Part 1: First day of visit
I find some time off my busy schedule and read my journal entry for July 4, 1993, which I have written in Persian. In the morning of that day, my research team and I arrived at Evin village, north-west of Tehran, and alighted from the research Institute’s cars onto a sun-drenched street with a few grocery shops on one side and the long wall of the prison, on the other. My colleagues reached into their bags for long black chadors, which they wore over their existing Islamic clothing and held the two ends together with their hands. I found myself persuaded that governmental institutions of the Islamic State were doing their best to demoralize working women by imposing those oppressive black tents on them in the heat of 45 degree Celsius.
We entered the Information Office – a small checkpoint building with three cell-like offices. Each office contained a desk, a couple of chairs as well as pictures of Khomeini and Khamenei. In the space in front of the three offices we sat, stood, walked, and watched the marching back and forth of the Pasdars – the revolutionary prison Guards. These uniformed guards appeared to be drawn from a village background and looked to be in their 20's. Again, we stood, we sat and gazed at the empty walls and their two austere pictures, got up and paced around; all the time waiting for the young Guards to process our papers and allow us to enter the prison across the street.
Half an hour later, with our newly stamped papers in our hands, we crossed the street and passed through a large steel gate to find ourselves in another office, inside Evin high walls. This was the Inspection and Disciplines Office. Here, the men appeared older and likely from an urban setting. They were officers. We submitted our birth certificates and stamped papers we’d received from the first checkpoint, and began waiting. Waiting another half-hour for the phone calls to be made and responded to.
Eventually, our birth certificates were retained, our stamped papers signed and permission granted. Yet, there seemed to be a problem – I was wearing only a headscarf and a long overcoat as it was my first day of employment at the IHCS and I was uninformed of the scheduled visit to Evin. Although I was dressed in my imposed Islamic attire, completely covered head to toe with pants, long cotton overcoat and a big headscarf, my hijab was not entirely Islamic for Prisons Organization. Like my colleagues, I was expected to wear a chador over my Islamic attire. So, we waited while a guard went to fetch me a chador. He appeared with a worn-out blue prisoner’s chador that I put on to my colleagues’ amazement. One of them, Ms. D, a woman in her early 20’s, became red in the face with laughter. What was so funny about a researcher wearing what her research subjects, women prisoners, wore? The young woman’s sense of hierarchy seemed to have been amusingly shattered.
We stepped out of the backdoor of the second checkpoint office onto Evin prison courtyard, a wide asphalt road bordered by trees and flower beds full of pansies and petunias, dahlias and Persian roses. The heat of Tehran’s July sun was compensated for by the lush greenery, rotating water sprays and the chirping of the birds. But nothing could compensate for the memory of my friends of the Shah’s era who had spent several years in this prison simply for having been discovered with “forbidden literature” in their possession. The scene felt even more surreal when I thought of my invitation that evening to the house of a new friend, a leftist dissident, who had spent long years in this same prison and was still having frequent nightmares. Her husband had been executed in the summer of 1988, along with more than 5000 dissidents on a Fatwa by Khomeini, after he had suffered years of incarceration at Evin.
Soon we reached a large area decorated with separate flowerbeds and a small fountain. The asphalt path continued in front of us under an arch and there was a 4 or 5-storey building on our left. “This is the main office of the Prisons Organization,” Ms. B pointed at the administrative building that also housed a dubious “Cultural Undersecretary” and we all headed towards it. The Prisons Organization was founded in 1986 and under the supervision of the Judiciary Forces. We climbed the stairs to the third floor and opened a door. There were several bearded prison officials in white shirts moving around. One of them approached us, took our passes and asked us to stand in a corner. There was an older fat bearded man with a big belly to whom other bearded men showed special courtesy. He was Haj Assadollah Lajevardi, Head of the Prisons Organization, secretly dubbed by the people ‘The Butcher of Evin” and “The Sly Fox of Iran.”
The sight of this ruthless man, responsible for the execution of tens of thousands of political prisoners and a symbol of the Islamic republic’s oppressive rule, sent a chill of disgust down my spine. Fifteen minutes later, the same official came back and told us that permission for the interview had been granted but that, for security reasons, it was valid for only ten days. We realized that we would have to face the same red tape all over again if we wanted more interviews with the prisoners – yet our request had been for four months. We were also told that on every single trip to Evin, we had to first pass by the Information Office, then by the Inspection and Disciplines Office and, finally, by the Prisons Organization Office before being allowed to go to the women’s section of the prison.
Cleared for a third time and each grasping hold of our pass, we left the prison office building, passed under an arch and headed towards the women’s prison at the far side of the area and next to the Darakeh foothills. The sun was beating on the asphalt, the austere cement and brick walls. There was no tree or indeed any living thing to be seen. We entered the building and climbed up the stairs. On the way we passed the prison infirmary on the second floor and stopped in the third floor’s small hall. There, we opened a French door that led into a room where four neatly veiled women were seated on chairs, chatting. They reacted slowly to our presence and appeared annoyed that we were there. Two of them left the room while the Prison Warden remained to inquire who we were. When we presented her with our papers and informed her about the intention of the visit, she examined our passes, before asking the remaining woman to take us to the interview room.
Our guide introduced herself as Ms. Salehi, describing her role as being that of a social worker. We followed her across a long corridor and she ushered us into a small room of less than three metres square. High on the opposite wall was a small window, from which a mellow light poured in. The room was almost bare – no chairs, no carpet, only a metallic double bunk-bed stacked against a wall with a torn cover on the lower bunk. The social worker, whom we later found out had a High school diploma and had taken a short course in social work, raised a curtain which hung from the wall opposite the bunk-bed and pointed to the door behind it. She informed us that it opened into the Communal Ward #2, adding that there were three more communal wards in the building, one of which being emptied for repairs. I asked her how many women prisoners in total were housed in those wards.
“This is confidential information,” she replied in a stern tone. “Even I don’t know how many prisoners we have. All female offenders of Greater Tehran are in this prison.”
At this point, one of my colleagues asked her if she would please bring us any of the prisoners who were willing to be interviewed. The social worker nodded in a manner that indicated her disgust at our request but that she condescended to do it merely as a courtesy. When she had disappeared through the door into the ward, we looked at each other in dismay. Here we were, five researchers in chadors, standing in a very small and suffocating room wondering if the prison officials expected us to interview prisoners sitting on a bare concrete floor.
We walked out of the room to look for chairs or whatever might be available to sit on. We found benches in the corridor and carried two of them into the room and sat, waiting. A prisoner, who appeared to be in her thirties, suddenly peered around the door, then gradually emerged covered by her chador, stared at us with dead eyes, then headed towards the corridor to the right. Next, two teenage girls appeared and, behind them, a frail girl with a shaved head, shaking and making involuntary facial movements. One after another a few more women and girls appeared. Soon the room was full of women, and the air was thick with a mixed aroma of camphor and sweat.
The social worker returned and began speaking with the teenage girls. We were not sure if these women and girls were volunteering to be interviewed or had gotten out of the ward for other reasons. Waiting for the social worker to give us a lead, some of us took the initiative to open a conversation with some of them. The frail girl, who had disappeared, came back with a flowered scarf over her shaved head and a worn cotton chador pulled over it. I asked her how old she was.
“I’m nine years old,” she said, twitching her lips and the eyelids of her pale green eyes. “I’m from Abadan; my parents died in the war; I’ve been in Tehran for three months; I’m epileptic.”
I asked her what she was doing there.
“I stole two small gas containers outside the front door of somebody’s house,” she replied. “The owner complained to the authorities.”
I asked her if there were other girls of her age in the communal ward. She said that she was the youngest prisoner, that there were other children much younger than herself who were children of prisoners. She mentioned that there were also several 14 and 15 year-old prisoners in there. Later on, we were told by the prison guards that mothers could keep their children of any age (under 18) with them for up to four years.
The social worker appeared beside us and the girl walked away.
“Why has this 9-year-old girl not been passed on to the Welfare Organization instead of being confined in this prison?” I asked the social worker.
“Welfare Organization,” she said, “is only in charge of homeless girls and women.”
“Well, this girl is homeless too!”
“No. She has committed theft. When a homeless person commits theft, she is brought to prison,” she replied.
“But she is only nine!” I protested.
“I don’t think she is nine. She is lying. Yes, she is 12. I have seen this in her birth certificate”, said the social worker.
“She has such a puny frame. Does she sleep in the same cell with older prisoners?” I asked, while following the little girl’s movements out of the corner of my eyes.
The little girl was twirling here and there like a butterfly and staring into other people’s eyes.
“No, we put her in the corridor to sleep. In any case, this girl with her small size, can deceive hundreds like you and me,” the social worker continued her ranting against the little girl. “When they brought her here, she told everyone that the soldier who had accompanied her had been putting his finger between her legs all the way to prison. When she was taken to the medical examiner, she was declared intact. You see what I means?”
The little girl once more stood before us. With one hand, the social worker pushed her towards the door of the communal ward and with the other, she pointed at a prisoner who was standing a foot away from me.
“She is waiting to be interviewed,” the social worker said peremptorily.
I seated myself on the far side of a bench, listening to this woman who had found a spot on the bare floor. She wore a beige cotton chador over her flowery scarf. She was pale and drowsy and could hardly speak – her mouth and lips were covered with a white powdery substance. I asked her what that was. She said that they were given camphor in all their meals – in their bread and soup and tea, to calm down their sex drive and aggression. The amount of camphor was obviously excessive. The woman before me, and all other prisoners whom we later interviewed, could hardly speak. Plus, all of us researchers had the smell of camphor in our noses for over 24 hours after each meeting. One wonders if three hours of interviews with the prisoners created such discomfort to us, how these women who swallowed the powder on a daily basis must have felt. This issue greatly troubled all of us.
When I had finished listening to my interviewee and written my notes, I thanked her and remained where I was, waiting for the next prisoner to be called. Two women in their early 20’s next appeared in the doorway of the ward. One of them, with head uncovered and crowned with very long white hair, walked between the researchers and seated prisoners and entered the corridor without paying attention to anyone. The second woman, who was younger, remained in the doorway and looked at us with great curiosity. I asked her if she was willing to have an interview with us.
“We’re not allowed to,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because we are political prisoners.”
This was a great shock to me. Later I realized that mixing political prisoners with ordinary ones was a scheme concocted by Lajevardi in order to pretend that there were no political prisoners in Iran. Prison guards, social workers and the Warden of the women prison were not happy with our presence near the Communal Ward #2 that contained political prisoners
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