‘I am ready to return whenever they say’: Nasrin Sotoudeh on prison, the hijab, and violence in Iran

Exclusive: the human rights lawyer, temporarily released from jail on medical grounds, describes her love for her family, and why she keeps going despite brutal treatment at the hands of the regime

Iran’s Qarchak jail has been called many things: a torture chamber; the worst women’s prison in the world; unfit for humans. Nasrin Sotoudeh uses just one word to describe the nine months she spent there: “Hell.”

Sotoudeh does not speak of the appalling conditions or stench of sewage, the undrinkable water or lack of food, the disease or cruelty of solitary confinement. She simply says: “I am ready to return whenever they say.”

The lawyer and human rights advocate was three years into her sentence of 38 years, alongside 148 lashes, when it was paused on medical grounds after she was diagnosed with a heart condition in 2021.

Her temporary release means she is living at home in Tehran with her husband, Reza Khandan, and son, Nima, 16, but it has not freed her from constant government harassment. The authorities have been relentless in their efforts to silence her, bringing three new cases against her; sentencing her to a further eight years in prison; banning her from practising law and using social media; sentencing her husband to five years; freezing her bank assets; and prohibiting her daughter, Mehraveh Khandan, from leaving the country. The restriction on Khandan, 24, who is now studying art in the Netherlands, has been the only liberty infringement Sotoudeh has successfully fought.

“My family and I have faced constant legal sabotage that the judiciary system brings up against us,” says Sotoudeh, who turns 61 this month.

But it is the regime’s murderous determination to crush all dissent that pains her the most. The deaths of Mahsa Amini in September 2022, and other young women, including 16-year-old Armita Geravand, who was attacked by hijab-enforcing police on the metro, “have been the hardest thing to endure”.

Her medical leave has coincided with the government intensifying its war on women. Mass protests sparked by Amini’s death have been met with violent repression by the authorities leading to hundreds more deaths and thousands of arrests. In the past month video footage of women being forcefully bundled off the streets by the “morality police” emerged as the government ratchets up its efforts to enforce the hijab with a new campaign, named Noor (meaning light); and rapper Toomaj Salehi was sentenced to death for his support of the Women, Life, Freedom movement.

“It’s difficult to wake up one day and hear that Mahsa is dying and wake up another day and hear that she has passed away, then wake up another day and hear that Armita has died. When you see this kind of violence against your girls and women you ask: what am I supposed to do?” she says.

“That’s when I remember being a child and going to an amusement park and going into the tunnel of death and you would scream; that childhood nightmare has turned into an adulthood nightmare – that is how living for me feels like – living in that dark tunnel of death.

“For women who care about this situation the only way to cope is to go about their lives.”

Nasrin Sotoudeh adjusts her headscarf
‘If you force us to wear this half-metre of cloth, you will be able to do whatever you want to us’: Nasrin Sotoudeh at home in Tehran, September 2013. Photograph: Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA-EFE

For Sotoudeh that means continuing what she has done for three decades: publicly denouncing abuses – and refusing to wear the hijab. People say life is precious, don’t sacrifice your family life, but human rights and freedom are also precious

Sotoudeh was among 20 women arrested and beaten for attending Geravand’s funeral bare headed. She was later sentenced to eight years for the act, yet describes her 18 days in prison immediately after the arrest as “one of the greatest experiences of my life”.

“We all went in without the hijab and came out without the hijab. I didn’t even have a scarf with me, and that was amazing. I was already arrested – what were they going to do?” she says.

In prison the women spent time together reading and talking, and continue to meet. “We meet in cafes, they come to my house; what’s really remarkable is having that collective cause that brings everyone together. It’s important to cherish that sense of solidarity.”

In her early 20s Sotoudeh worked in the legal department of the state-owned Bank Tejarat, where she wrote about human rights on a freelance basis. During this time an interview with Nobel peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi prompted her decision to become a lawyer and she qualified in 1995, aged 32.

