The Ms. Q&A: Activist and Artist Parastou Forouhar Is Fighting for the “Iran That Could Have Been”

Activist and Artist Parastou Forouhar Is Fighting for the "Iran That Could Have Been"
Parastou Forouhar’s art serves as a criticism of the Iranian government: “I chose art as the way of my challenge with life, my way of expression.” (Courtesy of Forouhar)

Artist and activist Parastou Forouhar knows what it’s like to have one foot in the past and one foot in the future.

Forouhar was born and raised in Iran, but in 1991, under threat of persecution due to her family’s dissident views and her status as an artist and woman, she opted to leave Iran and immigrate to Germany, where she still lives and works. Currently she is a professor of fine arts at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, and her work has been exhibited around the world. 

Forouhar is also an activist and advocate for political prisoners in Iran. Her parents, who had been critical of the Iranian regime, were brutally murdered by state agents in 1998. Since then, she has worked to seek justice for these political crimes and is actively engaged in the fight for human rights in Iran.

In fact, Forouhar’s art and activism comes from her deep sense of duty to her home country and people. She continues to speak out for what she calls the “democratic cohort” in Iran—”so that the regime in Iran knows that these people are not alone. They are heard, they are supported.”

In advance of next Monday’s panel, journalist and professor Dr. Pardis Mahdavi, whose work also explores resistance to the Iranian regime, sat down with Forouhar to talk about the role of art and activism in the context of Iran’s complex history—and her hope for the country’s democratic future.

(To hear more from Parastou Forouhar and the other Iranian women leading the feminist resistance, join Ms. Monday, Dec. 21 at 3 p.m. ET / 12 p.m. PT for a conversation about Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh with: Margaret Atwood; Nicholas Kristof; Nasrin’s husband, Reza Khandan; PEN America’s Karin Deutsch Karlekar; human rights advocate Kerry KennedyParastou Forouhar; and Nasrin filmmakers Jeff Kaufman and Marcia Ross. RSVP here!)


Pardis Mahdavi: Can you tell us all a little bit about how your experiences growing up in Iran in the midst of revolution and war? How did it all impact you, not just as an artist but as an activist artist? How your experiences inform your “art as activism,” as Angela Davis would say?

Parastou Forouhar: So you know, back then in the time of the revolution, I was a teenager actually.

Now we are confronted with the results of what has happened and it is horriblebut back then there was a hope in the air. There was a kind of courage, moral courage of the society to change everything for better, to build the democratic foundation for a just society. And still, when I think back, a nostalgia of that time that comes upbut it is also an illusion.

I come from a secular family, a family of dissidents, and I don’t know if their hopes were just illusion, or if they could have become real.

Now, looking back, I’m not sure about that, but I know that the kind of hope and courage, actually, that was in the air at that time and after a while, things got worse and worse.

The horrible time was, actually, about one-and-a-half years after the revolution. There was a lot of violence in the street, and everybody who did not conform with the system was put in jail or had to escape the country. 

So, my father was put in jail. I used to live with my grandmother, who was very worried, and my mother, who was angry at everything, so it was really a very harsh time—and then there were the executions of the dissidents. You know, I was only 19 and every day we had the newspaper, there was the list of the names of the people who were executed that same day. So that was how my youth actually began. 

That was a huge disappointment—not only [in] the revolution but also of politics, because everything was about politics, so at that time I decided to go in another direction from my family. The whole life we had was based on my parents fight for democracy, so I just went, somehow, another way. I chose art as the way of my challenge with life, my way of expression.  

Mahdavi: And you know, I think one of the most interesting things about artists in Iran—whether it’s filmmakers or artists such as yourself—is that so many people were pushed into the underground, so you had this rich underground scene of art and artist activists.

One of the things I think about often is something that Abbas Kiarostami said, which was the thought that censorship was the best thing for Iranian cinema because he said it actually made his art better. It made their art better because they had to find the loopholes and it made it richer.

Do you agree that in some ways it made your work richer, or do you feel like being pushed into the underground was sort of a stifling experience—or maybe both?

