Interview
23 May 2018

The anger of Iran's women is growing

Following a wave of arrests in early 2018, people have stopped going out into the streets, but rage still simmers within.

Wysokie Obcasy
Ludwika Włodek Wysokie Obcasy, Global
The anger of  Iran's women is growing - NewsMavens
Nasrin Sotoudeh in her house in Tehran, Iran, on September 18, 2013. Iran freed Nasrin Sotoudeh along with 10 other political prisoners in a surprise move. Photo by Farzaneh Khademian/ABACAPRESS.COM/ EAST NEWS

--The following are fragments translated from Ludwika Włodek's interview with Nasrin Sotoudeh, which appeared in Polish on February 10, 2018, in the weekly "Wysokie Obcasy".

Nasrin Sotoudeh (b. 1963) is an Iranian attorney and human rights advocate. In 2010, she was charged with spreading propaganda threatening public safety. In 2011, she was sentenced to an eleven-year term, shortened upon appeal to six years. In 2012, the European Parliament honored her with the Sakharov Prize, in recognition of her struggle for human rights.

Ludwika Włodek: At the end of December, a wave of protests swept Iran. Residents of the capital, large cities, and small towns were protesting. Tens of thousands of people went into the streets. What is the situation now?

Nasrin Sotoudeh: At the beginning of the protests almost four thousand people were arrested. In addition, we’ve had very disturbing news about these arrests. At least two have died in custody. The first was Sina Ghanbari, who is said to have hanged himself in a prison washroom on January 6. The second was Saru Ghahremani. He left home for the demonstration on January 1 and then disappeared. His body was returned to his family on January 12. The authorities in Sanandaj, the town where he lived in Western Iran, explained that he was a dangerous terrorist and had died during an attempt to apprehend him.

Protests have settled for the moment, but rage still simmers within. It is like a glowing coal under a layer of ash. It just needs one good puff of air to burst into flames with renewed strength. 

The reasons why Iranians have taken to the streets have not changed.

The Iranian economy is still riddled with corruption, and inflation is as high as it was before.

LW: Were there as many women in these most recent demonstrations as there were in 2009, when millions of Iranians protested against fraud in the presidential elections?

It seems to me that there are about as many women now, but I do not have precise data. Many women spoke out during these demonstrations. You surely saw the poignant film clip with the woman shouting at the police, “What do you want to do with me?!” There were many scenes like this. Women’s dissatisfaction has been growing for a long time.

Women’s anger is the oldest and most deeply rooted of all factors behind the most recent demonstrations.

LW: What is the cause of this growing anger among women? In the West we mainly get information about the headscarf, but Iranian women are probably dissatisfied about things other than the hijab.

The obligation to wear the hijab is in fact one of the main elements of this dissatisfaction. One might say that the headscarf is trivial -- who cares whether we cover our heads or not? However, for many Iranian women, the hijab is an important reason to protest.

If I can’t even decide what I have on my head, how can I decide what I have in my head?

I see this every day working as an attorney and defending women in family matters. In this regard it is significantly worse than ten years ago, when there was an active feminist movement.

LW: Since that time have there been changes in the law that have been detrimental to women, or have attitudes toward this aspect of justice simply changed?

The latter. When the authorities managed to weaken the women’s rights movement, and when voices engaged in it were silenced, the attitude of the courts changed. The judges are also men, so it’s no surprise that, if no one is pushing them or if there is no public pressure, they are passing judgment without taking the women's side.

The question of women’s rights in the family looks particularly bad. I know, because most of the cases I’ve taken recently have been in the area of family law. The law permits a woman to apply for divorce for certain particular reasons. A woman must prove, for instance, that her husband treats her very poorly, and that her marriage situation is truly difficult. So, the woman tells the judge what she’s going through, but it’s up to the judge to decide whether the situation is in fact difficult, and in general the judge decides, rather, that it is not. He sends the woman home without granting her a divorce, trivializing everything she has told the court. Her nightmare continues, and she must endure further abuse and beatings. When the women’s movement was strong and active, it was easier to convince a judge to accept the woman’s version of the story and grant a divorce.

LW: Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel Prize winner and your senior legal colleague has said that respect for human rights in Iran has gotten worse and worse. Meanwhile, President Hassan Ruhani is in his second term and has promised liberalization. Have these promises not amounted to anything in reality?

In my opinion, not at all. I say this on the basis of the situation in the judiciary, which as an attorney and advocate I know best.

It gets worse from day to day. The judiciary gets more and more corrupt, to the point where every client who visits me in the office starts out by asking whether I am friends with a judge. People have gotten used to the idea that if they don’t know someone, nothing can be done. The courts are controlled by the secret police. Citizens are surrounded by various types of secret service. This police-state atmosphere created in recent years has led to the rapid suppression of protests.

LW: What can the world do to help Iranians?

All citizens' movements depend on the support of public opinion, including foreign opinion. Support for these initiatives is necessary and in accordance with international law.

Dictators call such support “interference in internal affairs,” but this is nonsense. It is legal and is not to be equated with spying or foreign intervention. Support for people fighting for freedom makes sense.

LW: What will happen next in Iran?

I am most disturbed by the fate of those who have been arrested and their families' situations. This time the demonstrations took place over the entire country, even in small towns. Yesterday, I received a call from Hamadan. I learned that some of those arrested in Asadabad, a small town near Hamadan, were accused of muḥārib. This is a term from Islamic law, which means literally “fighting against God and his prophet.” The penalty for this is very serious, including the death penalty. This is a great injustice. These people were detained in the course of the protests, and even Iranian law allows for peaceful protest. How could they be charged with a crime associated with the most dangerous bandits or terrorists?

I am afraid that the rights of many of those detained will be drastically violated. Sina Ghanbari's suicide while in custody, mentioned earlier, is evidence of this. Even if that is really what happened, someone must have put this young person into such a situation that he wanted to kill himself. He thought there was no other way out. This puts the burden on the authorities that put him into custody.

Relatives of the detainees with whom I’ve spoken tell me that detainees are advised not to take attorneys. Interrogators explain to them that it will only worsen their situation, and they ask their families to remain silent. I try to convince the families of those who are arrested that this is not true. Silence is the worst thing for these detainees. I cannot agree with it. It is rather the opposite -- they must publicize the cases of their family members, and get attorneys. Otherwise the detainees are in danger of very grave penalties. Only now, before the trials have begun and the verdicts have been handed down, can the family offer any help. That is why publicity about these cases is key.

***

Interpreter Ivonna Nowicka assisted with the original interview conducted via Skype.

-- Translated from the Polish by David A. Goldfarb

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