Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and husband Reza Khandan hold up a protest button which reads: 'I Oppose the Mandatory Hijab."

Editor’s Note: Jeff Kaufman is a film director, writer and artist. His 2020 political documentary “Nasrin” was a Critic’s Choice Award nominee. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read moreopinion on CNN. 

CNN  — 

In the Spring of 2018, two men in Tehran had a humble but risky plan to show support for women who were protesting Iran’s compulsory hijab laws.

Jeff Kaufman

Reza Khandan is a graphic designer, the husband of renowned human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh, and a father of two. Farhad Meysami is a physician, teacher and textbook publisher.

The pair bought thousands of blank buttons and a small, hand-cranked button-making machine, printed green and red labels, and took turns producing buttons that said, in Farsi, “I Oppose the Mandatory Hijab.”

Their buttons caught the attention of fellow activists – and Iranian authorities. On June 13, 2018, Reza’s lawyer wife Nasrin was arrested for her work defending many of the women who publicly removed their hijabs.

Soon after, Reza and Farhad’s homes and offices were raided, the buttons were confiscated, and they were sent to the men’s ward of the same prison that held Nasrin.

Reza was released on bail after 111 days. Nasrin served over three years in prison before receiving a medical furlough because of a heart condition complicated by Covid-19.

A gravely ill Farhad was released from prison in February after images of his severely emaciated condition – resulting from a long hunger strike – caused global outrage.

I’m the director of a documentary about Nasrin Sotoudeh – “Nasrin.” When the producer of the film, Marcia Ross, and I first saw a photo of Nasrin and Reza standing with Farhad the day he came home from prison, we were struck by their enduring friendship. We were also moved by the continued defiance represented by the “I Oppose the Mandatory Hijab” button that Nasrin wore on her jacket.

Couple Nasrin Sotoudeh and Reza Khandan, with their friend and fellow activist Farhad Meysami (center) after being released from prison earlier this year following a lengthy hunger strike.

It inspired us to make hundreds of exact replicas of this button to express support for the right of every woman to choose what she wears, thinks and does.

This led to a global campaign supported by Amnesty International, The Feminist Majority Foundation, Parliamentarians for Global Action, PEN America, Right Livelihood, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, and The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, among others.

Now, as Iran continues to reel from nationwide protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody last year, I spoke to Nasrin and Reza about the role people around the world can also play in the movement – and how to keep its momentum going.

Our conversation has been translated from Farsi by Parisa Saranj and edited for length and clarity.

Jeff Kaufman: How has opposition to the hijab been an important part of your relationship?

Nasrin: When Reza and I first met, we were working at a magazine that presented a dialogue on social issues. It was common then for men to believe they should control how women dress and behave.

When Reza asked me out on a date I told him, ‘Look, you should know that I don’t believe in the hijab.’

He replied that it was a private matter, and I had the freedom to choose what I want to do. This was very influential in my decision to marry him.

Reza: I was attracted by her mind, her activism and her sense of civic duty. When you respect and accept someone’s individuality and freedom, it goes beyond the hijab or clothing choices.

I’m not against women who want to be veiled. I am against the government’s imposition of the hijab for all women, regardless of their faith or practices.

And it’s not just about the hijab. I’m against the forced imposition of any religion or belief.

Nasrin: That’s why I love him and have been praising this man for 30 years!

Kaufman: Why are you and others willing to put your life at risk to oppose the mandatory hijab?

Nasrin: The police drag women off the streets and beat them, arrest them, even kill them. Why?

The compulsory hijab law isn’t just about controlling women’s bodies. It’s about controlling our ability to think for ourselves. This ensnares both sexes.

However, people like Reza and Farhad Meysami are willing to endure prison for producing some buttons. They go on hunger strikes and fight to an inch of their lives because they cannot bear to see how girls and women are being treated in this country.

That is my reason, too. I cannot stand the suffering of my people.