Activist and Artist Parastou Forouhar Is Fighting for the "Iran That Could Have Been"
Forouhar. (Courtesy)

Forouhar: You know, that’s a sentence that has been repeated and repeated a lot among the artists in Iran, but I really don’t agree with that.

If the artists were able to do something against a censorship it is not because of the censorship—it is because of their challenge. It is because of their power and their will to do something against it. The censorship is not the reason. 

The reason is the mind of the artists trying to find ways to be free, to express themselves in a free way. And you’re right—this kind of underground, very small groups, was very important in the ‘80s. That was exactly the time that I used to go to university. You know, the universities were closed because of the so-called cultural revolution, which was a horrible thing because a lot of university professors were …

Activist and Artist Parastou Forouhar Is Fighting for the "Iran That Could Have Been"
“These underground groups, were the most important places where we could exchange, we could have dialogue, and we could have some kind of idea of being free,” Forouhar told Ms. “The cultural life of Iran was kept alive in very small cells.” (Courtesy of Forouhar)

Mahdavi: […] ending up in Evin Prison, in Tehran.

Forouhar: Exactly. And there was some kind of Islamization of the universities, which was horrible.

But after the universities opened again, I decided to study art. I studied art for about six years in art academy of Tehran University, and that was a strange time. But you could find small groups of people who would think like you, and these small groups actually rescued us. We used to gather to read books, and a friend of ours could find films—forbidden films—and we used to see these films in these very small groups together, talk to each other.

Or as an artist, drawing naked bodies was forbidden in the university, so we used to do it in very small, three, four young people coming together drawing each other. 

So, these kind of groups, underground groups, were the most important places where we could exchange, we could have dialogue, and we could have some kind of idea of being free. The cultural life of Iran was kept alive in these very small cells.

I left Iran in ’91—after the war, a little bit of opening was happening and then I left. I left because I felt that I could not experience things that I want in life, as a woman, as an artist, as a member of a dissident family. We were always watched by the secret service, by the police, and everything was forbidden for everybody, but for us, it was even more difficult. I settled in Germany and then started, after a while, to study art. 

Of course, it was a real cultural shock because modern art, contemporary art as it happens in Europe, I didn’t know that at all. I came from a very closed society and I had to understand it. After I started to study my postgraduate study, I became a member of an artist collective in Germany for five years, and working together, living together with artists, actually, that is the best way to immigrate, to find yourself in a new society.


If artists were able to do something against censorship it is not because of the censorship—it is because of their challenge. It is because of their power and their will to do something against it.”


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Mahdavi: It’s funny, your story and my story sort of weave together in a part in so many ways. I’m a child of the revolution, of course, and my parents were also activists. We came to the United States, and then I started going back in 1999. And my books have been about the underground-underground movements, feminist movements, sexual revolutions. 

I think it’s so interesting what you say about the underground as this space of rescue. I think the underground has been so vital for so many people—and yet it has been so dangerous, because as the underground grows, it threatens the regime more, and more, and more. And that’s why then people like me become a threat to the regime, people like Nasrin become a threat to the regime. 

People like you. Anybody who’s bridging from the underground into the mainstream because we know the underground has the power to shake the very foundation on which this regime came to power. Suddenly we become a threat. 

So you and I both share what I was saying, we both share this pain of exile, right, and we’ve come to experience a different kind of restricted movement—not the same that Nasrin has being in Evin, but we both have a different kind of pain through exile.

And yet you remain fiercely committed to the struggle of human rights in Iran, even as you’re an exile. So, how does that pain of exile affect you as an artist and as an activist?

Activist and Artist Parastou Forouhar Is Fighting for the "Iran That Could Have Been"
“It is a desire to have an Iran that is a free Iran … that I can go to without thinking of such horrible situations about human rights, about women’s rights, about the hunger of the people, about the environment,” Forouhar told Ms. “It is about the future of this country.” (Courtesy of Forouhar)

Forouhar: I don’t know, actually, if it is pain of exile. It is just a desire to have an Iran that is a free Iran. It is an Iran that I can go to without thinking of such horrible situations about human rights, about women’s rights, about the hunger of the people, about the environment. I think it is about the future of this country and not about my pain of exile. 

