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Giti Pourfazel, lawyer, poet
Giti Pourfazel graduated from high school at 17, studied law and successfully completed her studies at 21. Because she was too young, she was not yet able to work as a lawyer in Iran – only possible after reaching the age of 25 years.
In the beginning of August 2019 Giti Pourfazel and thirteen other women's rights activists in Iran called for the resignation of the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in an open letter in order to pave the way for building a new political system in Iran.
At the end of August 2019 Giti Pourfazel was arrested and taken to the Evin prison in Tehran. In mid-November 2019 Giti Pourfazel was able to leave the Evin prison under strict conditions until the trial after having payed a high security deposit.
What was the role of religion in your childhood and at home?
Giti Pourfazel: Religion didn't play such an important a role in my family — only my grandmother was very religious. Hence, there weren't any traditionally religious ceremonies at home, for example rosa (a traditional wake for Imam Hussain).
Did your opinion towards religion change as a result of the Islamic revolution in Iran?
G.P.: Initially I did not have such a close connection with religion. Of course I had to deal more with the religious laws during my studies for a law degree. I learned in my studies how the Shari'ah works. And I never thought then that these personal things would ever take place in our society and that the leadership of the country could operate according to these laws.
You are working as a lawyer in a country, where the legal system is based on the Shari'ah. Would you say that Shari'ah law is compatible with human rights?
G.P.: How can someone think that a Torah or a Bible, written two thousand years ago, or the Koran, written 1400 years ago, is compatible with the present times?
In 1979 our religious forces claimed that both were compatible and they were able to do so because the Iranian population was still very religious. But people quickly realized that this agreement is simply not feasible as proposed. For this reason, there have been attempts to adapt the Shari'ah to other laws, for example in the financial sector. Or in the food sector: The sturgeon which produces the caviar was not halal, because it had no scales, so a fatwa was issued. Or even acting was initially haram and was admitted at a later date.
In this sense, parts of the Shari'ah laws were amended to adapt them to reality. But if one had comprehensively amended all Shari'ah laws the legal system would be much better. However, our clerics are not courageous enough to carry out these reforms and adjustments. Only in the case of all Shari'ah laws being amended to today's laws would they become compatible with human rights.
But the clerics who write these laws would also need to be ready to do so. However, ten clerics have ten different opinions. And because there are different interpretations of the laws, one could amend the old laws to the present time.
Why did Ajatollah Chomenei, as the political and religious leader of the Islamic revolution, initially experienced such high degree of approval among women?
G.P.: Because that, what he had initially promised from his exile in France, for example equal rights for women, was not bad at first, and everyone believed his words, including the academics.
Which kind of difficulties are you faced with in your work as a lawyer in Iran?
G.P.: After the revolution of 1979 I spend time on a training scheme in France, together with my husband and children. When I returned to Iran, I noticed that many laws had changed because of the Shari'ah, for example the marriage with four women or the temporary marriage (Sigeh) was possible and in accordance with family law.
At the time I responded immediately and expressed my opposition to these changes. For this reason, I remained without the permit to practice as a lawyer in Iran for 14 years.
I was only allowed to work after the establishment of a bar association because there was neither a law prohibiting me practicing nor was I active as a political lawyer as I had only worked in civil law. I was one of several attorneys who were deprived of their work permit.
Which court case, that you represented as an attorney, has touched you most?
G.P.: All my cases were difficult because all convictions were unjust, but I was most affected by the case of Mr. Sattar Beheshti (Iranian blogger for human rights). This case has affected me in such a deep way, that I started to have nightmares at night. During a hearing in prison, Sattar Beheshti was beaten so much by officials that he died of the consequences.¹
Which are the main lessons you have learned from your long-term work as a lawyer, especially for women's rights?
G.P.: Women's rights have always been written by men and there is no religion where women have the same rights as men. Meanwhile the women have woken up and don't think anymore like 100 years ago. They know that they are human beings and have the same rights. This awareness of women's rights started in the West and a small breeze of change reached us too. Today this breeze has become a storm in Asia and Africa.
Women are not physically equal to men, but they must have the same rights, because they can think and analyze economic and political issues as much as men and hence can't simply be downgraded. Many women are currently working in research and science in Iran and have won several awards with their work.
Public life in Iran is governed by a strict code of ethics and often differs significantly from the private life of the Iranians. How does this double life affect the personality of the Iranians?
G.P.: Since the hijab has become a duty and many normal things have been banned, for example in the field of music, our society has two faces.
