Prisoners of "Love!"

Evin is a Kurdish female name, meaning "love!"

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 Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studiesand 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.

Part 2: Three months of disheartening visits

In the beginning of our visits to the women’s section of Evin in the summer of 1993, we had a meeting with Mr. Alvandi, the head of Reform and Education for men, who also worked in a certain "Criminology Research Centre" at the Prisons Organization. First he told us that there was an Office of Supervision After Release whose employees were supposed to help released prisoners find a job, but that nothing had been done by them yet. The office existed legally, but had done nothing in practice. Then he engaged in uttering lies:

"We don’t have the previous view of ourselves as a disciplinary force. Now, in the Islamic Iranian society, our purpose at the Prisons Organization is reform. The purpose of incarceration of a convicted individual is to return her back to the society as a reformed person. The use of your research, if it’s accurate, is to affect the judges so that they don’t continue sending people in groups to prison; because each inmate costs the Islamic State between 40,000 and 50,000 toumans per month."

He warned us:

"You need to be cautious with the prisoners. Don’t have a personal attitude towards them. They’ll try to manipulate you and get your sympathy. They might give you a letter or a phone number, asking you to call their family and say that they are doing ok. You should not accept these demands. They usually lie to you about their offence. Don’t count on the first answers they give you. Probably they feel ashamed to tell you what their offence or crime has been. That’s why there should be a social worker or guard present when you interview them."

We were quiet; he talked, we listened. He finished the meeting by demanding us to spy for the Prisons Organization.

"We want a copy of your final research, as well as a separate report about what you see and hear from the moment you put foot inside the women’s prison. Sometimes prisoners talk about issues with the researchers that they haven’t told the police or the court; we should know about that."

The Islamist man obviously had no concept of ethics and professional conduct.

In the next few months, we interviewed inmates from three communal wards almost every day of the week from 9 am to noontime. We listened to jailed women inside small rooms that were in front of a ward or sometimes in the corridor because of the limited space. We were never allowed to enter the wards. The prison staff was uncooperative and inattentive to us. Every single day, we had to ask the prison guards or social workers for chairs or benches in order to do our interviews. The preparatory process of finding and carrying chairs or benches, asking for the names of prisoners who were willing to be interviewed and calling them to present themselves, lasted at least for one hour every day.

The interview conditions we endured continued to be physically and mentally painful and exhausting. At any given time, we were five researchers interviewing five prisoners in the presence of a social worker or a guard in a small stuffy room. Voices mingled with each other, making it difficult to listen closely to the interviewees. It was hot and there was no fan to relieve the discomfort. The physical conditions for both researchers and interviewees were harsh, further limiting the effectiveness of the interviews.

We also found the constant presence of the prison staff very disturbing. We noticed that either a social worker or a guard would systematically write down the full names of those who attended our interviews. Sometimes the staff asked the prisoners for their names while we were in the middle of the interview with them. When we questioned this odd behaviour, the guards and social workers responded that as many teams of researchers came to prison, they wanted to ensure that prisoners who had already been interviewed were not disturbed or abused by being sent out again and again for interview. We responded that prisoners were free to choose being interviewed or not - to no avail. The practice of identifying the interviewees continued. Ironically, on one occasion, one of my colleagues mistakenly interviewed a prisoner who had already been interviewed by another one of us. If the purpose of noting down names was to avoid a prisoner receiving a repeat interview why was this mistake not discovered? Was their motivation to eventually attack those poor women and punish them if in our research we criticised, the social workers’ violence and slackness or the generally bad condition of the prison?

Ms. Akbari, Warden of the women’s prison, indicated that there were many programs available to women prisoners: besides the study of Qur’an and carpet weaving and embroidery, there was also a "reform and education" class for them. She explained that the social workers were personally responsible for the prisoners’ reform and education. However, we found out from the prisoners themselves that no "reform and education" classes had been attended by them, nor had there been any attempt on the part of the social workers to provide such a program. Following Mr. Alvandi’s footsteps, a certain Mr. Rahimi, an official of the "Cultural Undersecretary," was seeking out a report of our observations. A copy of our research paper would be circulating in the Prisons Organization, confronting its officials with the fact that the "reform and education" program was defunct. We were all worried that the prison officials would subject women prisoners who had informed us about these deficiencies to violent treatment. How could scientific research be done in such an atmosphere of repression? We decidedly abstained from ever submitting such a paper.

