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One Woman Stands Against the Iranian Government

In a country that brooks no dissent, Nasrin Sotoudeh's remarkable solo protest keeps finding unlikely allies.

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On a warm, sunny morning in early June, Nasrin Sotoudeh arrived at the offices of the Iranian Bar Association in central Tehran shortly after 9 a.m. The bespectacled, petite 52-year-old was wearing a blue manteau, beige pants, and red shoes. To comply with the compulsory hijab law, Sotoudeh had covered her short hair with her favorite white scarf. On the scarf is a verse from a poem by Iran’s prominent pre-revolutionary feminist poet Forough Farrokhzad: “I will greet the sun again.”

Every weekday for the past seven months, from 9:30 to 12:00 p.m., Sotoudeh, a former political prisoner, has been picketing the headquarters of the Bar Association in protest of its decision to ban her from practicing as a lawyer for three years. On this particular morning, she brought along several signs proclaiming, in English and Persian, the principles for which she fights: the right to work and the right to dissent.

A man walked up to Sotoudeh, explaining that he had come all the way from the remote province of Sistan and Baluchistan to meet her. He wanted to share information about a non-governmental organization he had set up in his home region, and told her proudly about how his group had recently succeeded in preventing the destruction of some slums after negotiating with local officials. She thanked him for his work.

A little while later, two men came by to ask for legal advice. Sotoudeh was happy to oblige, and the two thanked her profusely. They stood for a while with her as a sign of support — even though they admitted fearing official repercussions. At least four lawyers who have joined her protest in recent weeks have received threatening phone calls from security officials warning that they could also receive professional bans. Even so, those weren’t the only visitors Sotoudeh received in the course of the morning. Several women’s rights advocates and other activists stopped by. A few passersby greeted Sotoudeh from afar, smiling and flashing victory signs. A man brought her bottles of water.

Sotoudeh’s protest was meant to be a one-woman affair — but somehow it never quite works out that way. Though Iran’s heavily censored media has never mentioned her campaign, people learn about it from Persian-language outlets that broadcast from Europe and the United States. Word of mouth and social media also play a role. “People come here from all over Iran,” she told me during a recent phone conversation.

Among those who have expressed public support for Sotoudeh in recent weeks are Sufis, members of the persecuted Bahai religious sect, and supporters of a jailed spiritual healer. She has been visited by relatives of political prisoners (including the wife of her jailed colleague Abdolfattah Soltani) and by Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of Iran’s ex-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who shared a prison cell with Sotoudeh for a few months. Sotoudeh has also met with parents whose children were killed or jailed in the 2009 crackdown that followed the disputed reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Sotoudeh has her own vivid memories of that year. Though she had a two-year-old son to take care of at home, she joined the peaceful street protests against what many Iranians judged to be a fraudulent election. Shaken by the scale of the unrest, the government unleashed a wave of mass arrests. Sotoudeh gave legal advice to some of the detainees and defended others in court. A few months later, she was arrested herself, ultimately ending up in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison.

There’s a dedicated Facebook page where administrators post news and information about her Bar Association protest (including the latest photos) on a daily basis. The page offers a unique snapshot of a vibrant culture of dissent despite the highly restrictive nature of the Iranian regime.

In 2010, Sotoudeh, or “Lady Sotoudeh,” as many refer to her, was sentenced to six years of imprisonment, convicted of endangering Iran’s national security and spreading anti-government propaganda. In reality, however, it was almost certainly her defense of sensitive political cases that landed her (and several of her colleagues) in prison. Before her arrest, she had defended a range of student activists, independent journalists, and dissidents — all people the government tends to regard as its enemies. She also helped child prisoners, convicted on murder charges, who face the death penalty. Iran is one of the very few countries that issues and executes death sentences for people convicted of crimes when they were younger than 18.

