Kar, Mehrangiz (1944–)

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Kar, Mehrangiz

Mehrangiz Kar is an Iranian lawyer, writer, and human rights activist. She fought for women's and children's rights in the 1990s, was arrested in 2000, and has lived in the United States since 2001.


Kar was born in 1944 in Ahvaz, capital of the southwest Iranian province of Khuzistan. She moved to Tehran to study at the Faculty of Law and Political Science of the University of Tehran, graduating with a law degree in 1967. After graduating, she became an employee of the state social security organization, while at the same time writing articles on social and political issues for newspapers and weekly magazines.

In 1977 she resigned her position in the social security organization to prepare for her legal career. She passed her bar exam and was licensed to practice law in 1978, shortly before the Iranian Revolution. But when Iran's judiciary was taken over by the clerics following the revolution, legal procedures were in flux. While the role of defense lawyers was not officially abolished, the new judges treated them with disdain and often ignored them, especially women. Given the new legal environment, Kar and a number of other lawyers decided to familiarize themselves with the shari'a (Islamic law) and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). They learned these systems of jurisprudence, based on traditional Islamic modes of reasoning, in order to gain the acceptance of the judicial authorities and maintain a role for themselves within the Iranian judicial system. Gradually they succeeded, and Kar was able to represent clients in cases involving divorce, adultery, and human rights abuses by state officials.

When Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani became president of Iran in 1989 following Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni's death in that year, the press became more diverse, and figures unconnected to the country's political establishment were able to publish weekly and monthly magazines. Kar began writing again, focusing on the tension between the laws on the books in Iran and basic principles of justice and human rights. Her articles in the women's monthly Zanan, published by a Muslim feminist, articulated the struggle for equal rights in an Islamic language, the only one available at the time. For these writings, Kar was criticized by the conservative press for allegedly advocating Western ideas and advocating vice.

Also in the 1990s she began writing a series of books analyzing the various aspects of the discrimination against women. In 1997, she published a book, Political Rights of Iranian Women, in which she argued that Iranian women had no legal rights over their children. The book highlighted the plight of children born to an Iranian mother and a non-Iranian father. Under a law enacted in pre-Revolution Iran, children were not able to acquire their mothers' citizenship. Given the presence of millions of Afghan and Iraqi refugees in Iran, thousands of Iranian women had contracted religiously valid marriages with Muslim noncitizens. Their children were considered stateless if their father had not registered his children's nationality with the authorities of his country—impossible in many cases as a practical matter, given the refugee status of many noncitizen residents of Iran.

In April 2000 Kar and sixteen other prominent reform-minded Iranian intellectuals and activists attended a conference on Iran's reform movement organized in Berlin by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, a foundation with close links to the Green Party. At that conference she spoke out in favor of constitutional reform and secularism. For this she was arrested on 20 April 2000 when she returned to Iran. While in prison Kar became ill. Under pressure from the European Union and the Netherlands, the Iranian government released her on bail after fifty-three days, bail having been set at 500 million rials (roughly $60,000). She had developed cancer and underwent an operation and chemotherapy in Iran.

Kar was still weakened by her ongoing chemotherapy when she was tried on charges of "acting against national security," "spreading propaganda against the regime of the Islamic Republic," and "violating the Islamic dress code" at the Berlin conference. On 13 January 2001 she was convicted and sentenced to four years' imprisonment. But her health problems induced officials under President mohammad khatami to intervene with the judiciary and allow her to leave Iran for further treatment. She left the country in July 2001. In her absence an appeals court reduced her term to six months of imprisonment on 8 January 2002.


Name: Mehrangiz Kar

Birth: 1944, Ahvaz, Iran

Family: Husband, Siamak Pourzand; two daughters, Leyla and Azadeh

Nationality: Iranian

Education: Faculty of Law and Political Science, University of Tehran, 1967


  • 1960s–1970s: Government employee and journalist
  • 1978: Began to practice law
  • 1997: Publishes Political Rights of Iranian Women
  • 2000: Arrested by Iranian government
  • 2000s: Serves as a researcher and lecturer at various American universities
  • 2001: Leaves Iran; convicted in absentia by an Iranian court
  • 2002: Receives Ludovic Trarieux Prize, jointly awarded by the Human Rights Institute of the Bar of Bordeaux and the European Lawyers Union; and received Democracy Award of the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy
  • 2004: Receives Human Rights First Human Rights Award

Following her arrival in the United States, Kar's husband, Siamak Pourzand, manager of the Tehran Cultural and Artistic Center—a center for writers, artists, and intellectuals—disappeared. Months later he was paraded on state television, having been arrested and charged with adultery, spying for the United States, working for the shah's regime, and channeling U.S. money to the reformist press. In March 2002 he was put on trial and on 3 May 2002 he was sentenced to eleven years in prison. A septuagenarian suffering from diabetes and heart complaints, he received a regulated medical leave and has been taken back and forth between prison and home.


One of the earliest influences on Kar was her older brother who sensitized her from an early age to the ravages of gender discrimination. In Ahvaz, she was scandalized by the treatment of women, including "honor killings" (the murder of women suspected of staining their families' honor through sexual impropriety, which includes being a victim of rape) that she witnessed among the tribal populations of the area. As she put it herself, the local practices that she thought exceptional were enacted after the Iranian Revolution first through fatwas (Islamic religious rulings) and later as state policy. The struggle against this institutionalized discrimination could take place only if the arguments were presented in an Islamic garb, and so she collaborated with progressive Islamists in order to make her points. The two figures with whom she worked most closely were the publisher Shahla Lahiji, whose publishing house issued her books, and attorney shirin ebadi. Kar's books include The Social and Legal Position of the Children of Addicted Parents (1990), Children of Addiction (1997), Violence against Women in Iran (2000), and Women's Participation in Politics: Possibilities and Obstacles (2005).


Since arriving in the United States, Kar has held a number of fellowships for a number of prestigious institutions, including the National Endowment for Democracy, the Woodrow Wilson Center, American University, the University of Virginia, and Columbia University. Since 2004, she has held positions at various schools and institutes at Harvard University.

Her appeals to the Iranian government to allow her to return home and be with her husband have received no official answer. In her years in exile Kar has given numerous lectures, talks, interviews, and she continues to write. She has written a number of books and articles in Persian on Iran's legal system, as well as a memoir of her life in Iran in English under the title Crossing the Red Line: The Struggle for Human Rights in Iran.

Kar is one of Iran's best-known human rights activists and has received numerous international awards. These awards include: Woman of the Year award from the regional council of the Valle d'Aosta region in Italy (2000); Vasyl Stus Freedom-to-Write award of PEN New England (2001); the Ludovic Trarieux Prize jointly awarded by the Human Rights Institute of the Bar of Bordeaux and the European Lawyers Union (2002); the Democracy Award of the National Endowment for Democracy (2002); the Human Rights First Human Rights Award together with Helen Mack, a Guatemalan activist (2004); and the Genova una donna Fuori dal Coro award in Italy (2006).


Although in exile since 2001, the struggles of Kar and others like her have borne fruit. Very gradually, gender-related legislation in the Islamic Republic has changed. As society has changed, the laws have been adapted to take cognizance of women's demands for equality. Examples include the increased presence of women throughout the judiciary system and the easing of restrictions on women's right to seek divorce.


Kar, Mehrangiz. Crossing the Red Line: The Struggle for Human Rights in Iran. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda, 2007.

                                                H. E. Chehabi