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In Iran, men and women are 'equal' only in torture

October 27, 2022

Monireh Baradaran spent nine years in prison in Iran before coming to Germany in 1991. She told DW how women are treated in Iranian prisons — and what the current movement is doing differently.

Montage of black-and-white photos of women
Many women are currently held as political prisoners in Iranian jailsImage: Privat

DW: What was your experience of prison like?

Monireh Baradaran: 1981 was the worst time. It was a nightmare. I was tortured. I also saw others being tortured; it was routine, and so brutal. There was torture, whippings, being hung by the hands — or  I had to sit for hours with my hands tied together behind my back, one from above and one from below. That was very, very, very bad. There was also psychological torture: total isolation, unable to move, for weeks, months. Or sleep deprivation.

Black and white headshot of Monireh Baradaran
Monireh Baradaran was a political prisoner in Iran from 1981 to 1990Image: Ashkan Norouzkhani

Then there were the mass executions. That's how my brother was executed. We too could hear the sound waves from the bullets, the shooting. Reports from Amnesty International say that 4,000 people, maybe more, were shot in the space of about four months.

This background is also what makes today's mass incarcerations so horrific. It is very worrying again, because there are so many prisoners in different jails, including Evin. It revives my nightmare for me.

It sounds incredibly brutal. Did sexual abuse also take place back then?

You can say there was sexual assault, but not necessarily rape. I myself did not experience rape. There were isolated cases; I heard about them. We knew that. Rape was not systematic, as for example under the dictatorships in Argentina or Chile. But there was physical and verbal abuse, and also torture.

The entrance to Evin prison in Tehran.
Evin prison in Tehran is infamous for executions and tortureImage: WANA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS

How are women viewed in general?

As a woman in the Islamic Republic, you are a second-class person. Meaning you are not worth as much as a man. But when it comes to torture and executions, you are equal. According to the ideology, women who offer resistance are seen as children to be reeducated. But this process of reeducating women was worse.

For example, we survived a form of torture reserved only for women. The women who resisted were isolated from the whole world, totally. We couldn't see anything, couldn't hear anything, for months, weeks, months. And being made to sit all the time. That was so bad. And this was their way of reeducating us.

Four young women, photographed from behind, holding headscarves in their left hands and showing their long brown hair
Girls and women in Iran have been defying the country's strict laws by removing their headscarves in publicImage: UGC

Were people traumatized? Did it take you a very long time to process the emotional aftermath?

Many of my women friends have had therapy. When I think back to what helped us to survive all that at the time, it was the solidarity between us. I spent months in solitary confinement, on three separate occasions. Nonetheless: This togetherness, this solidarity helped a very great deal. And then I became a different person once I had written my memories down.

You have said that you're afraid now because so many women are being put in jail. Do you think it will be as bad as it was back then?

Sometimes I'm afraid it will be. These prisoners are hostages of the Islamic Republic. I hope it won't carry out executions, as it did in the 1980s. If it carries on like this, I do wonder whether there will be a repeat of those dark days. I'm hopeful, because times have changed, but I do have this fear nonetheless, because of my own experience.

I wholeheartedly support the current movement in Iran. The people are not waiting for changes in the law — they know that this Islamic law will never change: the veil, the gender segregation. They're doing it themselves — it's so beautiful, the way they're taking off their hijabs and dancing. This was always a dream, and now it's being realized. This is a special characteristic of this movement; it gives me great hope.

In the foreground, a woman with long, uncovered hair, photographed from behind with her arms in the air, makes a victory sign. In front of her the road is completely blocked, full of people and cars.
Thousands of people traveled to Saqqez, the home town of Jina Mahsa Amini, to mark 40 days since her deathImage: UGC/AFP

If people are locked up in prison again en masse, what would the consequences be?

It could lead to an escalation. Until now, the protesters have remained peaceful and have not used violence. But if the anger intensifies, blood may be shed. Alternatively, the movement may die out over time.

Hence my appeal to the German authorities: If there is pressure from abroad, they won't be able to do what they did in the 1980s.

Monireh Baradaran is an author, sociologist, and human rights campaigner. She wrote about her time in prison in Iran in her memoir "Erwachen aus dem Albtraum" (Waking from the nightmare), which has been translated into several languages. Baradaran was awarded the Carl von Ossietzky Medal in 1999.

This article has been translated from German.

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