In September 2013, just before the newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrived in New York for a United Nations summit, Sotoudeh was unexpectedly released. The following month, the Iranian Bar Association voted to ban her from practicing law — reportedly under pressure from hardline officials who dominate law enforcement and the judiciary. (The association claimed that it made the decision based on her 2010 conviction.) Sotoudeh says she has good reason to believe that the powerful Intelligence Ministry was actually behind the ban. Her interrogators in prison vowed, she says, to prevent her from ever practicing law again.

Undeterred, Iranians from all walks of life continue to visit Sotoudeh in front of the Bar Association. Not all are activists. Some are ordinary Iranians who simply want to express their solidarity.

Others, of course, are eminently political. Mohammad Nourizad, a former hardline columnist and supporter of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — but now an outspoken critic of the government — and Mohammad Maleki, ex-chancellor of Tehran University, are among the regulars at Sotoudeh’s protest. In late April, Maleki came with a sign highlighting a state ban that prevents him from traveling abroad. “Right to Travel, Right of Dissenters,” it said in Persian and English, apparently inspired by Sotoudeh’s own signs. Because of the ban, the 82-year-old Maleki has not been able to visit his son, who lives in the Netherlands, for more than six years. His son, Ammar Maleki, told me he cannot go back to Iran to visit his elderly father, fearing arrest for his critical writings.

The dissident Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has also joined Sotoudeh’s protest several times in the past few months. The regime has forbidden Panahi from making movies for the next 20 years. But the ban has not prevented him from making two, including his latest, Taxi, which won the Golden Bear Prize at the Berlin Film Festival in February. Sotoudeh plays a supporting role in the movie, as one of the passengers that Panahi drives around Tehran while discussing social and political issues. “When you finally get released, the outside world becomes a bigger cell,” she says in the film, explaining life as a dissident. “Either you have to escape the country or start hoping to go back to jail.”

Another of her recent visitors was a woman by the name of Akram Neghabi, who arrived holding a sign reading “Where is My Saeed?” The sign refers to her son, Saeed Zeinali, a student who has been missing since his arrest after a 1999 student uprising in Tehran. Neghabi received a phone call from her son three months after he was taken into custody, asking her to push for his release. That was the last time she heard his voice. In the years since, the authorities have refused to divulge anything about his fate. She doesn’t know if her Saeed is dead or alive.

Sotoudeh has heard many similar stories during her daily stint in front of the Bar Association. All she can do, she says, is to listen and express her solidarity. “We Iranians have many of these sad stories these days,” she told me during a recent phone conversation. Many victims of rights violations in the Islamic Republic join her, she said, because they want to be heard. “They want to publicly demonstrate the pain they have to live with.”

Her ongoing protest has provided many with a platform to express their grievances. Her defiance and fearlessness appear to encourage them. “Creating fear and creating courage are both contagious,” Sotoudeh says, adding that through one’s actions, it’s possible to encourage others to rise above their fear and stand up for their rights.

Sotoudeh was a member of the One Million Signatures Campaign, which aimed to raise public support for the elimination of Islamic laws that discriminate against women, especially in areas such as divorce and child custody. The campaign was launched by a group of women’s rights activists — first online, then adding face-to face meetings with people in the streets, on public transport, and elsewhere. The plan was to gather one million signatures and submit them to the parliament to push for reforms. But campaign members faced increasing state pressure, including threats and arrests on vague charges. Sotoudeh defended several of the activists in court.

She also took up the case of her longtime friend and colleague, Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, who accused the government of illegally seizing her assets in 2009. The authorities claimed that they froze her bank account due to a failure to pay taxes. “I’ve known [Nasrin Sotoudeh] for 20 years,” Ebadi told me from London, where she now lives in exile. “She’s a fearless lawyer who defended many political prisoners pro bono.”

Ebadi believes that Sotoudeh’s protest is significant because it highlights the systematic pressure on lawyers who take up political cases. She said that Sotoudeh’s work illuminates the lack of independence of the Bar Association, which has done little to protect its members from government pressure. More than a dozen human rights lawyers have ended up in jail or been forced into exile for defending political activists.

