Shaparak Shajarizadeh stood up for the rights that every woman deserves. But doing so in her native country of Iran came with severe consequences.
Breaking the silence of oppression in your community and demanding change takes an extreme amount of courage. Doing it while facing the certainty of imprisonment, harassment, and abuse is heroic.
As a women’s rights activist from Iran, Shaparak Shajarizadeh stepped up to that level by joining a public protest against compulsory hijab and promoting the protest online to reach more supporters.
Hijab is a covering that some Muslim women wear in public that covers their hair, and sometimes their face. After the Islamic Revolution in the early 1980s, the new Islamic authorities imposed a mandatory dress code that required all women to wear the hijab. This is just one example of how the life and rights of women changed drastically in Iranian society after the clerics took power. The protest Shaparak joined, “White Wednesday,” was a stance against compulsory hijab and eventually led to her arrest.
She was recognized by the BBC as one of the world’s most influential and inspiring women of 2018 and was awarded the Geneva Summit International Women’s Rights Award in 2020. Forced to flee Iran to escape a harsh sentence, she went into exile. From Canada, Shaparak is determined to continue using her voice to improve women’s freedoms in Iran.
AHA Foundation: Let’s start with your most notable work—the protests you were apart of in Iran. When did those protests begin and why?
Shaparak Shajarizadeh: The campaign “White Wednesday” started in 2017. Originally, it was Masih Alinejad’s idea [a former Iranian citizen now living in exile in the U.S.] She had a few other movements before, like “My Stealthy Freedom” and My Camera My Weapon,” but this was the first one I was vocal in. and We asked women to wear a white scarf in public to show that they are against compulsory hijab.
There is severe censorship in Iran. They can block anything, from the activists, to whole campaigns. But with the help of social media around the world, every human being now has an opportunity to get connected to others.
We are required to wear hijab, but during this campaign, women decided not to wear it. We wore our scarves on our shoulders. And we were sending our pictures and videos to post. We had a platform to talk about our feelings, to talk about years and years of violation and oppression from the government, and from the special forces, the police forces that are there just to arrest women.
AHA Foundation: Why was protesting a compulsory headscarf, a hijab, important for women who joined the campaign?
Shaparak Shajarizadeh: The leaders, in Iran, anybody can come and take you away for how you dress. It’s not just covering your head, it’s the way you dress. So they arrest us for the way we dress, they arrest us for the color of our dress, or for having makeup. In the Islamic Republic law book, four or five years after the revolution, they came up with this rule of law.
But it’s not just that, there are many unwritten laws that government officials enforce. In the Islamic law book, it doesn’t say that women can’t ride bicycles or motorcycles, but women get arrested for riding bicycles. Women can’t sing in public; nobody can hear a single woman’s voice. We can’t go to the stadiums and watch matches with men. We can watch women’s matches, but not men’s.
There are lots of sports that women can’t participate in. There are lots of university courses that now we can not take. And it’s getting worse and worse.
AHA Foundation: What led you to join the campaign?
Shaparak Shajarizadeh: I just got fed up with being silent. The main thing for me was, I can’t be silent anymore.
I was 40 years old, and I was frustrated with all these violations and couldn’t take it anymore, I had to do something. And that movement was a big chance for me to have a voice. All these women had a voice.
AHA Foundation: When did you start to question these things? Was there a certain turning point for you?
Shaparak Shajarizadeh: I was a young woman, a teenager, when I started to realize that women don’t have many rights in Iran.
Going to that trial to get divorced was the darkest time of my life. Because I couldn’t tolerate the slut-shaming, the humiliation I received for just wanting to get a divorce.
For example, women don’t have the right to have custody of their kids. I remember I was 16 or 17 years old, and my father’s best friend died. He was quite young and wealthy, and he had a young wife with three children. I learned then that his family members, the men in his family, could take the kids from their mother because according to Islam, the paternal grandfather can have custody of the kids if the man dies. And I was shocked to learn that. But in her case, the grandfather was dead already, but the uncle wanted the kids. I was shocked this can happen, all over again.