From the third week of our presence in the Prison’s "interview rooms," the guards and social workers, especially Ms. Salehi, showed increasing signs of nervousness. Our presence seemed to loosen their tight control over the prisoners who had told us that the prison officials treated them very badly. Prisoners told us that whatever the prison guards and social workers were telling us was a lie and was not to be trusted. In fact, on many occasions, the Women Prison officials either hid some of the facts or provided us with contradictory information. For instance, regarding the use of camphor, a guard for the Communal Ward #1 told us that the prison did not give camphor to prisoners - as if we were blind to prisoners’ physical condition, whilst Ms. Salehi, the social worker of the same ward, admitted that the prisoners were indeed supplied with it. Was their motivation to eventually attack these poor interviewees and punish them if we criticised, in our research, the staff’s lies, violence and slackness or the generally bad condition of the prison?

Women prison staff also tried to prevent our attending for further visits. In the beginning of the third week, when we showed up at the Prisons Organization office, we were told that we didn’t have written permission to conduct further interviews. We found out that the attempt to obstruct our visit had come up from the women’s section of Evin. We insisted that we knew Mr. X and Y and that we had previously spoken with them at the research institute. After an hour, the Prisons Organization officials agreed to another week of interviews. The process of obtaining permissions and being sabotaged by different officials was sapping our psychological strength. Our endurance was being severely tested as it gradually became evident that bad interviewing conditions were not the only problem we were facing.

On every weekly visit, we were faced by the same reluctance on the part of the officials to give us permission for the next ten-day visit. Consequently we had to doggedly persist in making continual requests. We also had to listen to the complaints made to us by the Pasdars at the Information Office against the officers of the Inspection Office or the officials of the Prisons Organization, and vice versa. For instance, the Pasdars complained that the officials at the Prisons Organization Office avoided signing a permission for the duration of the interviews and instead told them to call the Warden of the women’s section and coordinate with her, which was against the procedures.

By the end of the 3rd week of our visits, the prison Warden and other employees had become clearly nervous by our presence and could not or did not even want to hide their nervousness. When I asked the social worker to send me an inmate, she left the room with a lot of growling and loud protest:

"Hold on a minute, you. You keep saying send me someone."

And I couldn’t hear the rest of her grunting words as she turned from the small room into the corridor. When we told the guards that we didn’t have a space to put our papers and questionnaires, that sitting on a bench for 2 to 3 hours caused us backaches and asked for a kelim or a chair, they responded that they neither had a chair nor a kelim. One day while I was interviewing an inmate, a social worker told me,

"If you have a chador with you, wear it because a stranger man wants to pass by here."

I did what she had asked me; but half an hour later when I lifted my head, my glance fell on one of my colleagues who was sitting without chador and only in scarf, speaking to an inmate. I asked her if she was not notified to wear chador because of a passing-by stranger man. She said that she hadn’t seen any stranger man passing by up to that moment. The social worker herself was sitting without chador and listening to us. The room was hot and I was sweating and feeling uncomfortable in chador. I took it off and put it in my handbag. The social worker’s mischievous lie was quite disheartening.

Bad conditions for our fieldwork were not limited to the Prisons Organization. We were pushed around on the streets as well. Once on our way back to the research institute from Evin, our youngest colleague, Ms. D, was arrested by the Pasdars after she got off the Institute car and jumped into a taxi to go home. The reason for her arrest: she had taken off her chador on the street to be only in her scarf inside the taxi; there was something suspicious about this gesture in the eyes of the Pasdars!

Eventually we interviewed one hundred and six women in Evin from among the undisclosed number of female inmates over a period of three months, in July, August and September of 1993. Based on the number of cells inside the four communal wards and gathered information from the inmates and prison staff, we estimated the number of jailed women to be over a thousand. However, our estimate was probably flawed because of the unreliability of the information. At the Statistics Bureau of the Ministry of Justice, we were told that the number of women prisoners at Evin Prison was confidential. They refused to give us the offenders’ files. Their types of offence, personal characteristics and past records were confidential as well.

Part3: Housing arrangement for female inmates

In 1993, female offenders were no longer held at Ghasr or Ghezel-Hessâr prisons; Evin was now officially the only prison in Tehran where they were incarcerated. It was situated on the mountain slopes of Darakeh and had a vast courtyard that held administrative buildings, place of worship, infirmary, and all kinds of stores including a pastry shop. The women’s section building was on the northern end of the courtyard whose gardens could not be viewed by the inmates and bounded by a mountain. The women prison’s small airing and strolling space was dry, empty and without greenery. On the first floor there was a general warehouse and a medication depot. The infirmary was on the second floor, and on the third floor the office of the Warden of the women’s prison was at its entrance, which opened to a long corridor in the back.