Most women are privately very open at home, but there is also a religious group where the hijab is worn at home. On the other hand there are people from several social classes who are living differently at home.
On the one hand the position of women in Iran is determined by Iranian jurisprudence; on the other hand the Iranian society is still patriarchal to this day. How did you experience these structures in your work?
G.P.: All laws are made in favor of men, the celestial and the earthly laws, therefore women only have a very narrow leeway. But I feel obliged to defend women when they are oppressed because as a lawyer I am regarded as equal by all people. Recently, for example, I objected with other lawyers to a bill in family law, which gave permission to men, depending on their economic capacity, to marry several women. Thereupon the law was modified in the sense that the first woman has to give her permission to the husband if he wants to marry other women.
Western media characterizes president Hassan Rouhani as a moderate reformer. What has changed for the people of Iran since he took office?
G.P.: There are no improvements, license are taken back in the music business, not much has changed. Mr Rouhani has been more concerned with the nuclear deal than with the internal affairs of Iran. As women we want that men's point of view changes, regardless of whether they are spiritual or not.
In November 2016, Ahmad Montazeri was sentenced to six years' imprisonment after publishing audio tapes from his father Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. Hossein Ali Montazeri was a close confidant of Ayatollah Ruhollah Chomeini and was supposed to become his successor, but after criticizing very clearly the mass murder of political prisoners in Iran in 1988, he was sidelined. In this context, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri said: »I believe that this is the greatest crime committed in the Islamic Republic ... And history will condemn us for it.«
What do these charges against the son of Monatzeri tell us about the legitimacy in the Iranian legal system and why is the Iranian leadership so afraid that the words of the Grand Ayatollah Montazeri become known?
G.P.: If someone has acted against the law and is responsible for inhuman things, then one is unwilling get published this knowledge. After the recordings were released to the public and everyone has heard what happened at the time, our leadership became very anxious and worried about the possible consequences of these publications.
Even before the publication of the audio tapes, people knew what had happened. But the audio tapes returned the attention to these events. And what has happened to the prisoners and relatives is a big black stain on the vest of the Iranian Republic of Iran.
Instead of talking to the prisoners, who were between 12 and 25 years old, and trying to change their radical attitude through education, they were all hanged.
Western politicians and representatives from the business world are now, after the end of the economic sanctions, traveling to Iran trying to open up lucrative business areas and to start economic development. What hope or fear do you associate with the end of the economic sanctions?
G.P.: The European products and skills can be sold well in the world and in return Iran wants to sell its mineral resources. The sanctions therefore benefited Russia and China, which have expanded their trade with Iran. For me, economic relations should improve, because the consequences of the sanctions were very cruel for the people inside Iran: Poverty and unemployment increased and thus also crime. We need relationships with other countries to rebuild this country. Also before the Islamic revolution, we had good relations all with the rest of the world. However, the problems caused by the Western countries are now affecting the West itself. There will be so many people applying for asylum in the West, that Western life and its status will become difficult and this is a response to the world order as set out in Guadeloupe in 1979. Our present condition is the result of Guadeloupe.²
What do you wish in the first place for the people of Iran?
G.P.: I wish everything good not only for the Iranians, but for all people, because my view is characterized by human love. If you know our literature, you know that we always talk about human beings, regardless of faith, gender or nationality. Our poet Saadi says: People are part of one another and all belong to one body, the human race. And if one part hurts, then the other parts also hurts a bit. And that is a truth when I see that someone in Africa has problems, then it hurts me as well.³
12 / 2016
¹ More about the case of Sattar Beheshti here
² The Guadeloupe conference in January 1979 was an informal meeting between French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, American President Jimmy Carter, British Prime Minister James Callaghan and German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, where one discussed amongst others the crisis in Iran.
In 1978 there were massive demonstrations, strikes and violent riots against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran, whose most prominent leader was Ajatollah Ruhollah Chomeini, living in French exile. The American President Jimmy Carter suggested at the Guadeloupe conference not to support any longer the Shah, since the Shah don't enjoy public confidence any longer.
Firstly, an interim authority under Prime Minister Shapur Bachtiar should oversee the affairs of state and at the same time Ajatollah Ruhollah Chomeini was contacted. The latter returned to Iran on February 1, 1979 and declared that Prime Minister Bachtier was illegal and started the change of power from the Pahlavi monarchy to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
³ Giti Pourfazel refers to Saadi's well-known poem bani adam:
Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you've no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain!