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Iranian Women’s Rights Activist Defiant Even in Death

Widows, orphans, refugees and scholars came out to commemorate the passing of Shahla Farjad, who died in Tehran.

Women pallbearers carried Dr. Shahla Farjad, a human and women’s rights activist who was imprisoned under the regimes of both the Shah and the Islamic Republic, to her final resting place in Tehran on July 9, 2013, a final act of defiance in a country where men traditionally perform death rites.

From Tehran to Toronto, Kabul to Berlin, Afghan refugees, widows, orphans, grieving mothers of political prisoners, scholars and intellectuals came out of the woodwork to tell previously untold stories about Farjad, a tiny, self-effacing woman.

“Even when she cried, people couldn’t tell she was crying,” said Nasrin, who worked side-by-side with Farjad for over 15 years. “She would wipe her tears from under her glasses.” In fact, she would probably have been slightly embarrassed by the global showing of praise.

Farjad, who was 65 when she passed away from cancer, was a medical doctor who was creative with the notion of “making rounds.” She would visit Afghan refugees and disempowered women for whom she provided education, books, basic supplies, money and hope on a daily basis. From the posh parts of Tehran in the north, to the poorer sections in the south, not to mention remote villages across the country, Farjad spent her life creating schools and community centers for the disavowed and underprivileged.

Women pallbearers carry Iranian human and women's rights actvist, Shahla Farjad, to her final resting place in Tehran, July 9, 2013.

Most recently, she worked closely with a group in the south of Tehran for the wives of addicts and widows, which did not just include providing basic education and aid, but also revealing to them a world outside of what they knew.

“A trip to a park in the north of the city was like a trip to Europe for them,” said Nasrin. “When she was too sick to go, she would ask me to go.”

Farjad was among the first to go to Bam, a city in the south of Iran that was reduced to rubble by an earthquake in 2003. Since then, she created an agricultural trade school for girls who already had little and were left with nothing after the quake. Some of these girls would go on to university in Tehran, where they became another stop on Farjad’s rounds.

Her work with Afghan refugees in Iran made a particularly deep impact. Afghanistan is still the world’s top producer of refugees, according to UNHCR, with nearly 2.6 million across the globe. Iran hosts 95% of these displaced peoples, but does not always provide them with basic services, thus creating a permanent underclass.

Farjad, who worked with UNHCR, went about establishing schools for the kids of refugees, who would otherwise not have been allowed into the education system in Tehran.

She built makeshift classrooms in any space. In 2002, I taught English to Afghan refugees for Farjad, who was a relative. She eased me into classes with lessons for women working on a children’s literature encyclopedia in a wealthy neighborhood. From there, I went to the sparse living room of Afghan women who had to abruptly stop medical school training once a week. Eventually, the most challenging class was in a dusty clay structure on the outskirts of western Tehran, where scores of families with little to no resources lived.

In addition to English classes, Farjad empowered mostly women and children who took advantage of her services with computer courses and training in sewing and handicrafts that they could later sell. Anyone who knew Farjad well owned a pair of knit booties made by Afghan refugees.

It was no wonder that after her death, Farjad’s loved ones discovered letters from women who considered her mother. Farjad was a petite woman, who never adorned herself with jewels or makeup, never married and never gave birth to a child of her own, but the word “mother” continued to be used to describe her — from the girls she worked with to her colleagues. Nasrin, who is only three years older than Farjad considered her a daughter, even if Farjad also mothered her.

Mothers for Peace, an organization for the mothers of political prisoners, was another organization she was closely affiliated with. Farjad’s own stints behind bars, three years under the Shah and three years under the Islamic Republic, gave her an intimate knowledge of the pain that these mothers experienced.

Nahid Nazemi, Farjad’s cellmate under the Shah and a relative, remembers wearing oversized prison-issued plastic slippers and uniforms in Cell 23, which was adjacent to the bathroom. They were initially given a sentence of 18 months for “kharabkaree,” but were left there for nearly three years, always under the threat of being “sent to the desert to rot.”

Farjad’s own brother, Mehrdad Farjad, was executed during the execution binge of the late 1980s. Her other brother, Farhad, is in exile in Germany for his political activities.

Farjad was a different soul though. She was more a humanitarian than a political activist. At the memoriam in Berlin, her brother made this distinction. He said that there are two sets of activists, the ones who choose the path of political theory, and the ones who choose the humanitarian one. While Farjad was both, she clearly chose humanitarian work as the stronger vessel.

Before she passed, despite being sick and feeble, she visited the mass grave for political prisoners where her brother lays and said she was on her way to join them.

Farjad’s modesty was partially strategic as well. After being monitored by government for decades, she knew it was best to keep a low profile. Most recently, after the 2009 protests, authorities re-opened her case, sending Farjad into hiding for about a year, until the movement died down. “She always wanted to be quiet so that she could go about her business without problems,” said Nasrin, through her tears. “I don’t think I even realized what an enlightened person she was.”

As burn victims who survived abusive husbands to political prisoners like Nasrin Soutoudeh continue to remember Farjad, former activists and revolutionaries have taken the time to reflect on their own lives since starting a revolution.  Many have fled the country and re-settled in the United States or Europe. Some are doctors, some small-business owners, some blue-collar workers. Her passing and the work she did has reminded them of a time when they worked as agents for change.

“We were all politically active, but only she was a human rights activist,” said one relative. “Which one of us would jump up and go to Bam? She transcended herself and her existence. We thought we were activists. We were not.”

Nasrin, who has been at Shahla’s side during all of the work, plans to continue to make the rounds. The night before she died, Farjad asked her why she was at her bedside and not working. While Nasrin did not dare say she wasn’t out because she was with her, she later answered the question.

“I didn’t want to accept that I had to go by myself.”

Roja Heydarpour is culture editor at-large for Al-Monitor. She has written and edited for The Daily BeastThe New York Times and The Times-Tribune. On Twitter: @rojarojaroja

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