'Iranian Woman', 2017. 

Atena Farghadani is an Iranian web cartoonist and civil rights activist. In 2014, she made a cartoon protesting against the law that sought to criminalize voluntary sterilization and restrict birth control services. The cartoonist was imprisoned for over two months. After her release, she protested her sentence and treatment in an online video, after which she was jailed again. Her imprisonment sparked international protest. Cartoonists across the world supported Farghadani with their cartoons and comics. Thanks to global pressure campaigns, she was released again in 2016.

Early life and career
Atena Farghadani (آتنا فرقدانی) was born in 1987 in the Iranian capital Tehran. She studied Fine Arts at the city's Alzahra University. From an early age, Farghadani has been a socially conscious individual. After the highly contested 2009 presidential elections, she joined demonstrators who accused the re-elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of election fraud. Paramilitary troops and policemen suppressed the protests with extreme aggression. Later that year, a special exhibition, 'Parandegan-e Khak' ('Birds of the Earth'), was held to commemorate the victims. Farghadani participated artwork and also talked with the families of the victims.

The cartoon which landed Atena Farghadani in prison, 2014. 

First arrest
In August 2014, the Iranian government considered a new law that banned voluntary sterilization and restricted access to contraceptives. Farghadani was one of many Iranians who protested against this plan. She drew a cartoon depicting the Iranian government as a bunch of dumb monkeys and goats and posted it on her Facebook account. On 23 August, Farghadani was arrested, while her house was searched and her personal belongings confiscated. Some items were deliberately not put on the list of confiscated items, like her tablet and phone, and therefore never handed back to her. Farghadani was official charged with "spreading propaganda" and "insulting members of parliament, including the Supreme Leader of Iran". The cartoonist was sent to Evin Prison, Tehran, where she shared a cell with Ghonche Ghavami, a female activist who protested the exclusion of women during public sporting events.

The living circumstances in the prison were horrible. Their cell was very small, only 3 foot wide and 5 foot long. It lacked a window, a toilet and was infested with insects. At times it was so dark, that her eyesight deteriorated. To pass the time, Farghadani wanted to draw, but guards refused to give her paper, nor pencils. So instead she scribbled on paper cups. She picked flowers from the prison courtyard, then crushed the petals to use as ink. When her guards found out, they stopped bringing her drinks. Farghadani discovered more paper cups in the toilet rubbish bin, which allowed her to continue. Unfortunately, she was unaware of the surveillance cameras. Her guards verbally abused, strip searched and beat her. The young woman was also held in solitary confinement. For six weeks, she was interrogated daily, often nine hours on end. Farghadani was not allowed to talk to her lawyer, nor her family. The fact that she had talked with the victims of the 2009 demonstrations against the presidential election results was also held against her. On 1 October 2014, Farghadani and her cellmate went on hunger strike. A week later they also refused to drink any longer. She was eventually released on 6 November.

Second arrest
Instead of keeping a low profile, Farghadani wrote three letters to protest against her conviction and treatment. One was addressed to President Hassan Rouhani, two others to ayatollah Khamenei and the head of her prison. When no-one replied, Farghadani went public with her case. On 23 November 2014, she posted a video on her YouTube account, talking in depth about her detention. She also complained about the injustice of being jailed over a simple cartoon. Her video received many views and alarmed the Iranian government. On 28 December, she was summoned for "further hearing" and, a mere two days later, already put on trial. When she wanted to defend herself, guards beat her up in court, in front of her own family.

On 10 January 2015, Farghadani was sent to the Gharchak prison in Varamin, east of Tehran. Gharchak was notorious for locking away the country's worst criminals. The place was so overcrowded that many prisoners had to share one cell and sleep on the floor. There weren't enough showers for everybody, so days would pass before people were allowed to wash themselves. Again, Farghadani went on hunger strike, lasting from 9 to 26 February. On the 26th she had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. By now her case had received enough international media attention to have her deported from Gharchak back to Evin prison. As bad as Evin was, it was at least not as horrid as Gharchak and she was jailed alongside people accused of "political crimes".

