Suzanne Nossel | United Nations | New York City
September 14, 2023
Thank you for the introduction. And thank you to StopFemicideIran and NUFDI (National Union for Democracy in Iran) for bringing us together on this solemn anniversary, marking the tragic and indefensible murder of Mahsa Amini.
In May of this year, PEN America presented its PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award to Narges Mohammadi – who has endured imprisonment for the majority of the past decade and been a target of the Iranian government for the last three for her unrelenting advocacy on behalf of women, political prisoners, and ethnic minorities. Narges' husband traveled to New York to accept the award on her behalf – and shared with a room full of PEN America supporters a poignant observation made by their children: that throughout their lives, one or the other parent has consistently been absent from their home, taking turns behind bars.
It drew the room silent, serving as a stark reminder of the profound personal costs borne by those who meet the restraints of despotic regimes with a relentless commitment to free expression – and champion the rights of others to share in that same freedom.
And yet, the last year has been marked by countless instances of Iranian women courageously chosing to stand for freedom again and again – even when the costs amount to imprisonment, torture, death...
How do we make sense of this moment?
For more than a century, PEN America has stood at the intersection of literature and human rights to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that underpin it. We have long recognized Iran as one of the most perilous landscapes for freedom of expression – a place where the mere combination of being a woman and a writer, a woman and an artist, a woman and a journalist, or even a woman and an advocate becomes a crime punishable by prision and sometimes, by death.
In the face of repression, PEN America has served the threatened Iranian artistic and literary communities by reporting on the cases of Iranians who have had their homes searched, their private spaces desecrated by security officials, and their professional equipment destroyed. We have drawn attention to Iranian writers and artists who have been incarcerated and often tortured in a country tainted by a history of brutal treatment of political prisoners. And we have strengthened partnerships and collaborations with international and Iranian civil society organizations to offer direct assistance to those who have been forced to flee their homeland, seeking to remake their lives in countries where they can live and work without fear.
The Iranian government, we’ve learned, is as discerning as it is cruel: It recognizes and fears the power writers and artists yield to encourage Iranians to rise up and join the protest movement. To demand more freedoms for their fellow citizens. To cast a global spotlight on the daily atrocities that take place in Iran. And in the face of this threat, existential to its very power, the tyrant has clamped down with greed to obliterate any aspect of civic life that could make room for dissent.
There is no denying that the grip of theocracy has worsened dramatically since the outbreak of mass demonstrations that started in Iran a year ago, following the arrest and murder of Mahsa Amini. In our Freedom to Write Index, which tracks cases of detained and imprisoned writers, PEN America saw Iran jump to second place worldwide for the highest number of jailed writers last year – from 22 to 57 documented cases.
The world has also seen it: We have watched in horror the startling sight of teenage girls being killed by the hands of their own government just for participating in peaceful protests.
Yes, the stakes are higher than ever. The abuse of power and senseless recourse to violence is more dangerous than it has been before. But the playbook remains the same: The Iranian regime senses the threat of this moment and with an unsteady hand, it desperately clutches for control.
This is not the work of strength and might – but the work of staggering fear.
Amidst profound human suffering, the last 12 months have borne witness to a water-shed moment – a women-led revolution mounting the greatest challenge the Iranian regime has faced in decades.
Women have met threats and violence with incredible courage – attempts at repression with a resolute commitment to continuing to speak out.
Among these prominent voices is Narges Mohammadi, already imprisoned at the time of Amini’s death, who has bravely continued to speak out from Evin prison in defense of those jailed for of their activism and expression – detailing the horrific practices of torture and sexual abuse being deployed against political prisoners. Last month, Narges was handed down an additional prison sentence for propaganda against the regime, and on Tuesday, information trickled out of Evin, indicating that she had been beaten by a prison guard.
There is also writer and activist Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, arrested once again in September 2022 for her support and involvement in the Masha Amini protests. She was sentenced to 7 years in prison in April of this year, compounded by an additional 5 year sentence in July.
Or the many members of the Iranian Writers Association, who have persistently challenged the shackles of state censorship and, in return, faced decades of prosecution. Just a few days ago, writer, translator, and Iranian Writers Association member Keyvan Mohtadi was placed in solitary confinement for the simple act of reciting a poem – a touching demonstration of solidarity with fellow prisoners.
And then, of course, there are the thousands of women who have valiantly cast aside their hijabs in protest, sheared their hair and bound it around their wrists, and ventured onto the streets aware that they may never return to the embrace of their families.
In their examples, we recognize the quality and momentum of the stories etched in the annals of history. This is that probable inflection point – where, having recognized what freedom should look like, people take to the streets, topple the tyrant, and make freedom their own.
Our role, while simpler, is no less vital. Our organizations must remain unwavering guardians for free expression and the rights that underpin it. We must engender solidarity for the women and people of Iran, shining a light on abuses and holding power to account. And we must support – through all available means – the strengthening of Iranian independent civil institutions that have
made way for this movement.
That’s how we continue to propel this remarkable freedom moment.