Remember Atena Farghadani? The 28-year-old Iranian cartoonist who was put on trial for protesting (in cartoon form) against her country’s intention to ban contraceptives – while said country was busy hosting an anti-ISIS cartoon competition of its own. Clearly, self-expression and protest are only permitted in Iran when they are in line with State ideology.
After suffering beatings, sexual abuse, psychological and physical torture which led to a heart attack, Farghadani is still in jail, despite the support she has consistently received from the international community. Why? Because she has relentlessly exposed the abuses (gender-based and otherwise) to which she has been subjected within the Iranian legal system, and faced more punishment as a result.
Now, according to Amnesty International, a note written by Farghadani in prison and leaked to the press has shed new light on the extent of her torment. According to the note, the cartoonist was not only tried for “illegitimate sexual relations” after shaking hands with her lawyer, but was also forced to undergo a “virginity and pregnancy test” before the trial – a form of violence in and of itself. Groups such as Amnesty International were quick to react to the shocking contents of the note, blasting Iran for hitting an “outrageous low” by “seeking to exploit the stigma attached to sexual and gender-based violence” to intimidate and punish Farghadani.
Yes, it is an outrageous low – but it is one of the many reached every day in Iran, where poets and filmmakers are lashed and imprisoned and where the number of executions just keeps climbing. Before her imprisonment, Atena Farghadani was an artist struggling against the “crushing blows” of a state with a “pitiful fear of dissent,” to cite Pultizer Prize-winning cartoonist Matt Davies; now, she is the voice demanding change from the very system which is trying to torture her into submission, uncompromisingly fighting for basic rights and freedoms while languishing in prison.
Though Farghadani is unique in her dedication and uncompromising activism, her imprisonment is not an isolated case. As Davies suggests, it is an institutionalized policy of brutality and intolerance of oppositional thought, spearheaded by the Iranian government – the same government that was so keen to negotiate with the West with a “moderate,” friendly face. Friendly? More like “fearsome,” Davies writes. Don’t believe him? Ask Atena. And then amplify her voice.