This past year there were signs that the world is waking up to the power and contribution of women. Three women — two African women and a Muslim woman, only the second in history — this year won the Nobel Peace Prize. No less remarkable, the International Criminal Court recently appointed Fatou Bensouda of Gambia as the first-ever female chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court — one of the world's top legal posts.
Yet sadly there are also many signs women's power continues to be threatening to many governments around the globe, including the Iranian regime. On this International Human Rights Day, about 100 women's human rights defenders — strong and powerful women — languish behind bars in Iran. One of them is my friend and colleague, Nasrin Sotoudeh.
Nasrin is a 48-year-old lawyer, human rights campaigner and women's rights activist.
How, according to the Iranian regime, is she breaking the law? Charges against Nasrin include “acts against national security,” “anti-regime propaganda” and belonging to the Centre for Human Rights Defenders. In January 2011, Nasrin was sentenced to 11 years in prison. In mid-September 2011, the Appeals Court reduced her prison sentence to six years and a ban against practising law from 20 years to 10.
Amnesty International considers Nasrin to be a prisoner of conscience because she is in custody for peacefully exercising her rights to freedom of expression and association. They have been joined by many prominent human rights campaigners around the world — including Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights — in calling for Iranian authorities to release her immediately from prison.
For so many of us working to raise awareness of Iran's human rights abuses, Nasrin's case is a reminder of just how determined Iran is to stop the winds of change and thwart any efforts to bring any form of democracy to Iran.
Nasrin and I worked together on the One Million Signatures Campaign to change discriminatory laws against women in Iran, and also the Centre for Human Rights Defenders. But her bravest work has been in defending the rights of many fellow activists who have been arrested, tried unfairly and then jailed. When I was harassed by the Iranian government for my human rights work, it was Nasrin who came to my legal defence. Nasrin has spoken publicly about the shortcomings of the Iranian legal system and is one of the few in Iran willing to defend young offenders on death row.
Even now, in the notorious Evin prison, Nasrin continues to stand up for her rights and advocate for due process and justice. This principled stand has come at a high price. Since she was arrested in September, 2010, she has spent much of her time in solitary confinement. Nasrin's health is compromised by three hunger strikes, which she did to protest her imprisonment, lack of trial and the conditions of her detention. Nasrin rarely sees her two young children, and the few visits they've had together were very traumatic for the children.
Meanwhile, Iran remains wilfully determined to keep Nasrin out of the public eye — and silence her defenders, as well. One of the lawyers defending Nasrin is now also in jail, and Iranian officials have pressured Nasrin's husband, Reza Khandan, with threats and imprisonment to make his wife stop her activities.
These are the desperate acts of a government that views freedom of expression and a fair and just legal system as a threat to its political hegemony. Sadly, Iran is not the only country where this problem exists. I work with women's human rights defenders from around the globe — in Sudan, Mexico, Honduras, Burma and many other countries. All too often women are targeted for standing up to government abuse and fighting for justice and an end to impunity for violence against women.
On this International Human Right Day, let us commit to finally accepting that women are not the enemy. Indeed, women's power and contribution are to be supported and celebrated.
Shirin Ebadi is a former judge in Iran who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, and is one of the co-founders of the Nobel Women's Initiative — an organization that supports women's human rights defenders around the world.