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Fatemeh Ekhtesari

Fatemeh EkhtesariFatemeh Ekhtesari, born in 1986 in Karaj, Iran is an Iranian poet author and cultural activist. Ekhtesari lived in Karaj where she wrote in Persian.

In 2013 she appeared at the poetry festival in Gothenburg (Göteborgs poesifestival).

But after she returned to Iran she was arrested, imprisoned and later released on bail.

A guilty verdict came in 2015 when she was sentenced to 99 lashes and 11 1/2 years imprisonment for crimes against the Iranian regime, for immoral behaviour and blasphemy.

Ekhtesari belongs in the literary movement called "postmodern ghasel", which stems from the older way to write poems called ghasel, but which reflects on contemporary society.

Her first collection of poems called Yek bahse feministi ghabl az pokhtane sibzaminiha was published in 2010.

It was later retracted and the publication ended when it was discovered that she had filled in censored words by hand before the publication of her work.

Rakhs roye sime khardar, her second book, was still waiting on approval to be published by the Iranian government as of October 2015.

She was also the chief editor of the postmodern magazine Hamin Farad Bud - which has since been cancelled.

Fatemeh EkhtesariEkhtesari participated in a project called En motståndsrörelse på mitt skrivbord where six Persian and six Swedish poets met in person - documented by the magazine Kritiker in 2013.

In 2013 she was about to travel to Turkey together with poet Mehdi Moosavi when both wwere arrested and imprisoned at the Evin prison in Tehran.

At the same time her Facebook account was hacked and her internet blog was closed.

On January 13, 2014, Svenska PEN (the Swedish PEN), Sveriges Författarförbund (The Swedish Writers' Union) and Göteborgs poesifestival lodged a complaint to demand the release of Ekhtesari and other Iranian prisoners.

The protest took place outside Iran's embassy in Lidingö. Amazingly, on January 14, 2014, Ekthesari and Mehdi Moosavi were both released on bail.

On October 12, 2015, the sentence against Ekhtesari was handed down. She was to be lashed 99 times and to serve 11.5 years in prison.

Ekthesari and Moosavi had both been sentenced for crimes against the Iranian regime, for immoral behaviour and blasphemy.

In Ekhtesari's case, her sentence includes seven years for "insulting the sacred", three years for the claimed publication of indecent photos online and eighteen months for spreading propaganda critical of the Iranian regime.

Fatemeh EkhtesariThe 99 lashes were punishment for having "illicit relations".

To get her first book of poetry past the Iranian censors, Fatemeh Ekhtesari had done what other Iranian writers often must 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 the 29-year-old poet who had 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 Tehran's Evin prison and 99 lashes.

"Abandoning one's country is very difficult. It was a tough decision," said Ekhtesari.

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.

Fatemeh EkhtesariWhile 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, 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.

"It’s a love poem - a rebellious one that was published in my book, and Najafi turned it into a song," she says.

"In the eyes of the IRGC interrogators, anyone who cooperates with an individual accused of 'insulting sanctities' is also 'insulting sanctities.' This was what they based the charge against me on."

She said the lashing sentence was due to her shaking hands with members of the opposite sex who were not relatives and appearing without the compulsory hijab while on a trip to Sweden.

Fatemeh EkhtesariShe also said the IRGC found pictures of her trip on her laptop, which was seized after her arrest.

According to Ekhtesari, she escaped from Iran last month with fellow poet Mehdi Musavi, who was sentenced at the same time in October 2015 to nine years in prison and lashes for some of his poems.

The two describe themselves as "postmodern Ghasel" poets, a reference to a traditional form of poetry comprising a series of couplets.

Ekhtesari declined to discuss details of their "difficult escape." But, both Ekhtesari and Musavi applied for political asylum at a location that they don't want to make public because of safety concerns.

Ekhtesari says she felt she didn't have any choice but to flee the country she loves so she could continue her work without being harassed, jailed, and forced into self-censorship.

"I used to say I have to be in Iran, I need to be in close contact with my audience. I need to see their problems and feel their pain.

But I was forced to flee. I was forced to leave behind the people that I love, the people for whom I've been writing poetry," she says.

Ever since Iran's more moderate President Hassan Rohani came to power in 2013, there has been a growing standoff between reformists and powerful hard-liners that are in charge of key institutions, including the IRGC and the judiciary.

Fatemeh EkhtesariThe struggle has intensified ahead of this year's February 26 elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with electing and removing Iran's supreme leader.

Under Rohani, who has promised to give Iranians more rights and freedom, Ekhtesari says there has been slightly more cultural freedom.

Two of her books that had been banned for several years were allowed to be published following Rohani's election.

But hard-liners, who oppose liberalizing society and politics, have in recent months hit back by canceling concerts and handing poets, filmmakers, and others stiff prison sentences.

"Several parallel political bodies are making decisions for Iran," says Ekhtesari.

One of her books that was published with permission from the Culture Ministry was later removed from Tehran's Book Fair, reportedly after criticism from hard-liners.

Ekhtesari believes the prison and lashing sentences against her and Musavi are part of an attempt by hard-liners to instill fear in Iran's intellectual community.

"They're warning poets and writers to watch out. The authorities are telling them this could happen to them as well," Ekhtesari says.

She says such moves result in increased self-censorship among intellectuals.

"Self-censorship was among the reasons I left Iran," she says. "I was becoming afraid of writing. I feared that anything I write would be used by IRGC interrogators against me."

Fatemeh EkhtesariEven though their sentences were appealed, Ekhtesari and Mousavi chose to leave the country on the 8th of December 2015. As they were without legal travel documents, they left the country illegally, partly on foot, and have been living in Turkey as refugees until ICORN and the city of Lillehammer were able to relocate them to Norway in January, where they were granted permanent residence.

"I know we are safe here and can enjoy our freedom after so long", said Ekhtesari.

"I believe this is a new beginning. I feel like I was born again and my wounds remind me that I am still alive and passionate to continue my poetic life."

The Programme Director at ICORN, Elisabeth Dyvik, who has worked intensively with their case, said:

"We are excited and grateful that they have safely arrived in Lillehammer. Fatemeh and Mehdi's trial has been of great concern to human rights organisations and individuals around the world.

Their court case drew a lot of international attention, especially because they were sentenced to lashing, a cruel and inhumane practice."

"We would like to thank all organisations and individuals who have assisted them, both with advocacy and other support, and who have gotten in touch with us trying to find a safe place for them."

"Temporary or other relocation proved very difficult because Iranian authorities had confiscated their passports, and they had no international travel documents."

We look very much forward to working with them.

Fatemeh EkhtesariBoth Ekhtesari and Mousavi already met with the Mayor of Lillehammer, Espen Granberg Johnsen, who commented:

"Lillehammer has a long literary tradition, and the region's two Nobel Prize winners, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Sigrid Undset, were front-runners internationally for the right to freedom of expression."

"We are proud to welcome the ICORN writers, Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi, in Lillehammer, and will give them the protection needed as well as facilitate for their professional opportunities and activities during their stay."

"I had the pleasure to meet them already, and they will be an enrichment to our local community."

"I would like to commend the great work of our partners in this affiliation as city of refuge; the Nansen School and Peace Centre, Lillehammer University College, the Norwegian Festival of Literature and Lillehammer Museums."

Ekhtesari is also a midwife, and she writes about labours, pregnancies and abortions. The rapper Shahin Najafi, whose music has been banned in Iran, has used some of Ekhtesari's poems in his songs.


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