Cries from the heart
History of torture and abuse of women in Iranian prisons
October 21, 2006
"Today, I am still here and I must see where I will be 'tomorrow.'
How agonizing anticipation and uncertainty are; it is so hard not to
hear from your loved ones or not to have access to the outside world.
I am not sure what will happen at the end of today..."
-- From "Letters to my daughter from Prison" by Hassan Youssefi Eshkevari*
It has been almost a year since I was in Iran. The numerous articles that I have written since show my fascination with my country of birth and all that I witnessed during my trip-as is true of many of us who return. While going to meet old friends for a sort of reunion, friends who had come from all over the world in the summer of 1384/2005, I stopped to buy big, juicy and blood red-colored shahtoot (mulberries) from a standing truck for our hosts. As for most Iranians, for me eating delicious shahtoot is a nostalgic affair-one of many!
On the way to Farmanieh, one of Tehran's northern, wealthy neighborhoods, located just beneath the Alborz Mountains, where we were attending this reunion, I asked my brother to stop so that I could buy two notebooks from a lavazem tahrir, or a stationary store; I had already decided to write a journal of my everyday account in Iran.
As I was about to pay for the notebooks, I noticed that the store also sold regular books. On the counter I saw a book called Dadeh Bidad: Nakhosteen zendan-e zanan-e siyasi-1350-1357 (Cries from the Heart: The First Women's Political Prison-1971-1978) by Vida Hajebi Tabrizi. The name immediately rang a bell, and I was intrigued. I asked the lady if she had more than one copy, to which she responded that she had two more. I bought all three copies.
We had our reunion which was a wonderfully happy occasion. All of us had of course changed. The guys were older and grayer or balder, and the women didn't have the same youthful features, yet we were all full of life, those of us who had come from abroad and those who had remained and lived in Iran during all the turbulent times. We were jolly to see each other and at the same time, there were sad moments; we reminisced about the past and talked about our lives in the present, whether in Iran, the US, Canada or France.
We departed on a good note, expressing a wish to get together again, hopefully in a better and freer atmosphere. One goes to Iran with little expectation, or one expects the worst. It's funny that when you come back, even if you have experienced unhappy moments, you return feeling homesick, wanting to go back again. At least that's what happened to me.
I started reading Hajebi Tabrizi's book. I could not put it down. The woman at the counter told me that this book had been reprinted five times. She also told me that the second volume, which contains the accounts of women political prisoners in the jails of the Islamic Republic, was only being copied and sold clandestinely. (The original two-volume edition was printed and published in Germany in 2004.) I started reading the book, fascinated by the accounts it offered about women, some of whom I had heard of or read about in my teenage years; it tells the story of female political prisoners during the Shah's time, in Ghasr and Evin, both prisons built during the Pahlavi era and used by Savak torturers, infamous men like Shahriari, Hossein Zadeh (Atta Poor), Hosseini (Mohammad Ali Sha'abani who was the head of Evin prison before the revolution) a gorilla-like monster, Azodi (Mohammad Hassan Nasseri) or Tehrani (Bahman Naderi-Pour) and Rassouli( Nozari). Later, they were replaced with new interrogators, all of whom were known as Haji Aqa, men like Haji Rahmani, and other Haji Aghas! This book includes interviews with well known women who were tortured, such as Fahimeh Farsai, Atefeh Ja'afari, Farideh Lashai and Mastoureh Ahmad Zadeh, the sister of Massoud, Majid and Mojtabah.
"From childhood, my father, [Taher Ahmad Zadeh]* had been imprisoned many times and behind prison doors, I was a witness to arrest and torture. I myself was arrested and jailed in Mahshad for the first time for engaging in a strike. The place was not foreign to me. After a while, in the new prison, I lifted the mattress, and found the imprint of Evin on it. I had heard of Evin many a times. The prison had been established during Teimour Bahktiar's* tenure; it was located in the village of Evin; the locale had been turned into a dreadful place of imprisonment. It was one of the worst torture chambers of Savak. But I had no fear. I had done nothing wrong. Additionally, in those days, being incarcerated on political grounds was an honor. I always asked myself why men were the only ones who were kept in prison. In Mashad prison, they released all of us and only kept the boys." (Mastoureh Ahmad Zadeh)
Farideh Lashai whose brother, Kourosh, also a leftist, repented, later worked with the Shah's regime and then died. I met Farideh who is now an artist, at a birthday party for another friend in Lavasoun that summer, a friend who had been arrested, imprisoned, tortured and then for twenty-seven years was not allowed to leave the country; he had shown me his feet; there were marks from the torture burns he had received in the prisons of the Islamic Republic. His only crime had been that he was signatory to a letter criticizing the government and that his father, the late Ali Shayegan, wanted to become the next President of Iran! Anyway, these are side stories even if they are gripping.
The story of this book is the story of women, many of whom came from an intellectual milieu, upper middle class families of Iran. Most were smart university students who either had leftist/Marxist tendencies or were religious. They were sympathizers or members of the then Fedayeen-e Khalgh or Mojahedin-e Khalgh and other political groups. Prison knows no boundaries and a special camaraderie exists beyond ideology. They lived, worked, exercised, ate, and spent good and bad times together. These women looked after each other, even those who had been jailed for killing a husband or were there for other crimes other than political ones.
"We would do anything we could especially for the religious prisoners. We would wake up and be on their side during Ramadan, made sure they had good food for Eftar (breaking the fast). During prayers, we would keep quiet so that they could recite the Koran loudly on their own. One was a Mrs. Dabagh, who was very devout and who wanted to learn English. She was released in 1353/1974. I don't remember taking care of anybody as much as we took care of her. After the revolution, Mrs. Dabagh became the head of Bassij in Ghazvin." (Sedigheh Serafat)
"There was Nahid Kermanshahi, she was a dancer from the famous Café Jamshid. She knew all the details of what was going on in prison. She was both outspoken and charming. She was big and voluptuous. She had been jailed twenty fives time for drug related issues. She was popular and well respected in prison. She especially had a lot of respect for us, female political prisoners; she would bring us food and would notify us about what was going on." (Mehri Mehrabadi)
A woman who remains anonymous was raped by a Savaki. "When they first came to our house and arrested me, my brother and sister, I was awaiting any kind of torture. When we arrived to prison, they had blindfolded us and they took us immediately to the interrogation room. They started to use foul language and insulted us. They took off all my clothes, including my pants. They started to curse me. They bound me to a chair and they started beating me hard. Then they used cigarettes on my nipples. It was fun and games for them. First I wanted to know what they wanted from me. I had lost all senses. I was feeling totally insulted and humiliated. I felt lonely and weak in front of men who were like savages. There was a world of difference between what I felt and I had read at that moment. Once they got tired of beating me, I suddenly felt a terrible pain. My whole body ached. I couldn't tell where the pain was coming from. Finally under the blind fold, I saw that one of the interrogators was raping me." (?)
Then there was Ghazal (Pari Dokth Ayati) as they called her, tall, with beautiful black eyes. She had been arrested in 1353/1974. She was very talented; she had influenced all the other prisoners with her gentle and caring demeanor. She had a stunning voice and would sing for the prisoners. She was released some time later, and then killed in a shoot-out with police. "She was both Pari (an angel) and Ghazal (gazelle)."
Some gave birth to their babies in prison. Many of them lost brothers or husbands in clashes with the Shah's police while in prison. Yet they tried to entertain each other, listen to music or even put on plays. The more hard line prisoners, whether leftist or with religious tendencies, called such acts "bourgeois" and others, the spectators, just admired the women who by acting in a famous Western play tried to change the harsh atmosphere in prison, give it a more human face. Though at times, they would be ridiculed by the more staunch revolutionaries who thought their actions were too bourgeois. "I had hidden books by Chekhov and an edition of Hamlet under my clothes. I would read them at nights when everyone was asleep. During the day, I would take notes. I was not scared of acting alone in reading these books or that I had stolen them from the prison library but more than anything I was scared that I was reading Shakespeare and Chekhov." (Farideh Lashaii)
At that time, even writing short political stories was considered a political offense. Fahimeh Farsa'i, who was not a sympathizer of any organization, was arrested one evening when she was returning from a dinner party. She used to write for Zan-e Rooz and Tamasha, mainly literary stories. "They told me, get your things together, we are taking you. I was bewildered; why? I asked. They said, don't talk too much and let's go. I was a law student. I asked them on what legal grounds are you arresting me? I have rights according to the law. They laughed. Their top guy slapped me so hard that I got numb. This isn't the time to seek justice, he said. One of them found a book by Margaret Duras. He said, what is the meaning of this emblem on the cover? Is it some kind of secret? I thought for a moment about the stupidity of these men and said nothing." (Fahimeh Farsa'i)
It was the year 1974, in Boroujerd, when the Savak started their crackdown. They arrested fifty to sixty people in all. "I was seven month pregnant. I was sure they wouldn't do anything harsh to me, since I was pregnant. They wanted information from me. I said that I knew nothing. But they had a whole file. My interrogator, named Arash, came in and started insulting me. I also had heart problems. I thought maybe they would spare me torture but everyone knew of Arash's special torture. He was proud that he had learned this method in Israel, where someone would sit on the prisoner's chest, press both hands under the eyes, and little by little try to squeeze the eye balls out. But he couldn't do this quite right, since it was not easy to sit on the chest of a seven-month pregnant woman."(Farideh Azami)
Marzieh Ahmadi Oskou'i was a teacher. "We met in the late 1960's in the girls' dorms of the School of Sepah-e Danesh (education crusade during the Shah). She was likable and sincere; we hit it off immediately. I had been raised in Shiraz in a modest family. Tehran seemed incredibly vast and new to me. We both passed the university entrance exams (concours). The Savak had been after her for a while, and eventually she was exiled to a remote village in Azerbaijan to teach. For a while, she was left alone by the Savak.
And then one day, when I was in prison, they took me to the Komiteh*, and my interrogator showed me a picture; it was of Marzieh and Shirin (Mo'azed). Their bodies, half naked; their beautiful faces and their mouths, had been disfigured and were dark from the cyanide they had taken. Their chadors, their gun and their shoes were besides them. They had been found out by infiltrators. I wanted to shout. I began to cry hard." (Sedigheh Serafat)
"Mrs. Massoumeh Shadmani (Kabiri) was a Mojahed. She had endured harsh torture in the Shah's prisons. Her resistance was phenomenal. But they finally killed her. I remember just before the revolution, in 1978, the representative of Red Cross had come to visit the prisons. After seeing her badly bruised body and her broken legs, he said,
"The horrors in Iran's prisons are innumerable." (Roghieh Daneshgari)
Times were hard on these women; those who did not die from torture, or in street shootings or by taking cyanide, were released a few years before the revolution of 1979, although the scar of torture stayed with them and will for the rest of their lives. Some even committed suicide later. "Zahra Zolfaghari had been tortured so severely that she became insane. Later after her release, in the early 1980's, she committed suicide."
"There, they had built a hell where death was the only way out." (Simin)
I never found the copy of the book on women prisons under the Islamic Republic. Nevertheless, I have read enough other tales to know that torture continued in an even harsher manner in the prisons of the Islamic regime. I saw "Zendan-e- Zanan," a film made about women prisoners, political ones, prostitutes and drug addicts, all in the same cells. It shows terrible abuse, both sexual abuse by older women and other humiliating acts by women prison guards, the Hejab Poushan, the "pious" ones who claim to teach good lessons to their captors. Women with complexes who have been given power and authority, women who may have been abused themselves by their fathers or husbands and who are now in a position of authority, are inflicting harm on their female compatriots. The tale of torture in the prisons of Iran dates back to the Pahlavi era, under the father and the son, and it continues to this day, after twenty-seven years of a revolution that was supposed to bring freedom and justice. Many of these women, the women in Vida Hajebi's book, fought for that sacred goal, for their ideals. Yet, their struggle did not culminate in anything positive. Many concluded that they were engaged in the wrong combat in their struggle against the Shah's dictatorship, one that had nothing to do with the real conditions in Iran. "Many years later, we realized that our idealism had nothing to do with the realities of our society." (Sedigheh Serafat).
Vida said at the end of her book, "even though our organization (Fedayeen) was well respected at the onset of the revolution, our effort to 'emancipate the masses' was futile. Because of our political mistakes and the existing conditions in our society, it backfired. Today, more than any other time, I believe even more in our ideals for justice but for realizing this very sacred goal of humanity, I believe our path was a wrong one. What we lost was far greater than what we achieved." (Vida Hajebi)
For the majority of these women, torture scarred not just their bodies but their souls. Many of them not only endured the torture of prison but came back to dysfunctional families, became depressed or disillusioned about idealism or the ideology they had believed in. Torture scars the body visibly but it does more profound damage: it damages the soul, kills it.
Torture still continues in Iran's prisons on a different scale, even harsher, both psychologically and physically. Since the birth of the Islamic Republic, women have been tortured, executed and even killed by stoning- in the age of nuclear power! Not so long ago, Zahra Kazemi was a victim of that horrendous act and she died as a result. Yet, her murderer was sent to Geneva as Mr. Ahmadi Nejad's emissary to head the Iranian human rights delegation to the U.N.!
Torture is used daily; changing people's lives and those around them forever as it did and does almost daily in many parts of the world, including Guantanamo Bay and unknown places in Eastern Europe. From all accounts, physical and mental torture only dehumanizes people instead of deterring them from committing violent acts. Torture degrades them to a level where they become even fiercer in their hatred of the existing conditions or where they withdraw from the world they live in. In a future Iran, an Iran which will hopefully embody the declaration of human rights first articulated by Cyrus the Great 2500 years ago, torture must be eliminated in its totality, in any shape or form.
* Hassan Youssefi Eshkevari, an enlightened cleric, was arrested and imprisoned upon his return to Iran, after attending the Berlin Conference in 2000.
* Taher Ahmad Zadeh, an old member of the National Front and the Freedom Movement became the Governor of Khorasan province after the revolution; he was imprisoned both during the Pahlavi period and after the Islamic Revolution. His sons Massoud and Majid, founders of the Sazman-e Cherikha-ye Fadayee-ye Khalgh, were executed by the Shah's regime, and his youngest son, Mojtaba, a sympathizer of the Mojahedin Khalgh, was killed at the age of 25 during the Evin Prison massacre by the Islamic regime.
* Teymour Bakhtiar was the first director of SAVAK or Sazman-e Ettela'at va Amniyat-e Keshvar during the Pahlavi regime. He was related to the late Shapour Bakhtiar.
* The Komiteh Shahrbani was a place where the Savak and the police worked together to engage in some of the most cruel forms of torture. The Komiteh was later used by the Islamic Regime and then dismantled. Comment