Shaparak Shajarizadeh and the fight for women’s rights in Iran

In an interview with Celine Cooper, the Iranian activist speaks about her protest against the compulsory hijab and why she finally left her home for Canada.

By: /
January 3, 2019
Shaparak Shajarizadeh
Portrait of Shaparak Shajarizadeh. Credit: Sami Chouhdary / OpenCanada.org

Meet Shaparak Shajarizadeh. Recently named by the BBC as one of the 100 inspiring and influential women from around the world for 2018, she is part of a growing wave of activists pushing back against Iran’s compulsory hijab law and participating in protest campaigns known online as #WhiteWednesdays and #TheGirlsofRevolutionStreet.

The hijab holds a complicated place in Iran’s political landscape. In 1936, Reza Shah Pahlavi banned it as part of his efforts to modernize the country. Prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution, many Iranian women wore Western-style clothing. During the revolution, publicly wearing a hijab was a symbol of protest against the pro-Western monarchy of then-ruler Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

In the years that followed, the new theocratic Islamic government under then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gradually imposed dress codes making it illegal for women to show their hair in public. Many took to the streets in protest of forced veiling, but by 1985 wearing a hijab became mandatory. This law remains in effect today. According to Iran’s Islamic Penal Code, girls and women who do not comply with the dress code risk being fined, arrested, lashed and imprisoned for committing haram (an act that is forbidden by Islamic law). Not adhering to the law is perceived as a sign of opposition to Iran’s Islamic regime and carries severe consequences.

Shajarizadeh knows this well. She was arrested three times last year for removing her headscarf in public, and jailed in both Shahr-e Rey and Evin prisons. In July, Shajarizadeh fled to Turkey where she was later reunited with her son. While there, she learned she had been sentenced to two years in prison and 18 years probation in her home country. She and her son are now living in Toronto and seeking asylum in Canada. Her husband remains in Iran. Her lawyer, prominent human rights advocate Nasrin Sotoudeh, was arrested in June after being charged with several national security offences stemming from her work defending women, including Shajarizadeh, who have been prosecuted for protesting the compulsory hijab. Sotoudeh is currently being held in Evin prison.

Today, Shajarizadeh faces a state-orchestrated media campaign against her in Iran for continuing to speak out for women’s rights, but also for supporting the call led by former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler, the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and members of an all party parliamentary caucus for Canadian Magnitsky sanctions against Iranian human rights abusers. The sanctions would not target the Iranian people, but leading government ministers, judges, prosecutor generals, heads of prisons and law enforcement officials who are responsible for violating the human rights of civil society leaders.

“The main thing is to combat the culture of impunity and hold the architects of repression in Iran accountable,” said Cotler in an interview after a December event in Montreal honouring Shajarizadeh. He believes there is a moral and political leadership vacuum on the international scene, and that it is Canada’s moment to take up the mantle of human rights on the world stage.

Cotler calls Shajarizadeh “an ordinary woman engaged in extraordinary courage.”

Celine Cooper interviewed Shajarizadeh at the event hosted by Concordia University’s Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, in partnership with the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. It was her first public interview since arriving in Canada in September.

Let’s start with some context. Can you tell us a little bit about the state of women’s rights in Iran?

In Iran, women don’t have a lot of rights. They don’t have the right to custody of their kids or to divorce, even in circumstances at home when they are abused. It’s the man who decides. Women can’t travel, can’t go to work or university without their husband’s permission. There are lots of rights that women activists, journalists, lawyers were trying to gain for 40 years, but one of them is around compulsory hijab.

Lots of people say that there are more important issues than compulsory hijab. But for me, it is not just about having a veil on your head or having some sort of dress code. It’s about violence. Iranian women always have this shadow of fear when we are out. You don’t feel safe.

How do you feel when people say the hijab is part of Iranian culture?

Compulsory hijab is not a sign of Iranian culture. It is a sign of repression. Having Islamic law is about being a believer. If you believe in hijab, I respect you. That’s your own business. It’s your right. But not every Muslim believes in compulsory hijab. If you don’t believe in covering your body, you have to be free to decide for yourself.

When you made the decision to get involved in these protests, you knew that there would be repercussions. Why did you decide to get involved?

Before the whole thing, I knew something about suffragettes. I envied the influential women in Iran. I wished I were like them. But I wasn’t a journalist. I wasn’t a lawyer. I was just a normal, ordinary woman. The first day I saw a video about White Wednesday, I went out and bought a white scarf. I was very happy. It was a moment for me to get involved, to do something.

(White Wednesdays was an initiative spearheaded in May of 2017 by Masih Alinejad, an exiled Iranian journalist and activist living in the United States. She is also the founder of My Stealthy Freedom, which encourages men and women to post images on social media of themselves wearing white or without headscarves to protest compulsory hijab.)

