“Woman, life, freedom!” an activist continues her fight for women’s rights
29 November 2022
Mahnaz Parakand is a lawyer and activist from Iran. A long standing defender of women’s rights, she was arrested and sentenced to death for participating in political demonstrations in 1981 while still a student. Her sentence was later commuted to imprisonment. Her difficulties with the authorities didn’t end there, as she was prevented from obtaining her license to practice the law for a long time after graduation. Once she received her degree, she joined the Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran. After facing the threat of execution again, she left Iran and now lives in Norway, where she continues to work as an activist, standing up for the rights of women.
On the occasion of International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, we asked Mahnaz some questions for her to talk about how she stands up for human rights.
Q: What was your experience growing up as a woman in Iran?
A: I felt discrimination in my flesh, skin and bones. I grew up in Tehran in a poor family, in a patriarchal community where socially and economically active girls and women were easily judged and rejected from society. My father, while being proud of my capabilities, did not want me to continue my studies at university, due to the fear of judgment from neighbours and other people around us. At the same time, he encouraged my older brother to continue his studies. Although my father did not stop me from pursuing a university education, I could see the look of disappointment in his eyes and this made me feel very upset and guilty. That is when I witnessed first-hand the inequality, discrimination and unfair judgment of society against women. I decided to start fighting for my human rights from within my own family, engaging with my father and brother to bring to their attention the unjust situation of women. My mother was always my supporter. In 1978, when I was admitted to the Faculty of Law of Tehran University, only 20 percent of students were women.
Q: Tell us about being arrested and sentenced to death?
A: At 22 years old, I was arrested for participating in political demonstrations. I was imprisoned alongside hundreds of other women. From the moment I entered prison, I was tortured with batons and gun butts all over my body, as well as with electric cable strikes on the soles of my feet, which made me unable to wear shoes and to walk. The interrogation period lasted three months. They tortured me the whole time. They took me to a ‘judge’ who didn't give me any opportunity to defend myself. He declared, "Your sentence is execution." I was tried and sentenced to death as quickly and as simply as that. There are many descriptions of torture, but let me just say that it was so painful and unbearable that I was relieved when I heard the death sentence. I knew that my life would end with execution, but at least I was not going to be tortured anymore, and this gave me peace.
Q: When did you realize that it was important to you to stand up for others? What was the catalyst?
A: While being imprisoned and tortured, I promised myself that if I got out of prison alive, I would obtain a lawyer's license and defend the rights of political prisoners and activists. And so I did. I became a member of the Women and Children Committee and the Associate Lawyers Committee of the Defenders of Human Rights Center. I wrote a book called ‘Women's Rights in Simple Language’, which explains the rights and discrimination contained in Iranian laws using a simple vocabulary, and which could be used to reach the least educated women in the society. I also prepared a small pamphlet called "Rights of the Accused in simple Language" and I wrote another book called "Prisoner's Rights," which is a collection of laws and regulations governing the rights of detainees and prisoners in simple and analytical language. Today, by writing articles and speaking at conferences and universities, I try to raise awareness on the systematic discrimination against women in Iran.
Q: You were sentenced to death, arrested, imprisoned and forced to leave your country. And yet, you still fight for women's rights in Iran. What motivates you to keep fighting, despite all the challenges and risks?
A: I suffer from seeing other people’s discrimination as much as those individuals themselves suffer from it. It is our responsibility to clear the way for the recognition of the humanity of all human beings, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, beliefs, ethnicity, etc., and to respect all human beings and human rights. I consider the struggle for human rights and justice not as a duty, but as a part of my identity.
Q: What is the situation of women's rights in Iran today?
A: The situation of women's rights in Iran today is tragic. After the Islamic Revolution, in addition to already existing discriminatory laws, other gross and insulting restrictions were established. The hijab became mandatory for women. Discriminatory laws in the areas of marriage, inheritance, family law, custody of children and citizenship were also introduced. Women were also prevented from entering stadiums, riding bicycles and motorcycles, and playing certain sports.
Q: The protests in Iran currently have garnered worldwide attention. What are your thoughts on these protests?
A: After years of discrimination, with the arrest and death of Jina Mahsa Amini in the custody of the ‘morality police’, the anger of Iranian women exploded. All women and men who walk side by side and shout for a free life for women, have understood very well that woman is life and life is not about being alive, but about being free. We need to make the slogan ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ come true in Iran and all over the world.
Q: What is the future you would like to see for next generations of Iranian women?
A: I would like to see a future where Iranian women are recognized as human beings with human rights and citizenship rights, as well as an established position in society, instead of being seen as tools for meeting men's sexual desires and bearing children.
Q: Do you consider yourself a human rights defender? Why?
A: Yes, I consider myself a human rights defender because I believe everyone has the same rights and I respect the human rights of everyone. I can never tolerate the violation of human rights of any person.
Q. Any final message?
A: Iranian women and girls have been standing up for their rights in the face of inequality and oppression, and they have great merits and capabilities. Despite all the restrictions, they managed to make up more than 60 percent of university students. They excel in many sports. Many of them are lawyers, doctors, writers and poets, and a role model for younger generations. Despite many being arrested and tortured for standing up against discrimination, Iranian women and girls have never bowed down to oppression and oppressors.
This story is part of an occasional series of stories on human rights defenders called Human Rights Champions- portraits of individuals or organizations that stand up for human rights. The views expressed to not necessarily reflect the position and opinions of UN Human Rights.