Kaufman: Nasrin, you have one of the last “I Oppose the Mandatory Hijab” buttons in Iran (the government destroyed the rest). How has that stayed with you all these years?

Nasrin: The day they came to arrest me, Reza was busy making these buttons. As it happened, I had one pinned to my jacket when they took me away and brought me to prison.

I was in the car with five officers, four men and a woman. The older man next to me said, ‘What’s that on you?’ And I said, ‘Oh, it’s a button about my opposition to the compulsory hijab.’ And he didn’t reply. He just ignored it.

When I got to the prison, I was still wearing the button. I wore it all the time they were processing me, and they never confiscated it.

When they put me in my cell, I pinned the button to a sheet I hung around my bed.

When my fellow prisoners would visit me, they would always look to see if the button was still there. The same with the prison officials.

I had the button to the very end of my time in Evin Prison. Almost three years. Then, it was lost when they transferred me to Qarchak Prison, but someone sent me another one, and I still wear that button now.”

Kaufman: What does the global spread of the button campaign mean to you?

Reza: I am very happy about it. The Iranian government thought that if they confiscated the buttons, stopped them from spreading, and put us in prison, they could end the whole story.

However, our arrest was in the news and anyone inquiring about us would soon learn it was because of the buttons, and what they represent.

Eventually, you and Marcia learned the story and gave the campaign a new life. It makes me very happy to wake up daily and see photos of people on social media or in my inbox wearing the buttons.

It ended up becoming far more than we had intended.

Nasrin: In the last few years that I was in prison, I noticed how important social media and technology are in the fight against oppression in Iran. The button campaign is a good part of that.

Real change has to come from within, but democracy in the rest of the world can help fill the gap here.

Sadly, voting in Iran is a joke. The supreme leader is a figure who stays forever. The president is just a puppet. So, we look to the world.

That’s why when other nations elect officials, their candidates’ position on human rights issues is important. What they do will eventually affect the Iranian people.

Reza Khandan and Farhad Meysami with the their hand held button-making machine in Iran, 2018.

For example, when I was arrested, Reza and Farhad made the ‘I Oppose the Mandatory Hijab’ buttons in the hope that people would wear them. They didn’t know what effect they might have.

We are delighted now to see the buttons being worn worldwide. That’s a wonderful thing.

Kaufman: What is your sense of the potential for change in Iran?

Reza: The movement that came after the death of Mahsa Amini resulted from decades of work and struggle that women’s and civil rights activists have been doing in Iran.

Undoubtedly, the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement has had an incredible impact. However, a strong start does not mean a victorious end.

My biggest concern is that this movement will get hijacked by a small, prominent opposition group outside of Iran that is centered around the Shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi. They have the ears of foreign media, are extremely rich and opportunistic, and have powerful connections.

Yet they are disconnected from the Iranian people and the activists working in this movement.

I fear we will go from a theocratic regime to a secular dictatorship.

Nasrin: I think the only way positive change is possible is through a fair and free referendum that takes place based on international standards and in which everyone gets to freely express their opinion.

My biggest concern at this moment, however, is the poisoning of hundreds of schoolgirls across Iran and the fact that nothing is happening to stop them.

Schools for young women in this country were established by the efforts of courageous women about a hundred years ago. Before that, they had no access to education.

Now we see our girls poisoned and terrorized by a Taliban-like government. (CNN adds: Iran’s intelligence ministry last month said its investigation found no actual poisonings, and accused foreign “enemies” and dissidents of fomenting fears.)

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Words cannot express the depth of our pain.

During the civil rights movement in The United States, Americans had a chance to look at themselves and ask what kind of a nation allows such treatment of Black people. That’s the kind of question we in Iran must ask ourselves. What kind of society allows its children to go to school and get poisoned?

My long-term concern is about freedom and democracy in Iran. Let’s say we end up having that free and fair referendum. What will happen after that?

Will we be able to take care of our earned democracy? I hope we will. I hope we will.