Life and Death of Women in Islamic Prisons

An eye witness account

From Tahereh Ghorrat-al-Ain’s death at the instigation of reactionary mullahs [1] to today we have witnessed a century and a half of struggle of Iranian women for social justice and gender equality. It has cost the lives of thousands of women. In this article I will concentrate on one corner of this history: that which has taken place under the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I will try to take the readers to Islamic Prisons and show the life, and death, of women in the Islamic doomsday. I will attempt to allude to some of the theological, ideological and Qur’anic foundation of this killing machine called Islamic Regime. In the third and the final part of this paper I will try to analyse the content of the partial compiled list of women killed by the Islamic Regime in the past 20 years. I will concentrate on some of the characteristics of the women killed. This paper is based on my personal observation on the condition of women in four notorious Islamic Prisons in Tehran where I was held as a political prisoner for over six years. The other sources of my information comes from published testimonies of other women and men prisoners and also live interviews I have had with released women prisoners in Europe and North America.

The Killing Machine

It took only a few months after the Islamic regime comes to power in February 1979 for a killing machine to be set up that rampaged throughout the country. From Kurdistan to Turkaman Sahra from Gillan and Mazandaran to Khuzistan and Sistan –Baluchistan, from 70 years old grand mothers to10 to 12 year old girls and boys, from workers to peasants to intellectuals and poets like Said Sultanpour all were trapped by this killing machine called Velayate Motlagheh Fahgih [2]. For the first time since 1850 nearly 130 years ago when numerous fatwas were issued by all religious authorities against Tahereh Ghorat-al-Ein, now thousands of women were being killed on the bases of fatwa issued by only one religious leader.

At the helm of this killing machine was Khomeini now designating himself as the Valieh Faghih [3] The Islamic Guards, the Islamic Militia called Basij, police and the army and all close associates of Khomeini, the majority of 300,000 Mullahs young and old were all part of this killing machine. To lubricate this killing apparatus Islamic Regime misused religious sentiments as well as anti imperialist jargon and $15-20 billions of petrodollars each and every year for 20 years.

In a short period of two years after the Revolution the Islamic Regime captured tens of thousands of innocent women and men through out the country. About 15,000 political prisoners were held in Evin and 12,000 in Ghezel-Hesar. Another 2,000 were held in Gohardasht and around 3,000 in Kommiteh Moshtarak. Another 3000 in army barracks. Roughly around 35,000 male and female political prisoners were being held in Tehran alone. These do not include prisoners taken by police stations in Tehran or the Islamic Committees in different districts of Tehran. For the whole country around 150,000 were arrested and taken to jails temporary or otherwise.

Theological basis

Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1981 against "anybody resisting arrest should face summery execution" in the streets. In prisons thousands of women were captured, tortured and many thousands were put in front of the firing squad [4]. The Qur’an says ‘ Then the punishment of those who fight against God and his Prophet and spread vices on earth is death or be hanged or their hands and legs from left and right should be cut’. According to a fatwa issued by Khomeini: all virgin girls facing the death penalty, irrespective of their age should be raped systematically by their killers so that to prevent them from interring the Heaven.

Ayatollah Khomeini based his fatwas and action against women on the basis of the Qur’an [5]. In the same vein Qur’an orders the believers to "capture all monafeghin (hypocrites) and those who spread falls roomers and kill them severely" [6]. In a vivid language, which often was used by Khomeini and is still being used by the present leadership, Qur’an says, "Behold Thou! Prophet! Jihad (holy war) against the koffar (pleural of kafar = unbeliever) and the monafeghin". Socialists, communist, agnostics, and even the liberals and nationalists were declared to have epitomised koffars of Qur’an today, decreed Khomeini in June 1981. Khomeini also called Saddam Hussein a kafar and a million dead and injured and $500 billion of costs was rationalised in the same manner.

