Portraits of exile: Iranian ‘soldier of justice’ Sholeh Pakravan


Sholeh Pakravan. Photo by Maryam Mirza, used with permission.

This story is part of a series that delves into the experiences of Iranian women in the diaspora as they pursue freedom and showcase their resilience. The story comes as a commemoration of the tragic passing of Mahsa Jina Amini, a Kurdish woman who lost her life at the age of 22 at the hands of the morality police for not fully covering her hair. This incident ignited widespread protests in Iran, which persist to this day despite escalating government oppression.

Her name is Sholeh, which means “flame” in Farsi, a symbol of both burning and shedding light. This very quality can be found in the heart of a mother who has lost her child to an oppressive regime. Born in 1964 in Kermanshah, in western Iran, Sholeh Pakravan became a mother for the first time when she was 23, giving birth to her first daughter Reyhaneh (Jabbari) in Tehran.  

Sholeh, a self-styled “soldier of justice,” was not only a wife and mother of three daughters but also an actress and theater director until 2007. However, everything changed when a “mega-tsunami” struck as her 19-year-old Reyhaneh, was arrested for killing Morteza Abdolali Sarbandi, a former intelligence ministry worker who had tried to rape her.

In January 2023, I met with Shole in “der Wedding,” one of Berlin's districts,  at a bistro. She kindly and confidently described the aftermath of Reyhaneh’s arrest, emanating a motherly warmth through the conversation: “We were afraid of everyone and everything and, for at least a week, I went everywhere with my two daughters and my husband.” They initially maintained full faith and trust in the system, the police, and the judiciary.

However, things changed.

“During the seven years and four months that Reyhaneh was in prison, I got to know a new world,” said Sholeh. “My trust dwindled day by day. I came to realize that the judiciary wasn’t as fair as I had once believed, and I witnessed the police use torture as a tool.

Imagine this: one day, right outside the courtroom, I saw a prisoner being taken to court with broken and infected legs. It was as if I had been living in my dreams until that moment, and that there was no connection between my previous life and this reality.”

During those years when the death sentence loomed over her daughter’s life like a noose, Sholeh embarked on a mission to support death-row inmates. She visited the victims’ families and advocated for pardons under Qisas law, a Sharia precept still part of Iran’s penal code. According to this law, the victim’s family has the choice to either pardon the offender or seek retribution “in kind” with a punishment equal to the crime. Sholeh saw this as an opportunity to learn how to address the family of a man her daughter was accused of murdering. 

However, in 2014, despite extensive campaigns both within and outside Iran against her impending execution, Reyhaneh met her tragic fate and was executed in Gohardasht Prison.

In the film “Seven Winters in Tehran,” the opening movie and winner of the Perspektive Deutsches Kino strand at the Berlinale 2023 film festival, there is a poignant scene that captures Sholeh’s heart-wrenching moment. Behind the prison walls, she receives the devastating news about her daughter’s execution.

From that point on, the days and nights became intermingled for Sholeh. She shared that during the nights following her daughter’s death, she remained awake until morning, often finding solace in smoking on the balcony. As soon as the call to prayer (Adhan) echoed from loudspeakers at the neighborhood mosque, she would go back inside her house and sleep for the rest of the morning. 

Unbreakable bonds of grief

One source of comfort for Sholeh that saved her was her connection to other mothers, those who had endured the loss of their loved ones, either shot dead in uprisings or executed within prison walls. Among these mothers was Shahnaz Akmali, whose young son, Moustafa Karimbeigi, fell victim to the Iranian authorities’ gunfire during the 2009 uprising. Sholeh reflected:

“I realized that during the 1980s, the first decade after the Islamic revolution, thousands of political prisoners were executed within jail walls. It was during this time that I held the newborn Reyhaneh in my arms, and was lost in happiness. I was unaware that, in the same city, there were mothers who, in silent despair, pressed their faces into their pillows, weeping silently in fear of more trouble for their families. This ignorance didn’t just affect me; it resonated throughout society. I became connected to these mothers after Reyhaneh’s execution.”

Her connection to other mothers was not without consequences. First, she was banned from working, and later, she began receiving alarming messages from her former colleagues asking her to stop her activities. Subsequently, she was formally summoned and interrogated by Iranian intelligence officers. During this ordeal, she was told that “her other two daughters could simply be killed in a car accident,” and that it was implied that she should consider Reyhaneh as gone and focus on her other two daughters.

The threatening message was clear, yet Sholeh remained resolute in her commitment to the path she had chosen after her daughter’s execution. However, in 2017, following the arrest of Shahnaz Akmali, who was a close confidant to Shole, she, along with her youngest daughter, endured hours of interrogation in the airport, before they were granted permission to leave Tehran for Istanbul. Six months later, they successfully made their way from Istanbul to Berlin.

Beyond retribution in Iran's struggle

Now, more than five years later, she sat before me, elaborating on her reasons for attempting to maintain some distance from the revolutionary protests of Zan, Zendegi, Azadi.” She expressed concerns about some of slogans used by the protesters, which seemed to promise retribution on the authorities of the Islamic Republic in a manner mirroring the Republic’s own actions over its 40-year history. Sholeh clarified: “I do not even seek the execution of the Islamic Republic leader, Ali Khamenei, or those responsible for the deaths of children in the streets.”

As she shared her pain, Sholeh expressed her hope to stop the “execution machine” but was not seeking revenge:

I will not forget or forgive those involved in torturing my daughter and taking her life, but I firmly believe execution perpetuates endless violence and must be stopped.

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