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From Activism to Imprisonment: Sarah Shourd’s Loss of Freedom

June 12, 2010

Sarah Shourd

Sarah Shourd is a global feminist. Now thirty-one, she has been working for over a decade for the rights and welfare of women worldwide. Femicide, gentrification and military globalization are but a few of the injustices she has incessantly combated as an activist and community organizer.  She has worked with religious organizations, theater collectives and community-based organizations such as Causa Justa/Just Cause in Oakland. As her mother, Nora Shourd, told me in a phone interview on Thursday, “I think of her as being the kind of activist that wants to be a better activist all the time.” This work, at least in its most obvious forms, came to an abrupt halt ten and a half months ago but by no fault of Sarah. She had been living in Damascus, Syria for 13 months, working with the Iraqi Student Project, taking advanced classes in Arabic at the University of Damascus and teaching at the American Language School, when, on July 31st, 2009, during a hiking trip with two friends in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, she was taken prisoner by the Iranian government and accused of illegally crossing the Iraq/Iran border. She has yet to be granted access to her lawyer and has been detained in Evin Prison in Tehran without official charges for nearly eleven months now, a denial of habeas corpus, which is illegal both under Iranian law and according international humanitarian agreements.

When Sarah moved to Damascus in July 2008, there were approximately 1.5 million Iraqi refugees living in the Syrian city, and Sarah took it upon herself to organize a women’s group among the young refugees in the Iraqi Student Project and help prepare them for the women’s specific elements of culture shock that they were likely to experience when in the United States for their undergraduate education. She developed close friendships with young Iraqi, Syrian and Palestinian women and participated in a number of political discussion groups organized among these women living in Damascus. Due to these connections, in the summer of 2009, she was witness to what she has described as “an unusual show of organizational strength” as women’s rights groups joined together to halt a revision of the personal status law, which would have, if passed, reduced women’s rights even further, denying married women the right to work or travel without their husband’s permission and allowing men to divorce their wives but denying women the same option. In July 2009, when Sarah left on the hiking trip that would lead to her arrest and imprisonment, she was working with an editor at Women’s eNews to publish a story on the recent legal victory. Instead, the story, “Syrian Women Reflect on Rare Political Victory,” was just published earlier this week on June 7th, 2010.

Nora told me that one of the last emails she received from Sarah before she left on vacation was about this article and its upcoming publication at Women’s eNews, but after learning about her daughter’s imprisonment it had completely left her mind. It was only last month, when she and the mothers of the two other American detainees were given access to their children for the first time in 10 months and visited Tehran on two-day visas, that Sarah reminded her of the article and asked if she knew if it had been published. Sarah gave Nora the name of her editor at Women’s eNews, and Nora contacted her upon re-arriving in the United States May 22nd. As it turns out, the editor was unaware that Sarah was the same Sarah reported in the news to be imprisoned in Iran, and had repeatedly emailed her with no reply, eventually leaving the incomplete article unpublished. Once this misunderstanding was cleared up, however, a few edits and updates were made and the piece went out on the Women’s eNews website on June 7th.

Sarah and Nora embrace upon meeting in Tehran

Prior to May 20th and 21st, 2010, Nora and the other two mothers had yet to have any contact with their children since their imprisonment. They received no phone calls and their letters went unanswered. The Iranian lawyer they hired was repeatedly denied access to the three, and the Swiss, who acted as intermediaries, experienced only minimal success in checking in on them. The mothers did get two days with their children in May, however, spending six hours one day and four hours the next with the three. The press filmed part of the event, and brief interviews with Sarah, Shane and Josh can be viewed online. Nora says that Sarah was in relatively good health. Over the preceding months she had imagined the worst of circumstances over and over again—torture, beating, murder, rape—and it was clear that Sarah had not become victim of any such acts. At the same time, however, Nora noted that Sarah had changed noticeably. Nora told me:

“When I saw her a lot of the big fears I had, I was able to put aside. Seeing her helped me do that. I know that she hasn’t been harmed and that she won’t be harmed…When I saw her, I could immediately see that she was changed. And by that I mean, I could tell that she has a high degree of anxiety, which is not the normal way that she is. I’m sure that she is afraid, and she’s also very sad. She’s quite alone. She’s by herself twenty-three hours a day, and that’s really hard on her. She did talk about that a lot.”

It seems as if Sarah’s unique situation as the one woman of the group has led to a more difficult lifestyle in Evin prison. While the two boys, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, are cellmates and can talk and do activities together, Sarah is kept alone in a cell in isolation. She sees the other two twice a day for thirty minutes and spends the other twenty-three hours a day alone. She has asked for a cellmate but has yet to be assigned one.

Sarah and Nora meeting with press in Tehran

At the same time, however, Sarah has not given up hope. Trained in mind-body wellness and acupuncture, she does yoga and meditates every day. She sings and dances by herself, and has even written six songs about freedom while in prison, two of which she sang for Nora during her visit. She has been allowed GRE studying materials, which she has devoured, and has slowly been provided with a growing number of books. These reading materials, which began with the Koran in English and then books from the prison library—non-fiction on the history of Islam, Russian fiction and others—have become the base of a rigorous study program that Sarah, as the teacher, organized between the three detainees. They each read passages when in their cells and discuss them daily during their two free periods. Upon her visit, Nora brought her books that she knew she would appreciate—biographies of Gandhi and Mao, Palestinian poetry and bell hooks, who Sarah read religiously prior to imprisonment—but they, along with other gifts from the mothers, were immediately confiscated for inspection, and Nora is uncertain as to whether Sarah will get access to them in prison. And while the three accepted gifts such as books from their mothers, they refused money. Nora explained:

“All three of these young people don’t want privilege, even when they’re in prison. For example, we tried to give them money, and they said, ‘No, no, we don’t want money. No one here has money.’ They relate to the other prisoners in that way.”

