Tavaana's exclusive Profiles in Courage provide in-depth looks at the lives of Iran's most prominent activists and civil society leaders. In this installment, meet Bahareh Hedayat - one of Iran's most prominent student activists and a courageous young woman who has been imprisoned since 2009 for daring to stand up for Iranian women's rights.
Snapshot of activism
Bahareh Hedayat is a student and women's rights activist who has investigated the expulsions and human rights abuses suffered by Iran’s university students, helped organize protests on behalf of colleagues and faculty members, and addressed international conferences on issues facing the country's student population. Hedayat came to prominence in Iran after being elected to the leadership of Daftar-e Tahkim Vahdat ("the Office for Strengthening Unity"), a major pro-reform Iranian student organization. Through her activities with that organization, Hedayat has been deeply involved in students’ and women’s rights issues for the last decade, making her a well-known dissident. As an advocate for gender equality, Hedayat has been an important part of the “One Million Signatures Demanding Changes to Discriminatory Laws” campaign, which petitions the Iranian regime to reform its legal system and end institutionalized discrimination against women. Hedayat is currently serving a ten-year sentence in Tehran's Evin prison.
Hedayat has been arrested five times since becoming an activist. In June 2006, she took part in a pro-women’s rights protest in Tehran’s Haft-e-Tir Square that later led to the One Million Signatures movement. Security forces responded to the rally with force and arrested Hedayat, who received a two-year suspended sentence for unlawful assembly. In July 2007, she was arrested during a sit-in in front of Amir Kabir University, spending one month in solitary confinement before being released on bail. After a third arrest in 2008, she was arrested for a fourth time while taking part in a peaceful assembly of the families of political prisoners at Evin prison in March 2009.
In the unrest that followed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election, Hedayat already had a prominent profile in the student movement, making her a prime target for the government’s crackdown. In spite of attempts by the Iranian authorities to prevent activists from communicating with an international audience, Hedayat delivered powerful videotaped addresses to gatherings in Europe in November and December 2009. As a result of these messages and her participation in protests, the Iranian judiciary convicted her of propaganda against the regime, insulting the President and the Supreme Leader, and acting against national security. In 2010, Hedayat was sentenced to nine and a half years in prison (later extended to ten). She remains imprisoned today.
Hedayat was born in Tehran on April 5, 1981, and holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tehran’s School of Economics. She began attending the university in 2001 and quickly became active in student organizations. As part of her work with Daftar-e Tahkim Vahdat (the Office for Strengthening Unity), Hedayat helped found the group’s Women's Commission in 2005 and served as its First Secretary. While serving as chair of the Women’s Commission, Hedayat was elected to the Tahkim Vahdat’s Central Committee in 2008, becoming the only woman serving in the organization’s key leadership at that time. In addition to advocating for students’ and women’s issues and investigating human rights abuses, her responsibilities with Tahkim Vahdat included acting as the group’s spokesperson and managing its public relations. She remains part of the organization today.
As Hedayat has doggedly pursued her work as an activist, government reprisals have led to suffering in her personal life. A few months after her wedding to fellow activist Amin Ahmadian, Hedayat was arrested on July 13, 2008, and spent a month in solitary confinement before being released. Since being sent to prison in December 2009, she has written several letters to both her husband and the student movement at large. For National Student Day in 2010, she offered them these words of encouragement: "We have been pressured and pummeled but have neither broken nor bent. We have stood firmly, but with anxious and broken hearts, we have witnessed the plunder and despotic destruction of a flower for which we and our predecessors have toiled and labored to see its growth and flourishing." After attending the funeral of Iranian activist Ezzatollah Sahabi, during which Sahabi’s daughter was killed and many others beaten by security forces, Amin himself was arrested, though soon released, in June 2011.
