Remarks by Shaparak Shajarizadeh upon receiving the Morris B. Abram Award
UN Watch Online Gala, November 1, 2020
I’m deeply grateful and honored to receive this award named after UN Watch founder Morris B. Abram—an iconic human rights leader with a profound legacy. We have all benefited from his life’s work, and the work of UN Watch. Thank you to everyone at UN Watch for continuing his mission of holding governments to account in order to achieve a more free and fair world.
UN Watch has supported Iranian activists like me for years, giving us a platform to seek justice and call out Iran’s human rights violations.
Since the 1979 Revolution, Iranian women haven’t had the right to choose who they want to be. For 41 years, the Islamic government has used the compulsory hijab law, which forces women to wear a headscarf in public, as a repressive tool to abuse, violate, and subjugate women and prevent them from having any important role in society.
But things changed in May 2017, when women’s rights activist and journalist Masih Alinejad launched the White Wednesdays movement to protest compulsory hijab. This campaign encourages followers to wear either a white or no headscarf, and then post pictures on social media in a collective act of defiance against the regime.
I had always admired the tenacity of women’s rights activists in Iran even though I had never felt compelled to speak up. But I felt different after seeing a beautiful image of a woman remove her white headscarf, attach it to a stick, and stand before the public on a utility box, waving it as a white flag of peace. This woman’s name is Vida Movahedi. Soon after, I joined Vida and other courageous women by proudly removing my headscarf. But my public protest had consequences. In February 2018, I was arrested and taken to Qarchak prison where I was beaten and thrown into solitary confinement.
It was the most frightening experience of my life. As an activist, I was paralyzed with fear. As a mother, I was crushed having been separated from my 9-year-old son with no idea of when I would see him again. After a hunger strike, I was released on bail.
Months later, while on vacation with my son, I was arrested for a final time. The authorities handcuffed me and interrogated me in front of my child as he cried, screamed, and begged them to let us go home. In the courthouse that evening, he cried himself to sleep on my lap. At that moment, I told myself that I wouldn’t let this happen to my family ever again.
All of this pain—for the crime of peacefully waving a white flag of peace in the street.
When Nasrin Sotudeh—the leading human rights lawyer who represented me in the court—bailed me out–I immediately fled the country with my son, and my trial proceeded without me. Nasrin told me that throughout the trial, the judge refused to hear my side and, like so many other women who stood trial before me, my fate was predetermined.
However, unlike those women—and thanks to Nasrin—I was safely outside the country with my son. On the day of my release, I looked into his eyes and said that our suffering wouldn’t be for nothing, that one day he’d be proud of me.
Today, accepting this award, I have my freedom while my lawyer Nasrin still languishes behind bars, having been falsely accused of “propaganda against the state” and “encouraging prostitution.” She is serving a prison sentence of 38 years, with 148 lashes.
And there are thousands of others in her same position: imprisoned on fake charges, refused legal representations, and awaiting a fixed trial without any hope for justice.
I often think: how many of these dissidents are mothers–like I was–separated from their children? My heart breaks to think of the months they have endured without hugging or kissing their families.
The truth of what happens inside these courtrooms and prisons would shock anyone with a conscience. But still, the international community is silent.
Every year, the United Nations makes statements about human rights abuses in Iran. Yet too often, they also send the opposite message by refusing to take meaningful action against the regime. And last year, the UN actually appointed the Islamic Republic of Iran to a position on its women’s rights commission.
That’s why UN Watch is so important because when the world chooses to remain silent, UN Watch chooses to make noise. And when the UN gives a free pass to abusers, UN Watch holds them to account.
Enough is enough. The UN must stop rewarding abusers. Instead, the UN needs to condemn Iran, punish the Rouhani regime, and expose its transgressions to the world.
I appeal to the UN, to politicians, and to all of you watching around the world, to stand in solidarity with human rights defenders in Iran, and with the Iranian people, to challenge the oppressive regime. We really need your support.
As Albert Einstein said, “The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil, than from those who actually commit it.”
I thank UN Watch for this recognition, and for being my partner in bringing justice to victims of the Iranian regime.
To my lawyer Nasrin Sotudeh, to my friend Mojgan who is in prison away from her daughter, and to all the brave Iranian men and women who have challenged the government and are paying the price of freedom in prison, I will continue fighting for you.
To my son, I hope today I made you proud.