Mehrangiz Kar

Mehrangiz Kar was born in 1944 in the southern Iranian city of Ahvaz, Iran. She attended elementary, middle and high school in Ahvaz, leaving in 1963 to enter the Department of Law and Political Science at Tehran University. In 1967 she completed her studies and went to work at Sazman-e Ta'min-e Ejtemai (the Institute of Social Security). In 1969 she married journalist named Siamak Pourzand with whom she has two daughters, Leily, aged 33, and Azadeh, who is 23 years old.

Before the Iranian revolution, Kar was active in the Iranian press, writing for such publications as Ferdowsi magazine on a wide variety of social issues of the day. Almost invariably, she was pictured alongside her articles without the hejab that has become de rigeur in contemporary Iran, sporting short hair. Following the revolution these images would be used against her.

Kar had just passed the bar exam and been licensed to practice law when the Islamic revolution took Iran by storm in 1979. The new government hardly recognized women working outside of the home, much less women working as judges or as lawyers. While women were allowed to continue serving as lawyers, (albeit under difficult circumstances), they were in fact were banned from serving as judges, removed from their positions and rerouted to bureaucratic posts. For the next two or three years Kar kept to the margins, working more or less quietly. Slowly, however, she began writing again, also making her way into the newly established Islamic courts (qadi courts) in defending a variety of clients. Her cases ranged from adultery and divorce to human rights abuses carried out at the hands of Iranian officials. During this time, Kar worked within the codes of the new system in order to protect herself from being banned from working altogether; she bowed to the government’s whims in the realm of dress and conduct, citing modernist Islamic thinkers in her defenses but always working within the boundaries set by the Islamic Republic.

Until the year 2000, Kar continued to work on human rights cases brought up in the context of the Islamic Penal Code in particular. She wrote articles for the nascent reformist press as well as such publications as the pioneering monthly women’s review Zanan, worked as a human rights and women’s activist, as well as a researcher. A common theme throughout her work was the tension between the law on the books and core principles of human rights and human dignity. Throughout this time, the conservative press and the establishment blackened her reputation at every opportunity, accusing Kar of importing foreign ideas, Western vice and beyond. At least twice, she tried to initiate a women’s advocacy NGO but was denied permission to register it under the country’s laws.

In 2000, she and sixteen other Iranian journalists, activists and intellectuals attended a conference held at the Heinrich Böll Institute in Berlin entitled “Iran After the Elections.” Kar’s remarks about the urgent need for constitutional reform and on secularity in particular earned her censure. Upon return to Iran, she was arrested and taken to Evin Prison, leveled with various charges, from “acting against national security” to “spreading propaganda against the regime of the Islamic Republic.” Kar was to be additionally tried on charges of “violating the Islamic dress code at the Berlin Conference,” “denying the commands of the shari‘a” and abusing sacred principles. On 13 January 2001 she was convicted and sentenced to four years imprisonment on charges of acting against national security and disseminating propaganda against the Islamic regime.

Following two months spent in prison, doctors learned that Kar had developed cancer. Under pressure from the European Union and the government of Holland in particular, she was released temporarily for treatment in the US. Two months later, her husband was arrested in Tehran and held incommunicado. Only months later did they learn of his whereabouts as he was paraded before state television, visibly tortured. Pourzand had been accused of being a spy for America, an adulterer, working for the Shah’s regime and funneling funds from the US to the reformist press. The charges against him include espionage and threatening national security. It is thought that his disappearance may be connected to his position as manager of the Majmue-ye Farrhangi-ye Honari-ye Tehran, a cultural centre for writers, artists, intellectuals and activists. He suffers from diabetes and a heart complaint. Today, he is out of Evin on regulated medical leave, alternating between the hospital and his home. His prison sentence is outstanding.

Kar, in the meantime, remained in the US getting treatment, while in 2002, her criminal sentence was reduced to six months. In 2002 she was awarded the Ludovic Trarieux Prize in recognition of her life’s work and in 2004 was honored by Human Right First. She has served a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Woodrow Wilson Center, the American University in Washington DC, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and Columbia University. Most recently, she was a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard and is currently based at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. She has also been recognized as a Scholar at Risk through an international network of universities and colleges working to promote academic freedom and to defend the human rights of scholars worldwide.

Kar has written a memoir and is currently at work on publications surrounding human rights and constitutionalism in Iran. She has written many articles (both Farsi and English) and published at least fifteen books. The site at hand is a means of Kar writing about the country that she was born and raised in; the government of Iran does not give her the right to publish her views within the country she once called home.