We don’t have the right to divorce.
I could see many women around me that were abused, but they couldn’t do anything about it. And it happened to me. My first husband was very abusive. When I wanted to get divorced, he accepted, but during all the trials, we had to go see the judges, I was humiliated. In the courts, they are very rude to women. The judge insults women for seeking a divorce.
Going to that trial to get divorced was one of the darkest times of my life. Because I couldn’t tolerate the slut-shaming, the humiliation I received for just wanting to get a divorce. I managed to get a divorce and remarry. This was before I got arrested for the forced hijab.
So I didn’t suddenly learn this. Growing up, you slowly learn about lots of rights that women don’t have in Iran.
It’s [wearing hijab] not a culture. It’s not Iranian culture. It’s a symbol of sexism in the hands of the government to be violent against women and to suppress women because of hijab.
And the sad part is that when you read about our history, you realize that you [women] had these rights in Iran before the revolution. And in that time, Iranian women had many rights like European women. We had the right to vote even before many European countries. But after the revolution, they took away our rights.
Because of the compulsory hijab, we are subjected to more harassment from the government. We are the subject of violence every day.
Sometimes female politicians, or some feminists around the world, claim that it’s our culture. No, it’s not. It’s [wearing hijab] not a culture. It’s not Iranian culture. It’s a symbol of sexism in the hands of the government to be violent against women and to suppress women because of hijab.
AHA Foundation: Before you joined the campaign, did you know what the consequences were going to be?
Shaparak Shajarizadeh: I knew that I would get arrested. And in that time, I was comparing myself to some of the women’s rights activists or human rights activists who were in jail. But I didn’t know about the amount of violence there would be.
You have no idea how scary it is to be in those interrogation rooms. They would do anything, anything to break you. They would do anything to get something out of you, it doesn’t matter.
For some people they want them to confess that they changed their religion, or that they’re not a religious person. The penalty can be death or many years of prison. Sometimes they want you to confess to committing adultery, confess to being a spy for other governments. They would do anything to break you and to make you confess to things you hadn’t done.
In many movies, they want to show the devil in many forms. But that was it… I could see evil in their eyes.
When I was arrested, it was like many things, but I’m an agnostic, I don’t believe in any religion, but I couldn’t say that. And they wanted to get it out of me to say that I was atheist or something like that. They also arrested my husband and interrogated him. And again, they accused me of adultery. They asked him “Don’t you know what your wife is doing? Don’t you know that she’s an adulterer?”
AHA Foundation: Even after what you went through, you kept fighting. What made you want to continue through all that even through all the hardships?
Shaparak Shajarizadeh: I was angry. I knew what went on in the prisons. For years, I was following the news of other activists, I had read about all those things, but knowing about something and reading about something and actual experiences is so different.
When you are in solitary confinement, the seconds won’t pass—it drives you crazy. You have no idea how hard it is. My experiences were so hard. And I was so angry. I just wanted to tell people how it’s like to be there.
The interrogators are not religious people, they don’t believe in anything. They are just evil people. Maybe it sounds silly, but I could see evil in their eyes. In many movies, they want to show the devil in many forms. But that was it. Their eyes are scary when they’re threatening you. In their eyes, you can see that they can do anything with you. And you can see it in their eyes that they are capable of doing anything to you.
But at least we had a chance to get out. In early 2018 when myself and others were arrested we could get out on bail and had a chance to flee the country. The ones after us didn’t. They were never given the chance to get out on bail. Women like my friend Mojgan Keshavarz, Yasaman Aryani, Saba Kordafshari, and many others remain in custody after many days of interrogation until their trial and face sentences up to decades in prison.
AHA Foundation: You mentioned that they arrested your husband. How did your family feel about your decision to get involved in this activism?
Shaparak Shajarizadeh: They wanted me to take a different approach. My husband didn’t want me to continue but he knows it’s not his place to tell his wife what to do. It’s our life, and we had an understanding. He was just concerned. Every time he was talking to me and saying that it’s dangerous, I was just telling him that I cannot continue like this. I cannot be silent anymore. I’m suffocating and I have to do something.