Sarah rarely gets to interact with the other women in the prison, but the interactions she has had have been fulfilling. She told Nora that some women have whispered to her as they have been lead past her cell, risking punishment by telling her that they love her and respect her, that they have learned of her story in the brief televised news they get each day. At one point, the woman in the cell next to Sarah’s was able to communicate with her through a grate, and, in her limited English, would sing the Celine Dion songs she knew to her at night. When the guards learned of such transgressions, the woman was promptly moved away, but it was a brief period of joy in Sarah’s ten and a half month imprisonment.

Since her visit in late-May, Nora has yet to receive any new news about Sarah’s situation. There have been no phone calls, and the lawyer has still yet to speak with the three. Nora, along with Cindy Hickey and Laura Fattal, the other two mothers, hoped that their visit and the subsequent media push they made calling for compassion on Iran’s part would lead to a quick release of their children. The two-day visit seemed like a good sign, but nothing substantial has yet to happen. Just yesterday, the day after I interviewed Nora, the Associated Press reported that Mohammad Javad Larijani, the secretary general of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, made an announcement in Geneva that the final steps are being taken to determine if Sarah, Shane and Josh will be released or brought to trial, but it is uncertain as to whether this is different than any of the other hopeful signs the mothers have received for the last ten and a half months. Nora, Cindy and Laura have met with Secretary of Defense Hilary Clinton, who promised to do as much as possible to get the three released, but they are wary of the hopefulness of this commitment due to the United States government’s open hostility towards Iran at the present moment. They are worried that the most recent UN sanctions put in place this week will deter their children’s release. Furthermore, Nora expressed concern over how she can expect Iran to come to their senses about habeas corpus and the treatment of their political prisoners when she knows that the United States currently maintains similar policy for prisoners in Bagram and elsewhere.

Josh Fattal, Sarah Shourd & Shane Bauer

In spite of this, Nora, Cindy and Laura have launched and maintained an impressive humanitarian effort to free their children. Their website,, provides information about all three—their passions, their work—and highlights various steps that can be taken to help work towards their freedom. Upon the mothers’ visit last month, they got to tell their children about the efforts being made and the thousands that have come together around their cause. In learning about this, one of the requests that Sarah, Shane and Josh had for their mothers was that they ask all friends, family members and supporters to take their own day of freedom—do something relaxing they wouldn’t normally do, meet new people, do whatever it is that gives them joy—and write to them about it in great detail. Nora told me, “They said please write as much as you can about how things look to you, how they feel to you. It can be very ordinary things…They need to get that feeling about what’s still going on out there; they need details.” Some people mailed their day of freedom letters to the P.O. box set up for getting mail to the three but other multimedia responses can also be read and watched on the site’s blog space. Meanwhile, Nora and Sarah also developed their own personal relief plan. Both big gardeners, the two are together planting an imaginary garden. Nora is taking care of the vegetables and Sarah the flowers. Nora said she recently planted some vegetables in the garden and wrote Sarah a long letter about what that felt like.

Nora and the other mothers are reaching out to media networks, hoping to spread the story of what Sarah, Shane and Josh are really like. Nora thinks it’s important to know that the three were not absent-minded tourists who took a wrong turn in a forest. They are all activists who were doing important work—Shane is a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker and Josh is an environmental activist—and they can only continue this important work when they are released. Sarah, Nora argues, was “imbued with a sense of injustice from a very early age,” and it’s a tragic irony that she herself is now experiencing unjust imprisonment in the region of the world that she had been working so hard for. Speaking about Sarah’s activism from a young age, Nora told me:

“[Sarah] always goes to the sense that there’s something unjust in this situation, it’s a woman that’s involved, and I’m going to speak about it, I’m going to talk about it, I’m going to write about it, and I’m going to change it. And that’s just the way she’s been since she was a young girl.”

And this is our opportunity to do the same. Please help spread Sarah’s story. Read her article on Syrian women at Women’s eNews, visit, talk about Sarah, Shane and Josh, write about their situation and help change it.

  1. June 12, 2010 8:53 am

    Thank you for helping to share who Sarah Shourd is.

    Safe World is a women’s NGO which has been working for the last 3 months to try and bring to the public attention, the case of the 3 US Hikers in Evin prison.

    So we applaud the fact that you have taken up this case too.

    It’s important that feminists worldwide realise that Iran is not holding 3 ‘stupid’ US Hikers, but rather 3 activists who are working for a better world.

    Having spoken to Nora a few times, her eloquent pride in Sarah’s work is a joy to here.

    There is a particular irony that Sarah is sharing a prison with many leading Iranian women’s rights activists.

    It is a symbol of Iran’s repression of free speech that she cannot meet them.

    We have made a couple of films in support of the campaign to get Sarah, Shane and Josh freed.

    In ‘Free Me’ you can hear a clip of Sarah talking about her work in Syria.

    Take care

    Chris Crowstaff
    Safe World for Women

  2. Sally Marie permalink
    June 12, 2010 11:05 am

    Good work, I will pass it on.

  3. June 12, 2010 4:00 pm

    Thanks for writing this beautiful article. Sarah and Nora are both friends from my east bay community that I have had the pleasure of socializing and working with through a number of avenues. They are both truly amazing people and I so deeply hope that their suffering will be relieved soon. I am encouraging anyone who is thinking about her with kind thoughts to write her a letter as I know this will really help get her through her remaining time in prison. Details of how to write can be found on

  4. Maria Guzman permalink*
    June 16, 2010 7:06 pm

    I will also pass this on-thank you for elaborating upon an ongoing example of how activism is often obscured in the news.


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