Although International Women’s Day took place last week on March 8, it shouldn’t be the only time we address notable women who are fighting for women’s rights. The National Council of Jewish Women in Canada (NCJWC) endeavours to use this international time of reflection to spotlight Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.
Sotoudeh has devoted her life’s work to fighting oppression and violence. If she’s not a known name in your household, she should be. NCJWC is but one of many groups advocating for Sotoudeh and urging Iran to release her.
There are many reasons to support Sotoudeh; her work is admirable, commendable, and brave. She has defended countless protestors, journalists, activists, political prisoners, and human rights defenders. However, doing so has put her life on the line, ultimately leading to her imprisonment.
After two unfair trials, Sotoudeh was confined to the notorious Evin prison in Tehran. In 2018 she was sentenced to 38 years behind bars and 148 lashes for her work defending women’s rights and protesting the discriminatory forced veiling laws—what Iranian authorities saw as “inciting corruption and prostitution.”
Her latest arrest occurred after she helped defend activist Shaparak Shajarizadeh (now living in Canada) who was incarcerated for protesting Iran’s mandatory veiling law. She was freed on bail only because of Sotoudeh’s work as an attorney. Shajarizadeh managed to escape the country in 2018 and Sotoudeh was arrested shortly after. “She put her life on the line for me,” Shajarizadeh said in a Globe and Mail article.
Last year Sotoudeh went on a hunger strike for more than 40 days to demand the release of political prisoners during the pandemic. She became incredibly weak and was taken to a hospital where her family was neither able to see her nor receive information about her health. Not only has Sotoudeh suffered greatly, but her family has experienced immeasurable hardship—her daughter has been arrested and her husband subjected to unending harassment.
Now, her case has gained global attention. Irwin Cotler, Chair for the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, Canada’s former Minister of Justice and Canada’s Attorney General, and international human rights lawyer, is currently serving as Sotoudeh’s international legal counsel. His calls for her release have been echoed by President Emmanuel Macron of France, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, US President Joe Biden, the European Union, and Amnesty International.
This past October, a documentary made about her story, Nasrin, was filmed secretly in Iran. It is written and directed by Jeff Kaufman who also produced it with Marsha Ross, narrated by Olivia Colman. The filmmakers’ daring, difficult, and dangerous efforts aim to strengthen the public’s awareness concerning the dangers Sotoudeh continues to face, and of the brutal and corrupt legal system in Iran. NCJWC also hosted an event showing the documentary.
In May 2019, Cotler shared Sotoudeh’s story with the International Council of Jewish Women (IJCW) at a delegates meeting in Toronto. Since then, the council has felt compelled to act and champion Sotoudeh’s cause.
Ever since the meeting, ICJW’s International President Penelope Conway, and the entire executive committee, declared that all 43 affiliate Jewish women’s organizations across five continents mobilize members to protest Sotoudeh’s condition and imprisonment.
As a global affiliate, NCJWC has asked Canada’s Minister of Women and Gender Equality Maryam Monsef, to focus on Sotoudeh’s case. NCJWC has also written to Michele Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urging Sotoudeh’s freedom.
This article is another opportunity to urge everyone who cares about human rights to see the documentary and protest for this humanitarian’s release.
Sotoudeh is a fearless human rights lawyer, wife, and mother, who has put herself and her family at great risk to advocate for human rights in a country prohibiting the full freedoms that are every woman’s right to have. Nasrin Sotoudeh does this work because she cannot ignore the injustices happening in her country. She is using her voice to raise awareness, and to improve life for women in Iran. That’s why she matters, not just to Iran, but to all who yearn for an equal and just world.
Header image photos courtesy of National Council of Jewish Women in Canada. Design by Orly Zebak.
Debby Altow is a lifelong member of the National Council of Jewish Women of Canada. She is an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Medicine at University of British Columbia, and serves as one of the Vice-Presidents on the executive of the International Council of Jewish Women. Formerly the Director of Communications for the Canadian Cancer Society (BC and Yukon Division), she lives in Richmond with husband Bill Altow; nine grandchildren enrich their lives!