I live in Germany. I’m mostly not Iranian, I’m not German. I am an immigrant more than both of these. The most important experience in my life is actually just being the other here—but also there.

My utopia, my hope for Iran is that it becomes a society that the others, the people who are dissidents in any way, that they have the right to live in this country a safe and free life. So, that is my idea of Iran, that is my hope for the future.

Mahdavi: Imagined Iran. The love of the imagined Iran, or the Iran that could have been.

Forouhar: Yes. And I think that in many ways it has got the capacity to become that … to go towards this idea, to move. The regime is actually like a burden, like a wall stopping this movement, and of course everything that empowered this kind of change would …

Mahdavi: The regime that is trying to block this sort of resistance. 

Forouhar: Exactly. 

Mahdavi: I like that metaphor of the image of the wall, because I also see this resistance as like a tidal wave of water, and it’s finding the cracks and sort of trying to open up more cracks in that wall. And it’s led by feminists. It’s a tidal wave of resistance, and the more cracks this tidal wave exposes the more threatened the regime gets. And so they crack down harder—which is a vicious cycle in a sense. 

Forouhar: Yes, and that is why they are acting that violently, actually. The only answer that they have for the resistance of the people is violence.

Looking at the last time I was in Iran, that was last November, as I went to the 21st anniversary of the murder of my parents, and at the same time, there was this huge uprising of the society against the regime. That was the most powerful resistance during the last years because it happened in more than 100 cities in Iran. 

Mahdavi: Yeah, and in the most rural areas. I mean, that’s what I thought was so remarkable, you know. 

Forouhar: You know, I was there during the uprising as the regime broke down the internet—and not only internet but also, in some areas, the cell phones were also cut—so Iran was some kind of isolated cell. Nobody could know what was happening there from abroad, and we who were there, we couldn’t express ourselves.  there was no news going on about what the regime was doing.  

Reuters, later, published the number of the people being killed: 1,500—that is just during 10 days of uprising. So, that shows that they do not have an answer besides violence, and that is the situation which makes it so sad and also helpless. And that is the moment that I think we, as Iranians in exile, the disparate Iranians, have got a responsibility to mobilize support and solidarity for the people in Iran to bring visibility for what they are doing for the people—like human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh—who are sitting in a cell because they are just human right activists. There are a lot of them.

Mahdavi: Oh, absolutely. 

Forouhar: You know, in the last 10 days, 12 days there have been more arrests. They have executed a blogger [Ruhollah Zam], a man who had only a telegram channel. That was the only thing that he had done, and they have executed him. He has got two small daughters. That is the situation.

Another new case: They have sentenced two women‘s right activists, who have only organized workshops to inform women about their rights, according to the labor law and divorce lawone for eight years, the other one for seven years.

There are a lot of activists sitting in this horrible prison now, and the COVID-19 pandemic has spread a lot in Iranian prisons, and they need solidarity and support. 

We have to talk about them. We have to name them, and we have to mobilize actions in the democratic cohort so that the regime in Iran knows that these people are not alone. They are heard, they are supported from the democratic countries and people, societies. 


“There are a lot of activists sitting in this horrible prison now, and COVID-19 has spread a lot in Iranian prisons, and they need solidarity and support. We have to talk about them. We have to name them, and we have to mobilize actions in the democratic cohort so that the regime in Iran knows that these people are not alone—they are heard, they are supported from the democratic countries and people, societies.”


Mahdavi: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I think that’s our job, actually, it’s our job to bring the visibility. I love what you’re saying. 

On that note, you recently had a meeting with federal president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is a foreign and security policy advisor to [Germany’s] Chancellor Angela Merkel. What was discussed with him and what was the reception that you felt, in terms of bringing visibility to these atrocious human rights violations in Iran in Germany?

Forouhar: I must say that was a visit of a group of four German Iranians—all of them from the section of culture, all of them well-known in Germany, and that was on Human Rights Day, so that is very important that the German chancellor accepted us to meet him.