As one left the backdoor of the third-floor office to enter the corridor, on the right side there was a kitchen, toilets and washrooms, three public phone kiosks, a sanatorium for prison employees; and on the left side, four communal wards behind four small rooms in a row that opened to the corridor. Each room measured about three by four metres and supposed to be a place of work for social workers and prison guards. Each had a broken table and a bunk-bed covered with tattered blankets on the upper and lower bunks. One of them also had a worn-out kelim on the floor. To enter each communal ward, one had to go through one of theses small front rooms. Each ward had two floors. They were called, for instance, Upper Ward #1 or Lower Ward #2. A staircase connected the upper and lower wards.

On each floor, there was one washroom / toilet, one bathroom, and 7 common cells with doors removed. So, each communal ward had 14 open cells; a total of 56 open cells in all the women’s prison. The size of each cell was 4X5 metres, made for 3 people but had 21 beds piled three high filled with 15 to 50 inmates. In the upper wards, there were windows that opened to the airing backyard; one had to look downward in order to see the backyard. Each cell had two windows, but glasses were painted white to obstruct the outside view. There was an open window for aeration above the obstructed windows and near the ceiling. Behind all the windows, there were metallic bars. The block of four communal wards was called the #216.

Having had gobelin tapestry weaving and other activities, the Communal Ward #1 was called "Cultural Ward," and teenage inmates were placed in two of its open rooms. The Communal Ward #2 did not have any specific name and contained a great number of women political prisoners that were mixed with the ordinary inmates. Prisoners of the Communal Ward #3 were evacuated in that summer of 1993 for repair and re-painting its walls; they were inserted into other wards. The Communal Ward #4 was called "Carpet- weaving Ward" and "Jihad Ward"; it contained a less number of inmates and those who had committed lighter offences. Each communal ward had a go-between or communicator between the prisoners, the social workers and the prison officials; one who was chosen from among the prisoners.

In the two teenagers rooms in the Ward #1, prisoners of age 12 to 18 were placed; but at the time because of the shortage of space, older women, i.e., women up to age 35, were also placed in those rooms. Each room contained 35 inmates. The Islamic Republic’s Prisons’ Organization was housing together different categories of prisoners - adult political prisoners and ordinary offenders ranging in age up to seventy five years old were living alongside children. They were all housed in the same communal ward, they ate together, slept close-by and basically lived together. In Evin women’s prison, there was no consideration for the inmates’ age or type of offence.

All prisoners, from nine or twelve-year-old girls to seventy-five year-old women, from women who had broken a shop window or had had sexual relations with men outside of marriage or were sex workers to thieves and murderers and heroin dealers, were placed in common wards and especially in common cells. One third of women prisoners were only accused of an offense or crime, and not convicted. Both the accused and the convicted were placed beside each other in common wards and cells. It was only the political prisoners who were placed in common cells separate from the rest of the inmates, although they had permanent contacts with ordinary prisoners. Also, there were 8 year-old girls and teenagers in prison who were prisoners’ daughters. No one had ever questioned this practice that was so damaging to the youth. There were women prisoners who were severely mentally ill, but were kept inside the prison. One of these women was also pregnant.

According to the prisoners, there was a 5th ward, called Sanatorium Ward, that contained at least 3 floors and 600 solitary cells. On each floor, there were 10 long and parallel corridors; each corridor containing 20 solitary cells; and each cell having a sink, a toilet, a dirty floor mat and a very small window. The solitary cells were very small. In fact, they were toilets of 2X2.50 metres each, used for solitary confinements. There was one small airing space for all these cells. There was another block of solitary cells, which was at the end of the infirmary hall and called the Ward #209 – based on the ward’s internal phone number. It consisted of more than 30 very small cells. There was talk of other solitary cellblocks somewhere else inside the Evin compound. They were supposed to be primarily for detaining political prisoners before placing them in a communal ward.

Part 4: Female inmates’ abysmal living conditions

Women prisoners were treated brutally and their abysmal living conditions were in violation of their Human Rights. If one prisoner committed an offence such as starting a fight inside a ward, the prison guards would punish all prisoners of that ward by depriving them of something significant such as telephone calls or visitations - the social workers simply turning a blind eye to this practice. Excessive amount of camphor was poured into prisoners’ meals and drinks – breakfast and lunch and supper, even into their bread and tea – in order to supposedly suppress their sexual drives. Too much camphor was causing side-effects such as swollen eyelids and faces, hoarse and choked voices, appearance of spots on hands and arms in women. During interviews, prisoners’ voices were hoarse and choked, and they spoke with great difficulty. Some of the inmates believed that adding camphor to their meals was good for them because it soothed them and made them numb and lethargic, helping them not to think of anything.

However, we could hear from behind the wards’ doors the sound of brawls and exchange of obscene curses among inmates. Scuffling was a normal occurrence and prisoners witnessed several brawls breaking out everyday.

Inmates' nerves and emotions were played with by the staff. In fact, they were often mentally and sometimes physically tortured. For instance, every time a prisoner received a flogging with iron wire (Aatashi) in the prison office, they put loud-speakers in the four communal wards and the prisoners had no choice but to hear the woman’s screams and wailing, which made them all cry and prevented them from being able to have appetite for lunch or supper. The whippings happened in the morning or before supper. It was possible to buy the flogging in the prison. Ordinary flogging (Ta’ziri) cost 500 toumans per stroke; and severe flogging with iron wire (Aatashi) could be bought with 1000 toumans per stroke. However, most inmates were poor and could not afford buying their torture. Zahra, a 43 year-old illiterate woman from Kermanshah and mother of 6 children, who had moved to Bandar-Abbas with her second husband to sell two of her small children to a Dubai sheik, claimed that she was tortured in Evin: she was hung upside-down, her nails were pulled, and all her teeth were broken.

The bad quality of food and water routinely served had caused many prisoners to suffer from digestive disorders. The tap water was coming from a village well and had not gone through the purification process as the water of Greater Tehran. Monotony and lack of nutritional value of food had caused mal-nourishment among babies and children; and the unsanitary conditions were responsible for their many types of infections. Women prisoners did not have fruit as part of their meals, unless they worked for it or were rich. Mothers’ ration consisted of one can of dry milk per week for babies; but it was not enough. Rich mothers were able to buy more milk to compensate. Moreover, there was no nursery in the wards.

Prison officials were negligent about the inmates’ health. There was a lack of sufficient medicine in prison, and it was difficult for the prisoners to succeed in getting permission to go to the infirmary. The medicine had to be taken in front of the officials because in some cases it had been sold to other inmates. Rouhi, a 23 year-old prisoner carrying a huge goitre had spent one year in solitary confinement for fighting with other inmates, which was the result of her illness. She had been taken to a hospital for operation and while waiting, the Evin Pasdars in charge of her guard forced her to return to Evin because, they said, there was not enough staff!

Women prisoners had only an hour of airing time in the prison backyard. Inmates from each ward were taken out separately every hour. Apparently there were volleyball teams in Wards #1 and 4. In the Ward #2, inmates were told that there was no ball for them. So the staff had taken 500 toumans from each inmate in order to buy a ball; but that was six months earlier and there was no sign of a ball. Prisoners had begun asking for the return of their money. An inmate had bought a ball for herself; all the women wanted to play with it and there were quarrels over it. There was no exercise program for women prisoners. They were taken out every morning for a short period of airing, but no one was willing to exercise by themselves, except for the political prisoners.

Qur’an and literacy classes were set up, but the inmates did not show any interest in participating in them because of chronic fatigue and nervousness. On the other hand, many months earlier the women’s prison had established an English class and received from interested women of all the wards 100 toumans each for books, but the class has not yet started because of the lack of a teacher.

Surrounding and subsequent to our interviewing 80 women, I asked the women’s prison Warden about the absence of Reform and Education program in prison. She fixed her gaze straight into my eyes:

"Prisoners are lying. We are doing the prisoners’ reform and education in two ways: one is the social workers’ counsel, guidance and advice; and the other, the reform and education classes."

We interviewed 25 more women inmates and heard the same denial as before:

"There is no Reform and Education class, nor social workers’ counsel, guidance and advice. We only have a course in Qur’an. If the course in Qur’an means reform and education, then, yes we have it; otherwise, no we don’t have any."

We concluded that the prison Warden was blatantly lying to us. There was a Reform and Education centre for men, but not for women. In fact, besides hearing the prisoners’ testimonies, we also observed them roaming aimlessly along the wards’ corridors. They seemed to be without any project, having had no goal but to kill time in prison. The teenage prisoners of the Ward #1 could do knitting, embroidery, handicraft, flower-making and doll-making. Some adult women from other wards, volunteered to peel eggplants, clean rice and do cooking in that ward, and some other women prepared food for fellow inmates in the prison’s kitchen.

