The Ms. Q&A with Nasrin Sotoudeh: The Iranian Activist on Global Solidarity, Her Time in Prison and Being an Optimist  

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

Nasrin Sotoudeh is an Iranian human rights lawyer and activist who has consistently fought for the rights of women, children, religious minorities and others under persecution in Iran. Over the years, Sotoudeh has spent much of her time in prison, having been arrested for protesting Iran’s mandatory hijab law and resisting authoritarian rule. While in custody in 2022, Sotoudeh wrote to Ms. editors detailing the plight of women in Iran and called for global solidarity around women’s rights. 

I spoke with Nasrin and her husband Reza Khandan last month over a Zoom call—arranged by Jeff Kaufman and Marcia Ross, producers of the award-winning documentary Nasrin (streaming on YouTube and Prime Video).

A transcript of the interview is below, edited for clarity. 

Kathy Spillar: Thank you for talking with me today, and thank you both, for everything that you’re doing in the fight for women’s fundamental rights in Iran. It’s inspiring, and we are so honored to be able to cover these issues in Ms

Nasrin Sotoudeh: Thank you so much, dear Kathy. I know how extraordinary your solidarity with us has been over the years during my arrests. It’s very meaningful to be in touch with you. I’m deeply cognizant of what Ms. [and the] Feminist Majority Foundation have done for us.

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

Spillar: The work that you’re doing is so critical and we know the horrific conditions that you suffer through when you’re in prison. I want you to know that in addition to covering the Woman, Life, Freedom revolution in Iran, we are also working with a coalition here in the U.S, with Iranian and Afghan women pushing the U.N. to define gender apartheid as a crime against humanity.

Beyond working with the coalition here in the U.S., how can we be of greater help? 

Sotoudeh: It’s really important to move forward in a systematic way to make gender apartheid a crime against humanity.

But we women in Afghanistan and Iran are profoundly aware that this is a struggle that we need to wage and win at home. And we certainly learn an enormous amount from what you’re doing on the outside, internationally. What’s taking place in Iran right now is an attempt to reverse the clock and take things back to the conditions before Mahsa [Amini].

Spillar: What are the conditions currently like in Iran? 

Sotoudeh: Just recently, my phone was ringing off the hook because more than 80 women were arrested in Tehran for not being veiled. The arrests were very aggressive and vicious, accompanied by all kinds of insults hurled at women who weren’t wearing the hijab. The women would get thrown into vans, and the next day, they have court cases and fines. The violence at the time of arrest is quite extreme. The real battle is that, once again, we see the lives of young women in great, great risk, and that’s an issue of great concern. 

It’s really important to move forward in a systematic way to make gender apartheid a crime against humanity.

Nasrin Sotoudeh

Spillar: Nasrin, could you tell us more about what happened at the funeral of Armita, the young teenager who was killed for not being veiled? 

Sotoudeh: In late October, about 150 individuals separately, none of whom really knew each other, gathered for the funeral of Armita. I was there with Manzar, who’s a friend and acquaintance of mine, who lost four of her family members in the Ukrainian flight that was downed in the aftermath of the Soleimani assassination. 

We were gathered at the gravesite and the proceedings in the funeral were almost over. But we noticed that towards the end of the ceremony, the Basij [a unit trained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] began to create disturbances and attacked my friend. They pushed her down on top of the grave and when I came to help her, they pushed me down too. 

I fell on her and they pushed another person onto me. They lifted us and escorted us to their vans. They tried to grab me by the hair but since I wear it short, they couldn’t get hold of much. 

They grabbed my mobile, and there were two female officials pushing us into the van and they were trying to stuff as many of us into the van as they could. There were already 12 or 13 of the mourners that they’d sort of stuffed in the van, but the van looked pretty full to me, and I refused to go in. 

I was sitting at the door of the van and refusing to go in, and while I was in that position, there was this veiled woman looking at us with tears in her eyes and I just noticed her. I thought she was also arrested or going to be arrested. While I was there, they started sort of using these shockers, taser kind of things, against my legs three or four times. Some of the young people inside started yelling, “Don’t do that! Don’t do that!” It became a bit of a commotion and they were forced to close the door. 

