(New York, NY) — Women’s rights advocate and PEN America Member Masih Alinejad, based in New York, and other leading activists based in the U.S. who are speaking out on behalf of women’s rights in Iran have faced an ongoing campaign of retaliation by the Iranian government. This includes a recent series of threats to their safety and that of their families, apparently from individuals who are linked to or within the Iranian government. PEN America regards these threats against writers and activists living in the U.S. as a contemptible assault on freedom of expression and on these individuals’ right to live free from fear.

In one of several videos posted on social media targeting Alinejad, a cleric implies that she should be killed for encouraging young women in Iran to ride bikes, and compares her to author and former PEN America president Salman Rushdie, against whom Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa in 1989 calling for Rushdie’s murder after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. Alinejad’s family in Iran has also been targeted in retaliatory actions related to her activism. In September 2019, Islamic Republic Intelligence Ministry agents arrested Alireza Alinejad, her brother, and Hadi and Leila Lotfi, her ex-husband’s brother and sister. Hadi and Leila were released, but Alireza’s “temporary” detention has now entered its tenth month; on June 22, he was brought into court only to be told his hearing had been postponed yet again.

“Masih and her fellow activists are astonishingly courageous in their determination to write and speak about women’s rights in Iran despite the ongoing threats they face—even in exile,” said Summer Lopez, PEN America’s senior director of free expression programs. “Their cases raise the alarm that the Iranian government is extending the reach of its oppression to those living outside the country. These attacks are a direct threat to freedom of expression everywhere, as they are clearly meant to tell Iranians that no matter where you are, it is never safe to speak your mind. But Masih and all those who face such threats do not stand alone. PEN America calls on Iranian leaders and their proxies to cease these threats against Masih, other activists, and their families, and to respect the freedom of expression of those who live in exile as well as those who live within Iran’s borders.” 

Alinejad is a well-known journalist and author based in New York who currently works as a presenter and producer for the Voice of America Persian service. A staunch advocate for women’s rights, she has received widespread attention for founding the “White Wednesdays” online campaign, calling for an end to policies requiring women to wear the hijab. This campaign has won Alinejad the admiration of women and girls in Iran and internationally, but also the ire of Iran’s government. In July 2019, Iranian officials said sending images to the campaign could result in sentences of up to ten years in prison.

The Iranian government’s attempt to silence vocal writers and advocates for women’s rights is just one more example of an ongoing crackdown on writers, activists, journalists, and free expression in the country. PEN America’s inaugural 2019 Freedom to Write Index found that Iran was one of several countries where women detained in connection were  disproportionately likely to have been vocal on issues of women’s rights. In May 2019, Iranian writer, human rights lawyer, and 2011 PEN/Freedom to Write Award honoree Nasrin Sotoudeh was sentenced to an egregious total of 38 years in prison and 148 lashes on spurious charges. Prominent journalist and human rights defender Narges Mohammadi has long suffered persecution by authorities, and was arrested in March 2015 after making a viral speech about conditions at Evin Prison. She is currently serving a 16-year sentence.