In January 2015, Iranian authorities released women’s rights defender Mahdieh Golrou from Tehran’s Evin Prison, after three months in detention for participating in peaceful demonstrations. Six months after Mahdieh’s release on bail, Iranian activists continue to demonstrate against the same violations she protested: restrictions on freedom of expression and academia, and the impunity afforded to perpetrators of violence against women.

Golrou was arrested for her work in defense of basic human rights, including protesting on behalf of female victims of acid attacks. She helped to stage a peaceful protest outside parliament in Tehran on October 22, 2014, to condemn violence against women, including a series of acid attacks that had taken place earlier that month in the central city of Esfahan. Following the protests, authorities began targeting journalists and human rights defenders who were investigating those attacks.

In the midst of this crackdown, security forces arrested Golrou on October 24, 2014, following a raid on her house. At the time, the charges against her were unclear. Golrou was held in solitary confinement for forty days after her arrest. In January 2015, her case was referred to Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, which is largely controlled by Judge Abdolghasem Salavati. Salavati is known for sentencing human rights defenders to lengthy prison terms – many Iranian activists call him the “judge of death.”

In addition to her work in defense of women’s rights, Golrou has also been an outspoken critic of Iran’s discriminatory education practices, which in many instances politicize access to scholarships and school admissions. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president, she was banned from continuing her education because of her activism, which included calls for greater academic freedom for professors and students. She was arrested on December 2, 2009 and sentenced to two years and four months in prison on charges of “propaganda against the state.”

In the video below, uploaded by an activist organization, known as Freedom Messenger, that advocates for regime change in Iran, Golrou discusses the importance of defending Iranian students expelled from universities because of their beliefs.

Sitting in a room of human rights activists and progressive academics, she draws a direct link between the suppression of activism – like the arrest of those protesting acid attacks – and the future of free thought and education in Iran:

Unqualified students receive scholarships to attend the best universities without passing the entrance exam. These students later become the scholars and faculty members running the institutes of higher education. Who ought to be teaching at our universities? The individuals who are sitting around this room should be our professors. All of them are qualified, but they aren’t allowed ti teach. [Prominent human rights lawyer] Nasrin Sotoudeh isn’t teaching at our law schools. Neither is Abdolfattah Soltani. [Human rights activists] Mohammad Nourizad, Dr. Maleki and Narges Mohammadedi aren’t teaching at our universities either.

Think about what’s going to happen ten years from now. Think about unqualified individuals who were my age and received scholarships. They’ll become the future faculty and scholars.

As Golrou so articulately argues, Iran’s crackdown on freedom of expression is targeting its future. Those who accept the status quo – or indeed align themselves with the government – are poised to become Iran’s future professors, leaders, and influencers, while those openly working for greater intellectual freedom are persecuted. Attacks on students and professors in Iran are not a by-product of political repression, but a tool of it.

Academic freedom is a critical part of building a free and open Iran, and must be supported by foreign and domestic leaders who want Iran’s tomorrow to look different than its present.

*Muftah cannot confirm the accuracy of the written information featured at the beginning of the video.

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