The Iranian artist sentenced to 12 years and nine months in prison for her satirical cartoons critical of the Iranian government was forced to repeatedly undergo virginity and pregnancy tests last year. On August 12, judicial authorities took Atena Farghadani to a medical center, where they forced her to submit to the procedures, according to Amnesty International, which condemned the act as “another stain on Iran’s shameful record of violence against women.” Farghadani had relayed the news through a letter smuggled out of the prison last October; the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has now confirmed the tests did occur in his semi-annual report on the state of human rights in Iran.
The 29-year-old was first charged last June for her drawing of members of parliament as animals in suits to protest a bill aiming to restrict access to contraception and make vasectomies illegal in the country. The purpose of the tests was to investigate another charge against Farghadani of “illegitimate sexual relations” — which consisted of shaking hands with her lawyer Mohammad Moghimi in front of prison guards while the pair met to prepare her appeal. She was sentenced for that “crime” in June of last year, and the tests were purportedly done to gather evidence for the trial, in which both Farghadani and Moghimi were acquitted on October 19. Amnesty International reports that the Tehran criminal court said the handshaking was “religiously forbidden” but was not offensive because it involved no “intention to seek sexual pleasure.”
The UN report describes that Iranian authorities “stated that prison authorities carried out tests to respond to allegations of sexual assault against her on some websites.” Virginity testing without a patient’s consent is recognized in many countries as a degrading treatment that violates human rights. The United Nations World Health Organization in 2014 urged practitioners to stop conducting the invasive tests, emphasizing that they have “no scientific validity.” The practice is outlawed in article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran has ratified.
“Forced virginity testing committed in detention is a serious violation of international law,” Amnesty International said. “It violates women and girls’ human rights to physical integrity, dignity, privacy, and right to be free from torture and cruel and inhuman and degrading treatment. Such tests are discriminatory in purpose and in effect, and there is absolutely no legitimate justification for such violence and abuse.”
Farghadani’s appeal is currently pending; if rejected, she will have to serve seven-and-a-half years of jail time for “gathering and colluding against national security.” Amnesty International, along with many others, have called for Farghadani’s immediate release as well as an independent investigation into the torture she has suffered. Since her arrest in August 2014, she has experienced regular beatings and interrogations, spent two weeks in solitary confinement, and gone on prolonged hunger strikes — one of which resulted in a heart attack last February. After her forced medical testing, she also allegedly experienced harassment from prison officials and guards who “made lewd gestures, sexual slurs, and other insults to her,” Amnesty International said in a statement. In protest, she went on a three-day hunger strike in September to no avail.
“Atena Farghadani is a prisoner of conscience,” Amnesty International said. “She has committed no internationally recognizable crime, and has been punished simply for exercising her rights to freedoms of expression, association, and assembly.”
Update, 4/25: Moghimi told the Associated Press today that an appeals court has reduced Farghadani’s sentence to 18 months and that “she will be freed soon.”