Human rights

Why don’t Canadians care about Homa Hoodfar?

Scholar languishing in Iranian jail for “dabbling in feminism and other security matters”
Screen capture via CBC

It’s been almost 100 days since 67-year-old retired anthropology professor Homa Hoodfar was imprisoned in Iran on questionable charges. Her “crimes” basically consist of research on women’s rights under Islam.

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A renowned anthropologist and professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal prior to her retirement, she has published widely on gender, Islamic family law, refugees, Muslim dress codes, and women’s political participation. She is best known for researching Western stereotypes about Muslim women and remains one of the most respected scholars working in the field of Middle Eastern women’s studies.

In early 2016, a year after her husband’s death from a lethal brain tumour, Hoodfar travelled to Iran to reconnect with her family and her country, and to find solace in the familiar during her grieving process.

Jailed for ‘dabbling in feminism’

The following description of her case is drawn from the website Free Homa:

In February 2016, Professor Homa Hoodfar travelled to Iran to visit her family and took the opportunity to do some historical research in the parliamentary archives. In early March, before her scheduled departure from Iran, security forces from the Counter Intelligence Unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard invaded her place of residence and confiscated all her personal belongings, including her passports, research documents, and computer...

On 6 June 2016, Professor Hoodfar was imprisoned in Tehran’s Evin prison, without any indication of the reasons or charges for which the authorities were detaining her. Her lawyer and family have not been allowed to see her, and her lawyer has been denied access to her file.

On 24 June 2016, the Tehran Public Prosecutor announced that she was being investigated for “dabbling in feminism and security matters.”

Hoodfar was recently transferred from Evin Prison to a hospital due to her rapidly deteriorating health. This is a 67-year-old woman who suffered a stroke last year and also has a chronic illness that requires specialized medical care and access to medication.

Her family recently issued a statement, revealing that Hoodfar is “disoriented, severely weakened and is having difficulty walking and talking.”

So why does it seem like we have all but forgotten her? Her case is largely absent from our consciousness, with the odd exception of people posting the occasional link to an Amnesty International petition, feminist columnists questioning this silence, or her Concordia colleagues calling for her immediate release. We, the Canadian public, seem to be content to let this play out. Is it a sense of helplessness? Or a feeling that we’re dealing with a totalitarian regime? What in the world was she thinking in going over there anyway, didn’t she know this would happen, and why is this now our problem?

Hoodfar is not the cause of her own misfortune

I’ve seen the comments on multiple threads, and they’re not always gracious. The victim-blaming is prevalent and unfair. The subtle racism and indifference to a non-Western name is also there, simmering under the surface, unsaid, unspoken, but present. The implication for many is that “she’s not truly one of us” anyways. Would it help, I wonder, if the prisoner’s name was Sophie or Sue instead? Would some of us feel more empathy, more invested? The discourse has been eerily similar in the case of Raif Badawi, a blogger and activist who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for setting up a website in Saudi Arabia. He remains in prison.

Both are prisoners of conscience. Research and activism, and the peaceful exercise of one’s freedom of expression and association, are not crimes. On the contrary, they are often cited as the cornerstones of this country’s identity and the freedoms we hold dear. It’s what distinguishes us from “them” after all.

So, given what we know and what we stand for, shouldn’t we be standing up and decrying this injustice? Oddly, too many of us seem to be just as comfortable to, instead, chastise the victim for taking risky chances, daring to be loud and obstinate, and defying those governments in defence of freedom and democracy. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, a double standard that doesn’t make us look all that principled after all.

I recognize the complexity of such situations and the delicate diplomacy that is often required to deal with regimes that don’t adhere to similar notions of freedom of expression and association. While Hoodfar is both a citizen of Canada and Iran, the Iranian government does not recognize dual nationality and treats detainees only as Iranian, essentially depriving them of access to consulates. Canada cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 2012, making advocacy even harder. It’s complicated and I get that.

But when we talk about Canadian values, when Conservatives leadership candidate Kellie Leitch conveniently points fingers and talks about screening would-be-immigrants and refugees for “anti-Canadian values” do she and the rest of us have the convictions to point those fingers back at ourselves, and are we ready to support the people who defend these lofty values abroad? Or are we just pretending that they matter when political points need to be scored or they serve as a convenient sieve to sift out those we want and those we don’t?

There’s a Canadian citizen sitting in jail right now for the simple act of researching gender equality and that should be the object of outrage and concern for all Canadians, but somehow it isn’t. What does that say about us?

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