Iranian Human Rights Attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh Named ‘Global Human Rights Defender’ by U.S. State Department

Activists attend the birthday party of jailed lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, outside the embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran on May 31, 2019, in The Hague, Netherlands. Nasrin Sotoudeh had been sentenced in March to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for protesting the death penalty and against the obligation to wear a headscarf. (Pierre Crom / Getty Images)

Each year, the State Department awards 10 people the special designation of “Global Human Rights Defender.” This coveted award is reserved for individuals “who have demonstrated leadership and courage while promoting and defending human rights and fundamental freedoms; countering and exposing human rights abuses by governments and businesses; and rallying action to protect the environment, improve governance, and secure accountability and an end to impunity.”

Nasrin Sotoudeh—an Iranian human rights lawyer and long-time friend of Ms. magazine who has spent her career fighting for the rights of women and minorities in the Middle East—was one of the 10 recipients.

“She has represented imprisoned Iranian opposition activists and politicians following the disputed June 2009 pro-democracy protests, religious and ethnic minorities suffering persecution, as well as prisoners sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were minors,” according to the announcement. “She has been frequently imprisoned since 2010, including in solitary confinement, and in March 2019 she was sentenced to a cumulative 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for providing legal defense services to women charged with crimes for not wearing a hijab.”

Sotoudeh has spent her career fighting for the rights of women, children, religious minorities, journalists and artists, and those facing the death penalty.

Other awardees include Elaize de Souza Farias, co-founder of the independent news agency Amazônia Real, the first nonprofit investigative journalism agency based in the Amazon; Rosa Melania Reyes Velásquez, whose work focuses on stopping violence against women in Honduras; and Chhim Sithar of Cambodia, who leads the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees.

“Congratulation to Nasrin,” said Jeff Kaufman, co-producer of the documentary Nasrin. “She shines a light in these dark times.”

Nasrin Sotoudeh in Tehran, Iran. Being outside without a hijab, Sotoudeh is risking arrest. (Courtesy of Nasrin Sotoudeh)

For months, protests have been raging across Iran, triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was in custody of the morality police at the time of her death. Her alleged crime: not abiding by the country’s hijab rules.

In a letter to Ms. (excerpted below) from September 2022, Sotoudeh connected the attacks on women’s rights in the U.S. with what’s happening in Iran and the global fight for women’s rights.

In these difficult times, when the women’s movement in the United States is facing assault and the right to abortion has been radically restricted, I wish to stand by you and declare my support from our corner of the world.

Abortion rights and contraceptive rights are now recognized in dozens of countries around the world, thanks to the hard-fought struggles of countless women and men. Now, they are once again at risk. 

Especially worrisome is the fact that this threat is emerging in what has long been the most powerful heartland of the global movement for women’s rights: the United States. It is extremely sad to see your country move away from the principles of freedom and progress that (even when not fully realized) have long been such an inspiration. We should all be alarmed by what will fill the void. …

The movement for women’s rights in Iran has experienced many setbacks, but it perseveres because my country is full of people who care about fairness and justice. We continue to call for employment rights, the right to divorce, the right to abortion, the right to wear clothes freely, the right to custodianship over our children, and thousands of other rights that are now routinely violated.

I stand by you, my sisters, so that through our solidarity as women, we triumph over oppression and make the world safer and better for generations to come.

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


A current list of Ms. print and digital editors can be found on the masthead.