But my parents were different. They were very angry. They were scared. All the time my mother was talking about the things that had happened in 2009, in some detention centers, because there were many facts that they raped men and women there and many died. And it was just her nightmare that they would break me if they arrested me. She was scared they would rape me or kill me.
My parents didn’t approve when I was active in “White Wednesday.” There were many times that different TV channels were showing videos and pictures of women and I was always among those women and my parents were terrified. So after a month, my father threatened to cut me off. And so, that was it. In the summer of 2017, I stopped communicating with my parents and after that call, till I got arrested in winter, it was six months that I didn’t have any contact with them.
AHA Foundation: What was the impact of your decision to continue your work at the expense of your relationship with your family?
Shaparak Shajarizadeh: It was a hard time for me. I was devastated. But I decided to do that. My parents didn’t want to be part of that. My sister was supportive. She was living in the U.S. But the time that she came for a visit, when she was with me she was wearing white, not wearing a headscarf. She was supporting me. But she went back to the U.S. And she was supportive, but not my parents.
There’s not a day that you don’t get devastating news from Iran. It doesn’t stop.
But when I got arrested for the first time, after one week of being in solitary detention without any contact with anybody, even my lawyer, I went on a hunger strike. After five days of my hunger strike, they allowed my father to see me. Every day he was coming to that prison, and it was very far from the city. Every day he would come to visit me and they didn’t let him speak to me, but on the fifth day they let him and he told me that he was proud of me in that time, and after that my parents were supportive.
AHA Foundation: So was the protest against the compulsory hijab in Iran a symbol for a greater message?
Shaparak Shajarizadeh: Yes, it was against all sexual discrimination and inequality and the government knew that as well. They knew that we were not going to stop because women have many problems in Iran. The hijab is important because it’s how the government shows itself to the world. It was just the start of the demand. We wanted equality. And in the laws, we wanted them to change their law. We wanted them to stop violating women’s rights and the government knew that.
AHA Foundation: After moving to Canada, have you continued to campaign for women’s rights? What do you hope to do from the position you’re in now?
Shaparak Shajarizadeh: I’m still advocating for human rights in Iran. There’s not a day that you don’t get devastating news from Iran. It doesn’t stop. Every day, bad news; every day, more activists get arrested. I’m advocating for human rights as much as I can. This is my life right now.
After many years of waiting for others to do something for me and to give me my rights, I realized that it should be my voice.
I’m really happy I ended up in Canada, it’s one of the best places in the world that you can be active in human rights. I’m very grateful. But at the same time, I’m not happy because the suffering continues in Iran. And it’s actually getting worse and worse.
We realize now that as long as this government is ruling, there’s not going to be any freedom in Iran, and there is not going to be any peace, even in that region. Maybe we can get the politicians to care about human rights in Iran, not just about nuclear power or other economic or political issues. It should be human rights that come first in their negotiations. And they have to realize that it’s an evil government that’s willing to kill its own people.
AHA Foundation: So what do you think it means for women to have your work recognized by the BBC and the Geneva summit? What do you think that recognition means to women who might be facing this kind of oppression, not only in Iran, but globally?
Shaparak Shajarizadeh: After many years of waiting for others to do something for me and to give me my rights, I realized that it should be my voice.
Don’t wait for others to do something for you. To get back your dignity or your rights, you should do something. It’s not just women, any person who is under oppression, we should do something ourselves. We have to fight for our rights ourselves. If all of us get together and do something, we can change the world.
Many ordinary women joined the suffrage movement, and when they joined suffragettes, they could change the law, they could change the society, and the women’s movement hasn’t stopped since then. And it’s because we realize that we are the ones who have to get back our dignity and demand equality in the world.
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AHA Foundation: Do you have any last words you’d like to share with our supporters?
Shaparak Shajarizadeh: Right now, many of the women’s activists, my lawyer, are in jail, suffering, just for peaceful acts of civil disobedience. And I want the world to know about our struggle, all the women who struggle around the world and stand in solidarity with each other.