Iranian women’s rights activist: ‘Don’t wait for anyone to hand you your rights’

Melissa Mahtani – February 26, 2020

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(CNN)She may just have won the Geneva Summit 2020 International Women’s Prize but Iranian activist Shaparak Shajarizadeh says she can’t feel happiness anymore — not while her friends and other women’s rights activists remain imprisoned in Iran.

“I’m not a happy person and I feel guilty all the time,” she told CNN in a candid interview last week, adding that she fears women’s rights activists in Iran have “no hope” and that international condemnation of their treatment by authorities has had little impact. 

Shajarizadeh, 44, fled Iran almost two years ago, after being arrested three times and imprisoned twice for defying Iran’s compulsory hijab law. She was involved in the #White Wednesdays movement—a campaign encouraging men and women to post images on social media of themselves either wearing white or no headscarf to protest being forced to wear the hijab. 

She tells CNN she was officially charged with encouraging prostitution, propaganda against the government and acting against national security, charges she was later convicted on.

Iran’s mandatory hijab law has only been in effect since the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979 when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power. The law was first enforced by the country’s ‘morality’ police and is still enforced by authorities even today. The hijab has consequently become a symbol of oppression for many Iranian women who have been protesting for more freedom and independence in the strictly conservative Islamic society.

Shajarizadeh is one of those women. She was first arrested in February 2018 for protesting without a hijab. 

“I was arrested for the crime of waving a white flag of peace in the street, only to be punished by the regime and detained in Gharchak prison,” she said in Geneva during her award acceptance speech. “I was beaten up and brutalized during the investigation, and thrown into solitary confinement. It was the most frightening experience in my life.

“Recalling her time in prison, she described having panic attacks, and says she was asked to strip naked numerous times and beaten. “The women I saw in there, their bodies were black, pitch black” with bruises, she adds. 

Reached for comment about Shajarizadeh’s claims, an Iranian government spokesman told CNN that “the content of all judicial and revolutionary dossiers are kept confidential.”

Shajarizadeh started a hunger strike after her first day at Gharchak prison and credits it for giving her strength. For an entire week, she says she ate nothing. She told CNN that though excruciating, it gave her mental strength because she felt that she was taking action and had the power to at least refuse food.

Shajarizadeh told CNN she was released and arrested two more times after that, with no new charges brought against her in either case.

The second time was on March 17th, 2018, along with her husband. She says they were taken to Iran’s notorious Evin prison, interrogated and accused of being spies. Her third arrest came in May that year, while she was on holiday with her son. “State authorities interrogated me in front of my innocent child and handcuffed me while he was crying, screaming and begging them to let us go home. That evening in the courthouse he cried himself to sleep on my lap on a cold stone bench. At that moment, I told myself that I wouldn’t let this happen to my family ever again,” she said.

After her lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh got her out on bail last May, Shajarizadeh immediately fled the country with her son, going first to Turkey and then seeking asylum in Canada. Her trial, stemming from her first arrest, continued without her, and she was eventually sentenced to two years in prison in addition to an 18-year suspended prison term.

Soon after, Sotoudeh herself was arrested and convicted of “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security” and “insulting the Supreme Leader,” according to IRNA, Iran’s state-owned news service. The prominent human rights lawyer and women’s rights defender was sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes.

Shajarizadeh blames herself for Sotoudeh’s fate. “I’m no hero,” she tells CNN, “I wasn’t representing anyone. I was my voice… I was doing it for myself.” She describes herself as an “ordinary woman” who never planned to be a women’s rights activist — she joined the White Wednesday movement because she was “was fed up of being inactive.”

“My whole life I was complaining and expecting the other women’s rights activists to do something for me, and I realized no, it’s not going to happen. I have to do something for myself and I have to be my voice,” she said.