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Why Iran’s Leading Women’s Rights Defender Thinks the Protesters Could Topple the Regime

8 minute read

The protests in Iran are leaderless. They broke out spontaneously across the country after images appeared on social media of a 22-year-old woman named Mahsa Amini, unconscious in the hospital bed where she would be declared dead on Sept. 16, three days after being arrested on a Tehran street by a “morality patrol.” The officers are notorious for their rough treatment of women deemed to be violating the theocracy’s rules on female religious dress, or hijab.

Nasrin Sotoudeh has been defending these women in Iran’s courtrooms for years. She is the leading human rights lawyer still inside Iran, and the most prominent in a constellation of women’s rights advocates that includes Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, a colleague and client. Sotoudeh spoke to TIME on Wednesday via Zoom from her Tehran home, where she is on medical furlough from the prison where she was sentenced in March 2019 to 38 years, and 148 lashes, for her legal work.

TIME: I should start by asking your current situation.

Nasrin Sotoudeh: I have been out of prison for 14 months on a medical furlough. But they can take me back to prison at any point in time that they wish.

And I understand there have been some “preventative arrests” as the state calls them?

Yes, this has been the case whenever we have significant protests. There have been arrests of lawyers, but especially of journalists, because of the speed with which they share the news, and also because they come to the defense of detainees.

Can you describe to me what’s happening now and and if it feels different than previous protests?

This is one of the most extensive protests that you’ve had. It’s spread to cities and towns all over. As you know, the spark for it was the killing of Mahsa Amini, which really embodies by itself the 43 years of pain that women have endured in this country. This is for us a physical, bodily experience. It’s as real an aspect of life here as could be.

Sentence after sentence, ruling after ruling are imposed on our bodies in terms of our dress. And not only that, but rape and other transgressions. They hit you and hurt you and bruise you, and wrap you up in the veil once again that conceals the harm that’s inflicted on you.

[She stifles a sob.] I apologize. This fulfills me with emotion and at times it’s hard for me to speak.

You know the story of the Daughters of Revolution Street and how they were arrested?

Tell me.

The women on Revolution Street were violently arrested by the morality police and security forces. I was the lawyer for some of these women. Often they were actually pulled off or thrown off the pedestal they stood on. When one of them was brought from prison to court for me to represent her, her leg still bore the marks of the injury that she had sustained from falling on a metal pole, such that there was a hole in her leg that went deep into her leg the size of a coin. And that was the condition in which she was brought to court.

My daughter tells me that on her way to university, there are six checkpoints where the morality police inspects women and girls on their way to school. So at virtually any of these points she can be arrested and harassed and taken to prison. We are condemned to live in a tunnel of death.

What will happen next?

I remember during the years when the women’s movement was very active in Iran, I would give many interviews and often also speak to judges. And I would tell them that the colossal injustice and harm that’s being inflicted on women will one day bring Iran to the brink of a precipice, to a point of crisis. Today we have reached that point.

Do you see any evidence of how the government will proceed?

Based on experience, the most likely next steps will be a continuation of crackdown. The word for it in Persian is sarkoob, which literally means “the pounding of the head.” So the crackdown will continue. But so too will the protests. I in no way see a return to the past, no matter the nature of the crackdown. Even if the people’s demands are not met, the reality will have shifted permanently. They will not tolerate the compulsory veil any more.

But everyone says this is not just about the veil. What comes with the veil?

This is a totalitarian system whose presence people feel in their blood and in their flesh on a daily basis. And it’s one that does not grant freedoms of any kind, or accommodate people’s demands in any way. What is increasingly clear is that there is clear demand for change in the regime. What the people want is regime change, and no return to the past. And what we can see from the current protests and strikes that are now being initiated is a very real possibility of regime change.

Does the uncertainty about the health of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei figure in this situation?

Yes, no doubt it’s related but we don’t have a clear picture of what’s going on with him, with his health. We are just hearing rumors.

In my visits to Iran over the years, people who complained about their government also described a limited appetite for confronting it. They often cited the collective trauma of the Revolution—which to Iranians takes in not just the events of 1979 that brought the mullahs to power, but also the eight-year war against Iraq that immediately followed, and claimed at least half a million lives. But are most Iranians today too young to remember that trauma? Did the country age out of its self-restraint?

That’s in fact exactly the case. You can illustrate this with the case of hijab. In the old days, many people who didn’t want to wear the hijab kind of accepted the compulsory hijab, went along with it. But every generation has had its own way. And we see that the new generation is more than willing to take off its veil to shake it in the air, and to directly confront the morality police and say that no, you will not force me to wear the veil. This is something that wasn’t taking place even 10 years ago. Some people who were saying that, you know, the hijab is not a priority. But what the new generation has made abundantly clear is that they are sovereign over their own bodies. This is what younger women and men in Iran are saying.

When protests erupted in Iran in 2019 over fuel prices, the regime shut down the internet, then used live fire on protesters. Access to the internet is being steadily reduced now. Can the protests continue without it?

Consider what was going on in 2009 [when hundreds of thousands of Iranians marched in what came to be known as the Green Revolution, a mass protest of a stolen election]. There were many foreign journalists in Iran because of the elections. And many of my clients were translators who were working with these journalists to help them report on what was going on. The translators were accused of having facilitated “an anti-revolutionary interview.” So there’s no question that internet, WhatsApp, Zoom, and so on are very effective—as well the trial of Hamid Nouri in Sweden [for the war crime of executing dissidents in 1988], and “people’s tribunal” [investigating deaths in the 2019 protests] in London in November.

The fact that there are so many witnesses to what’s going on makes a huge difference. We see that right now with the films and video clips that are coming from Iran that have been spread by artists, football players, lawyers, and politicians. Iranians outside Iran have played a large role in making the plight of the Iranian people inside visible. The breakdown of these connections and communications networks would would be a devastating blow.

May I share one of my concerns with you?


You know, in many revolutions, there are concerns about violence. In this revolution, women have no need for violence because the act that they engage in is simply taking off a scarf. It’s completely peaceful. All that women have done is to take off their scarf and stand in front of the morality police and say I’m not wearing this. On many such occasions, women have been surrounded and attacked. But all they’re doing is just lifting the veil and refusing to wear it.

So in this revolution, what we are worried about is the violence of the government, not the people.

We expect support from everyone, because we are defending our common values and principles.

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