“Nasrin”: Speaking to the World From a Prison in Iran

“For the past two decades I have been researching and writing about human rights, women’s rights and feminist activism in the Middle East. I have increasingly met activists like Nasrin who pay a dear price for trying to change laws that perpetuate injustice.”

"Nasrin": Speaking to the World From a Prison in Iran
Nasrin Sotoudeh was arrested and sentenced to 38 years and 148 lashes. Her crime? Defending the rights of women and those most marginalized under the harsh laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s penal code. (Lewisiscrazy / CC BY-SA 4.0)

On September 26, 2016, Farhang Amiri—a 63-year-old Baha’i man who was much loved in his community of Yazd, Iran—was found stabbed to death outside his home.

Two brothers confessed to the murder, citing that they killed Amiri because he was an “apostate,” and they had been taught that killing apostates would send them to heaven. After their confession of murder, the brothers were arrested—but released two months later.

Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights attorney in Iran, took up Amiri’s case on behalf of his family. A new feature documentary “Nasrin” has a remarkable scene that shows Sotoudeh speaking to the killers’ father.

“How do you think Mr. Amiri’s family felt after his murder?,” she asks with cool calculation, “Put yourself in their shoes for a moment.”

Two years later, Sotoudeh herself was once again arrested and sentenced to 38 years and 148 lashes. Her crime? Defending the rights of women and those most marginalized under the harsh laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s penal code.

“Nasrin” will premiere at The Boston Globe’s film festival GlobeDocs in the first week of October, followed by dozens of screenings around the world.

In the film—narrated by Oscar winner Olivia Colman—Emmy-nominated producer, director and writer Jeff Kaufman and Emmy-nominated producer Marcia Ross chronicle Sotoudeh’s journey from journalist to lawyer to human rights and women’s rights defender.

Shot by camera crews inside Iran who quite literally risked their lives to capture the footage, the film is a powerful homage to a woman who has suffered the most extreme consequences of laws that she has worked hard to change.

“There’s a good reason Nasrin has been called ‘The Nelson Mandela of Iran,'” Kaufman told Ms. “She has the same kind of determination, resilience and vision.  One of the things that made me want tell her story is the way she has continually defended people ostracized in her society. I think that makes her a universal role model.”

"Nasrin": Speaking to the World From a Prison in Iran
Persian (Iranian) community demonstration in front of Dutch Parliament in The Hague on Dec. 15, 2012. Most of the demonstrators had Nasrin Sotoudeh photos and called for her freedom. (Persian Dutch Network)

The disconnect between releasing two self-confessed murders not two months after a murder, and the heavy sentence leveled against a human rights attorney has not escaped the attention of members of the international community who have been lobbying for Nasrin’s release for the past two years. Nor is this isolated to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

For the past two decades I have been researching and writing about human rights, women’s rights and feminist activism in the Middle East. In the course of my research, I have increasingly met activists like Nasrin who pay a dear price for trying to change laws that perpetuate injustice. I have watched as feminist activists like Shirin Ebadi, Alia El-Mahdy and Loujain al-Hathloul became arrested, incarcerated and/or exiled from their home countries.

There has never been a greater need for feminist activism across the globe. And, of course, there has never been a time where feminists pay a higher price.


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Nasrin Sotoudeh has been imprisoned in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison since June 2018. She had also been arrested and held between 2010 and 2013 under charges of conspiring against the state.

The irony? She and her family love Iran. Her work strives to make her beloved home country a better and more just place for all Iranians—including women who suffer harsh consequences for their defiance of Islamic laws.

Nasrin is (as of this writing) now in the fourth week of a hunger strike protesting Iranian authorities’ refusal to release political prisoners exposed to the rapidly spreading COVID-19. Her deteriorating health caused her to be moved to the Evin Prison hospital.

Her husband, Reza Khandan said, “Nasrin is in an extremely poor condition. Sometimes she feels so weak that she is not able to move. The prison clinic staff say she needs an injection of serum but Nasrin refuses to take it.”

"Nasrin": Speaking to the World From a Prison in Iran
Mehrangiz Kar. (Stanford)

Even though they suffer the price, feminist activists like Mehrangiz Kar, Mahnaz Afkhami, and Narges Mohammadi continue to fight—just like Nasrin.

And despite attempts to silence them, they continue their vital activism to combat the legal assault that so many face across the globe.

Kaufman and Ross have captured the heart of this activism in their new film. “Nasrin” is an engaging and immersive portrait of a highly misunderstood country, a rare profile of Iran’s women’s rights movement, and a surprisingly personal connection to a woman who has the potential to make history.

As such, their film is an important step in supporting transnational feminist networks. The fights that Nasrin and her compatriots are fighting are not isolated to Iran alone. Legal battery is a global phenomenon. And it will take global partnerships to overcome the pain this violence inflicts on so many.


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About

Pardis Mahdavi, PhD, is director of Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation. She is the former Acting Dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and previously served as professor and chair of anthropology, director of the Pacific Basin Institute and Dean of Women at Pomona College. She has authored five books, one edited volume and numerous journal and news articles and been a fellow at the Social Sciences Research Council, the American Council on Learned Societies, Google Ideas and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.