As we approach the revised Tuesday deadline for six world powers to reach a nuclear deal with Iran over its nuclear program, we should not turn a blind eye to the country’s ongoing abusive treatment of its citizens.
As an actress, I value and rely on peaceful self-expression, not only in my daily life, but also in my professional work. This is particularly true as my commitment to the promotion of human rights is an integral part of my calling as an artist. So when I see another socially committed artist persecuted for upholding the values I hold dear, I feel it incumbent upon myself — and artists everywhere — to condemn this outrage against our entire community.
Atena Farghadani is a case in point. Following a trial in May, the 28-year-old Iranian artist and women’s rights activist was handed an outrageous prison sentence, essentially for drawing a cartoon depicting some members of Iran’s Majles (parliament) with animal heads. The drawing was a form of protest against bills in various stages of the parliamentary process that are aimed at increasing the birthrate by restricting access to contraception and establishing hiring practices that favor married women over single women.
I was shocked when I heard that Farghadani had been sentenced to 12 years and nine months in prison, on spurious charges, as Amnesty International notes, of “spreading propaganda against the system,” “insulting members of the parliament through paintings” and “insulting the Supreme Leader” with her cartoon. Amnesty notes that she was also charged with gathering and colluding with deviant groups because “she met with the families of those killed by government agents in the unrest following the 2009 presidential elections, as well as for an art exhibition she held that was attended by members of Iran’s persecuted Baha’i community.”
The judge who presided over her trial, held in one of Iran’s notoriously unfair revolutionary courts, is well-known for the harsh sentences he imposes on those guilty of peaceful dissent.
Farghadani had already been in jail for most of the time since her August 2014 arrest. She went on hunger strike in February to protest her detention in poor conditions, according to Amnesty, and she suffered a heart attack. But even while behind bars, and deprived of art supplies, Amnesty says that “she was so anxious to express herself that she attempted to use small paper cups to create art.” For her “audacity,” she says she was subjected to abusive treatment at the hands of prison guards.
All this despite the fact that there is a long and venerable history in Iran of satirical cartoons being used to express political opinions, just as there is in other countries around the world. Unfortunately, Iran is also not alone in the world in trying to censor cartoons. Although it is hard to see why any sensible authority would feel threatened by the peaceful expression of one’s point of view, there is a long history of trying to repress subversive depictions of political figures — back in the 19th century, for example, France’s King Louis Philippe was depicted as a piece of fruit.
History’s lesson, of course, is that attempts to suppress free expression have merely confirmed the caricaturists’ original critique of heavy-handed and objectionable actions of overreaching governments.
But Farghadani does not have time to wait for history to judge the repressive system in Iran, one that crushes expressions of peaceful dissent. It breaks my heart to think that she could remain in prison for another decade or more if forced to serve her full sentence.
With all this in mind, I urge artists and concerned citizens everywhere to join me in calling on Iranian authorities to release Farghadani immediately and unconditionally, and to make human rights a priority even as much of the world is focused on the nuclear talks.
Put simply, this hideous miscarriage of justice cannot be allowed to stand.
Nazanin Boniadi is an Iranian-born actress. The views expressed are her own.