In that moment I felt very powerful. I thought, I’m a woman. I can be my voice and I can say no to compulsory hijab, no to violence. It happened little by little. They pushed and we pushed. We’re not going to step back now. We want our rights.

"It happened little by little. They pushed and we pushed. We’re not going to step back now. We want our rights."

After White Wednesday, the movement changed. Going without hijab was a little bit scary. I knew it was going to be dangerous, but I couldn’t stop.

(In December of 2017, a 31-year-old woman and mother named Vida Movahed stood silently on a sidewalk utility box on Tehran’s Enghelab [Revolution] Street and waved her headscarf like a flag to protest compulsory hijab laws. She was arrested and spent a month in jail. In the days and months that followed, Iranian women began repeating this act of civil disobedience in cities across the country. They became known on social media as the Girls of Enghelab Street or the Girls of Revolution Street.)

Vida’s action was very beautiful. I am against violence and it was a peaceful act. Just waving a white flag. After this, I decided to do something. Instead of wearing white and not wearing hijab, I said ‘let’s have our scarves on a stick.’ I had some followers on my Instagram, so I filmed myself and asked other women to do the same. I sent that film to Masih [Alinejad] and she published the video. It became known as the Girls of Revolution Street.

The next day there were lots of pictures [online] of women and men protesting all over the country.

Take us back to the first time you were arrested.

The first time I got arrested [in Tehran for removing her hijab in public] I faced a lot of injustice in courtrooms. They tortured me a lot mentally. I was beaten. I knew I had some rights as a prisoner, but I saw they could do everything with you. There are no rules inside. No justice. They sent me to solitary confinement. I knew that wasn’t my place. I was banned from calling anybody. I couldn’t see my lawyer [Nasrin Sotoudeh] before I was arrested. I couldn’t even talk to her.

The next time, they also arrested my husband. We were sent to Evin prison.

I remember my son was at home alone. He was nine at the time. I was worried because it was before the national holiday. My family [wasn’t] in the city and my husband’s family [wasn’t] in the city. I wanted to call somebody and say ‘go and take my son,’ but they didn’t let us.

They took my husband to another room. I heard the voice of the investigator. I was being accused of being a spy because of [involvement in the] White Wednesday protest. Because I was travelling a lot to other countries, they asked me about the places I went and the people I met. My husband was also facing those accusations. That day I saw fear in my husband’s eyes. His face went white. […] We were worried about my [son] and my pets because nobody knew we were there or that we got arrested.

The third time I was arrested was very frightening.

What happened?

I got arrested with my friend and my son [in the city of Kashan, south of Tehran, for removing her hijab]. They handcuffed me in front of him. As a mother, seeing your son screaming, begging those officers to set us free because we were in another city far from our town, it was very hard. He was very scared. He was saying, ‘mummy let’s go home, I want to go home.’

For six hours, he was with me in the interrogation room and in court. They took me to the court in late afternoon. It was supposed to be closed, but the prosecutor who sent his officers to arrest me was waiting. There were some stone benches in the corridor. It was cold. My son fell asleep in my lap on that bench after crying. In that moment I knew I was right, but I was also seeing the result.

They wanted to send my friend to jail too, but she didn’t do anything. She was unveiled in public, but I was their target. When they realized my son didn’t have anyone to take care of him, they let her free with some bail and told her to take him. They confiscated our car, our mobile phones and our money. Then they let her go with my son in a strange city in the middle of the desert. Eventually they returned her phone so she could call my husband. But the whole process was very scary.

There were lots of people criticizing me in the beginning for being active. For many months I was accused of being a bad mother. Everybody thought my responsibility toward my son was much more important than my demands [for women’s rights]. They use that to shame you.

When I came out of the prison I was on hunger strike for nine days. I stopped water for three days. When I was sent back to Tehran, the first thing I told my husband was ‘I cannot stay.’

Your decision to leave Iran couldn’t have been easy.

It was very hard. It is still hard. I feel like I left behind my fellow soldiers, my friends. I wanted to fight. But on the other hand, I had to think about my son. I knew that if I stayed I would have to go to jail or I would have to be silent. I knew I couldn’t be silent. It would kill me.

What can Canada do to support Iranian human rights activists?

We want Canada to stand in solidarity with human rights defenders and target those who violate human rights. We also want women politicians from other countries not to obey compulsory hijab while visiting Iran. Iranian women are fighting for their lives. They put their lives at risk with our protests. If women politicians claim to be feminists, don’t stand with a government that oppresses women. Stand with us. We need support from all over the world to end injustice in Iran.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.