Just over two months ago, Iranian artist and activist Atena Farghadani was freed from prison after her draconian prison sentence of 12 years and 9 months for mocking her country’s parliament in a cartoon was shortened to the 18 months she’d already served. Last week, she gave an exclusive interview to the Washington Post’s Michael Cavna about her time in prison, her plans for the future, and her conviction that she is obligated to keep making art in Iran, no matter the consequences.
Farghadani was first arrested in August 2014 for her cartoon mocking Members of Parliament as they debated a bill to ban voluntary sterilization procedures such as vasectomies and tubal ligations in an effort to reverse Iran’s falling birthrate. But even before her arrest, she was already well-known to the government for her fearless advocacy on behalf of political prisoners, Baha’i minorities, and the families of protesters killed after the country’s presidential election in 2009.
When Farghadani was released on bail while awaiting trial, she promptly uploaded a video to YouTube detailing abuses she suffered in prison including beatings, strip searches, and non-stop interrogations. She was rearrested in January 2015 and finally received the draconian sentence after a perfunctory jury-less trial in late May. Last year, she was honored with the 2015 Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award from CRNI.
Also last year, Farghadani was additionally charged with “non-adultery illegitimate relations” for shaking her lawyer Mohammad Moghimi’s hand in prison. Contact between unrelated members of the opposite sex is technically illegal in Iran, but rarely prosecuted. Moghimi was also charged, and both parties could have received sentences of up to 99 lashes if convicted. Both were acquitted in January 2016, but in the course of the investigation Farghadani was involuntarily subjected to virginity and pregnancy tests. The specious virginity test is carried out by physically checking for the presence of a hymen, and is recognized by the World Health Organization as a form of sexual violence.
Evin Prison, the Tehran lockup where Farghadani spent most of her incarceration, is almost invariably described in Western media as “notorious.” But in fact, she tells Cavna (with translation help from CRNI’s Nik Kowsar) that the women’s prison at Gharchak where she was initially detained is even worse. It was there that she went on a prolonged hunger strike which resulted in cardiac arrest before she was moved to Evin. At Gharchak, she recalls, “I was absolutely hopeless and thought I would die there, without my voice ever being heard. But I kept going with the strike, constantly thinking that even if I die, I have a clear conscience for I’ve died for my beliefs and goals.”
When Cavna asked at the end of the interview if there was anything else she’d like to mention that hadn’t yet been addressed, Farghadani chose to speak out for the women still in Gharchak, many of them political prisoners:
Most of them longed for cool drinking water, instead of the salty lukewarm water they had to drink from the tap. There were only four showers in each chamber for 189 inmates, with the same salty water for only an hour a day, so many of them missed a hot shower! Many of them [condemned to] death sentences wished to plant something that wouldn’t wither from the salty water and [to] see that plant — to leave a living mark before departing from this life.
Once she was moved to Evin, Farghadani actually managed to convince herself that 12 years and 9 months in prison would simply be an ideal opportunity to work on her art and then “put [on] an exhibition of my works after my release.” Understandably her family was unable to take the same philosophical view of the situation, so she felt that “I had no choice but to make faces for them from behind the glasses in the visitation cabin to make them laugh. These were the hardest and most bitter days I had during my incarceration.”
Farghadani is still determined to display her work publicly. Knowing that won’t happen in any formal exhibit space in Iran, she is considering an impromptu “street gallery”–though she notes wryly that “it wouldn’t be without consequences.” But even with such hurdles, she refuses to entertain the thought of fleeing the country:
When I witness the problems Iranians are dealing with, such as economic and cultural poverty and various limitations, I cannot leave them alone to live in another country in a better situation, despite all the constraints and issues I would possibly face…I don’t see it in me to be able to leave my country because of my emotional attachments, which is perhaps a weakness of mine, but as long as I live, I will stay here, even if I have to go to prison again.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.