Ebadi, who campaigned for her friend’s release from prison, believes that the authorities released Sotoudeh — who was co-winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2012 — under pressure from the European Union.

When I spoke to her, Sotoudeh declined to comment on the factors that led to her release. “You should ask the authorities,” she said. She added that she’s oppressed by the thought that other activists, less lucky than she, remain in prison.

The authorities sent her to jail to shut her up, to prevent her from drawing attention to abuses. Ironically, though, her imprisonment gave her even greater prominence.

The mother of two remained defiant in Evin Prison, even despite three months of solitary confinement in 2010. After prison authorities ordered female inmates to wear the chador, an all-enclosing garment described in the Islamic Republic as “the superior hijab,” Sotoudeh refused to comply, describing this as illegal. She refused to put it on even after authorities banned visits from her family in retaliation.

Sotoudeh went on hunger strike five times to protest against prison conditions and her unjust imprisonment. When she learned that authorities had banned her then-12-year-old daughter from leaving the country, Sotoudeh stopped eating for 50 days. She said she was determined to go on “until the end.” Authorities gave in and reversed the ban on her daughter (who currently still lives in Iran).

Now that she’s out of jail, Sotoudeh is determined to continue her fight for justice. She has decided that stubborn resistance is her only choice.

Her husband, Reza Khandan, recalls his fear that the authorities would try to break her during her imprisonment. “Strange things happen in prison,” said Khandan, who was himself threatened by authorities for informing the public about Sotoudeh’s plight.

On his own popular Facebook page, Khandan often wrote detailed accounts of his prison meetings with Sotoudeh and the conditions she had to endure. Her refusal to submit to the demands of her jailers ultimately turned her into Iran’s most famous political prisoner. In Iran, where the authorities have so little tolerance for dissent, “[s]omeone who insists on [his or her] rights is turned into a hero,” Khandan said. He explained that he drives Sotoudeh to her daily protest while she reads in the car. Reading is her favorite hobby, although her picketing, activism, and her duties as a mother don’t leave her much time for books. “These days everyone’s busy with their cellphones and digital tools, including myself, but my wife remains faithful to paper,” he said.

So why have the authorities allowed her to continue protesting? Since the election of the self-proclaimed moderate Rouhani, the atmosphere has eased a bit, activists say. Even so, Sotoudeh has been briefly detained and interrogated on several occasions since her release in 2013.

Last October, she was detained while protesting in Tehran against a series of acid attacks that targeted young women in the central city of Isfahan, apparently because they were not properly veiled. Sotoudeh later said that the police kept her in detention for seven hours, threatening to charge her with the crime of moharebeh, or “hostility to God.” It is a capital offense. (The police didn’t follow through on the threat.)

She has been arrested twice since then. “The last time they detained me,” she said, “I warned them that if they arrested me one more time without a judicial order, I would start protesting in front of the Intelligence Ministry.”

Aside from these incidents, the authorities have not actively moved to disrupt her protest, apparently because of her high profile and the widespread support she enjoys inside and outside the country. Sotoudeh thinks that the authorities fear negative publicity — and she’s probably right.

Members of the Bar Association have attempted to persuade Sotoudeh to end her protest. So far, despite meeting with her several times, they’ve failed. She says they greet her on the steps of the building where she stands every day with her signs; some privately express regret about the ban.

Like millions of Iranians, the mother of two has been closely following the ongoing nuclear negotiations between Iran and the United States and other major global powers. She says any deal that will remove the threat of war and lift sanctions that have made life so hard for Iranians would be a positive step. “If the country can have positive interaction with the world and respect international norms, then there’s hope that it can act the same way domestically and solve its internal problems rationally and through dialogue,” she said.

Sotoudeh added that a deal is not likely to have much positive impact on the human rights situation. Real change can come only if activists have room to work and campaign, she says. Right now it seems unlikely that the powerful hardliners who wield such enormous influence over the machinery of the Iranian state will ever allow that to happen. But Sotoudeh is undeterred. With or without their consent, she is determined to keep up the fight.

Photo credit: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

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