The Iranian government has made it clear that it doesn’t like what Mehrangiz Kar has to say about what is happening in Iran or how Islamic law impacts women. The prominent Iranian lawyer, writer and activist doesn’t care.
Kar — who has been harassed, imprisoned, exiled and suffered personal tragedy as the result of her and her family’s efforts to advocate for those without a voice in Iran — will teach a seminar this fall at California State University, Northridge that will explore how Islamic law, known as Sharia, adversely shapes the lives of women in Muslim-majority countries, as well as in Muslim communities in the West.
“I look forward to giving the students an understanding of Islamic law and an appreciation for how Islam can be used or misused to justify any political system, even one that abuses its citizens,” said Kar, who has fought for human rights and democracy in Iran for more than four decades. “Some political leaders say that they are doing something under the name of Islam in order to give legitimacy to the system. Under the name of Islam, then, people are discriminated against — not just women, but all minorities.”
Kar, a visiting scholar in CSUN’s Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, will share her knowledge of Sharia and how it impacts all aspects of a woman’s life — from marriage, divorce and polygamy to child custody, inheritance, sexuality and reproductive rights — during the course the seminar, “Gender and Women’s Studies 495: Gender and Islamic Law.” She said the class also allows her to spend time with her friend and fellow activist Nayereh Tohidi, a CSUN gender and women’s studies professor and director of the university’s Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Program.
Tohidi, also a respected scholar and activist for human and women’s rights in Iran, said Kar’s experiences as a lawyer and activist in Iran will provide valuable lessons to her students.
“Just by listening to what she has gone through, what her whole family has gone through, can provide a glimpse of what life is like for those people who are advocating on behalf of women and other minorities in Iran,” Tohidi said. “Her students also will get a better understanding of how Sharia has been historically constructed by the male jurists and how it influences Islamic judicial systems.”
Born in 1944, Kar was a well-established writer and analyst before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Kar’s articles about Iranian society and foreign affairs were often accompanied by photographs of her with short, uncovered hair. Following the revolution, these images were used against her as evidence of her “moral corruption.”
Kar received her law license just months before the revolution. Keeping a low profile, she defended clients in the new Islamic court system. Her cases included adultery, divorce and human rights violations. She worked within the codes of the new system — in her manner of dress and her arguments — to protect herself and her clients. Hoping she could influence the regime to be more humane, she continued to write about legal issues.
Kar championed human rights cases in the Islamic courts until 2000, when an election led to reformists gaining a majority in the Iranian parliament. That year, Kar and 16 other journalists, activists and intellectuals attended a conference in Berlin on “Iran After the Elections.” At the conference, Kar talked about the need for constitutional reform in Iran. Her remarks earned her censure back in Iran and, along with other intellectuals who attended the conference in Berlin, she was arrested upon return to her homeland and taken to Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. She was charged with, among other things, “acting against national security,” “spreading propaganda against the regime of the Islamic Republic,” as well as “violating the Islamic dress code” at the Berlin conference, “denying the commands of Sharia” and abusing sacred principles. In January 2001, she was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison.
Two months after her conviction, doctors discovered Kar had cancer. Under pressure from human rights organizations and the European Union, in particular the government of Holland, she was released for temporary treatment in the United States. Two months later, her husband, respected journalist and activist Siamak Pourzand, was arrested and held incommunicado. Kar and their two daughters did not learn his whereabouts until he appeared on Iranian TV, clearly bearing the signs of torture, and “confessed” to espionage and having connections to the Shah’s son, who was living in exile. Pourzand, who suffered from diabetes and a heart ailment, was sentenced to 11 years in prison and 74 lashes. Given the situation, Kar’s friends advised her not to return to Iran.
Giving in to pressure from the European Union, the Iranian government released Pourzand in 2011 for much-needed medical treatment. However, he was under house arrest and banned from traveling abroad. Later, his family learned he had committed suicide.
“[Kar] has paid a very dear price for standing up for what’s right,” Tohidi said. “She’s a very brave woman, and the students can really learn a lot from her professional life as well as her own personal life experiences.”
Over the years, Kar has been honored for her work on behalf of human rights and the promotion of democracy. In 2002, she received the National Endowment for Democracy’s Democracy Award from former First Lady Laura Bush. She also received the 2002 Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize from France, the 2002 Hellman-Hammett Grant from Human Rights Watch, the 2001 Vasyl Stus Freedom to Write Award from PEN New England, and the 2000 Oxfam/Novib PEN Award of PEN Award for Freedom of Expression from Clube in the Netherlands. Among many other books, she has written a memoir, “Crossing the Red Line: The Struggle for Human Rights in Iran,” available in English, as well as Persian.
Threats against her life for her advocacy for human rights and democracy in Iran have continued since Kar, now a grandmother, and her daughters relocated to the U.S.
“They don’t bother me,” she said. “In Iran, I had to be very careful. I’m not in Iran anymore. I can say what needs to be said, and I can share what I know with others.