A 65-year-old Irish citizen has been held in Iran’s dreaded Evin prison for three months now. She is gravely ill and her family says the Irish Government is not doing enough to help, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

Dr Homa Hoodfar is a world-renowned Iranian-born academic who now lives in Canada. She holds joint Canadian and Iranian citizenship. She is also an Irish citizen because she was married to an Irish man. According to her family, “she has close connections with the Irish communities in the UK, especially in London and Manchester. When she was studying for her MA and PhD, many of her colleagues were Irish and she developed a deep bond with the Irish community.”

Dr Hoodfar is professor emerita of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal and for the past thirty years she has worked to build bridges of understanding between the West and the Middle-East. Her academic work is internationally-respected and focuses primarily on women’s democratic and human rights in Muslim societies.

Homa Hoodfar had travelled to Iran this February to visit relatives when – two days before she was due to fly out of Tehran – her family home was raided by the Revolutionary Guard. The Guard, a powerful branch of Iran’s military, seized Dr Hoodfar’s computers and passports. She was released on bail and prohibited from leaving Iran. While on bail, she was interrogated at least five times and in June she was summoned to the Evin prison.

She has been imprisoned since then and has not been formally charged, although in July a prosecutor accused her of being a revolutionary and of ‘dabbling in feminism’. Last week she was admitted to hospital but she has since been returned to solitary confinement. She suffers from myasthenia gravis, a rare neurological disorder which requires regular medication and makes it hard for her to walk or talk.

An important factor in Homa’s arrest appears be that – in the words of her friend and fellow academic Ziba Mir-Hosseini – “Homa has become a pawn in a power struggle between Iran’s hardliners and moderates.”

February’s elections strengthened the position of the moderate President Hassan Rouhani and seventeen women were elected to parliament. “In Tehran the result was an absolute victory for the reformists and conservatives in coalition with Rouhani’s government,” said Mir-Hosseini.

However, State media, security services and the armed forces – including the Revolutionary Guard – remain under the control of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khameni. Since the elections, arrests of dual-nationality citizens have become frequent and appear designed to intimidate moderates and advocates of women’s rights and to undermine the government.

Given that Homa is an Irish citizen, what is Ireland doing to help her?

I rang the Department of Foreign Affairs and – in a subsequent email – asked whether “given that Professor Homa Hoodfar is a 65-year-old Irish citizen who is in ill health and who has been held for three months in Tehran in solitary confinement for the alleged crime of ‘dabbling in feminism’ – the Department of Foreign Affairs has made any intervention with the Iranian government on her behalf, or whether Minister Flanagan has spoken with the Iranian ambassador.”

I received a single-sentence reply:

“The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is actively working on the case.”

Dr Hoodfar’s family is certainly unimpressed by the Department of Foreign Affairs. Her niece, Amanda Ghahremani, has accused the Irish Government of not doing enough to secure her release.

“Unfortunately, they have not been pro-active in engaging with Iran on this,” Ms Ghahremani told The Times Ireland Edition last week. “Steps have not been taken through diplomatic channels. She is an Irish citizen at the end of the day and they have a duty to her.”

Iran does not recognise dual citizenship but Ms Ghahremani told The Times that this does not absolve the Irish Government of responsibility to protect Dr Hoodfar.

“Her imprisonment is illegal by Iranian law, never mind human rights and international obligations. She has had no access to her lawyer, no access to her family, she has been kept in solitary confinement and has not been offered the chance to post bail – these are all supposed to be available under Iran’s own law.”

Dr Hoodfar’s colleague in Concordia, the Irish academic and journalist Emer O’Toole, tells me she is surprised that I got any reply at all from the Department of Foreign Affairs, seeing as she and many of her colleagues have yet to receive a reply to their letters.

Conspiracy theories abound as to the real reason Dr Hoodfar was arrested, with some suggesting that she is being used as a pawn in a diplomatic row over an alleged multi-billion-dollar embezzlement scandal. Iran is seeking the extradition from Canada of the Canadian-Iranian former banker Mahmoud Reza Khavari, who is accused of masterminding a $2.6 billion money-laundering and embezzlement scheme during the rule of Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

It seems certain, though, that Homa’s arrest is part too of a broader campaign by Iran’s religious hardliners to suppress any and all movement toward greater rights for Iranian women.

“One of the saddest aspects of the whole thing, for me,” says Emer O’Toole, “is that Homa has dedicated so much of her professional career to blowing limited Western stereotypes of Muslim women out of the water – her work is not anti-Iran or anti-Islam.”

At the time of going to press – pretty much right now if you’re reading this column as it’s posted – there’s a protest going on outside the Iranian Embassy in Dublin. Academics from fields of learning adjacent to Homa’s have gathered in their robes outside 72 Mount Merrion Avenue. Their hope is to remind the Iranian government that it needs to respect academic freedom and to ask Iran to free Homa.

It certainly wouldn’t hurt if the rest of us got involved too.

If you would like to help a fellow Irish citizen, please write to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan TD, Iveagh House, 80 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2. Here’s a template you might find helpful.

With Irish politicians, a letter in the post usually works better than an email, but if you’d like, the Minister’s email address is mailto:charles.flanagan@oir.ie.

Either way, don’t expect to get a reply any time in a hurry.