We talked about the situation of the political prisoners in Iran—especially, of course, Nasrin Sotoudeh, as some kind of a well-known face of Iranian political prisoners. We gathered names of political prisoners, a list of hundreds of names, and we gave him this list so that these people are visible, are there with their own names and what they have done. 

If you had looked at this list—they were labor right activists, women’s right activists, supporters of some dissident organizations. It is really ridiculous that these people are imprisoned, and I think that the German chancellor had organized such a meeting shows that there’s some kind of openness there about the issue of human rights in Iran—so that was the positive thing. 

And we just tried to do our best to give him all information that we had gathered about the horrible situation—especially about the situation in prisons in this time of COVID—and ask for support and solidarity for the prisoners, especially to try to force that they come to relieve during this pandemic time so that they can be safe.

I’m not sure how successful that would be, but that is what we can do. We can just raise the voice for supporting the prison

Mahdavi: Thinking about the future, if we think about where this is going … we’ve talked about the human rights situation deteriorating, the regime being very violent, and yet we’ve talked about the huge force of uprising pushing back against the regime.

When we think about the real heartbreaking situations of Nasrin Sotoudeh, and others who are in Evin prison, and many as you said. I mean, I remember a time when Evin was “Evin University,” because there were so many professors locked up in there, when I was teaching at Tehran University briefly.

One of the things you said that really resonated with me is that those of us in the diaspora have a duty to speak up, and also I think one of the powers of what we saw in 2009, the Sabs movement, the Green movement, was that it also started to make transnational connections, and it inspired, in many ways, the Arab Spring.

So in terms of thinking about the future of these movements, what’s the role of transnational organizing? What is the role of these transnational networks in really trying to pushback and carve out a space for human rights in Iran?

Forouhar: One thing that I want to point out is also to show that Iran has got many faces, and many of them are liberals who want democracy, who want human rights for their country, because sometimes this cliché image of Iran just an angry man shouting, and…

Mahdavi: Or burning the American flag or something like that. 

Forouhar: Yeah, burning the flag. That is not…

Mahdavi: That’s not Iran. 

Activist and Artist Parastou Forouhar Is Fighting for the "Iran That Could Have Been"
Iranian human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh has fought for the rights of women, children, religious minorities, journalists and artists, and those facing the death penalty. (Image courtesy of NASRIN film)

Forouhar: That is something that has been, for a long time, dominating the media in the west countries, and I think that one of the things that we can do is to show the other faces of Iran. Faces like Nasrin Sotoudeh, or other activists standing and raising their voices for democracy, and justice, and human rights—giving them visibility, and organizing support for them.

I think we have to try to show Iran in the whole diversity of this country—different parts of it, different religions, different ethnics, different ideas, and that they have the desire to live in a democratic situation altogether. This regime is just like that wall—it doesn’t let it happen, and the people in Iran need support and solidarity to make it happen, to push the regime back. 

I don’t know how change can happen, but the only thing that I know is that we have, exactly like the many people who are sitting now in prison and trying not to lose their hope, we have to believe in them and keep this belief and try to support them, empower them. That’s the only way. 

Mahdavi: Ms. and PEN America are hosting a panel discussion on the Nasrin feature documentary with you, Nick Kristof, Kerry Kennedy and the filmmakers. What does the Nasrin film mean about art and activism? 

Forouhar: The Nasrin film is not just about Nasrin. Nasrin is one of the prominent faces of a movement for human rights and women’s rights, in Iran and beyond. When I spoke with her last, she wanted us to focus attention on the fate of Ahmad-Reza Jalali, a dual Iranian-Swedish citizen. It was another execution she was trying to stop. The film is an example of art and activism coming together. It is part of Nasrin and our struggle to focus the world’s attention on the women’s and human rights situation in Iran. The more people see it, the greater the visibility of Iran’s political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.

You can learn more about Nasrin and the effort to document her struggle here.

RSVP for Monday’s panel discussion about her important role in the larger fight for human rights in Iran (feat. Parastou Forouhar, Margaret Atwood and more) here.

And head here to watch the documentary NASRIN online through a theater near you.


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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.