A Canadian academic researching women's issues in the Middle East has been arrested and is being held in Iran's Evin prison — a jail with a brutal history of violence toward its female inmates.
Initially hesitant to go public, the family of Concordia University professor Dr. Homa Hoodfar is now speaking out, saying they fear for her safety and health.
On March 10, while Hoodfar was visiting family and friends in Iran after the recent death of her husband, security officials raided her home and confiscated personal items including her computer and books, according to her niece Amanda Ghahremani. The raid happened only two days before the anthropologist was meant to return to Canada.
The Counter-Intelligence Unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards interrogated her several times over the next few days, arrested her and released her on bail, Ghahremani said in an interview with VICE News. Her passport was confiscated and she wasn't allowed to leave the country.
The interrogations continued, and on June 6 — the last day her family had contact with her — she was arrested again. Her lawyer has had no access to her since then, and Iranian officials are not letting him view her file, so it's not clear whether she is facing charges or not.
"We don't know what's going on since Monday," Ghahremani said Thursday. "We don't know where exactly in Evin prison she's being held. We don't know if she's in solitary confinement. We're very concerned for her well-being and for her health."
Hoodfar, 65, has a rare neurological illness, Myasthenia Gravis, which requires medication, and she was struck by a mild stroke last year. "She is very frail physically," her niece said.
"We assume there are some political nature to the charges given where she's been detained and who was involved in the detention, but we haven't been given any information, and we don't understand. We're all quite baffled by what's going on because Homa is an academic, she's a professor, she is not an activist, she is not political. So we're very confused as to why she is in these circumstances."
VICE News reached out to Global Affairs Canada for comment Wednesday but has yet to hear back. Ghahremani said she had been in touch with consular officials but that Canadian officials have "very limited resources" in being able to help her aunt because there's no Canadian embassy in Iran and no Iranian embassy in Canada.
'We're all quite baffled by what's going on because Homa is an academic, she's a professor, she is not an activist, she is not political.'
"It's unfortunate that the lack of a diplomatic relationship has caused us so much trouble and I encourage an opening of dialogue between the two countries," she said.
She said officials "have not been very transparent" with her about what measures they are taking to secure her aunt's release.
The jail where the professor is being held has been nicknamed Evin University due to its high population of academics and political prisoners in custody.
Her story has reminded her family of the case of another female intellectual who was held at the jail.
In 2003, Iranian-Canadian freelance photographer Zahra Kazemi was detained in the Evin jail, where she was allegedly raped and tortured before she died. Kazemi also documented women's issues in her work.
"Of course many people will be reminded of Zahra Kazemi's case, which was a very unfortunate and difficult situation to hear about, so we all have that in the back of our minds," her niece said.
In another well-documented case, Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari spent 118 days in the notorious prison, where he was tortured. He was in Iran covering the 2009 election, which saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared the president, prompting mass protests from Iranians who viewed the election results as a fraud.
Hoodfar, who also holds Iranian and Irish citizenship, was in Iran during the recent elections, but she was not involved in any political actions, Ghahremani said. While in Iran, she visited the parliamentary library to research the history of women's public life in the country. In general, her area of research focused on how to improve the daily lives of Muslim women across the Middle East.
She studied the role of the veil in Muslim society, and was critical of ideas in Western feminism that the veil was automatically an oppressive garment, her niece said.
If her research made her a target it was due to a misinterpretation of her work, she said.
"We need to act now for Homa, we need to act quickly," her niece said
Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont