Prisoners of "love"
Evin, Part 6: Poverty, violence, ignorance, and misogynous laws
March 27, 2007
Part (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)
The purpose of our visits to Evin in summer of 1993 was to do a research on the condition of female offenders of Greater Tehran. My research team and I completed the interviews with the prisoners, but no research paper was ever written based on these interviews and observations. The reason? All the filled questionnaires and written papers belonging to my research team at the Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies were confiscated by the fundamentalist director of the Institute, Mehdi Golshani, in January 1995. Therefore, it is not possible for me to provide an analysis of the situation of female offenders of Greater Tehran in that year. Yet, I still have my journal entries of the 3 months of visits to Evin and my memory of the 22 women inmates I personally interviewed. I also remember a few discussions my team members and I had about what we heard from all other prison inmates. So, I am able to write down a few more lines on the social background of female prisoners or why they were incarcerated, which in high probability remains the same today.
Women labelled "offenders" or "criminals" that we interviewed were mostly from provinces other than Tehran, who had moved to south Tehran, and were living in one of the three areas of the capital known for their poverty and/or criminality: Javadieh District, Mas'oodieh District, and Saaveh Road shanty towns. They were mostly from lower classes, illiterate, religious and traditional families without love and respect for women and children. They were married at a very early age of 11 to 15, obeyed their fathers and husbands, were "good housewives" and "devoted mothers," and their ambitions were centred around the household. They had done everything according to the patriarchal expectations; yet, they had found themselves on the wrong side of the Islamic-patriarchal laws and thrown into jail.
I read about a certain Association for Protection of Prisoners Families, but none of the 106 women we interviewed mentioned having been served by it.
Predictably, all interviewed inmates came from dysfunctional families and carried many emotional scars into their early marriages that often did not last. Following the Islamic laws, an unmarried woman who has had an intimate relationship with a man or a married woman who has had an extra-marital affair, have both committed the exact same illegal act as a sex-trade worker. Most women were in Evin because of the application of the Islamic laws that interfered with people's private lives and the absence of consideration for their life circumstances or mental state. High levels of unemployment among the youth had made men, who were supposed to be the bread-winners of their future family, unable to get married even up to the age 30, which forced young males and females to have sexual relations without being married and thus break the law. Most women accused or convicted of adultery (extra-marital relationship) were those who needed love and affection that they could not get from their abusive husbands who refused to divorce them. They were women who had chosen to satisfy their needs instead of developing mental illness or committing suicide.
Also, the very act of submitting to the patriarchal norms of the society lead many women to illegal activities. Women who had entered the network of drug-trafficking were "good and obedient" wives of addicted men who had ordered them to buy them their needed drugs. Most women who were involved in carrying illegal drugs had been first addicted by a family member, often by their addicted husbands. These men needed an addicted wife, so that she would be part of the network of narcotic trafficking and provide them with their drugs. In fact, women were often assisting men in their offences, which was an extension of their expected role vis-à-vis men at home and in the society at large. Their assistance brought them either no income or a small income, and often made them more vulnerable at the time of their arrest. Women who were married at a very early age, got involved in any offence or crime their husbands ordered them to.
Women who had complained against their husbands for abuse and violence, had found themselves objects of suspicion by the authorities. There was an absence of Safe Houses for battered women. There were women's shelters called "re-training centres", but they were for homeless women and runaway girls. All the women accused or convicted of murder that our team interviewed, had killed their abusive husbands in self-defense or in defense of their children and as a means of last resort, because they did not have the right to divorce their husband or have the custody of their children if they left.
Among the rich inmates, there were some procurers or Madams who were among many who ran the numerous brothels of Tehran. They had the support of the influential men in the Martyrs Foundation, an institution of the Islamic Republic, but had been told that this support could not be 100 percent. The very few rich women who were convicted of swindling were generally educated, middle-class and ambitious women with strong characters and able to pay their way out of the prison. One of these women expressed the opinion that only one percent of middle and upper-class women who break the law would ever find themselves in prison.
Some women were held in prison because their husbands were fugitives of the law. They were incarcerated in Evin as a replacement for their spouses. An example of this being that of a 21 year-old woman from Mashad travelling by car with her husband and two other men when approaching Tehran, they were involved in an accident. Everyone died except the woman. Her husband was a drug trafficker and authorities discovered 3 kilos of opium in their mangled car. Although the young woman was not at all involved in any illegal activity, she was sentenced to two years of incarceration for possession of illegal drugs.
From among the women I personally interviewed, I have notes on very few of them in my diary: Ashraf, Mehri and Zahra are among them.