I fell on her and they pushed another person onto me. They lifted us and escorted us to their vans. They tried to grab me by the hair but since I wear it short, they couldn’t get hold of much. 

Nasrin Sotoudeh

A few days later, while I was in prison, one of my prison mates came to me and said that she’d heard from that very woman who was veiled outside and they couldn’t stuff her into the van, and she had asked my friend about me. She was expressing her appreciation to me—because of me resisting, they were unable to stuff her into the van. 

Spillar: Where did they take you? Did they tell you? 

Sotoudeh: So, what was quite eerie about this whole thing was that, when they took us to this detention center—closed space, just a tiny little window—they took us in through the back door. We had no idea where it was. If you recall during the Woman, Life, Freedom movement, after they killed Mahsa and the protests exploded, they said they were going to close the Vozara Detention Center, but while we were there, we had this feeling that we were actually being held in Vozara again.

And when I was going through this garden area to go to the bathroom, I could see the lights of a hospital called Kasra Hospital, which I knew was very close to Vozara Detention Center. That was the hospital where Mahsa died. 

Even when they were telling us we were not in Vozara, we knew, the apparatus for the repression of women is very much intact. Vozara is there. The detention centers are there. The troops they use for this purpose, the morality police, are there—they’re primed and ready to pounce.

Spillar: What were the conditions like, in Vozara? 

Sotoudeh: The atmosphere is very vulgar. And the insults directed at the women are horrific and nasty. And even though the killing of Mahsa has put a lot of pressure on the security forces to not engage in physical violence, both me and Manzar were shoved and attacked for trying to defend the other girls. 

Manzar is in her 70s now, and when she learnt we were being taken to Qarchak Prison, she started having convulsions and they were forced to release her. 

The apparatus for the repression of women is very much intact.

Nasrin Sotoudeh
Activists attend the birthday party of then-jailed Nasrin Sotoudeh, outside the embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran on May 31, 2019, in The Hague, Netherlands. (Pierre Crom / Getty Images)

Spillar: Nasrin, can you tell us more about why the Armita story really matters? And what she stands for? 

Sotoudeh: Armita really was the second girl that we officially know was killed for not wearing a veil. I think that the actual number of women and girls who’ve been killed for not wearing the veil is probably much, much higher. In Armita’s case, she’d lost her life very much in the same manner as Mahsa, in that sort of casual and gratuitous way. 

I made the trip to her funeral without wearing a veil, and it was quite a long trip. I wanted to say that we women are everywhere—we’re in the metro, in restaurants, stadiums, streets, homes, everywhere, and we refuse to wear the veil, and you’re not going to erase us. 

Spillar: [Jeff Kaufman asked me to describe for you Nasrin and Reza, about our work for women’s equality.] Here in the U.S., we have many of the same problems here with anti-women politicians trying to turn back the clock in this country, although not as severe. Not as severe, but we know the direction that this country is headed if we don’t stop the slide into authoritarianism. That’s very much what the work of the Feminist Majority Foundation is doing and the work of Ms.—trying to sound the alarm and to organize supporters of women’s rights, women and men, to be involved in this fight. We think about what happened in Iran following the revolution and what happened in Afghanistan when the Taliban took power.

We understand that’s very much related to what is being attempted in this country and that we cannot only fight for ourselves. We have to do what we can to support your fights because there’s a sisterhood globally, and women face many of the same discriminations everywhere. Everywhere. There isn’t a single country where women are fully equal and free, and we feel that our fight here is very important and to be supportive of your fight in Iran.

We also face an organized, violent, extremist movement in this country to turn back the clock by stopping abortion. Anti-abortion extremists attack clinics. They have killed doctors. They have killed young women who were the receptionists at clinics. They arson. They bomb. So, that violence is also used here against women’s rights activists and feminists.

Reza Khandan: Kathy, thank you so much for sharing these stories with us and educating us about what’s going on in America.

