What do imprisoned mothers in Iran fear the most? ‘Being forgotten’

Elahe Amani with Lys Anzia – WNN Features

Iranian human rights defender Narges Mohammadi and her children
Iranian human rights defender Narges Mohammadi and her children Kiani and Ali. Image: Narges Mohammadi

(WNN) Tehran, IRAN: Built in 1971 Evin prison, in Iran’s capital city of Tehran, is a place where incarceration for prisoners brings with it depression, frustration and isolation. Prisoners who are mothers often have a secret, and haunting, fear of ‘being forgotten’ by the children they have left behind at home.

Imprisonment is not easy in Iran. It impacts women differently than it does men, where impunity can cause women to face increased fears of sexual advance, violence and intimidation in prison. Many women prisoners also have specific needs that relate to female health and psychological trauma. Prisoners who are also mothers have added needs because of worry about their children.

Worldwide the sentence for mothers in prison may, or may not, include their children being allowed to stay with them while they are incarcerated. In the Netherlands women prisoners may keep their children close during their detention, but until their child’s fourth birthday. But after this their children must find a place to stay outside the prison settings.

In Sweden children and babies are rarely allowed to stay with their imprisoned mothers. An exception is made though for babies up to three months old. This means, even with a special exception, no child is allowed to stay with their mother past the first year.

Afghanistan’s prison law allows children to stay in prison with their mothers up to the age of seven. In contrast, many women prisoners of conscience in Iran are not allowed to see or visit their children for weeks following their arrival in prison. If children and relatives are allowed, they may only come to see their mother on very limited visits.

In Cape Town, South Africa a new initiative to make mothers in prison and their children ‘child-friendly’ environments where children and mothers can be together in a natural and creative environment. The goal is to keep mother and child together and happy for at least two years.

With increasing women prisoners in Federal and State prisons, mothers are often sent to detention facilities that are too far away for their families to come visit them very often. Inside the U.S., an epidemic of mothers who have been incarcerated in private prisons because of their ‘illegal status’ as immigrants (most from Mexico or other regions in Latin America) are also causing children to be separated immediately from their mothers while they await deportation. Some mothers choose instead to wait for the U.S. government to process their legal plea against deportation.

Iran human rights defender Narges Mohammadi

In the middle of the night on June 9, 2010, thirty-nine-year-0ld human rights advocate Narges Mohammadi was taken away under arbitrary arrest by Iran security officials as they raided her home. The invasion came without a search warrant. Mohammadi was then taken away and placed in solitary confinement for three weeks. This prison confinement was broken only after Narges began suffering from a debilitating and mysterious condition which still plagues her. Today, even with hospital visits, she suffers from an undiagnosed ‘epilepsy-like’ disease that causes uncontrolled fainting, paralysis and injury.

A mother’s stress in prison can be overwhelming. “The rights of mothers and children to family life require special consideration,” says a handbook on good prison management by the International Centre for Prison Studies, which works with experts in human rights and prison reform. “Punishment [in prison] shall not include a total prohibition on family contact,” emphasizes the handbook. “In most societies women have primary responsibility for the family, particularly when there are children involved. This means that when a woman is sent to prison the consequences for the family which is left behind can be very significant,” added the report.

Mohammadi, as an incarcerated prisoner of conscience, was charged with “assembly and collusion against national security” in Iran as well as “propaganda activities against the Islamic Republic regime.” In preliminary court proceedings she was sentenced to eleven years in prison, a sentence that was reduced in February 2012 to six years in prison.

Today as a mother of twin children Narges is exceptionally vulnerable. So are her children.

Her son Ali, and his sister Kiani, are now six-years-old with a mother who has been an active in Iran’s human rights movement since her early days in college. Born in 1972, only one year after Evin prison was built in Tehran she later graduated with a degree in physics and engineering from Imam Khomeini International University located in the city of Qazvin, 175 miles northwest of Tehran.

For her work as an advocate, in 2009 Narges was honored in Bolzano, Italy with an Alexander Langer award, but she was unable to attend the ceremony due to a ban placed against her against travel made outside of Iran.

In her place, Iranian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi accepted Narges’ award in Italy. “In recognition of her bravery in advocating for human rights, specifically in defense of the rights of students, women and other civil society activists” Mohammadi was honored with standing applause as she telephoned Ebadi during the event.