Qur’an also orders the believers "to cut the neck and all fingers of unbelievers" [7]. In the same Sura, Qur’an orders the believers to "kill all of them so that there would no longer be any corruption on earth" [8]. Again in a cut and clear language Qur’an says, ‘No Prophet should ever take captives, they all should be killed’ [9] Khomeini and his followers utilised the Qur’anic teachings and theology. Khomeini characterised his political enemies as koffar and monafeghin and from 1980 to the time of his death in1989 constantly called for their death. [10]

Islamic "Doomsday"

In my personal observation in four of Islamic Regimes prisons I witnessed atrocities against women every where I went. To give our readers just a glimpse of what was going on in the Islamic prisons I will try to reconstruct my first impressions from the notorious Evin. In the day of my arrival to the Evin when I was taken to Block 209 as I entered the long hall of this torture chamber I saw many women who were hanged on hooks on the walls or hanged from the iron bars of the cells doors. Throughout this chamber which was around 100 m long and 2.5 m wide on both side women like men were left bleeding here and there. Other women lay on the floor blindfolded and completely laid down facing the walls motionless.

One woman around 50 years old, who had just left one of the torture cells in the basement, was passing though. She was blindfolded and was creeping across the hall on her buttocks with the help of her left hand while holding her black veil partly with her teeth and partly with the right hand. She was holding the end of a stick that was held by her torturer who was giving direction to the blindfolded and bleeding woman to crepe- along. The torturers were told that the woman is a kafar so to avoid making a sin, he should not touch the old woman’s hands.

Each day the cries of the new borne babies around one or two month old mixed whit screams and the banging on the doors of the cells by 5 or 6 years old grill and boys was a tragedy. The fact that these little children were acting as their mothers’ keepers after their mothers returned from the torture rooms in a closed cell environment was in itself tragically wrong.

The crying of the infant babies and small children, the begging of teenage boys and girls, the screaming of fathers and mothers under torture, the sovereigns, cursing, kicking and the squeaking noises from the torture cables and sticks had truly produced the symphony of death [11]

In order to acquaint our readers with some aspects of the Islamic prisons I would like to take them with me to what many prisoners have come to know as "Doomsday" in the prison system of Islamic Regime. In the still of an autumn night in 1983, the quiet was shattered as Haji Davoud, surrounded by about 50 club- and cable-wielding elite guards, attacked the cell blocks of women one by one. These attacks concentrated on the "intransigents" cells. They targeted anyone who looked or acted "un-Islamic" or unrepentant in any way.

They marched down the corridor, though rather haphazardly, and not at all in any disciplined formation. Two or three of them remained by the doorway of each cell. As the "wild bunch" reached the last cell doorway, they turned around and began their most savage attack, pulling women prisoners from their sleep and dragging them into the corridor where they would be beaten to the point were they could no longer stand on their feet. The contents of the cells were turned upside down again. Then they would move to the next cell and repeated the whole process.

All the while the tavvabs [12] looked on and sometimes joined in the beatings. They were shouting "God is great, long live Khomeini! Death to Communists, Death to USA, Death to Israel, Death to USSR, Death to Monafeghin and Saddam." Then four or five guards took innocent women and beat them and meted out the same treatment to the others in the cell. They called this "playing football".

The night of the mass beating in our block, between one and five prisoners in each "intransigent’s" cell would be punched, kicked and stamped unconscious by the guards, and then dragged out of the block by the tavvabs. This was repeated throughout the Golden Fortress prison that night.

This was the start of Doomsday for men prisoners. But the Doomsday for "intransigent" women had started long before [13]. In late summer 1983 the "intransigent" women from the 8th Block in Golden Fortress refused nazri food [14]. A week later they refused to take part in the daily ritual of listening to forced confessions made by tavvabs and others "confessing" to sexual innuendo or lies about their parents and neighbours. Or giving new information leading to the incrimination of innocents. At night the guards comes to the 8th Block and brought out all the left and communist "intransigent" women and after looking at them one by one they picked 40 of them and ordered them out of the 8th Block and on to a meat truck.

They were put in front of a wall, given pencil and paper, and asked specific questions about their attitude to the Islamic regime, the war with Iraq, Israel, the US and the Soviet Union. They were asked questions about the different prisons that they had been at, and how they had acted in them. Pressure was put on them to identify other prisoners who had shown opposition of any form to the Islamic Regime within the prisons. They were asked similar questions about the cell they had been in up to that time in the Golden Fortress.

The last question was, would they become a tavvab? If the answer was yes, then they were expected to prove it, by giving all the information, which they held back so far. Details about their political activity before their arrest, about their family and friends, and information gathered within the prison. In particular they were pressed for information about the activities and identities of the "intransigent" groups in the 8th Block and within their own cell and other blocks.