Over the course of her activism, Hedayat has fought both for Iranian women and against the persecution of the country's academic community. In 2003, she joined the movement against the death sentence of reformist professor Hashem Aghajari, who had been convicted by hardliners in the judiciary for remarks allegedly disparaging of Islam. Aghajari, who had been arrested in August of 2002, was sentenced to death in November of that year in a closed trial. The sentence, widely seen as a hard-line reaction against the reformist President Mohammad Khatami's agenda, touched off the largest demonstrations Iran has seen since July 1999's brutally suppressed student protests. Thousands of students gathered on Tehran's campuses to protest the death sentence, demanding Aghajari’s release and clashing with hard-line militias. As Hedayat later described the protests: “The students, with their widespread and peaceful protests on the campus, were able to force the government to suspend the verdict. In that protest, we broke no glass, set no cars on fire, blocked no roads. We just cancelled a day of our classes and organized a number of protests on campus.”
Two years later, Hedayat formed Tahkim Vahdat's Women's Commission with the goal of promoting female participation in student groups. She also took on a pronounced role in the One Million Signatures campaign, with her first arrest coming at the 2006 protest that inspired the movement. One Million Signatures has been a leading emblem of the struggle for Iranian women’s rights, but as Hedayat said in September 2006: “It is essential to note that ‘gathering one million signatures’ is not a goal in and of itself, but instead a program for collective participation, reciprocal communication, and raising public awareness and sensitivity, as well as democratic practice for women’s activists. At the same time, gathering one million signatures aims for a reform of current circumstances, not necessarily fundamental changes like a referendum or a discussion of whether such a thing would be proper or not.”
In her videotaped address to students at Delft University in the Netherlands for Iran’s National Student Day in December 2009, Hedayat set forth the demands of her fellow students in Iran’s post-election crisis: “What the students are asking for is, in fact, what all Iranians are asking for. We are asking for freedom of speech and academic freedom. We want independent teachers to teach at the universities. We want everybody to express his or her ideas freely and not be prosecuted or punished after expressing them... We want the people’s private lives to be respected. We want the systematic elimination of intellectuals and dissidents to stop. We want to reduce gender discrimination in universities and in society. We want elections not to be used only for preserving the international prestige of the rulers. We want the real representatives of the people to freely become candidates and be elected. We want the fairness of elections to be guaranteed.”
While Hedayat had earned a reputation as a dissident inside Iran before her imprisonment, her circumstances in the aftermath of the 2009 election have drawn considerable international attention and made her one of Iran’s most prominent political prisoners. In April 2011, for example, to celebrate her birthday and draw attention to her plight, Iranian activists launched the "Happy Birthday Bahareh" campaign for her, during which her supporters uploaded video greetings and messages of support online and signed a petition calling for her release. The campaign drew international attention and the participation of groups like Amnesty International.
In 2010, the European Students' Union nominated Hedayat for its Student Peace Prize. When she was arrested in 2009, one of the charges leveled against her by the Iranian judiciary stemmed from a videotaped address she had delivered to that organization in November 2009. The Union’s rationale for nominating Hedayat was the following: “Being an active female student union leader, with the oppressive environment the Iranian society is facing at the moment, is in itself an extraordinary challenge. But expanding the student union’s work, making visible the hardship of Iranian students and establishing a link to European organizations without fear for the consequences, shows a great personal dedication to the rights of students, women’s rights and human rights as a cornerstone of every society on the planet.” The Prize ultimately went to Croatian activist Duško Kostić.
In April 2012, Hedayat was awarded the inaugural Edelstam Prize by Sweden's Harold Edelstam Foundation for her role as an activist in the Iranian student and women's rights movements. The Foundation explained its decision by stating, "Mrs. Bahareh Hedayat has, through her outstanding courage and commitment to justice, actively worked against the violation of human rights in Iran. Despite serious warnings and threats from the regime's security and intelligence forces, she has repeatedly risked her life and freedom when defending human rights." In addition to former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, former UN High Commissioner for Human Righters Louise Arbour, and Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, the jury that awarded Hedayat this honor included Iranian lawyer and 2003 Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi.
Where is she now?
Hedayat has been an inmate in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison for nearly five years. On December 31, 2009, Hedayat was arrested at her home in Tehran. According to her husband, the couple had decided she would go to Mashhad in order to avoid the crackdown in Tehran. The security forces, however, already had their home under surveillance without their knowledge. When they attempted to leave, they were stopped and led back, after which the authorities spent three hours searching through their belongings before taking Hedayat away.