If women prisoners worked in a collective workshop inside the prison, for instance as seamstresses, they took one part of the money for themselves and left another part to the Prisons Organization. Those prisoners who had received monetary fines (mostly those convicted of drug charges and adultery) or those who needed money for the expenses inside the prison, did carpet-weaving or worked in the kitchen and apparently 10,000 toumans ($12.00) were taken off their fines every month. The carpet-weaving was calculated according to the number of rows woven and the salary was so low that many prisoners found it not worth doing. Inmates were deprived of any general and professional education that would help them find a job once released from the prison. Carpet-weaving was certainly not an appropriate profession that could bring money for the women and their families outside of prison. It was also dangerous to work in prison workshops. Inmates told us that above the carpet-weaving workshop, there was a very small room where Mr. Amjad, a Prisons Organization official, used to take young women and rape them.

There was clear-cut class discrimination in the prison. The inmates were divided into two groups based on their socio-economic and psychological conditions: the rich, the ones who had visitors, and the sycophants were one group; the poor, the ones without visitors and those who didn’t flatter, another group. The inmates without visitors had no money and remained half-hungry. Some of these women did other inmates’ chores such as shining their shoes and doing their laundry for money. They also earned some by carpet weaving. Poor inmates and those who had no one to visit them stayed inside the prison for much longer periods of time.

The rich female inmates that consisted of swindlers, smugglers and relatively big heroin dealers, were of a polished and well-off appearance and quite satisfied with the prison condition. Rich women and those who had visitors lived their lives in Evin in such a way as if living in a hotel. They boasted that in the Evin market they had everything; "milk and coffee included." They did not eat prison meals that contained camphor, but ordered meals from outside.

Everyday, regularly, from the Evin market they bought sandwiches and kebobs, rice and chicken. Some of them paid for the sleeping places of two. Some rich women hired five or six other inmates for varieties of services: one for doing their laundry, one for manicure and pedicure, one for giving them body massages, one for waxing their shoes or doing their hair and make-up, and finally one for sex. For married inmates whose husbands wanted to visit, there was the possibility of both verbal meetings and "religiously approved" intimate ones.

The Warden of women’s prison, the guards and social workers had a deferential attitude towards the swindlers and the rich, and instead of being indifferent to the flattering inmates, they favoured them more than others – even more than the rich. So much so that if a rich inmate had a disrespectful attitude towards the employees, i.e. if she didn’t flatter them, they did not pay attention to her needs. But generally, convicted or accused inmates who had money were the subject of staff’s attention, attachment and special friendships. They had privileges that others were deprived of; privileges such as better nutrition, better hygienic services and more attention and regard by prison’s officials towards them.

Among the privileged inmates, there were three 17-18 year-old girls recently jailed for possession of heroin. One of them was the daughter of the local president of a major airline company.They had been shaving off the hair on their heads right down to the scalp, wearing men’s clothing and riding motorcycles on highways for the last three years. They were simply waiting for their rich parents to bail them out. Also a certain Ms. Robabeh Aminian, "notorious three-billion-touman swindler" was called for a so-called investigation every morning and sent home for nursing her baby; and she returned to prison only at night for sleeping. The way one of the social workers treated Ms. Aminian, who wore a thin, delicate chador over her shoulders, was as if this female swindler had achieved a masterpiece.

The social worker would have reproached any other woman who did not observe her hijab in such a way, but not that wealthy inmate. Ashraf, a woman convicted of adultery and pimping, who had spent one year in Ghasr Prison in 1988, compared the two prisons:

"Generally, the Ghasr Prison was much better than here in Evin. At ten o’clock in the evening when it was silence time in Ghasr, a female night guard would come and remain till midnight so that no one would make noise or commit an offence. But here in Evin, there is no night guard and all the prisoners talk until morning and don’t let us sleep. In Ghasr, a lady used to come for guidance: she would read the Qur’an and give advice. Moreover, all the women and girls had to do exercise everyday. Here in Evin, there is no physical exercise or sport."

Women section of Evin was a place of recruitment of future sex workers by female procurers. The latter would establish friendly relationships with the guards first – which was not difficult as procurers were supported by Haj-Aghas of the Martyrs Foundation. They would then groom young women and girls during the airing hours. They would buy good meals from outside for their pray and take care of their financial and other needs, luring them into their prostitution ring. When these young women left the prison, they carried the phone numbers of network contacts. Sometimes there were fights among rival procurers over these women. Even inmates who were not targeted by the procurers, were exposed to new ways of making money illegally. An inmate described her experience:

"Prison is a university for learning crimes. I am held here for keeping only 3 grams of opium at home, which belonged to my addicted father. Now, I have learnt all sorts of offences."

A sex-worker was told by a cell-mate that she shouldn’t sell herself while she could go for theft and smuggling. "With theft you get 100,000 toumans in gold," she was told, "while by selling yourself you earn only 5000 toumans."

Sima, a woman whose offence was carrying heroin and who had spent five days in solitary confinement before being transferred to the Ward #2, hated her life in the ward:

"We were three women in the solitary cells. One of us screamed all the time because she was driven crazy. To tell you the truth, the conditions of the solitary confinement is better than those of the wards. It is because the prison guards’ attitude is very offensive and prisoners use foul language and behave in despicable and repulsive ways."

Another drug dealer, Noushin, preferred the loud profanities of the ward to the dead silence of the solitary confinement that made her hallucinate for a week. Bahar, an 18 year-old girl who had previously shaved her head and appeared in public in men’s clothing disclosed that she was incarcerated for dealing heroin. The prison staff had taken her to the coroner’s office and found out that she was not a virgin. Simply based on this fact, the prison staff had judged it necessary to keep her in "protective solitary confinement" for a longtime until her hair grew longer so that, they reasoned, the prison’s lesbians wouldn’t bother her. Zahra, an inmate accused of adultery-as-a-married-woman was terribly unhappy with her condition:

"Prison is the worst environment in the world. Druggies make fun of me all the time; they are terrible. I’m getting crazy here; they should not mix drug dealers with people like me who are here only for having had illegal relationships."

What terrorized most women was the imposition of sex on them by lesbian inmates who were mostly into drugs. The frequency of sexual relations among women prisoners was very high; but these "relations" often – not always – were imposed and took the form of rape. According to many inmates, the prison guards favoured lesbians by placing them in bigger rooms while mothers with small children were placed in very small cells.

When it was time for a prisoner’s release, all other women would celebrate, "greet God and kiss her." An inmate, Zari, told me that when one of her cellmates was about to be released, she gave her the phone number of her family that had no news of her. The prison guard found out about this at the time of the body search and kept her friend inside for another 24 hours as punishment. Taraneh, a Primary school teacher convicted of theft, saw no light at the end of the tunnel:

"When we leave the prison, we’ll have a bad record. How could we then find a legal job? Especially that Evin prison has a very bad reputation."

Negin, a woman whose crime was to have escaped with the man she loved and had had a two-year clandestine life with him, was offended by the treatment she received:

"The Prison Warden, social workers and prison guards insult us without knowing our offence and look at all of us with the same judgmental attitude: everyone is bad, everyone is a liar and a cheat, or everyone is a murderer and a drug smuggler."

The women’s prison Warden, who was unable to hide the wretchedness and hypocrisy in her eyes, treated women prisoners who went to her office with aggressivity and contempt. The presence of researchers made her tense and apprehensive. The social workers were high school graduates who had only taken a very short course in social work. Only one of them was studying at university for a bachelor’s degree in social work. Theoretically, the social workers' duties consisted of facilitating the inmates’ telephone contacts with their families and relatives, granting them temporary leave, and sometimes contacting their families. But in practice and based on our observations and interviews, all a social worker did was to make telephone contacts with some prisoners’ families. There was a shortage of social workers: only one for each ward, i.e., one for 250 prisoners. While they had the authority to allow prisoners phone calls, the prison guards did not have such authority.

In the past, until 1986, the prison guards were male and women prisoners had to wear scarves when they went out to the airing backyard. Also, there used to be a cabin for Pasdars on the roof from where they projected light at night. Now, there was a searchlight and no Pasdars; instead, there were female guards working on two shifts. There was no female night guard. The job of prison guards, who were quite uneducated, was to prevent the escalation of quarrels among the prisoners and to chastise them - by throwing them inside solitary cells, beating them, etc. One of the prison guards was Ms. Karimi, a 27 year-old very obese woman who had sexual relations with some of the prisoners. The prison guards were very severe, very offensive and in fact behaved in an utterly cruel and inhumane manner towards prisoners. In fact, beatings and blindfolding of inmates was rampant. They told pregnant women who were in labour and had contraction, "As long as you’re not about to give birth, you should not cry or go to the infirmary; otherwise we’ll beat you up." Fatemeh, an inmate from Nahavand revealed a horrid episode:

"Last year, a woman who was in solitary confinement had a fight with this tall and olive-skinned prison guard who always wears a small scarf (pointing at the guard with her eyes.) This guard repeatedly and savagely kicked the prisoner into her abdomen, which caused her death as a result of gastric bleeding. The women’s prison Warden and other officials kept it quiet, but I was an eyewitness; I was in another solitary cell and witnessed this crime. Nobody pays attention to my testimony."

