Nasrin Sotoudeh, Iran’s Courtroom Gladiator, for the Defense

The film and television industry is nothing if not image-conscious, so it speaks volumes that the camera crews who shot footage inside Iran for Nasrin are, by design,…

The film and television industry is nothing if not image-conscious, so it speaks volumes that the camera crews who shot footage inside Iran for Nasrin are, by design, uncredited. This is being done to keep them out of prison, which is where its protagonist, Nasrin Sotoudeh, now resides.

Sotoudeh herself objects to wearing what she perceives to be intrusive headgear, proclaiming in the film: “If women are forced to wear the hijab, they can do anything to us.”

Sotoudeh, this documentary’s embattled titular character, received the esteemed Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2012 and on December 3 was just awarded, in absentia, the Right Livelihood Award, widely known as the “Alternative Nobel Peace Prize.” The crusading Iranian human rights attorney was charged with collusion, disseminating propaganda, and insulting the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei.

In November, Sotoudeh, who had staged a lengthy hunger strike, was temporarily furloughed from Qarchak women’s prison due to health issues. But on December 3, she was ordered back to serve her sentence – and Sotoudeh’s acceptance speech for the Right Livelihood Award was delivered via a pre-recorded audio message.

The ninety-minute Nasrin, written, directed, and produced by Emmy Award-nominee Jeff Kaufman, cleverly opens with titles regarding women’s status in Iran throughout the centuries. Most of the film is in Farsi, with English subtitles, and it’s narrated by Olivia Colman, the Englishwoman who won the Best Actress Oscar for 2018’s The Favourite and now portrays Queen Elizabeth II in the third and fourth seasons of the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning Netflix series, The Crown.

Sotoudeh, an independent thinker and voracious reader since childhood, married her husband, Reza Khandan, in 1995. They had two children, a daughter and a son; both seem to be nurturing parents. She uses her law degree to represent juveniles on death row and members of persecuted minorities, such as Baháʼís, but she specializes in the defense of women who stand up to the Islamic Republic’s post-1979 theocratic laws that stripped women of their rights.    

Sotoudeh herself objects to wearing what she perceives to be intrusive headgear, proclaiming in the film: “If women are forced to wear the hijab, they can do anything to us.” She has defended women who strip off their hijabs, attach the head scarves to sticks, and wave them in acts of public defiance.


Sotoudeh’s advocacy in and out of court inevitably puts her on a collision course with the mullahs’ regime. In 2010, her law office was closed and searched, and Sotoudeh was arrested and imprisoned at the notorious Evin Prison, where some inmates were allegedly tortured. Sotoudeh spent two and a half months in solitary confinement; her children were allowed to visit after fifty-eight days.

In a moving scene, Sotoudeh appears in court and, despite handcuffs, manages to hug Reza. But Reza, too, is subjected to intimidation, receiving anonymous phone calls from Qom, a holy city where many of Iran’s fatwas originate. In 2018, Reza was arrested and “charged with acting against Iran’s national security and supporting ‘anti-hijab’ action.” He was released after spending more than three months in jail.

Sotoudeh’s incarceration for defending political prisoners inspired international protests and actions. After Sotoudeh is sentenced to a lengthy prison term and to receive lashings, Nasrin depicts footage of rallies across the world, including Europe, the United States, Armenia, and Turkey.

At one demonstration, barebacked women display faux “bloody” scars; at another, women wear masks emblazoned with photos of Sotoudeh. Using vintage footage, Kaufman’s film also touches upon vignettes from Iranian history, including the CIA-backed coup that overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.       

Nasrin’s protagonist is devoted to the causes of human rights, gender equity, and individual freedom. “Art is the best way to take on tyranny,” she says in the film. Her daughter, on the other hand, has decided to study art.

Suppressed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Pahani, co-awardee with Sotoudeh of the 2012 Sakharov Prize, appears throughout this documentary. Nasrin includes a scene from a filmed stage performance of  Death and the Maiden originally by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, arguably a kindred spirit for Sotoudeh.

Nasrin is an often gripping, poignant chronicle of a truly admirable struggle for women’s rights and against religious persecution and dogma. Hopefully someday soon, prisoner of conscience Nasrin Sotoudeh will be free and reunited with her family, and the people who filmed Nasrin under the radar will get the credit and recognition they deserve.

Nasrin opens December 18 in virtual cinemas.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.


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