Many, many years ago, if I were asked about the problems in Iran, I would say that relative to us, many of these problems have been solved in the U.S. and that you didn’t have as much to worry about, but it’s so critical to recognize that all of us are constantly at risk of sudden shifts in the political conditions and then dramatic attempts at reversal, taking the clock back in time. And so, it’s really important to have a shared understanding of how quickly and suddenly these reversals can take place when we even have the illusion of progress.

We women are everywhere—we’re in the metro, in restaurants, stadiums, streets, homes, everywhere, and we refuse to wear the veil, and you’re not going to erase us. 

Nasrin Sotoudeh

Nasrin Sotoudeh and Reza Khandan. (Courtesy of Jeff Kaufman)

Spillar: Reza, you wrote a wonderful piece for Ms. that we were honored to publish about Nasrin’s work and the aftermath of the brutal murder of Mahsa Amini. How has that movement impacted Iran? 

Khandan: We can’t ignore how incredibly powerful the Mahsa movement has been. Perhaps the shift isn’t so apparent at the level of politics, but at the level of culture, it marks a dramatic milestone and an unimaginable shift. 

Ali Motahari, who was a parliamentarian, was saying that we understand that women may not want to wear the veil, but our concern is where will this lead? What’s next? He’s one of the misogynist members within the government, and he’s saying, what are we going to have to accept next? Are they going to wear short sleeves? Are we going to see their ankles, their bellies, and so on? And so, part of their attempt at negotiation is to just stop things at the veil, at getting rid of the veil, so that it doesn’t go further.

But a few years ago, if a woman was walking in the streets without a veil, she would be looked at askance, and you’d feel that the gaze was hostile. Whereas, now, in the aftermath of the Mahsa movement, you just see how normal it has become for women to go outside without a veil and that the level of public acceptance has dramatically shifted. In a sense, there is no turning back of the clock because the cultural norms have shifted.

Spillar: Reza, I agree with your analysis that a shift in public opinion is extraordinarily important, and with the public on our side and the public on your side, we can continue to put pressure for change among the political leaders and in the laws. The first step is always overcoming public reluctance to rise up. It is the rising up of leaders like the two of you that will give courage to others, and I think it’s so critically important, the cultural and the social changes—very much important to making legal and political changes.

Khandan: I very much agree with you, Kathy. I was speaking to a very dear friend of ours about the public opinion point. Farhad’s another one of the really extraordinary civil rights activists in Iran, women’s rights activists and a very close friend. Farhad was saying that he, too,  is astonished by the change in the system, the shifts, and that, really, the political system, increasingly, looks like froth at the top of a bubbling cauldron, the people are just in a different place.

But what’s clear is that one of the sort of most hardly-kept positions of the system, which was this kind of misogyny, hostility towards women, especially around the veil, they’re now forced to digest the new reality, and hard as is it for them to do it, they’re doing it. So, you know, here’s to public opinion, I guess, and the biggest shifts in the universe. 

All of us are constantly at risk of sudden shifts in the political conditions and then dramatic attempts at reversal, taking the clock back in time.

Reza Khandan

Spillar: Reza and Nasrin, the harder the pushback by the political forces, that just shows how strong we are and what a threat we are to their regimes. So, the harder they push, we know that we’re getting closer. We just hope you stay safe. We think about you all the time, and we hope you stay safe.

Nasrin, many of us are in despair about the state of the country and the world. How do you find hope in these times? 

Sotoudeh: The world has gone through darker days. I remember vividly when I was a child, I would wake up to the news of the Vietnam War and also the horrors of what was going on in Cambodia under Pol Pot. We’ve made our way forward through those horrific and dark events and times, and so, why not again? As long as I’m alive, I’m just naturally an optimist.

Khandan: We are so delighted to be with all of you and such a joy, after all this trying for us to be together, and I look forward to all that’s ahead. Have a good day for you, and we’ll have a good evening here.

Thanks to Aastha Jani, who provided editorial assistance for this piece.

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Katherine Spillar is the executive director of Feminist Majority Foundation and executive editor of Ms., where she oversees editorial content and the Ms. in the Classroom program.