Of course, not all prison guards were murderers. One of them who had 12 years of service, looked at all the aspects of an issue and was endowed with some humanity and concerned about the inmates:

"For the last three years, the prison guards’ hands have been tied. Even during the time when Evin prison was full of political prisoners, we could do more than now: I was allowed to take prisoners to doctor, to give them medication and to let them make phone calls. When I see that I cannot help prisoners psychologically, I become upset and think of getting retired as soon as possible; and at the moment, I’m coping with this stress by praying to God."

She believed that the Prisons Organization bureaucracy was responsible for the prisoners' bad living conditions:

"The man who is the Head of the Evin prison – Assadollah Lajevardi - is not aware of the inside conditions of the women’s wards. He was an interrogator who has now become the head of prison; while only someone from amongst the prison guards should be the head of prison."

Four years later, in 1997, the "Butcher of Evin" resigned and was replaced by another ruthless man, Judge Morteza Bakhtiari, who is still the head of the country's Prisons Organization. In August 1998, at the age 63, Lajevardi was pierced to death with a submachine gun in his shop in the Tehran's bazaar by unidentified gunmen. Reformist leader Mohammad Khatami, the President of Iran at the time, expressed his "deepest regrets and sorrow" at the assassination of Lajevardi whom he called "valiant son of Islam and the revolution, a servant of the people and the nation." As for the female inmates’ living conditions today, it is undoubtedly more of the same!

Part 5: The Accused & the judicial system

Prison guards and social workers looked at the accused who constituted about one third of the prison population as being already convicted. In fact, the application of the judicial system was defective and unjust. An inmate described her bitterness in these terms:

"I've suffered a lot in the hands of the courts and prison. They treat us like slaves. They are just not open to hearing the truth."

Another prisoner shook her head in frustration:

"Inspectors believe that basically the accused lies. They constantly bark, "Don't lie!" They typically don't listen to what is being said by the defendant and simply look into the file to see what is written there."

A woman convicted of theft explained how completely unethical the process of obtaining confessions was:

"In the investigation office, they have the habit of not being satisfied with confession of the accused to just a few cases. She has to confess to a certain number of cases, to 15 cases for instance. It is only then that the investigators leave her alone. Detectives believe that as long as they don't have a violent attitude, the accused will not confess to their offence. As a result of this violence, the accused might confess to many more cases of offence than she has actually committed."

Another woman confirmed this testimony:

"The inspector of the Public Prosecutor's Office creates an atmosphere of terror and intimidation."

Other testimonies by the inmates pointed to the whimsicality of the judicial process. A prisoner was feeling helpless:

"The judge who rendered his verdict based upon the inspector's false report, found me guilty and sentenced me to 20 years of incarceration while having one ear to the telephone and looking at my file at the same time."

Another prisoner was enraged:

"When the witnesses came to testify, the judge, the prosecutor and the court secretary were joking with each other, laughing about some kind of a poem."

The judicial system was very inflexible. Therefore, defenses such as menopausal problems or PMS (Pre-Menstrual Symptoms) didn't help any woman accused of an offence. On the other hand, everything and everyone had a price inside and outside of the prison, from the time of arrest or the moment of suspicion about the presence of an offence to the time of the verdict and incarceration. The judge's secretaries could be bought for 50,000 toumans each, inspectors for 150,000 toumans, and others according to the lesser or more importance of their occupation for less or more prices. Holding wealthy women such as Robabeh Aminian in prison under the favourable conditions mentioned before, was done purely for political reasons: because some of the rich women swindlers or traffickers were connected to individuals with specific "political lines," releasing them would have caused trouble for their protecting men. Another sign of corruption in the judicial system was the fact that there were always propositions by men, from investigators to the judges, for sexual relations with accused women, which facilitated their cases.

According to the inmates, the judiciary did not even follow the letter of the Islamic law. They showed more leniency towards women whose offense was non-sexual, i.e., theft, narcotics, or even murder. In cases of adultery, sex work and procurance, they treated women much more harshly than men. The prison was full of teenage girls who were raped and pregnant but detained as adulteresses while their rapists were free. I interviewed a 25 year-old sex worker who told me that she had been working in a clothing factory at the age of 16 when a young foreman promised to marry her if she had sex with him. She got pregnant and had a clandestine abortion paid by the man. Her family found out about it and complained against the man. In the court, the man declared that he would not marry a girl who had had sex with him without being married to him. The court made a judgment in favour of the man, sentencing him only to a few months of buyable jail sentence, which he paid. The man did not have to pay any fine and the young woman was eventually kicked out of her father's home and forced into prostitution.