Ashraf was a 34 year-old sex-trade worker, sentenced to 3 years of incarceration and 50 mild flogging strokes (ta'ziri.) for adultery-as-an-unmarried-woman. She was born in a poor working class family of Bojnourd in the north-east of the country and moved with her family to southern Tehran when she was two. She was beaten by her parents from an early age. Her parents often fought and, while fighting, they both jumped on her and beat her up as well. Even though her father was an illiterate construction labourer and her mother was a maid, they sent their daughter to primary school.
Ashraf was eight when her mother died. Her father remarried within a month, causing little Ashraf to hate him. Her step-mother accused her of stealing fruit from the refrigerator and beat her and burned the back of her hands with a hot spoon (she showed me the scars on her hands.) The stepmother forced the child to keep the beatings and burnings a secret from her father. Ashraf kept to herself and never shared her problems with anyone. She sometimes found her situation unbearable and escaped from home to her paternal uncle's, who took her to the Committee for Prevention of Vice, and the Committee agents took her back to her father's home, stating, "Your daughter is young and ignorant; do let her in." Her father always let her in, but as soon as the agents left, he beat her up for having divulged being beaten.
Once when her father was out and Ashraf was asleep, her stepmother approached her with a hot spoon and placed it on the back of her hand. The child woke up in horror and pain, screaming and crying. With the spoon stuck to the back of her hand, Ashraf ran to the neighbour's and the woman took her to a clinic where a doctor separated the spoon with the help of a razor blade and bandaged her wound. Later when her father asked her about the bandage, Ashraf pretended having had a fall. A few days later, her father opened the bandage and inquired about the burn mark. Ashraf replied that she had banged her hand on an Aladdin heater. But the woman neighbour divulged the truth to him, which led him to beat up his wife and break her front teeth.
When Ashraf was nine, one late morning she was returned home by the Pasdars from the Committee for Prevention of Vice after yet another escape. Her father was not home but her stepmother was in. After the Committee agents' departure, the step-mother wrapped a rope around Ashraf's body, bound her feet with it and hung her upside-down in the backyard's well by attaching the rope to a water pipe that was laid horizontally on the well's opening. The nine year-old girl was hung from noontime to 5 in the morning of the following day. The stepmother brought her out of the well in a state of panic and rushed her to a doctor. The doctor first had a conversation with the woman and then placed the child on a bed, examined her eyes and said that nothing was wrong with her. Her father was away for two days; doing extra work until 10:30 in the morning of that day. As always, Ashraf was forced by her stepmother not to mention the episode to her father.
At the age of 15, Ashraf was forced by her father to marry an 18 year-old boy who worked in a shoe factory and whom she had never met. During their six years of marriage, she had a daughter and a son by him. Although her husband was not abusive, Ashraf did not love him. She escaped her married home on several occasions. Her husband's family didn't like her and there were often fights between the couple's fathers. Eventually her husband had an affair with a woman "out of contempt for Ashraf's family" and when the woman got pregnant, Ashraf's father forced him to divorce her, threatening to denounce him and his pregnant mate for adultery. So, Ashraf's husband divorced her when she was 19 and took away her children and didn't allow her to see them.
Ashraf moved to her parent's home. A year later, an 18 year-old boy who was a Shah-Adbol-Azim's Refinery worker asked Ashraf's father for her hand in marriage. She married him and had two sons with him. Her mother-in-law was meddling in her married life, blaming her for being a divorcee with two previous children. Under pressure from his mother, Ashraf's husband divorced her when she was 26 and took the children away from her. Once again Ashraf went to live with her parents. Soon Ashraf married a 60 year-old Azari man who was chronically angry and often kicked her all over her body and wounded her. Two years later, she got divorced from him and went back to live with her parents again. When Ashraf was 30 years-old, she married a man of her age temporarily, for a year. Her fourth husband was a thief and a trafficker of opium, who did not pay for her expenses and instead beat her up with a hose. After a year, Ashraf did not renew her marriage contract with him, but went back home to her parents' as usual. She was then 31.
Three months later, a relative by the name of Pari, who was a "needle injector" in Mas'oudieh Clinic, told her that she had found a job for her as an "injector." Ashraf went to that clinic with Pari over a period of a few months, learning how to inject needles and bandage wounds. During the same period of time, Pari took her to different men for sex. Although Ashraf consented to the sex trade, she was completely demoralized and often cried at home. She was paid between 500 and 1000 toumans per encounter and worked 2 days a week, 4 clients a day. Simultaneously, she worked as a maid in an upper-class household as her official employment. As for Pari, she was proven to be a Madam with a house in Mas'oudieh, where about 10 women lived. Pari was married with 4 children and took 50% of each transaction.
