A master’s student at California State University at Northridge is being detained in Section 209 of Tehran’s Evin Prison, run by Iran's Ministry of Intelligence, according to Amnesty International. The reported arrest is the latest involving scholars whose lives span the United States and Iran.
Esha Momeni had been staying with family in Iran while researching the country’s women’s movement, conducting video interviews with individuals involved in the “One Million Signatures” campaign. The campaign aims to end “discriminatory laws” against women in Iran.
Momeni was pulled over and arrested Oct. 15 while driving on Tehran's Moddaress Highway, “on suspicion of committing a traffic offense,” according to the account from Amnesty International. In searching her family’s home, police reportedly seized her computer and interview footage. Momeni has not been charged with any offense.
“We always had some serious concerns about the research, but this was a passion for her and something that she really believed in,” said Melissa Wall, director of Momeni’s thesis committee and director of the graduate program in mass communications at Northridge. “She really is a wonderful young woman and the kind of student that we all want to have in our classes, who’s so excited and engaged with these big ideas and the world.”
Momeni had been in Iran since August. Wall said the family was told that Momeni would be released within a couple of days if they kept the arrest quiet, but in a subsequent visit to court family members were dismissed without learning any additional information. “What we’re trying to do now is get the word out about what has happened,” Wall said.
According to a short biography posted on the "Free Esha” blog, Momeni was born in Los Angeles in 1980, but grew up with her family in Iran. She earned a bachelor’s degree in graphic design at Azad University in 2002, and now is pursuing a master’s in mass communication at Northridge. An artist, she has studied traditional Iranian music and performed professionally, and has worked in animation, film, painting and photography.
Also reportedly being detained in Tehran’s Evin Prison is Mehdi Zakerian, an Iranian assistant professor of human rights arrested in August while awaiting visa clearance to come to Philadelphia and serve as a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s law school. A Penn professor has since learned that Zakerian has been charged with espionage, according to a statement Thursday from the university relations office. Human rights groups and the university have pressured for his release.
Last year, and also in Evin Prison, Iran's prolonged incarceration of Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, attracted widespread outcry from North American academics and concerns about a chilling effect on academic exchange -- which had only recently opened somewhat. In a Wilson Center publication, Esfandiari has recalled sending fruit, through the guards, to another imprisoned Iranian-American scholar, Kian Tajbakhsh. Both have since been released from prison.
The October 2007 Wilson Center publication celebrating Esfandiari’s return home notes, “Her incarceration, and the detainment of several other Iranian-American scholars, begs the broader question of what it means for the future of scholarly research and debate if such efforts might land academics in jail.”