Among the women I interviewed, there were some who were victims of the judiciary corruption. A 25 year-old woman who was a hairdresser and owned a beauty salon was falsely accused of having stolen a colour TV of 30,000 toumans (about $40.00) and had been in Evin for 21 days without any right of visitation or phone call:

"I was practicing my driving skills when an armed policeman took me to a police station by force, where he and his colleagues told me that if I paid them 30,000 toumans I would be free and nothing would happen to me. When I told them that I hadn't stolen anything, they sent me here. I'm in Evin prison because I refused to pay a bribe. I have everything I want - a comfortable home, a nice family and a good husband. He is a coach and owns a taikwando club. He will have to pay 30,000 toumans for my release."

Another case of the judiciary corruption was that of a woman sentenced to 5 months of incarceration. Her offence had been that of having a VCR machine and alcoholic beverage at home. She was in jail mainly because, at the time of her arrest, she got involved in a verbal exchange with the Committee for Prevention of Vice agent in defense of her elderly husband's rights.

A 42 year-old woman from the city of Qom testified to a worse case of corruption:

"After my divorce, I met an influential mullah who wanted a temporary marriage with me. I didn't accept because of my children, but we had a relationship anyway. The mullah's telephone was bugged by the government and they found out about us. At the time of my arrest, my mullah partner was in Mecca. In detention, I was ordered to say that I took a woman for him. They flogged me 45 times on the soles of my feet, ordering me to say that I was adulterous and a pimp. If I were a pimp, they didn't need to get a forced confession from me. They could have proven it by the phone calls I made from his house. I'm not a pimp. In case of my partner, as he hadn't been viewed positively by the Establishment for a while, the special court for the clerics sentenced him to 7 years suspended prison term and disrobed him, but set him free immediately. I was convicted of adultery and pimping and setenced to 11 years imprisonment and I'm still doing time. My nephew is Qom's prosecutor. They wanted to defame us. The clerics court confiscated my house and threw out my children."

A 23 year-old woman sentenced to 8 years in prison for carrying narcotics spoke of flagrant discrimination:

"I was working in a manufacturing company that, like many other manufacturing plants, was also a narcotics trafficking network. The day they raided and arrested everybody, the two principal traffickers were released. We were detained and two men from among us were executed."

A 35 year-old woman who had a comfortable life was falsely accused of pimping:

"I introduced my female friends to men that I knew. But this was not pimping. I was not asking for money. I did it because I like to give parties and have fun."

There was no court-appointed lawyer program for those who were unable to hire one. A middle-aged inmate was beside herself:

"There are inmates who have received only a 2-year sentence without fine for having had over 2 kilos of opium. While I have been condemned to 8 years and 2 million toumans fine for 6 grams of opium. The reason is that I did not have a lawyer and did not know how to express myself in front of the judge."

There were other inmates who were even less able to defend themselves. A 14 year-old girl from a small village near Arak was accused of adultery and sent to jail for having been raped four times and impregnated by the landlord's son. Her rapist was free on bail and she had no idea how long she was going to remain in jail. A 38 year-old illiterate woman, married to a tanner, having 5 children and working as a scrubber in a public bath, was condemned to 3 years in prison for pimping:

"I haven't committed any offense. I'm a simpleton. The reason for my arrest was that I had a fight with a neighbour over our children. She slandered me by saying that I took her to a man. When I was in the court, I thought I heard them saying that I had committed tannery (dabbaaghi). I said, "No, it is my husband who does tannery!" Then I was told that I was accused of having committed procuring (ghavvaadi)."

The absence of temporary detention centres for women resulted in accused women being sent directly to Evin prison and subjected to strip search and body cavity search procedures. One day I witnessed a woman brought to prison for having broken her neighbour's window glass during a fight and was subjected to a body search behind a screen. Later, I asked her about her occupation. She said that she was a social worker. Then under the contemptuous and icy gaze of a colleague, i.e., the prison social worker, she began crying,

"Is it fair to bring me here? Among a bunch of criminals?"

Like most accused women in detention, she did not know how long she was going to stay in jail. The period of temporary detention for the accused was very long - from six to ten months or even longer.

It was only the Committee for Prevention of Vice that had detention centres for the "badly-veiled." Some of Tehran's big and famous detention centres mentioned by the prisoners were Pole-Rumi and Vozara. They were in charge of addiction and "vice" (including parties) by men and women. The "badly-veiled" were usually taken to Vozara Detention Centre, and those who were arrested for being in a party were sometimes detained there for over forty days.

Part 6: Poverty, violence, ignorance, and misogynous laws

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 theM< a href="">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-ŕ-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.

2007, Azadeh Azad

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