysami has since been held in section 209 of Tehran’s Evin Prison, which is run by the ministry. The buttons he produced stated, “I am not in favor of compulsory veiling,” and “I am against compulsory hijab.” They became a popular symbol among Iranians opposed to and protesting the country’s laws on the practice.
Compulsory veiling became a hotly contested issue in Iran when in December last year women began taking off their head coverings in public and holding them aloft, often on sticks, in protest. That these protests happened to coincide with the start of nationwide demonstrations over the poor economic situation increased their significance.
Meysami’s buttons thus became a matter of concern to the Intelligence Ministry. According to Reza Khandan, husband of the well-known activist Nasrin Sotoudeh, ministry officials interrogated everyone who had had contact with Meysami on Instagram and had inquired about the buttons. Khandan said that Sotoudeh, currently imprisoned for her activism, wore her button during her court appearances. Also according to Khandan, Meysami does not have a lawyer, because he refused to select one from among those approved and appointed by the judiciary.
Sedighe Pishnamaz, Meysami’s mother, told the US-based Center for Human Rights in Iran that her son’s cellmates have been able to contact her and have updated her on his condition. Meysami has reportedly refused to be transferred to a hospital because of prison officials’ insistence that he be transferred to the hospital in a prison uniform and handcuffs.
Meysami is a biology teacher and a well-known instructor for college entrance exams. He has been active in campaigning for human rights and against mandatory veiling. When authorities raided his home after his arrest, they reportedly confiscated books about nonviolent protest in addition to the buttons against veiling.
Pictures of Meysami went viral on Twitter to mark his 50th day of refusing food, with many tweets including comparisons of how prisoners are treated differently for various crimes in the Islamic Republic. One user noted that Saeed Mortazavi — a former judge guilty of corruption while at the Social Security Organization and responsible for the torture and deaths at Kahrizak prison of protesters arrested after the 2009 elections — is currently free, on temporary release, while Mesyami is fighting for his life. One of the accompanying photographs was of Mortazavi participating in a recent Muharram procession.
During the holy month of Muharram, this year Sept. 11 through Oct. 9, Shiites honor the third Shiite imam, Hussein, who rose up against injustice and was killed. The irony has not been lost on social media users that a government that constantly emphasizes the sacrifice of Hussein cannot see the current injustice under its leadership whereby those loyal are rarely punished while those who rebel are harshly punished. One Twitter user noted about the authorities in Iran, “They cannot even sustain the facade of [Mortazavi’s] prison sentence.” Other social media users tweeted with the hashtag #FreeFarhad to raise awareness about Meysami’s arrest and ongoing detention.