July 20, 2024

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The surprising history of human rights lawyering in Iran – Harvard Law School

11 min read
The surprising history of human rights lawyering in Iran – Harvard Law School

Since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, which installed a theocratic government first led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, lawyers — especially women — have continued to risk life and limb to advocate for equality, democracy, and human rights there, says Afrooz Maghzi, a visiting fellow with the Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World at Harvard Law School.

Maghzi, an Iranian human rights lawyer, researcher, and activist, says that Iran has seen multiple mass protest movements in recent decades, including the pro-democracy “Green Movement,” during which hundreds of people were arrested and several died while protesting the 2009 presidential election. Most recently, widespread demonstrations erupted in 2022 following the death in police custody of a woman named Mahsa (Jina) Amini, who had been arrested for allegedly improperly wearing a hijab, or head covering.

According to Maghzi, attorneys have been vital to these ongoing campaigns for human rights, despite decades of suppression by the government — including threats of arrest, imprisonment, surveillance, and worse. “The state has been unable to silence human rights lawyers or prevent the emergence of a new generation of legal advocates,” she says.

In Iran, Maghzi represented women in gender-related family and criminal cases and worked on national campaigns, such as One Million Signatures, to end legal discrimination against women. During the Green Movement, Maghzi defended human rights protestors, journalists, and the families of those killed during the uprising.

Today, in her role as researcher at both the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology and University of Erlangen–Nuremberg in Germany, Maghzi studies social movements, minority rights in Europe, and gender inequality in Islamic law. As a visiting fellow at Harvard, she is researching the role of women in the human rights lawyering movement in Iran.

In an interview with Harvard Law Today, Maghzi traced more than a century of human rights lawyering in Iran, including the work of women attorneys like her. She also shared the complex challenges activists and lawyers face — and what the future might hold for freedom in Iran.


Harvard Law Today: Could you tell us a bit about the history of human rights lawyering in Iran?

Afrooz Maghzi: Human rights lawyering in Iran has historically focused on representing dissidents in courts, engaging in social and political movements, and advocating internationally. This tradition traces back to the 1911 First Charter of Attorneyship, which marked the genesis of Iranian lawyers using legal platforms to challenge state actions. In the collective memory of Iranians, the 1954 trial of deposed Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and his lawyer symbolize the sacrifice and dedication associated with this type of lawyering.

Despite lawyers enduring severe repression after the 1979 revolution, including many arrests and the closure of the bar association for 18 years, a resurgence occurred between 1997 and 2009. This period marked a high point for Iranian legal activism, with women lawyers at the forefront, spearheading various campaigns demanding legal reforms and the rule of law. Moreover, lawyers engaged with civil society sectors, facilitated public education, and contributed to drafting and analyzing legislative bills such as the Child Protection Act in 2002. Even though lawyers faced significant limitations in 2009 following the crackdown on civil society after the Green Movement protests, they remained a critical part of the Iranian political and social movements, as exemplified by their significant activism since the 2022 Mahsa Jina Amini uprising.

Additionally, exiled lawyers and human rights activists pursued international legal avenues to hold Iranian authorities accountable, resulting in convictions, such as that of former Iranian official Hamid Nouri for crimes against humanity in Sweden, and the initiation of several people’s tribunals like the Iran Tribunal and the Aban Tribunal over the last decade.

HLT: You mentioned that women have led much of the human rights litigation in Iran. What factors contribute to their leadership and active engagement as lawyers?

Maghzi: I believe that Iran’s legal advocacy has this distinct character that women are the leading forces, particularly in comparison to other Middle Eastern countries. This is rooted, of course, in the significant loss of rights Iranian women suffered after the 1979 revolution, creating a unique context where they have been actively reclaiming their rights since then. Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate, is a prime example of this resilience. Dismissed as a judge after the revolution, she took up the fight as a lawyer to challenge discriminatory laws. To that we should add Iran’s history of a 150-year-long women’s rights movement, the active role of women in society and modern political and social movements, as well as the feminization of the legal profession, where more than sixty percent of law students are women, and the number of women applying to the Bar Association continues to increase.

