Speech by Minister Hoekstra at the exhibition ‘From Evin, for Woman, Life, Freedom’ on International Women’s day

Speech by Minister of Foreign Affairs Wopke Hoekstra at the exhibition ‘From Evin, for Woman, Life, Freedom’ on International Women’s day, The Hague, 8 March 2023. 

Ladies and gentlemen,


Thank you, Setareh Nafisi, for your fantastic performance. You’ve certainly set the right tone for this special evening.

When I was asked to open the exhibition From Evin, for Woman, Life, Freedom, I said yes. I said yes, because of its relevance and its significance. This extraordinary exhibition brings together grave injustices endured by women and great achievements accomplished by women. And today, on International Women’s day, I think it’s important to acknowledge both.  

I’m here to join you in commemorating Mahsa Amini. To express my solidarity with the brave women of Iran. And to praise your tremendous courage and determination. I recently met some of you here in the Netherlands. Some of you I have met a number of times, including Mansoureh Shojaee, the driving force behind this exhibition.

Just now, as she gave me a guided tour, I was struck once again by that courage, also by all the stories that you shared with me. I saw all the scarves, purses and dolls on display: all items made with a thread of courage and determination that spans the past 40 years. Including two special dolls I had already heard of but had not seen until Mansoureh showed me.

It’s a thread that leads us to Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer, writer and Nobel Prize winner. She has inspired so many women and many that are gathered here today, including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh – another activist to whom that thread of courage leads us.

Nasrin has dedicated her legal career to representing defenders of women’s rights, including women prosecuted for removing their hijabs. She knew her work could lead to imprisonment in horrible places, such as Evin, but that didn’t stop her. She knew it could lead to violence, or even death, but the unbreakable thread of her courage did never yield. It endured even after Nasrin was sentenced to 38 years’ imprisonment and 148 lashes. It endured within Evin Prison, where Nasrin was regularly held in solitary confinement.

There, she knitted the two dolls I just mentioned: two young girls, waving their hijabs, like flags of resistance. Symbolising all the brave women who are doing the same, outside the prison walls. Nasrin knitted these dolls with the unbreakable thread of her courage, before the very eyes of her oppressors. The same unbreakable thread that runs through the life of Mansoureh, who protested against the compulsory hijab way back on International Women’s day in 1980. To this day, Mansoureh remains an unstoppable force for women’s rights, as I saw for myself when I met this inspirational woman. She brought the two dolls here.

Shirin, Nasrin, and Mansoureh are all unstoppable. Like every Iranian woman I’ve met. You will not stop, even as the oppression continues and the setbacks pile up. Instead of stopping, you have knitted that thread of courage into a strong fabric, withstanding repression of the most inhuman kind. You’ve succeeded in bringing it into  the international community. To men, in Iran, and all over the world. You’ve brought it here. Today.

And make sure that from here today, that thread must go on. Because the world cannot turn a blind eye to the grave human rights violations in Iran, that are taking place every single minute of every single day. We can’t turn a blind eye to the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians, the arbitrary arrests of almost twenty thousand people, the executions and torture, the use of sexual violence as a means of oppression.

The Netherlands will continue doing all it can to urge the Iranian authorities to bring this to an end. And we will do our utmost to help the Iranian people achieve justice. By supporting the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Iran, for example. Because we need watertight evidence to ensure that the perpetrators don’t get away with their crimes.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is actually quite clear and very simple. This long thread of courage must go on. It must go on until the oppression of women stops. Until men and women are treated equally. My country is committed to that – nationally and internationally. Women’s voices and perspectives are an integral principle in Dutch foreign policy. Women must be represented fully, equally and meaningfully in political decision-making. And they should be able to raise their voices freely, whatever it is they would like to say without hindrance or repression. Yet the reality is that we still have a long way to go.

One of the gravest human rights violations we are witnessing in Iran, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Ukraine is sexual violence, used as a weapon by cowardly men against courageous women and sometimes men and sometimes children. We want this to stop. That’s why, yesterday, we announced new EU sanctions on individuals and entities that use sexual violence as a weapon. One of those entities is Qarchak Prison, where women are tortured and raped, or threatened with rape, to make them confess to crimes. In adopting this sanctions package, we want to send a strong message: that sexual violence is never acceptable. And that we will never accept it. And that it will have consequences. This will not be just a one-off event. We will not hesitate to expand the list to include others who use sexual violence as a weapon.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Violence against women and girls is on the rise, and women’s rights are being curtailed worldwide. In the past few weeks, young schoolgirls in Iran have been poisoned on a mass scale. Although the full details of the attacks are not yet clear, this truly is every parent’s worst nightmare. For girls in Afghanistan, going to school is now impossible. In fact, in that country we’ve seen the total erosion of rights for girls and women.

Yet even in this dark period, there are also glimmers of hope. Women have proven to be key enablers of change. In Iran, and in the rest of the world. But that’s no excuse for men to do nothing – which is one reason I’m here today. Nor is it an excuse for the international community to do nothing – that’s another reason I’m here today. Only by working together can we ensure that this unbreakable thread of courage leads us to a more equal world. 

Let’s listen to that courage now. Let’s listen to Shirin Ebadi, who has honored us with a video message.