I believe that if someone chooses the arts as their subject but does not criticise the issues in their society, they have betrayed themselves, their conscience, and their society.
Artist and activist Atena Farghadani, previously sentenced to 12 years in prison in Iran for a cartoon, had her sentence commuted to 18 months. She was released on 3 May 2016 and has been advocating for justice ever since.
In 2014 the Iranian parliament announced plans for new legislation on birth control that would reverse Iran's existing relatively liberal family planning laws, a move ostensibly taken to boost population growth. In recent years, Iran has provided government subsidies for affordable contraception, as well as sexual health and family planning programmes. The proposed new law will outlaw vasectomies for men and voluntary sterilisation for women, as well as restricted access to birth control. Rights groups are alarmed at the prospect, saying it will set Iran back by decades, in effect turning women into 'baby-making machines'. They also fear an increase in illegal abortions.
Atena Farghadani's reaction to the news was to produce a drawing depicting the MPs who had voted for the law with animal faces. In August 2014, Revolutionary Guards raided her home and took her to Gharchak prison where she was held for six weeks then freed. Undaunted, in December she posted a video on YouTube in which she told of being beaten by prison guards and interrogated for up to nine hours a day. The video is available here (Farsi only). A fine art graduate from Alzahra University in Tehran, Farghadani speaks of how she was compelled to keep on creating while in prison, a compulsion that overrode her fears of being found out by prison guards. She told of how she was discovered when CCTV footage showed her collecting used paper cups from the washroom. These she had flattened to serve as canvasses. She made pigments from petals and leaves gathered from the prison garden, creating unique paper cup art. She describes how guards seized her, strip searched and beat her. On her release she petitioned the authorities, demanding that the guards be punished. When she had no response, she took to the internet.
Farghadani was duly sent to Gharchak prison in January 2015. Three weeks later, she went on hunger strike to protest conditions there. She was hospitalised after suffering a reported heart attack. On 1 June she was sentenced to 12 years and nine months in prison in a trial that lasted only half an hour.
Farghadani has also been accused of 'gathering and colluding with anti-revolutionary individuals and deviant sects' for her exhibition Parandegan-e Khak (Birds of the Earth) commemorating those killed in the post-election crackdown in 2009. The show was attended by families of political prisoners and members of the Baha'i community.
In a shocking development in June 2015, further charges were levied against Farghadani and her lawyer. They are accused of 'illegitimate sexual relationship short of adultery' and 'indecent behaviour' in what Amnesty International, which considers Farghadani a Prisoner of Conscience, described as 'itself a gross caricature of justice'. During a prison visit that month, lawyer Mohammed Moghimi, had shook hands with his client, for which he was arrested then released on bail of US$60,000.
An international campaign has been launched by organisations including the Cartoonists Rights Network with an open call for artists from around the world to create their own images in response to Farghadani's plight and to post them on Twitter under the hashtag #draw4atena. Newspapers including the Guardian and the Washington Post are also hosting the images on their websites.
On 25 April 2016, an appeals court reduced Farghadani's sentence from 12 years in prison to 18 months. She has been acquitted of charges of undermining national security, and her three year imprisonment for insulting the Supreme Leader has been suspended for four years.
She was released on 3 May 2016 and has continued advocating for justice ever since. In an interview shortly after her release, she said: "Of course, I could be more successful in developed countries, but when I witness the problems Iranians are dealing with, such as economic and cultural poverty and various limitations, I cannot leave them alone to live in another country in a better situation, despite all the constraints and issues I would possibly face."