Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the past 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.
In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema… And so the list goes on.
This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. The articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.
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Lawyer Mehrangiz Kar has been at the forefront of the fight to defend human rights in Iran for many years. For this, she has received praise, recognition and awards — but she has also paid a high price: harassment, imprisonment, exile and family tragedy.
Born in 1944, Mehrangiz was a well-established writer and analyst before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. She regularly wrote articles about Iranian society and foreign affairs in high-profile publications including Ferdowsi magazine and Kayhan and Rastakhiz newspapers. Photographs of her with short, uncovered hair often accompanied these articles, and were used against her as evidence of her “moral corruption” after the revolution.
As the shah was ousted, Ayatollah Khomeini ordered all newspapers and magazines to cease publication. Several years later, Kar wrote that she and some of her colleagues had wrongly believed that by continuing to publish news and features, they could hope to set right the path of a revolution that they believed was going in the wrong direction.
Three months before the revolution, Kar received her law license, which she used to expand her writing to include legal issues and their effects on women and their rights. At the same time, she also started representing clients in the new Islamic court system. She remembers those days as being “anti-woman” and “anti-lawyer” and says that she was forced to hide her pre-revolutionary identity: “my articles, my hairdo, my dress style and my friendly relations with men that I had been proud of.”
Mehrangiz Kar worked as a public defender in the courts and as the defense lawyer in a wide variety of cases, including cases that involved adultery, divorce and human rights violations. This led her to engage in “legal disclosure” through writing articles.
Up until 2000, she worked on human rights cases and contributed to the reformist press and publications including Zanan (Women), which is generally acknowledged to be the only feminist publication in Iran. “I hoped that my articles would encourage certain religious authorities to stand up against anti-female legislation and adopt a broader outlook on sharia law.”
When reformist president Mohammad Khatami was elected, many Iranian human rights activists, including Kar, thought their chances of fighting laws that violated human rights would improve. For this, the hardliner press repeatedly accused her of encouraging prostitution, espionage and promoting “vulgar” Western culture.
In 2000, after reformists gained a majority in the parliamentary elections, Mehrangiz Kar and 16 other journalists travelled to Berlin to attend a conference called “Iran After The Elections” that was organized by the Heinrich Böll Institute. As the event’s first speaker, Kar emphasized the urgent need for constitutional reform in Iran.
But the conference was interrupted by a group of Iranian exiles that shouted “death to the Islamic Republic;” female protesters stripped and danced naked on the chairs at the conference.
When she returned to Iran, Kar and a number of other attendees were arrested and taken to Evin Prison. She was charged with various crimes, which included activities against national security, propaganda against the regime, wearing un-Islamic dress at the conference and violating religious commands.
She spent two months in detention but was released after international pressure mounted. She was tried on January 2001 and was sentenced to four years in prison. She appealed, but before the appeal process could go through, Kar was diagnosed with breast cancer. Under pressure from the European Union, and especially the Netherlands, Iranian authorities permitted Kar to travel to the United States for treatment.
Two months later, her journalist husband Siamak Pourzand was arrested. His forced confession, which was broadcast on Iranian TV, showed a man that had been visibly tortured. He confessed to espionage, and to having connections to the shah’s son, who was living in exile. The court sentenced him to 11 years in prison and 74 lashes.
In 2002, Mehrangiz Kar received the American National Endowment for Democracy's Democracy award from the US First Lady, Laura Bush. Mehrangiz has received many awards for her human rights work and promotion of democracy, including the 2002 Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize from France, the 2002 Hellman-Hammett Grant from International Human Rights Watch, the 2001 Vasyl Stus Freedom-to-Write Award from PEN New England and the 2000 Oxfam Novib/PEN Award of PEN Clube in the Netherlands.
Then, in 2011, her husband was placed under house arrest after being released from prison. He was harassed on a daily basis and committed suicide.
Mehrangiz Kar currently works at the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women at Brown University in Rhode Island, United States. She continues to write about human rights violations and women’s rights in Iran. She has also published a memoir entitled Crossing the Red Line: The Struggle for Human Rights in Iran.
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