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The 28-year-old Iranian cartoonist Atena Farghadani has just one week left to appeal her criminal sentencing to 12 years in prison for lampooning Iran’s government in a cartoon. The harsh punishment has drawn criticism from around the world, with the free-speech nonprofit Cartoonist Rights Network International penning an open letter to President Hassan Rouhani asking that Farghadani be released. Many are also showing their support on social media under the hashtags #FreeAtena and #Draw4Atena.
The campaign kicked off last Wednesday, when comics journalist Michael Cavna, of the Washington Post‘s Comic Riffs blog, asked artists to “make their voices heard” by picking up their pens and drawing their own cartoons. “It’s not just an act of support; it is also the art of support,” Cavna wrote. “And so now is especially the time to be heard, and seen.”
#Draw4Atena has since gone viral, with cartoons pouring in from around the world. Many focus on the need to defend free speech and the power of art in the face of despotism. One, by Steve Artley, features a paintbrush in shackles shining like a candle beside the line, “The World Sees.”
They echo the illustrations that appeared online in the days following the Charlie Hebdo massacre. That event sparked an unprecedented interest in persecuted cartoonists worldwide, which has led to heightened attention given to Farghadani’s case. (Many other Iranian cartoonists have been shut away in the country’s notorious Evin Prison too, including Nikahang Kowsar and Mana Neyestai, though their plights received less notice.)
It’s certainly moving to see so many people get involved, but it’s also hard not to be at least a little skeptical. Can posting cartoons under a hashtag really help persuade Iran to free Farghadani? Such drawings can seem like an artistic subcategory of the larger current of “slacktivism” — online expressions of solidarity that make us feel benevolent and connected to big issues but ultimately wield little real-world impact.
“Unfortunately, with solidarity hashtags and the Iranian government, it mostly falls upon deaf ears,” Middle Eastern analyst Holly Dagres told Hyperallergic. “It’s only when government officials and members of the international community begin to make references to Atena Farghadani during interviews and pressers will the Iranian government pay close attention.”
But that doesn’t mean the hashtag can’t have some effect. After Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria, people began expressing their outrage under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. Along with letters sent by activists to US Congress members, it helped change the international conversation about a terrible incident that had previously gotten little media attention. The result was that 173 congresspeople sent a letter to President Obama, who then expressed his support for the cause in a weekly presidential address delivered by First Lady Michelle Obama. It may not seem like much when the whereabouts of 200 of the girls remain unknown, but getting powerful governments to care is still an important first step.
#Draw4Atena can help garner the kind of attention that makes world leaders — Iran’s and others — take note. But it also needs to be accompanied by real-world action that can be as simple as writing a letter to your congressman. “Then there’s a possibility Farghadani’s sentencing will be reduced or her appeal will go through,” Dagres said. “The Iranian government has nothing to gain for imprisoning Farghadani for so long, but unfortunately that is the nature of the beast.”