Iranian lawyer and women’s rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh’s heartbreaking letters from prison reveal the trauma inflicted on families by the government that claims to protect them.
Nasrin Sotoudeh is a lawyer who has never shied away from doing what’s right in Iran. In her long and impressive career, she has exposed the injustices of the death penalty and campaigned for children’s rights. Most recently, she defied degrading laws that force girls as young as nine to wear a hijab or face prison, flogging or a fine. Nasrin has been sentenced to a total of 38 years and 148 lashes after two unfair trials because she demanded choice for women and girls. She will have to serve 17 years of this sentence.
Nasrin Sotoudeh is also a mother of two. Her commitment to justice and equality for her clients set Iran’s authorities against her. They have thrown her in jail twice: once in 2010 and now again in 2018. Both times, Nasrin was torn from her beloved children – and her children from their brave and loving mother. Over that period, she wrote a number of letters from prison to her son Nima, now aged 11 and her daughter Mehraveh, now 19. As these excerpts show, Nasrin’s anguish at being what she is – someone who must defend what’s right at all costs – makes her question her own choices as a mother. It is an unjust situation wrought not by her choices, but by a repressive government determined to break her. As many would agree, Nasrin is being the best mother she can be, by showing her children that truth and justice are principles worth fighting for – and that being a good mother doesn’t mean choosing between your values and your kids.
Hello my dearest Nima,
Writing a letter to you is so very difficult. How do I tell you where I am when you are so innocent and too young to comprehend the true meaning of words such as prison, arrest, sentence, trial and injustice?
Last week you asked me, “Mummy, are you coming home with us today?” and I was forced to respond in plain view of the security agents: “My work is going to take a while so I’ll come home later.” It is then that you nodded as if to say you understand and took my hand, giving it a sweet, childlike kiss with your small lips.
How do I explain that coming home is not up to me, that I am not free to rush back to you, when I know that you had told your father to ask me to finish my work, so I can come back home? How do I explain to you that no “work” could ever keep me so far away from you?
My dear Nima, in the past six months, I have found myself crying uncontrollably on two occasions. The first time was when my father passed away and I was deprived of grieving and attending his funeral. The second was the day you asked me to come home and I couldn’t come home with you.
My dearest Nima, in child custody cases, the courts have repeatedly ruled that, when it comes to visitation rights, a three-year-old child cannot be left with their father for 24 consecutive hours. This [is] because the courts believe that young children should not be away from their mothers for 24 hours and that such a separation would result in psychological damage to a child.
This same judiciary, however, is ignoring the rights of a three-year-old child under the pretext that his mother is seeking to “act against the national security” of the country.
It goes without saying that I was not seeking in any way to “act against national security” and that, as a lawyer, my only objective has always been to defend my clients under the law.
I want you to know that, as a woman, I am proud of the heavy sentence rendered against me and honoured to have defended many human rights defenders. The relentless efforts by women have finally proven that regardless of whether we support or oppose them, we can no longer be ignored.
Hoping for better days,
To my dearest Mehraveh, my daughter, my pride and joy,
It has been six months since I was taken away from you my beloved children. Throughout these six months we were only allowed to see each other a few times and, even then, in the presence of security agents. During this time, I was never allowed to write to you, to receive a picture, or even meet with you freely without any security restrictions. My dear Mehraveh, you, more than anyone, understand the sorrow in my heart and the conditions under which we were allowed to meet. Each time, after each visit and every single day, I struggle with the notion of whether or not I have taken into consideration and respected my own children’s rights. More than anything, I needed to be sure that you, my beloved daughter, whose wisdom I very much believe in, did not accuse me of violating my own children’s rights.
I once told you: “My daughter I hope you never think that I was not thinking of you or that it was my actions that deserved such punishment… Everything I have done is legal and within the framework of the law.” It was then that you lovingly caressed my face with your small hands and replied: “I know, Mummy… I know…” It was on that day that I was freed of the nightmare of being judged by my own daughter.
My dearest Mehraveh, just like I was never able to disregard your rights and always sought to protect them to my fullest capacity, I was also never able to disregard the rights of my clients.
How could I abandon the scene as soon as I was summoned by the authorities, knowing that my clients were behind bars? How could I abandon them when they had hired me as their legal counsel and were awaiting their trial?
It was my desire to protect the rights of many, particularly the rights of my children and your future, that led me to represent such cases in court. I believe that the pain that our family and the families of my clients have had to endure over the past few years is not in vain. Justice arrives exactly at the time when most have given up hope.
I miss you my dearest and send you one hundred kisses,
Hello my dearest Nima,
I don’t know how to start this letter. How can I forget that this year you have to start school without me and even without your father by your side, and simply tell you that this year is a normal year like any other year? How can I ask you to go to school on time, do your homework, study well and be a good boy until we return?
I would hate to speak such words to you as a mother because I know that in your young life you have had to live through the constant trauma of visiting me in prison, being prohibited from visiting me, and the fear of injustice.
As a mother, I cannot ask you to forget my existence and think to yourself that you do not have a mother at all, just so that I can pursue my work and struggle [for human rights] with a clear conscience. May I never be this cruel to you.
My job as a lawyer, which is under constant attack in Iran, is pulling me – and this time also your father – into the storm of injustice and cowardice that is destroying the community of Iranian lawyers.
These days I am thinking about you constantly, about how lonely you must feel and about our dear Mehraveh, who has made us proud and who is now forced to care for you and be your mother and father at the same time.
I am sending you my tears of love, hoping they make the injustice of our time a little more tolerable for you.
I send you thousands of kisses for I have not seen you in far too long.
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