Women’s involvement in human rights lawyering in Iran has evolved over time. Initially, their efforts centered on advocating for equal rights in the 1960s. They gradually expanded their role to litigation against all forms of human rights violations, particularly since the 1990s. For example, the Center for Human Rights Defenders, led by a board that included many women lawyers, defended thousands of political cases and brought dozens of cases against the state, addressing abuses such as torture and extrajudicial killings. Notably, two of its female members later won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 and 2023. Additionally, feminist lawyering emerged among the post-revolution generation, focusing on the impact of Islamic law on women and challenging patriarchal judicial systems. They launched strategic litigation using feminist methods of lawyering in defending victims of gender-based violence and those found in violation of gender discriminatory laws. They also initiated global campaigns like Stop Stoning Forever, and participated in public awareness initiatives such as the One Million Signature campaign to repeal discriminatory laws.

Despite a crackdown on civil society in 2009, women and feminist lawyers reshaped legal advocacy by prioritizing women’s struggles and introducing gender-sensitive and intersectional approaches to strategies, lawyer-client relationships, and collaborations with other civil society sectors. This influence extends to a new generation of assertive lawyers challenging traditional power dynamics. For instance, they’ve advocated in recent years for gender quotas on the predominantly male Bar Association’s board and participated significantly in movements like the 2022 uprising, both as lawyers and alongside protestors.

HLT: What about your own story as a human rights lawyer?

Maghzi: My journey as a human rights lawyer began during my undergraduate years when I volunteered with the Association for Children’s Protection. However, the turning point was in 2003, when I connected with women’s rights activists and joined a newly established legal aid organization for women. There, we provided pro bono legal consultancy and representation to women, including those facing execution or long-term imprisonment for crimes such as mariticide, adultery, and sex work. Additionally, I actively participated in women’s rights NGOs and campaigns, including the One Million Signatures campaign where we organized workshops across multiple cities with local activists to educate people about discriminatory laws and strategies for mobilization.

However, following the violent suppression of the Green Movement in 2009 and the subsequent mass arrests, I shifted my focus to representing political prisoners and human rights activists in various cities. During this time before leaving the county, I defended protesters, journalists, human rights and political activists, as well as representing the families of those who were killed by security forces during protests in criminal courts. However, if I were to classify my positionality, it would be that my background in feminist lawyering had deeply influenced my approach and legal methods in other areas of work, ranging from political cases to everyday legal matters.

HLT: What are the obstacles to human rights lawyering in Iran?

Maghzi: We see that the state has consistently sought to limit human rights lawyers’ influence through various means. The lawyers face the constant threat of arrest, long-term imprisonment, surveillance, and the potential loss of their attorney licenses. In addition, the state tries to limit their influence through laws restricting human rights lawyers’ engagement in political cases. For instance, in 2015, an amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedure required individuals facing “national security” charges to select their lawyer from a judiciary-approved list during preliminary investigations. Additionally, over the past four decades, many regulations have been introduced to undermine bar associations’ independence. In the latest development, parliament passed a law in September 2023 that, once ratified by the Guardian Council, will grant the Ministry of Economy control over issuing and revoking lawyers’ licenses, marking the most serious attack on bar associations’ independence.

Women and minority lawyers also face additional challenges. Just focusing on women lawyers, which is my current research at the Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World, we see how compulsory hijab, for instance, is used to humiliate and degrade women in courts and further pressure them. In fact, female lawyers, including myself, have many experiences with men within court buildings, from guards to judges, reprimanding us for supposedly not wearing hijab properly. Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was not only sentenced to 30 years in prison for her activism, but she also received an additional six months for not wearing the hijab during an interview with foreign media. Women human rights lawyers also frequently face pressure and threats directed at their family members as a form of intimidation. In Nasrin Sotoudeh’s case, her daughter received several travel bans forbidding her from leaving the country even at the age of 11. Similarly, Shirin Ebadi’s husband was coerced into giving a shockingly bizarre interview on state TV, where he portrayed her as a violent woman who had abused him throughout their marriage.

HLT: What is the current state of human rights lawyering in Iran, especially in the aftermath of the most recent wave of protests in 2022?

Maghzi: Due to increased state suppression since 2009, legal activism in Iran has focused mainly on representing political cases, with limited opportunities for other litigation campaigns. However, there are cases where legal activism surpasses previous litigation campaigns for legal reform, instead challenging the state more radically, such as suing the supreme leader for mishandling the coronavirus pandemic in 2022. While all lawyers and activists involved in this case were arrested and imprisoned even before filing their complaints, this action marks a new era in legal advocacy in Iran.