Since then she has worked tirelessly for justice for women and children, defending children on death row and child victims of domestic abuse; as well as prominent activists in court, among them Narges Hosseini, one of the women who, in 2018, removed their hijab, tied it to a stick and waved it like a flag – defiant acts captured on phones and shared on social media.

People march holding #FreeNasrin placards and flowers
Human rights activists attend a protest for Sotoudeh’s release, on her birthday outside the Iranian embassy in the Hague, Netherlands, 31 May 2019. Photograph: Pierre Crom/Getty Images

In the 2020 film, Nasrin, a documentary about her life, Sotoudeh explains why the hijab is such a potent symbol of misogyny. “Even if they told us today that all women are free to remove hijab when they go outside, it has no value to us. If you force us to wear this half-metre of cloth, you will be able to do whatever you want to us.”Iranian women violently dragged from streets by police amid hijab crackdown

One of the most moving moments in the film is seeing Reza bring their children to visit her in prison. Little Nima stands on a chair holding a red lollipop. Sotoudeh jokes with him behind the glass that separates them, as her daughter, old enough to understand the gravity of the situation, looks on in tears. “My son was very small when I was arrested for the first time – it bothered me that his first memory was me in prison. I used to tell him ‘I used to play with you and do things [before I went to prison]’, but he didn’t remember and that broke my heart,” she says.

Her grief at being parted from her children is clear in her prison letters. In one, dated September 2011, she writes to Nima, “These days I am thinking about you constantly, about how lonely you must feel and about our dear Mehraveh, who has made us proud and who is now forced to care for you and be your mother and father at the same time. I am sending you my tears of love, hoping they make the injustice of our time a little more tolerable for you.”

She has been asked on numerous occasions why she risks her family life, and her answer is the same: she can fight for what she believes in and be a mother. “People say life is precious, don’t sacrifice your family life, but human rights and freedom are also valuable and precious. So instead of sacrificing one for the other I balance them when I can.”

And her family have never doubted her. Reza shows his loyalty repeatedly in the documentary; and when prison guards handed her an ‘apology form’ to fill out and ask for forgiveness – something she would never have done – Khandan was equally adamant that she must not. “My daughter has always supported me,” says Sotoudeh, Khandan’s artwork on the wall behind her.

Sotoudeh’s activism has been recognised internationally with numerous awards including the 2019 Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) award; the 2020 Right Livelihood award and the 2023 Brown democracy medal. This year she has been shortlisted for the Aurora humanitarian award, alongside Nobel prize-winning gynaecologist Denis Mukwege from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Danish-Bahraini activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. The winner will be announced on 9 May. Sotoudeh won’t be able to attend in person.

Portrait of Sotoudeh sitting in the sun
Sotoudeh is banned from practising law while on on temporary release from prison. Photograph: Jeff Kaufman/Courtesy of Floating World Pictures

Treatment for her heart condition, which she attributes to multiple hunger strikes, is continuing, but if the state deems her well enough, she will have to return to prison to complete her sentence. In the meantime, she works as much as she can. The ban from practising law is a huge source of frustration: it limits what she can do for people, and is her passion. “I’m a lawyer, my favourite thing to do is practise law, but I don’t have a licence and even though I’ve tried so many times, the law association has refused to renew it.

“But that doesn’t mean that I’m sitting around idle,” she adds.

She has written a book on the Women, Life, Freedom movement for Penn State University and published a collection of her prison letters. She also provides consultation for political prisoners and activists and advises colleagues.

She perseveres because she believes that one day justice will prevail.

“When the hijab was made compulsory after the 1979 revolution, the majority of the people and public made it possible because they didn’t have a motivation to rally against it,” she says. “Now, 45 years later, the majority of the public is not only against it but also has the motivation to stand up and fight against it.”

This time, she adds, women also have the support of men. “Women and men are realising that every problem is rooted in misogyny and patriarchy.

“No one can predict the future, however, I have no doubt in my mind that this kind of violence and inhumanity against women is not sustainable.”

Supported bytheguardian.org

Isabel Choat

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