Iranian poet abandons appeal, flees homeland’s censorship

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By Golnaz Esfandiari, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

To get her first book of poetry past the Iranian censor, Fatemeh Ekhtesari did what other Iranian writers often have to do: She used dots for words and sentences she thought would not get past the authorities. But Ekhtesari wasn’t prepared for her voice to be silenced, so after the book was published in 2010, she wrote the words back in herself and sent copies to her friends.

Now, six years later, Ekhtesari, a 29-year-old poet who has been targeted by the country’s hard-liners for her explorations of gender discrimination and domestic violence, has fled the Islamic republic, after being sentenced last year to 11 1/2 years in prison and 99 lashes.

Iranian poet Fatemeh Ekhtesari.
Iranian poet Fatemeh Ekhtesari.

“Abandoning one’s country is very difficult. It was a tough decision,” Ekhtesari tells RFE/RL over the phone from an undisclosed location. But she says she had to leave because of a lack of hope that an appeal process would lead to her acquittal.

The sentence was pending as she was waiting for her case to be heard by an appeals court.

Ekhtesari was arrested in December 2013 by the intelligence branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) and was held in solitary confinement for 38 days in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

While incarcerated, she says she was subjected to psychological pressure and repeated interrogation about some of her poetry and contacts abroad. The charges against her included “insulting sanctities” and “spreading propaganda against the state” through her poetry.

Ekhtesari says one of her interrogators’ main objections was that one of her poems was used by exiled Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi, who has been accused of apostasy by hard-liners in Iran over a song deemed heretical.

In the music video for the song (below), a woman covered in the black chador, which Iranian hard-liners praise as the superior form of hijab, is seen running on a beach with uncovered legs. “You’re a wolf and we have to run away to a place farther than the house’s garden,” sings Najafi.