Those who managed to pass this test, possibly by giving incriminating evidence that they now knew to be out of date and useless to the regime, felt they could get out of trouble and back into the regular prison blocks. This proved another circuit on the hellish roundabout of the Islamic prison system. Some of them found themselves back at Evin’s 209 for a new round of interrogation and torture and higher sentences as a result.

Those who refused to co-operate, or had nothing further to tell, made up the Doomsday block. This developed in an ad-hoc manner, rather than following any "grand design" that Haji Davoud may have concocted. The basis of Doomsday was one tavvab or guard to one prisoner. At the beginning, the prisoner was cut off from any association with others: blindfolded, standing facing the wall forced to listen to a constant barrage of sermons, speeches and Qur’anic readings broadcast around the clock. These were interspersed with replays of interviews with opposition leaders who had capitulated to the Islamic regime, from the Tudeh Party, from Peykar and from the Mujahedin. You could hear Khomeini crying in front of adolescents about to be sent to the front in the war against Iraq: "I wish I was a Pasdar [15]. You are God’s chosen. Dead or alive, you will go to heaven. I am the loser, because I have not been chosen to share your glory".

There would be live broadcasts from trenches the night before an attack, as the young Pasdars psyched themselves up to go over the top. They were used quite cynically as human mine detectors, one detected mine equalling one boy blow to bits. This shooting war was directed as part of the psychological war against the prisoner; one which could not be escaped from for so much as a minute in the day.

At its inception, Doomsday inmates were forced to stand for days on end, deprived of sleep, and kicked back onto their feet when they collapsed from exhaustion. This was interrupted by three breaks a day to eat and to go to the lavatory. Other measures were arbitrarily imposed as the authorities tried to come up with what to do next.

Stage two in Doomsday’s development came about when the girls from the intransigent’s block would be forced to sit cross-legged on the floor, blindfolded and facing the wall, presumably because the Pasdars had grown tired of kicking them to their feet. This lasted for a couple of days.

The last stage was the separation of prisoners from each other with plywood partitions. This last stage had come about in response to a situation where the night before two girls had tried to touch their hands from a distance of one meter in order to give encouragement and as a sign of solidarity. The guards had spotted this. The innocent girls were accused of lesbianism and savagely tortured. Next day when Haji Davoud arrived he came up with the idea of separating women prisoners from one another by erecting two walls of play wood inside of which there would only be enough room for a women to sit. After the erection of the two new walls the prisoners now faced three walls, with the guards on their back. All had a blindfold and a black and dirty veil.

By now it had became apparent to prison officials that these first three phases of Doomsday had been unable to create new tavvabs from these "intransigent" girls from Block 8 of Golden Fortress. They prepared to dig in for a long winter.

Doomsday’s laws were not written down in any holy book. They evolved from day- as the officials, the guards and tavvabs patrolled Doomsday. They made up their rules as they went along. No one knew what was forbidden and what was not. The Doomsday prisoner would discover a rule when she had broken it and earned a beating. This ‘rule’, though, might have changed entirely by the next. Moving your hands got you beaten. Stretching your legs got you beaten. So did turning your head, or adjusting your blindfold. Whatever you do, do nothing was the message. The guards seemed equally at sea. What appeared to be a carefully though-out strategy to disorientate, confuse and distress the prisoners in fact was the opposite - random, ill conceived and inconsistent; but hell nevertheless. Bodhiramma, the Buddhist saint, squatted for years facing a cave wall. That was his choice: the prisoners in Doomsday had no such luxury.

At 10pm, all Doomsday’s prisoners were ordered to lie down. At 6am they were ordered to sit back in position; facing the wall, legs crossed. Ten days after the Doomsday was finally developed as part of the Islamic prison system to transform the "intransigent" women of Block 8th of Golden Fortress to tavvabs, Haji Lajevardi the Eichman of Evin paid a visit to the Doomsday and its inhabitants. It was to report to Khomeini and other Islamic Regime’s officials who were anxious to see the resistance in all Islamic prisons smashed.

Days rolled into weeks, and so into months. Some girls capitulated. They would cry out, "Haji Davoud, bring in the papers. I want to confess about anything and everything". They were filmed and used in the performances that were staged, where they confessed to things they had never done. Often, they would sit on the stage, sobbing or laughing uncontrollably. Others crumbled physically and mentally through trying to hold out. Of those who returned, some had lost their voices. Some could no longer concentrate and lost their memory. Many developed twitches. Suicide was not uncommon. One woman who spent 10 months in Doomsday would wander back and forth in a straight line, talking to herself, totally oblivious to her surroundings. During her time in Doomsday, she had learnt to trust no one, to associate with no one, indeed to even forget herself. Four years after her experience in Doomsday, she too killed herself. The erosion of the spirit of those who had been through this experience was so deep that, even years later, after release and escape to Europe, some still chose to end their lives as a result of what had happened in Islamic Regime’s latest inventions in its prison system.