Ashraf worked as a sex-trade worker for 3 years. There was a lot of competition between the women who worked for Pari over which men they served. A woman by the name of Azar was Ashraf's rival and had forbidden her to speak to a certain client. When that client stopped going to Azar, the latter assumed that he had contracted a temporary marriage with Ashraf. So, to get her revenge on her supposed rival, Azar went to the Committee for Prevention of Vice and accused Ashraf of having lured her into prostitution (called adultery in the Islamic Republic.) A team of Pasdars, who were accompanying Azar, arrested Ashraf in her neighbourhood and took her for a "five-minute interrogation." At the Committee headquarters, agents beat Ashraf with a four-layered cable and a hose in order to extort a confession of deception and procurance from her. After half an hour, as Ashraf could not bear the torture any longer, she confessed to what the Pasdars wanted. She was detained in the Committee headquarters for a week before being sent to the solitary confinement of Evin and then to a communal ward.
After five months of incarceration at Evin, Ashraf was brought before a judge, called Haj Agha Mohammadi, who made the following exchange of words with her:
"Did you commit adultery?"
"Did you commit procurance?"
"No," Ashraf dared to say the truth.
"You should now go back to prison."
That constituted Ashraf's trial. Being poor and not able to submit bail, Ashraf was sent back to Evin. A month later, the prison staff received the judgment for her case. At the time of the interview, she had spent one year of her 3-year sentence and was sad for having caused her parents embarrassment. They had told everyone that she was in prison for possession of opium to save their "honour." Ashraf was determined to quit the sex-trade work because "her second husband still wanted her" and had sent a message through her mother that he wanted to re-marry her. She did not mention the possibility of working as a "needle injector."
Mehri was a 29 year-old woman accused of having murdered her husband. The fifth child of her family, she was born in Zabol, a city in south-east of Iran. At the age of five, she moved with her parents to the city of Gonbad-Kavous, in northern Iran, where her father worked as a farmer.
At the age of 13, a relative came to visit them along with her 21 year-old son and asked her parents for her hand in marriage. Mehri did not want to get married and cried out a lot. However she was forced to marry that man and move with him to the Javadieh District of southern Tehran, where her two older married sisters also lived. Her husband began beating her from the first day of their common life over any type of excuse, big or small. In the beginning of her marriage, Mehri thought that her condition was normal, that all wives were beaten by their husbands; but she gradually realized that her sisters and sisters-in-law were not beaten. Yet, Mehri submitted herself to her situation as it was expected from a "good wife", and over the years gave birth to four children.
Mehri's husband was an Iran Automobile factory worker, but often missed going to work. He was addicted to opium, had gradually become critical and suspicious of everyone, and would beat his co-workers over imaginary betrayals. Every time Mehri complained to her husband's family about his violent temper, her husband beat her and her children. He could not sleep at night because of his addiction. He would beat everyone in the household in the middle of the night before falling asleep in the morning. The factory paid the family some insurance money so that they would be able to survive. The managers told Mehri's husband to simply show up at his workplace so that they would be able to pay him a salary for his family's sake, but he refused to do so. The man got worse and began tying Mehri to bed and burning her body with hot wire. Once he tied Mehri's hands to the window bars and flogged her with metallic whip, which caused the woman not to be able to walk for two months. He began asking her insane questions such as "How many kilos the window weighs?" and when Mehri said she didn't know, he beat her.
Eventually, when Mehri had three children, she left home for her parents' in Gondat-Kavous, taking her children with her. From there, she asked her husband for a divorce. Over several months, her husband repeatedly begged her to return, but when she came back home to Tehran, he beat her for having left him in the first place. Mehri decided to put up with her husband and soon she gave birth to their 4th child. Her husband did not cease his violent behaviours.
She attempted suicide several times and each time her children saved her by alerting the neighbours. Finally, one day when Mehri was at the end of her rope and could not bear her husband's violence any longer, she gathered her children, aged 14, 13, 10 and 6, and begged them to let her swallow her sleeping pills and not to call the neighbours. Her children began crying and begged her not to kill herself because they would be left alone without a loving mother and in the hands of a crazy father who could torture or kill them. The children suggested to the mother that killing their father would be the best solution to everyone's misery. Mehri agreed not to attempt suicide and asked her children not to think or talk about the idea of murdering their father any longer.
Soon Mehri asked her brother and cousin for help. One evening the two men came for a visit, and waited for an opportunity when Mehri's husband went to the washroom. Her brother stood behind its door and as her husband came out, he hit the man on the head with a heavy object. Then her cousin began hitting him all over his body. Mehri's husband fell on the floor with blood gushing from his head, and Mehri, afraid that he might still be alive, grabbed her scarf and wrapped it around his neck and choked him to death. It was now around midnight. The two men carried the body of Mehri's husband to the alley and then took off for the cousin's apartment. A few days later, both men left for their military service.
The following morning, the neighbours found the body of Mehri's husband and called the Committee for Prevention of Vice. Mehri's children were interrogated and told the truth of their conversation with their mother. Mehri confessed to having killed her husband by herself and was arrested and sent to Evin. Her children were taken in by her two sisters. She had been there for six months at the time of the interview and was still waiting for her trial. She was sure she would be stoned to death.
