Human Rights Advocate Nasrin Sotoudeh on Activism in the U.S. and Iran: ‘Democratic Resistance and Belief in Civil Society Always Pays Off’

“Governments can be dictatorial and autocratic,” said Nasrin Sotoudeh, who faces over 13 years in prison for her activism. “Despite this, we see them fail over and over again, and something better emerges because of humanity’s collective will.”

Nasrin Sotoudeh (right) and her husband Reza Khandan hold a button from the “I OPPOSE THE MANDATORY HIJAB” campaign.

Iranian human rights advocate Nasrin Sotoudeh and Ms. magazine have a unique relationship. Ms. has given Nasrin incredible support as she’s faced harassment, violence and imprisonment from a government that will do virtually anything to crush women’s rights and freedom of expression. Nasrin has come to love and trust Ms., and she expressed her “deep and sincere solidarity with the staff and readers” in a moving article after the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.

For most of 2023, Nasrin was home from prison on medical leave due to a heart condition that was exacerbated by COVID, which she caught while incarcerated from 2018 to 2021. Her husband, Reza Khandan, has also been free on bail after serving time in prison for supporting her work. They were threatened with reimprisonment several times, and their family bank account remained frozen as punishment for their activism. Undaunted, Nasrin continued to raise her voice on behalf of women’s rights, in opposition to Iran’s notorious use of the death penalty, and to bring support for Iran’s religious and ethnic minorities.

In addition, Nasrin and Reza participated in the “I OPPOSE THE MANDATORY HIJAB” button campaign—sponsored by Ms., The Feminist Majority Foundation, Amnesty International, RFK Human Rights and PEN America (among others)—to express solidarity with the Woman, Life, Freedom movement in Iran, and to support a woman’s right to choose what she wears, thinks and does in every country (including the United States).  

Nasrin received numerous international accolades throughout the year. She was named a Global Human Rights Defender by the U.S. State Department, was honored with Germany’s Alice Schwarzer Foundation’s Heroine Award, the Train Foundation’s Civil Courage Prize and Penn State’s Brown Democracy Medal. She used all of these forums to bring attention to at-risk individuals and the causes she supports. 

We’ve had many, many, many instances where despite the government’s inclinations, they have been forced to grant rights that otherwise they would not. … We have forced change, even in these most difficult of circumstances. Hope stays alive.

Nasrin Sotoudeh

Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh in the garden of her office on Dec. 9, 2014, in Tehran, Iran. (Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images)

On Oct. 29, Nasrin was brutally assaulted, arrested and put in prison for attending the funeral of 16-year-old Armita Garawand, who was beaten to death for not wearing a mandatory hijab. Despite her injuries, Nasrin began a hunger and medication strike and was released on bail two weeks later. 

She continues to face six and a half more years from her previous sentence, and the charges from her latest arrest could bring an additional seven years in prison. 

People gather outside the Iranian embassy in France on June 13, 2019, to support Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and demand her release. (Francois Guillot / AFP via Getty Images)

Nasrin has a remarkable ability to find meaning and purpose in difficult situations. Her recent detention gave her a chance to reconnect with two beloved friends whom she first met in 2010 in Evin Prison: Mahvash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi. Both are former members of the “Yaran” (“The Friends”), an informal leadership group for the Baha’i community. They are now serving their second 10-year prison sentence simply for peacefully practicing their faith. As Nasrin said, “Because we are all Iranians, we all suffer common pains. Our rights are systematically violated, but the rights of Baha’is are violated more than most.”

My wife Marcia Ross and I became friends with Nasrin and Reza when we made the documentary Nasrin. Despite unimaginable hardships and a 7000-mile separation, we frequently talk about life, family and work as if we’re having tea around a kitchen table. 

Nasrin is a documentary about human rights activist and political prisoner, Nasrin Sotoudeh, and of Iran’s women’s rights movement.

It’s been a turbulent, often dispiriting time in both our countries. 

I recently expressed my fears about the trajectory of the United States to Nasrin. I said in part, “We have half the country eagerly pushing for a dictatorship, they refuse to fight climate change, they are actively pushing back women’s rights, their ‘solution’ to the plague of gun violence is more guns and they want to convert this country to a so-called ‘Christian nation’ (without the values that should represent). At the same time, there are many beautiful things about America, which makes the division even more painful. I mention all that not to dimmish the craziness in Iran, but to express some shared frustration. How do you keep going? It must take a lot of willpower to move forward in a positive way in the midst of such craziness.”

Nasrin replied, “It is ridiculous, isn’t it? And people get crushed in these jokes! As for losing hope when one is confronted by injustice or officials who break the law, I have to point out that we’ve had many, many, many instances where despite the government’s inclinations, they have been forced to grant rights that otherwise they would not. So, we have obtained some of our goals, we have had triumphs, we have forced change, even in these most difficult of circumstances. Hope stays alive.

She continued, “Democratic resistance and belief in civil society always pays off in the long run. Yes, governments can be dictatorial and autocratic, and they can have all kinds of armies and weapons at their disposal. Despite this, we see them fail over and over again, and something better emerges because of humanity’s collective will. I draw strength from all these experiences. I hope you can, too.”

What will 2024 bring? That depends on if we listen to people like Nasrin Sotoudeh. 

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Jeff Kaufman produced, directed and wrote the documentaries Nasrin, Every Act Of Life, The State of Marriage, Father Joseph, The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America, Brush With Life: The Art of Being Edward Biberman and Education Under Fire, plus a number of short films for Amnesty International, programs for the Discovery Channel and the History Channel.