On February 19, 2010, Tehran Prosecutor Jafar Dolatzabadi indicted Hedayat on 16 counts of propaganda against the regime, taking part in protests, communicating with foreign press, insulting both President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and acting against national security. At that point, Hedayat was being held in Ward 209 of Evin Prison, where she was held in solitary confinement. After two months of interrogation, she was transferred to the women's section of Evin in March 2010. On May 21, she was sentenced to nine and a half years in prison by the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, with two years coming from her previous suspended sentence.
On Student Day on December 7, 2010, Hedayat, along with fellow activists Majid Tavakoli and Mahdieh Golroo, wrote letters to their fellow students. In a joint message from Hedayat and Majid Tavakoli, the two encouraged other members of the student movement to make use of the freedom of expression that existed abroad to advance their struggle at home: “Authoritarians do everything in their power to silence the voice of opposition and critics and violently pressure social and political activists in Iran. In the meantime, those whose hearts are with Iran and its people and are capable of doing something about it, should raise awareness and sensitivity of the international community for the continuous and constant human rights violations in Iran, specifically the violation of academic freedom in universities and the limitation of independent students and professors. International sensitivity and the power of public opinion can help reduce the repression inside Iran.”
In a separate letter, Hedayat offered words of encouragement for other students: “Although they have [placed] a wall between us, I am still with my schoolmates. By their side, hand in hand, we sing the same songs and raise our fists in the air to shout that the love between us may not be stymied by any obstacles. Sadness and loneliness have no place in my heart because our empathy for each other is unchanged.” In response to the letter, the Iranian judiciary leveled new charges against all three, accusing them of “propaganda against the regime.” After being found guilty, six more months were added to Hedayat’s sentence, making it a full ten years.
Hedayat has faced significant hardships in prison. In November of 2010, she was transferred to Evin’s “Methadone Ward” and placed alongside drug addicts and other criminals. Although she developed gallstones while imprisoned there and required surgery, Iranian authorities refused to grant medical furlough for several months, prompting her loved ones to claim she was receiving inadequate treatment. That December, Hedayat and Mehdieh Golroo went on hunger strike to protest their lack of visitation rights as inmates in the Methadone Ward, leading Hedayat to be transferred to the prison infirmary. Hedayat has been denied regular visits from her husband and those close to her, who have been kept from seeing her in person for months at a time. In December 2010, Amin claimed that he was only allowed to meet with his wife for 20 minutes a week through a glass booth.
After not being granted any furloughs for the first year and a half of her imprisonment, Hedayat was finally allowed to temporarily leave prison for four days in July 2011. She received further medical furloughs in July 2012, January 2013, and September 2013, as her imprisonment had caused serious kidney and gallbladder issues. In an interview in January 2014, Amin Ahmadian reported that “Bahareh suffers from chronic reproductive system problems, and the doctors believe that if her treatment is delayed she may not be able to have children in the future.” Her temporary release in January 2013 proved to be the longest; authorities allowed her to remain out of prison until late May, when she and several other political prisoners were made to return in the run-up to the 2013 presidential election. Other furloughs, by contrast, have lasted only a few days. Even during her respites from detention, Hedayat was subjected to strict conditions, including no interviews and no visits. Furthermore, her release in January 2013 was only granted after her family posted 700,000,000 toman ($200,000 USD) bail.
Despite her ongoing imprisonment, she remains hopeful for the future: “These perpetual, sad and cold days and nights will surely end… There is no doubt in my mind that [we have a] bright future; we will breathe in a free country while celebrating our liberty together. We must believe in this and stand up like before, informed and hopeful.”
Bahareh Hedayat recorded Student Day address (in Persian with English subtitles)
Free Bahareh Hedayat Facebook Page (in English)
Edelstam Foundation Announcement of Bahareh's Prize (in English)
Bahareh's letter from prison (April 2012) (English)
Joint Letter from Bahareh Hedayat and Majid Tavakoli (in English)
One Million Signatures Campaign Website (in English/Persian)
One Million Signatures Bahareh Hedayat Timeline (in English)
Bahareh Hedayat’s Wikipedia Page (in English)
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