On 1 June 2015, Farghadani was sentenced to 12 years and 9 months in prison. The official charges were "spreading propaganda against the system", "insulting members of the parliament through paintings" and "gathering and colluding against national security". Her lawyer, Mohammad Mohammad Moghimi, pleaded for 7.5 years in prison, citing a provision in the penal code that when somebody faces multiple charges, "sentencing will be limited to the maximum punishment for the crime with the heaviest sentence". Not only was his plea ignored, he soon found himself in prison too. When he and Farghadani shook hands on 13 June, both were suddenly accused of "adultery". Moghimi had to pay a hefty fine. Farghadani had to undergo a humiliating "virginity" and "pregnancy" test to prove that she didn't commit "adultery" with her lawyer. Again, she went on hunger strike. Eventually, the charge was dropped on 3 October 2015. On 28 March 2016, it was reported that people who protested her imprisonment, including her own father, had been beaten by the police during a demonstration.

"Class Difference in Iran" (9 February 2019).

International support
Atena Farghadani was by far not the only Iranian cartoonist jailed for drawing political cartoons. Other examples have been Atena Daemi, Hadi Heidari, Nikahang Kowsar and Mana Neyestani. But Farghadani's case received more global attention. Amnesty International named her a "prisoner of conscience". The non-profit organization Cartoonist Rights Network International wrote an open letter to President Rouhani to ask for her release. On 10 June 2015, journalist Michael Cavna (The Washington Post), asked people to draw their own cartoons in support of Farghadani, leading to the hashtag support groups #FreeAtena and #Draw4Atena. Several amateur and professional cartoonists paid tribute to her with cartoons and comic strips. From Iran came cartoons by Shahrokh Heidari, Mana Neyestani and Kianhoush Ramezani. The latter two had been victims of Iranian government censorship themselves. U.S. cartoonists who expressed support were Steve Artley, Pat Bagley, Ruben Bolling, Michael Cavna, Aaroun Guile, Ed Hall, Milt Priggee, Tom Racine, Mark Streeter, Tim Wilson and Tom Wilson. Additional tribute cartoons came from Bahrein (Sara Qaed), Canada (Kate Parkinson), China (Badicuao), France (Pierre Ballouhey, Bernard Bouton, Michel Cambon, Anne Derenne, Terreur Graphique), Germany (comicsusz), Italy (Enrico Bertuccioli AKA Ebert, Franco Bianco, Gianluca Costantini), The Netherlands (Tjeerd Royaards, Maarten Wolterink), Nicaragua (Pedro Molina), Palestine (Mohammad Saba'anehh), South Africa (Donno), Spain (Juan Pedro Benítez, J.R. Mora), Turkey (Firuz Kutal), the U.K. (Gary Barker, Steve Bright, Mair Perkins, Chris Riddell, Martin Rowson), Ukraine (Oksana Vaskiv-Kukul) and Australia (Gavin Aung Than, David Pope). New Zealand cartoonist Toby Morris even devoted an entire webcomic, 'Atena and the Animals', to her. 

In September 2015, Atena Farghadani was honored with the CRNI Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning. Since her imprisonment prevented her from being present at the ceremony, the award was accepted on her behalf by fellow cartoonist Ann Telnaes. On 5 May 2016, Farghadani also received the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent (2016).

Release and recent activities
On 3 May 2016, Farghadani was released from prison. An appeal court shortened her sentence. Her release coincided with World Press Freedom Day. However, the charge of "insulting Iran's leader" was still in effect, being a mere three-year suspended sentence. The jurors hoped to silence her, but Farghadani has announced quite the contrary. After being informed that Alzahra University expelled her, she made a cartoon depicting the president of the university, Ensieh Khazali, as a gremlin chained to a chair with the likeness of his father, an ultraconservative ayatollah. The cartoon suggests that she's merely a tool of Iran's theocratic system. On 20 September 2016, Farghadani also drew a cartoon to support the Iranian cartoonist Eaten Fish, who was locked away in a detention camp on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. 

Drawing of Atena and her fellow inmates, 2016.

Series and books by Atena Farghadani you can order today:


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