Women in the West are increasingly being targeted by jihadists for persecution and murder, noted the British historian Gavin Mortimer in a recent piece in the Spectator. The radical Islamists are doing this, Mortimer said, "because in their minds [females] represent empowerment and enlightenment, and also immodesty."
Women in Muslim-majority countries are all too familiar with this attitude. Subjected to the dictates of the strictest interpretation of Islam at the hands of their patriarchal societies, they live as second-class citizens across the Middle East. Those who dare to go against the grain in any fashion -- even by belonging to another religion -- meet cruel fates.
Azita Rafizadeh, for instance, a wife and mother (and not related to the author), is serving a four-year sentence in Iran's notorious Evin Prison for "acting against national security" and "membership in an illegal Baha'i institute." The way she is being treated gives a glimpse into the severe oppression under which a non-Muslim woman is forced to live in a state governed by Islamic law, Sharia.
Born in 1980 to a Baha'i family in Shiraz, Rafizadeh was not allowed by the Iranian regime to attend university. She got around this restriction by attending programs offered at the Bahai Institute of Higher Education (BIHE), an underground university established in 1987 by Iran's minority Baha'i community for its young members, who are discriminated against by the government because of their faith.
After completing a BA in computer engineering, she married Payman Koushk-Baghi, a fellow Baha'i whom she met at the BIHE. Together, the couple continued their education in India, and returned to Iran in 2008 with teaching jobs at the BIHE. The following year, Rafizadeh gave birth to a son. In the spring of 2010, she and her husband were arrested -- and their computers and books confiscated -- as part of a crackdown by regime intelligence services on BIHE teachers.
Azita Rafizadeh and her husband, Payman Koushk-Baghi, holding their son, Bashir, in a photo taken before their imprisonment.
When she was brought before a judge, Rafizadeh refused to enter a plea deal according to which she would not be sent to prison if she guaranteed that would never work for the BIHE again. She refused. Ultimately, both she and her husband were incarcerated, leaving their young son to be forced to live with another family.
To make matters worse, to punish her further, in October 2016, Iranian authorities transferred her husband to a different prison, and have denied the couple most of their visitation rights.
Due to the Islamist regime in Iran, a leading state sponsor of global terrorism, Rafizadeh had two obstacles to contend with throughout her life: being a female and a Baha'i. A third hurdle, for which she is paying dearly -- as her health has deteriorated seriously in jail -- is her refusal to compromise on her ideals and values. She could have remained abroad after leaving to further her education, but she chose instead to return to Iran to help others in her predicament. She could have had a far easier life in another country, where she would be free to practice her faith proudly and in peace. Yet she opted for a difficult existence, putting herself in danger for a humanitarian cause. For this she is being punished beyond all reason, other than that which Islamists employ to justify their behavior towards "infidels."
Her Islamist jailers -- the figurative ones of the regime and the literal ones at Evin Prison -- are not only keeping her behind bars under unspeakable conditions, with no access to medicine or clean water, but also engage in psychological torture to break her spirit.
In spite of her depression and ill health, Rafizadeh is among a group of fellow women prisoners who remain defiant and attempt to call attention to the human rights abuses they are enduring, particularly the removal of their husbands and male relatives, and the new restrictions Iran has imposed to keep families severed. In an open letter penned in August, they demanded the resumption of family visits and the lifting of the ban on medicine.
There is much that we the West -- and feminists -- can learn from her tale and from women in Iran and other Islamist states. For one thing, freedom cannot be taken for granted. For another, liberal attitudes towards Muslim fundamentalism serve only to imperil the free world. This has been true historically; many lands now ruled by Islamists, including Iran, were far more open as societies before they were taken over by Sharia. The contrast is on full display today.
Anyone who ignores the plight of women such as Rafizadeh -- or who makes excuses for radical Islam -- is effectively emboldening the extremists and enabling them to export their repressive ideology to the West. As Mortimer concluded in his Spectator piece, the "biggest battle [that] lies ahead" is not merely for women's rights; it is "against an ideology that regards female empowerment as an evil that must be eradicated."
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is president of the International American Council on the Middle East. He is a Harvard-educated and Iranian-American political scientist, businessman, and author of "Peaceful Reformation in Iran's Islam". He can be reached at Dr.Rafizadeh@Post.Harvard.Edu.