Zahra was 28 years old and a homemaker, incarcerated for robbery and adultery-as-a married-woman. Born in a one-room household to illiterate and poor parents in the city of Qom, Zahra was never sent to school and remained illiterate. At the age of two, her father, who worked as a letter-carrier for the National Bank, divorced her mother, moved to southern Tehran and remarried. Zahra lived with her paternal aunt until the age of 5, after which she was brought to her father in Tehran and then to a house around Park-e-Shahr to work as a maid and later as a maid-nanny. She always missed her mother and did not meet her again until the age of 12.
Zahra's father married her off by force to a 21 year-old illiterate truck driver when she was only 11. He had obtained an identity paper for Zahra that showed her age as 6 years older than it actually was. That way he could get permission to give her away in marriage. Zahra did not have a good relationship with her father. He didn't love her and preferred the children of his second wife. The new couple lived in rented rooms on Saaveh Road and Zahra gave birth to 6 children. She did not love her husband and was always unhappy with him. Her husband did not earn enough money and the family lived in poverty. Her husband was also very strict with her. She was not allowed to wear make-up and had to wear hijab even at home. He also beat her a lot; if someone told on her that she was at the door of the house, he would push her on the floor and flog her with a motor chain; he sometimes stabbed her with a knife.
Eventually Zahra and her husband built a small house with a loan from the bank. They rented one of the three rooms of the house for extra income. Their alley neighbours were mostly addicts, drug traffickers and sex workers. Zahra insisted her husband sell the house and leave the area because she was afraid of finding herself involved in her neighbours' illegal activities. Her husband did not pay any attention to her concern. He continued beating her and accused her of being interested in neighbourhood men. Whenever there were programs on Radio and TV about divorce, her husband turned them off so that Zahra wouldn't hear them. She wanted to learn how to read and write. She wanted to be able to read newspapers and books. But her husband would not give her permission. Eventually she asked him for a divorce, but he beat her up for having even spoken of divorce. So, Zahra left the house for her mother's and stayed there for a week.
While at her mother's, she decided to do something that would make her husband divorce her. After returning home, she got sexually involved with a male relative of one of her neighbours. Then her neighbour took her to other men's houses for sex in exchange for money. She was paid between 5000 and 6000 toumans. Disregarding her plan to commit only one adultery to make her husband divorce her, Zahra was pulled by the force of money and adventure into a lifestyle that she previously abhorred. Zahra and her neighbour friend were eventually forced to also participate in organized robbery at their clients' homes without taking any part of the theft. They would take their sex-trade money in advance and go together to a client's home, while three male collaborators waited in a car outside of the residence. While her friend was busy with the man, Zahra picked small expensive objects such as video machine, small TV and carpets. She would then pass them to the men who carried them to the car. Then they fled the scene in the car. After finishing her job, Zahra's friend left the client inside the bedroom waiting for the second girl, and escaped from his residence.
Three years later, her husband found out about Zahra's illegal activities. He beat her up severely, denounced her to the Committee for Prevention of Vice and told her that if the law didn't kill her, he would kill her himself.
She had been in prison for four months, waiting to be tried in court in a few weeks. She had no visitors and no news of her children. She expected to receive severe flogging and at least 15 years of incarceration. She also believed that her husband would eventually kill her instead of divorcing her.
The background against which the labelling of women as "offenders", their incarceration, subsequent trial and sentencing, and their condition in prison, should be understood to include the following facts:
- the installation of the Islamic Republic in 1979 that brought about the Islamization of the civil and criminal laws and the strengthening of the male dominance within the family (including man's exclusive right to divorce, custody of children, polygamy, and murdering his wives/children if they did not obey him);
- the Iran-Iraq War during 1980's that was prolonged by Khomeini for six more years and resulted in thousands of war widows forced into prostitution by the Martyrs Foundation and thousands of shell-shocked and maimed war veterans who either became drug addicts or caused conflicts, even murders, within their families (their own murder or that of other family members); displacement of populations during the war;
- continuous immigration from provincial towns and villages to the Capital; economic crisis and ensuing unemployment and poverty; economic dependence of most women on men; closing down of the red-light district of Tehran and official denial of existence of sex-trade work in the society; segregation of the sexes; introduction of the VCR and pornographic videos into the society;
- State-controlled trafficking and distribution of heavy drugs among the population; State-controlled trafficking of women and children; and State-controlled clandestine brothels that did not protect their sex workers against HIV/Aids.
Moreover, because physical and psychological survival always overrides the laws that impede survival, the contradictions between official Islamic values -- whether internalized by the women or not -- and their everyday needs and experiences, seemed to be the major cause of their offences.
Part (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)