Mahin Baduoi was one of those who stayed in Doomsday for nearly 10 months. She had resisted the pressures to become a tavvab. It was from the scattered testimonies of these human husks that we learnt what at Islamic Regime’s Doomsday have meant. When Mahin Baduoi was brought out of Doomsday Haji Davoud was also leaving his post and accepting other posts within the Islamic Prison System. But Mahin never recovered from what she endured during her stay in Doomsday [16]. During the period of 1984-88 she lived alone among the crowd, avoiding all other prisoners, walking by her, talking to herself, eating by herself. In 1988 just before the Mass execution of thousands of political prisoners throughout Islamic prisons Mahin Badoui did to her what the Islamic "Death Tribunal" would have done to her. Mahin killed herself [17].

Chilling statistics

I will try to present an analysis of the statistics of some of the women killed in the killing fields of Islamic Regime. My focus would be on ‘The Registry of the Killed women by the Islamic Regime [18]’. In an unpublished manuscript in English that contains a detailed "eye witness report" of the four prisons of the Islamic Regime, I have compiled from various independent women groups a partial list of 1533 politically active women aged 10 –70 years who have been killed by the firing squad or gallows or tortured to death by the Islamic Regime [19]. We will call this partial listing the ‘Registry of the killed Iranian women’ or ‘Registry’ for short. The list is partial and incomplete. And represents perhaps only one tenth of the total politically active women who have been killed by the Islamic Regime [20]. The reasons behind my estimate are numerous.

Not every family who lost one or more loved ones has access to the opposition groups, have any relatives abroad or even dare contact independent women groups abroad. It would undoubtedly take a long time to obtain data concerning a good portion of the women killed during the last twenty years. The list of politically active women presented here does not contain thousands of cases of women killed by Islamic courts. Especially this listing does not include cases of women involved either in narcotics nor does it include women stoned to death on the ground of sex offences and other non political cases that have brought death sentences on women.

Table 1 shows the categorisation of the women murdered in Islamic prisons. It can be seen that pregnant women and those with children are among the killed. This is a regime that arrogantly claims it considers women and their children sacred gifts of God. Claims that women are only a sexual commodity in Western societies. Yet this same regime executes pregnant women and rapes all virgin girls before execution, irrespective of their age in a systematic and premeditated manner.

Aged 10-21 years

Aged 22-70 years.

Pregnant women.

Women with children.

Total women killed

163

1320

35

15

1533

Table 1. Categorisation of politically active women killed in prisons 1979-1999

Table 1 shows 163 politically active women aged 10-21 killed by the Islamic Regime. Among the names and cases given to this author by the independent women group in Germany are no 135 on that Register [21], Nafiseh Ashraf Jahani aged 10, or number 1012, Afsaneh Farabi aged 12. There are three girls aged 13, Fa-ezeh Ansari, Shahla Ghorbani and Fatima Mesbah who were sentenced to death by Islamic Government numbers 370, 1090, and 1309 on the Register. And so for the rest of the other163 teenagers aged 14 to 21who were all sentenced and killed.

Some other women catch the eye. Number 124 belongs to an 70-year old women Akram Islami. Number 1245; Sakineh Mohamadi Ardehali [22] was a 70 years-old mother of 9 children. Ehteram Karbasi was 60 years old with 6 children and Soghra Davari with 7 children was aged 54 at the time of her death [23]. Hundreds of women were over 50 who left many children behind, like Arasteh Gholivand case number 1103, 56 years old with 6 children.

Column 4 of table, again based on the information contained in the Registry of the killed women’, shows 35 women who were pregnant at the time there were put in front of the firing squad, died under torture or hanged. In my own personal experience in Islamic Prisons on many occasions religious authorities would come to prison and rationalise the sentencing of pregnant women to death. They would argue that in pursuit of the enemies of Islam such as koffars and monafeghin if an innocent comes in between, we should have no hesitation in killing the innocent. According to this reasoning if a pregnant women is sentenced to death, then the foetus even though legally innocent, the judge must also pass a death sentence of the foetus.