“If one day we realize the goals of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, that will be a day of victory for human kind. If one day, humans can, without fear, insecurity, prison or death, express their beliefs and thoughts, and through peaceful means set out to publish those beliefs, authoritarianism will be undermined. But until that day, all those who hope for freedom will have a difficult road ahead,” added Narges in 2009.

In 2008, as a spokesperson and deputy head of Iran’s Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC), Mohammadi faced specific and increasing danger. She was later brought before the 4th Revolutionary Court in May 2009 as the result of her membership in the DHRC. After her defense and a $40,000 (USD) bond was made, Narges was then temporarily released from her charges, but the dangers for her as a women’s rights and human rights defender did not subside.

“I am a human being, a mother, a wife, how much more of this pain and suffering must I go through.”

            – Narges Mohammadi,
                   Iran prisoner of conscience in a letter to Iranian government officials

Defenders of Human Rights Center Iran

The Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran was formed through the combined efforts of five top Iranian human rights attorneys, including founding member and former judge Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi.  Created in part to monitor and provide pro-bono legal services, as well as represent cases where human rights protection under the law was at stake inside the region, the DHRC was threatened then completely closed-down by an Iran government office ‘lock-out’ in December 2008.

Narges Mohammadi’s sentence specifically mentions her “membership of the DHRC” as one of the ‘illegal charges’ that has put Narges in prison. A growing number of attorneys connected to the DHRC are also now in prison.

“…what hope is more powerful than the human chain across the world, where individuals from all corners of the world, act in solidarity to support one another,” said Mohammadi in response to her 2009 Alexander Langer award. “No longer can governments, with the excuse of national sovereignty, erect a wall around the peoples of their nations, and with the same excuse, treat their citizens as they please and view any voice of objection from around the world as an act of interference in their internal affairs.”

Husband and children of human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh
Celebrating her 12 year old birthday without her mother (incarcerated human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh who is now serving a six year sentence) daughter Mahreveh and her brother Nima slice birthday cake with their father Reza Khandan. The family had prepared and hoped to celebrate Mahreveh’s birthday with a visit to their mother in Evin prison, but the visitation was blocked by prison security. Image: Nasrin Sotoudeh Facebook

Members of the DHRC staff have faced excessive fines, harassment, intimidation and arbitrary detentions, as well as extended sentences in prison. Some have left the country to find asylum. Others, like human rights attorney and mother, Nasrin Sotoudeh, have been banned the Iranian justice system from working in their field as legal counsel for the next 20 years. Sotoudeh is also a mother. She is also currently living in Evin prison under a ‘difficult’ six year sentence which has included hunger strikes, sickness and interrogations.

Both Nasrin Sotoudeh and Nagres Mohammadi do not have proper access to their children as women prisoners in Iran. “My dear Mehrvaeh and Nima,” said Nasrin in a letter to her children written from prison.

“I love you both very much. I wish you happiness and prosperity, like any other parent. I consider you first in every decision I make. One needs to consider the welfare of children in every decision. Receiving visits from you is very important to me. I suffer from not having held you for months. I am in pain from not hearing your voices,” Sotoudeh continued.

Marginalization of women prisoners

“The authorities in Iran are doing their utmost to marginalise human rights defenders by imposing heavy sentences of imprisonment, exile, and ban on professional practice,” said Gerald Staberock, Secretary General of OMCT – World Organization Against Torture, in a recent joint March 2012 statement with FIDH – the International Federation for Human Rights. “Prisoners of conscience and other political prisoners are consistently subjected to torture and other ill treatment as well as the death penalty. All this is aimed to intimidating the whole society into a deadly silence,” added OMCT Secretary General Staberock.

We can try to talk to the mothers, but what happens to the children of women prisoners in Iran? What happens to children when one or both parents are detained or imprisoned? Despite clear and permanent harmful impacts on a child, this subject has received little attention worldwide.

“The legal rights of children under international law have been developing since 1919, with both regional and global treaties safeguarding their interests. Yet many of these rights, enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other texts, are put at risk when a parent is imprisoned,” says the Quaker UNO – United Nations Office in Geneva.

“One needs to consider the welfare of children in every decision.”

            – Nasrin Sotoudeh,
              incarcerated human rights attorney

Imprisonment worldwide most often includes limitations to human rights, especially in Iran. It also includes undue and what some advocates call ‘unwarranted’ harm to the children of parents who have been imprisoned.

“My young children have been left with painful memories, memories and visions that affect them at night, in their dreams,” said Narges in an official letter of complaint made to government officials in Iran following an arrest of her husband, Taghi Rahmani, who was a Human Rights Watch Hellman-Hammet award winner in 1980.

