—  Human Rights  —

Shima Babaei : “I come from a country where being a woman is a crime !”

- 6 March 2024
Shima Babaei : « I was fighting for my freedom and my life. I became increasingly motivated to resist after being arrested five times for my human rights activism in Iran. » © D.R. (Geneva summit for international women’s rights award 2023)

Shima Babaei is an Iranian women's rights activist living in exile in Belgium. Latitudes met her during the inauguration of the first Iranian Afghanistan Secular Centre in Belgium, in Brussels.

Shima Babaei is an Iranian women’s rights activist living in exile in Belgium. Latitudes met her during the inauguration of the first Iranian Afghanistan Secular Centre in Belgium, in Brussels. During the event, she spoke about her life and explained how, at the age of 14, she became a victim of the ‘morality police’ for the first time.

“I decided to oppose executions after witnessing people being put to death for no apparent reason and, ultimately, I decided to oppose the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic after realising that the government condemned innocents to death following public protests. I was even more motivated to continue the fight after my fifth arrest for human rights activism,” she explained sadly.

No room for freedom

She argued that in the country she comes from, “being a woman is a crime. It is forbidden to practice journalism, have a viewpoint contrary to that of the leaders, protest, participate in a demonstration, and advocate for human rights all these activities, just like being homosexual, are crimes. There is no room for freedom in my country due to the numerous limitations and deprivations.”

Babaei explained: “I made a video of myself with my scarf on my shoulder and shared it on my social media pages. I announced that I was not afraid of being arrested or threatened, and I said ‘no’ to the and the Islamic Republic. My father, who was with me and supported me, was beaten in front of my eyes. We were both arrested, and he was sentenced to 74 lashes, while I was sentenced to prison and a fine.”

For Shima Babaei, the clothes she wore every day when leaving her house were not ordinary clothes but “war clothes”, and outside the house was a battlefield. “I seized every opportunity to walk without the compulsory hijab in the streets and shared my photos on social media. It didn’t take long for them to come after me. When I went to the morality police building, I was 22, and I was interrogated in the same building where Mahsa Amini, another 22-year-old Iranian, was killed sometime later.”

“I fought to live and be free.”

On 12 December 2023, the European Parliament honored Jina Mahsa Amini and the Iranian Woman, Life, Freedom Movement at an award ceremony in Strasbourg. After being detained by Iran’s morality police in September 2022, Amini died while held captive for reportedly donning her hijab incorrectly. Her death triggered nationwide protests calling for more women’s rights.

The penalties for these crimes include arrest, stoning, whipping, imprisonment, and ultimately execution. Rape and torture in prison are systematic. In such a situation, “fighting was not my choice, but it was my duty,” she said. “These torturers wanted to exert immense pressure on you to make you give up and be unable to live. But I fought to live and be free.”

Energy and hope

Shima Babaei spoke about her life with a sad expression but with a lot of energy and hope for a better future. The last time she left prison, she was expelled from the university. In addition to being prohibited from leaving the country, she was sentenced to six years in prison and was not allowed to work. But, she said, “I was fighting for my freedom and my life. I became increasingly motivated to resist after being arrested five times for my human rights activism.”

She told Latitudes, “It has been exactly 25 months since I heard from my father for the last time. You are probably wondering why. Because my father, Ebrahim Babaei, a former political prisoner, was kidnapped by the Islamic Republic as he left Iran and forced to disappear. For days, unknown individuals posing as smugglers called me and told me that my father was dead, and I had to go to a village on the border between Iran and Turkey to retrieve his body. All this while there was nobody, and he was still alive and in detention.

“I wrote to him about how much I missed him!”

“The lawyer we chose in Turkey began the investigation and found that the allegation about my father’s death was a hoax to make me go to the Iranian border.” Shima Babaei added that the last time her father spoke to her on the phone was 25 months ago. “Dad was very nervous and spoke softly. There were about 25 people, and they were locked in a barn, but he expressed his joy at the thought of being able to hug me soon. He promised to call me once it was clear that they had crossed the border.”

After trying to call his number many times for 25 months, she fervently hoped to hear his voice just one more time. “I wrote to him about how much I missed him and described all the events that had happened since his disappearance, hoping that one day he could read and understand how cold, dark, and terrifying the days were without him.”

Arrested, kidnapped, disappeared

But she never heard from her father again. Today, after 25 months of family searches and efforts, Shima finally found a witness who was with her father at the detention centre during the early days of his arrest. He testified that during the days when she was informed of her father’s death, he was actually alive and imprisoned.

Ebrahim is one of the hundreds of Iranian dissidents and human rights defenders who have been arrested, kidnapped, and disappeared over the last four decades.

“Our sisters are fighting in Iran and Afghanistan, and we want you to know the conditions they are fighting in and the challenges they face to make their voices heard in the free world. Remember that saving one person is saving all the people on the planet. Therefore, do not neglect the pain of these women and do everything in your power to support civil society in Iran and Afghanistan,” Shima appealed.

She and her husband Dariush Zand, another activist, were charged with “gathering and collusion against national security, propaganda against the state, and spreading false information on social media.” Faced with an imminent six-year prison sentence, the couple fled Iran at the end of 2018.