Mrs. Parvin Mostofi, case number 1290, was pregnant and had three children at the time of her death. It is important to note that some of the pregnant women put in front of the firing squad or tortured to death or hanged by gallows at the time of their death had one to six children at home or in the prison cells. For example Mrs. Saltanat Ghorbani case number 1092, was pregnant and at the time when she was put in front of the firing squad also had six other children.

Reza Ghaffari

Dr Reza Ghaffari spent over six years in the following prisons: Komite Moshtarek, Evin, Ghezel Hessar, and Gowhardasht. He himself was savagely tortured and witnessed at first hand the bloody crimes of the regime. After release he escaped Iran and now lives in Europe. In the first two years he was guest professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies of London University. He is on the editorial board of Capital and Class. He has written a number of articles and pamphlets and has written and translated a number of books into Farsi including Political Economy of Socialism (two volumes). His latest book Khaterateh Yek Zendani As Zendanhaye Jomhooriye Islami’ (Memories of a prisoner of prisons of the Islamic Republic) was translated into Farsi by: A. Saman, and published in Stockholm, by Arash Forlag, 1998. The English text awaits a publisher.

Footnotes

1- Mirza Fatali Akhondzadeh, Philosophical Articles, Babies Ideologies, P.55, Savallan, Tabriz, 1357.

2.Velayate Motlagheh Faghih means the absolute rule of a religious authority called Faghih who is well versed in Islamic Jurisprudence.

3. Valieh Faghih refers to the concept of a person to whom the authority to govern over the populace is invested by God through the Prophet Mohammed.

4. In accordance to the Khomeini’s fatwa all virgin girls facing the death penalty were systematically raped by heir killers and occasionally the perpetrators took some candies or cake to the families of the girls involved. This ritual rape was to pre-empt the "automatic" entry of virgins into heaven.

5. Qur’an, Sureh Ma-Edeh, Verses 32-34 p.81, Sureh Tubeh, Verses, 79-80, pp141-142. Again on killing the Kofar and Moshrekin, ‘where ever you find them capture them and kill them, after the holy month’ Sureh Tubeh, Verses 5-6, p. 134.

6. Sureh Ahzab, Verses 59-62, p.306.

7 Sureh Anfal Verses 12-14, p.127.

8 - Qur’an, Sureh Anfal, Verses 38-4o, p. 129.

9 - Qur’an, Sureh Enfal,Verses 67-69 p.132.

10. It was on the bases of these deep religious feeling that Khomeini was able to massacre tens of thousands of opposition and derailed the revolution of Feb. 1979.

11. Reza Ghaffari : ‘ Khaterateh Yek Zendani As Zendanhaye Jomhooriye Islami’ Translated by : A. Saman, Stockholm, Sweden, Arash Forlag, 1998, PP.63-80.

12. Tavvabs in language of Islamic prison system was given to those prisoners who denounced their previous identity and social and political outlook and became totally Islamic. They had to prove it by turning in their comrades including their parents and close relatives. They were also expected to take their old comrades and give them the ‘coup de grace’ after execution

13.M.Baradaran: ‘ Haghighateh Sadeh’ vol 1, Hanover, Germany 1992, pp. 143-158.

14. Nazri food is special Islamic food prepared for Religious occasion. Golden Fortress is a prison complex comprising three sections. Each section contained 8 blocks 1 to 4 large and 5 to 8 small blocks. Each large block at the time I was serving contained 600 prisoners. The smaller one had from 100 to 400.

15. Pasdar is a regular foot soldier of the ideological military force created shortly after Islamic Regime came to power in 1979.

16. M. Baradaran. Ibid. P.164.

17. M. Baradaran. Ibid. P.164.

18. The ‘Registry of the killed Women’, Iranian Women’s Independent Association in Koln, Germany ‘Equal in Death- unequal in life’ 1997.

19. R. Ghaffari: ‘ An Eye Witness Report of Islamic Regime’s Prison in Iran.’ or ‘The Weeping Tulips’’.

20.The ‘Registry of the killed Women’, Iranian Women’s Independent Association in Koln, Germany ‘Equal in Death- unequal in life.’ 1997.

21. R. Ghaffari:, Ibid.pp.345-372.

22. The ‘Registry, Ibid.

23. The ‘Registry, Ibid..