Often prisoners of conscience are separated from family members as a tactic of intimidation and breakdown. In April 2011 Iranian authorities “blocked Narges Mohammadi from contacting her husband Taghi Rahmani in prison,” said the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran in a news podcast.

Today the children of Narges Mohammadi and Taghi Rahmani are without both their mother and their father. Narges is now serving her full sentence. There father and activist Taghi is currently living in asylum in Europe. Without mother or father the children are now staying with their paternal grandmother. But they cannot see or reach their parents when they need them most.

“I remember one night my children could not fall asleep, they were both speaking in their dreams… Earlier that night they had witnessed the security officers come to our home and scream obscenities and indignities on Taghi,” Mohammadi said. “I remember [my son] little Ali was walking around the house and muttered to himself…. Get out of my house…. Leave my father alone,” Narges continued. “After they finally took Taghi, my little girl, Kiana spread out on the cold mosaic tiles of the foyer and as tears streamed down her face she asked for her father. I was helpless and like a stone statue gazed at my four-year‐old daughter, not knowing what to do… I am a human being, a mother, a wife, how much more of this pain and suffering must I go through.”

Children with parents who are prisoners of conscience are particularly affected negatively when they witness injustice; especially as they feel unable to rescue or help the parent who has been affected by court decisions outside of their control. Often parents who are prisoners, especially prisoners of conscience, feel great frustration and guilt in not being able to help their children who are left without them and the daily comfort of a parent’s presence.

“When Kiana was born I underwent a C-­‐ section.  I had many stitches on my stomach but the warmth of Kiana’s little precious body pressed against mine healed my wounds,” shared Mohammadi in a ‘heart-felt’ letter given to Iranian government officials quoting her experience as a mother. “When Kiana was only 3 years old she had to undergo surgery  on  her  stomach  and  she  too  had  many  stitches  that  needed  to  be  cared  for  and  healed.    I  was  her  mother  and  it  was my duty to care for her and nurse her back to health but I was arrested and taken to prison. I was not there to care for her and heal her as she had healed me,” added Mohammadi.

“The Iranian Government wants to break peoples’ spirits, they want to set an example”, explained Christy Fujio, former immigration attorney and Asylum Program Director for Physicians for Human Rights, USA. “They do this overtly through torture, but they also do it more subtly by denying care and allowing people to suffer from their injuries.”

“The suffering caused by enforced disappearances, prolonged solitary confinement and other ill treatment and lengthy prison terms does not stop at the prison gate,” says Amnesty International. Family members of those who are imprisoned suffer from conditions of long term anxiety, depression and fear. These symptoms are especially severe for women and their families, especially the children.

“We have to speak of hope and love…,” said Narges Mohamaddi in response to her award in 2009. “Everyone has the right to Freedom of Speech and Thought: Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights,” she added.


At a presentation called “Face to face with child abuse in prison” during a November 2011 ‘Incarceration Connection’ conference on prison rights worldwide, Iranian human rights advocate Ms. Mehri Jafari  (with ICAVI – International Coalition Against Violence in Iran) talks about the serious impacts children of women prisoners in Iran face today as they struggle with mothers who have been incarcerated. Co-hosted by University College Maastricht with the United Nations University, this video is a production of University College of Maastricht, Netherlands.


For more information on this topic:



Free Nargess Mohammadi, Go Petition

Free Nasrin Sotoudeh, Change.org petition


Peace activist and WNN – Women News Network special reporter on Iran, Elahe Amani, works with immigrant women who are part of the South Asian, Iranian and the Middle Eastern ethnic communities in Southern California to help women from these communities build peace at home and in society. She is former co-chair of Women Intercultural Network, a global women’s organization with grassroot circles in Uganda, Japan and Afghanistan. Elahe has also lectured through the Women’s Studies Department and is also on the advisory board of The Women Center at CSU – California State University in Long Beach, California.

Global human rights journalist Lys Anzia is also the Founder/Editor-at-Large for WNN. Her work has appeared on The Guardian News, Thomson Reuters Foundation Trustlaw, Alertnet, Huffington Post and Current TV, as well as other media publications.


Additional sources for this article include International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Amnesty International, Iran Rooya, Human Rights Watch, Quaker UNO, Physicians for Human Rights USA, FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights, OMCT – World Organization Against Torture, DHRC – Defenders of Human Rights Center Iran, Payvand and Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights.


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