Lawyers have emerged as important actors, both during the 2022 uprising and in sustaining the revolutionary spirit since the crackdown on protesters. During the uprising, over a hundred lawyers were arrested, many summoned to intelligence service offices and four, including three women, tragically lost their lives. On the first day of the protests, numerous lawyers took to social media, offering free legal representation to those detained by the state. Lawyers also organized protests in front of bar associations in various cities, demanding an end to state violence, only to be attacked by security forces. One interesting aspect is that unlike in the past, where only lawyers from major cities were involved in political cases, this time lawyers from all cities provided legal representation to protesters. Currently, we see their important role in protesters’ trials, particularly for those facing the death penalty. Despite the state’s efforts to control trials by appointing lawyers close to the intelligence service, human rights lawyers have managed to participate in some cases. Their involvement revealed the sham nature of the trials and the brutal torture suffered by the defendants, even if they couldn’t always prevent executions, like that of Mohammad Ghobadlou in 2024.

In this context, social media has become a transformative tool for lawyers to share information about their clients’ situations, mobilize support, and challenge the state’s violations of basic rights.

HLT: What do you think the future holds for human rights lawyers in Iran?

Maghzi: I think, despite four decades of severe suppression of lawyers and attacks on the independence of the bar association, the state has been unable to silence human rights lawyers or prevent the emergence of a new generation of legal advocates. These lawyers, alongside women challenging mandatory hijab rules daily, political prisoners, and families of those protesters and political dissidents killed by the Islamic Republic, stand as key players in confronting the state’s authority on the ground. The lawyers’ widespread respect and bipartisan roles within society suggest they might hold significant leverage in Iran’s transitional or revolutionary processes. Their role is especially crucial in a deeply ethnic and politically polarized society that struggles to find common ground and trust, given decades of brutal suppression.

“Despite four decades of severe suppression of lawyers and attacks on the independence of the bar association, the state has been unable to silence human rights lawyers or prevent the emergence of a new generation of legal advocates.”

HLT: What role have nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the diaspora played in supporting this work?

Maghzi: The support of international/foreign NGOs and the Iranian diaspora has been an important factor in shaping human rights lawyering in Iran. European and American NGOs and institutes especially have provided support through various means such as training workshops for Iranian lawyers, connecting them with foreign media outlets, highlighting their work through international awards, and even providing financial aid from 1997 to 2009. However, these types of support, given their different approaches, have affected the landscape of lawyering in Iran both positively and negatively. To be short, the support provided a level of protection to human rights lawyers against state abuses of power, attracted new human rights lawyers and helped to platform domestic litigation campaigns on the global stage. However, some support, particularly financial support, has also been criticized for hampering the development of grassroots and long-term legal advocacy by encouraging opportunistic behavior among lawyers, weakening domestic alliances, and increasing the risk of arrest and imprisonment of human rights lawyers. A notable concern in recent years is the strategies by some Western NGOs, such as trying to initiate litigation campaigns in authoritarian countries from the outside, individualizing collective movements, or elevating certain voices at the expense of others, which has resulted in significant costs to domestic movements. In sum, while transitional support remains crucial, it must be carefully designed to suit the specific socio-political situation of each country.

HLT: Tell us more about your fellowship at Harvard Law School’s Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World. What are you working on?

Maghzi: Currently as part of my HLS fellowship, I’m studying the critical role of women in human rights lawyering in Iran, exploring their historical contributions, diverse activities, motivations, and challenges. This investigation forms part of a wider examination of human rights advocacy in Iran, addressing a notable gap in existing literature. In this research, I aim to analyze the distinctive dynamics of legal advocacy in Iran, which, despite operating within a theocratic, male-dominated framework, is sustained by factors such as a rich history of pro-democracy and human rights movements, alongside a youthful, educated population striving for democracy. Beyond its academic value, this research has practical implications, aiding stakeholders involved in Iranian legal advocacy, locally and internationally, in navigating associated risks and obstacles. Additionally, I seek to foster connections across generations of Iranian human rights lawyers, aiming to bridge the gap exacerbated by state suppression.

My interest in this topic derives from my experience as a human rights lawyer in Iran, which forced me to grapple with the struggles of individuals in the face of state violence or systemic oppression. This was an incredibly humbling, formative, and eye-opening experience which I consider the most invaluable time in my life. Later on, I gained further insight into this subject from different perspectives through collaborations with international NGOs as well as UN and EU agencies, such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and European Union Agency for Asylum. While I was always fascinated by the complexity of legal advocacy in Iran, it was during my Ph.D. training at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany that I learned the conceptual and methodological tools necessary to study this phenomenon. This topic is, therefore, very close to my heart, embodying my personal and professional journey, and I am grateful to the Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World for providing me with the opportunity to explore it further.

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