Shadi Sadr is a young feminist attorney and journalist who has been in the forefront of women’s rights struggles in Iran during the past few years. She was abducted by plainclothes police on July 17, and released eleven days later. She was arrested once before at a women’s rights demonstration in 2006. In this article dated August 14, 2009, she responds to Ayatollah Mehdi Karroubi’s open letter to Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani about the need to investigate the rapes of young protesters imprisoned after the forged June 2009 election. Sadr begins her article specifically with the case of Taraneh Mussavi, a young victim whose identity has been questioned by the Iranian government.
Rape as Systematic Torture in Iran
By Shadi Sadr
Translated by Frieda Afary
Translator’s Note: Shadi Sadr is a young feminist attorney and journalist who has been in the forefront of women’s rights struggles in Iran during the past few years. She was abducted by plainclothes police on July 17, and released eleven days later. She was arrested once before at a women’s rights demonstration in 2006. In this article dated August 14, 2009, she responds to Ayatollah Mehdi Karroubi’s open letter to Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani about the need to investigate the rapes of young protesters imprisoned after the forged June 2009 election. Sadr begins her article specifically with the case of Taraneh Mussavi, a young victim whose identity has been questioned by the Iranian government.
Taraneh Mussavi may or may not be that green-clad girl who was arrested at a demonstration near the Ghaba Mosque on June 27. The girl who was raped, suffered from a torn uterus and a torn anus, landed at a Karaj hospital, and was finally found dead in an unknown cemetery in northern Iran. Regardless, her name is the secret name for all the women who have been raped in prisons since the 1979 Revolution. What I want to say is that Taraneh Mussavi is not just one individual.
Mehdi Karroubi writes: “Some individuals have raped detained girls with such force as to cause tears and injuries to their sexual organs.” His claim may be entirely false, but that does not make any difference. The following are not exceptions: When Azar Al Kanaan (Nina Aghdam) speaks in front of the camera about how she was raped at Sanandaj prison. When Roya Toloui speaks of how she was raped by her interrogator. When Monireh Baradaran writes in her book Simple Truth, about Tahereh, a woman remembered by most prisoners from the 1980s, a beautiful woman who lost her sanity after being raped by a Pasdar [“Revolutionary Guard”]. When [Canadian Iranian Journalist] Zahra Kazemi’s dead body is covered with cement and her attorney, Shirin Ebadi asks the court, “Why the victim’s clothing was torn and bloodied in a particular location.” When the report from the coroner’s office states that Zahra Bani Yaghub was raped in the Basij headquarters’ detention center in Hamadan.
Raping women political prisoners and threats to rape or sexually abuse them are acts which can be committed by those who arrest them or by interrogators, prison wardens or even judicial officials. These acts constitute the most brutal forms of torture, and cause physical and especially psychological effects which are not comparable to other forms of torture.
Published reports are available about these types of torture committed against women political prisoners after the 1979 Revolution. The most systematic type of reported rape has been the rape of virgin girls who were sentenced to death by execution because of political reasons. They were raped on the night before execution. These reports have been substantiated by frequent statements from the relatives of women political prisoners. On the day after the execution, authorities returned their daughter’s dead body to them along with a sum considered to be the alimony. Reports state that in order to lose their virginity, girls were forced to enter into a temporary marriage with men who were in charge of their prison. Otherwise it was feared that the executed prisoner would go to heaven because she was a virgin!
Years later, [Reynaldo] Galindo Pohl, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights, who had been assigned to examine human rights violations in Iran, emphasized the following in his report: “Virgin women who are sentenced to death are forced to enter into a marriage with a man. They lose their virginity before execution. Concerning this matter, the special reporter for the commission on torture would like to emphasize that rape is a form of torture.”*
Nevertheless, up to now, no fatwa [edict] has been issued concerning this systematic torture, and no documentation has been offered regarding its specific cases. As we will see, proving rape is very difficult and often impossible. It is even more [difficult to prove] in prison.
Nevertheless, it is known beyond a shadow of a doubt, that during the 1980s, the rape of women political prisoners was prevalent. It was so prevalent as to make Ayatollah Montazeri, who was Khomeini’s deputy at the time, write the following to Khomeini in a letter dated October 7, 1986: “Did you know that young women are raped in some of the prisons of the Islamic Republic? Did you know that swear words offensive to one’s honor are commonly used during the interrogation of girls?”
This reality contradicts what is inferred from Karroubi’s letter which gives the impression that only those women political prisoners arrested after the post-June 2009 election protests have been raped. As if there is no precedent in the past 30 years of the Islamic Republic. In his letter to Hashemi Rafsanjani dated July 27, 2009, Karroubi writes the following without referring to previous cases of rape in political prisons: “I have heard about this matter from those who have sensitive posts in our country. I can identify these powerful individuals, some of whom were part of our sacred national defense. These individuals have told me that the events which have taken place in our prisons are a catastrophe for the Islamic Republic. This catastrophe can turn the Shia clerics’ brilliant and unblemished history into a black and shameful adventure, and would make many dictatorial regimes including the Shah’s oppressive rule seem fair in comparison. . . . Some of those detained have reported that some individuals have raped detained girls with such force as to cause tears and injuries to their sexual organs. On the other hand, the brutal rape of young boys by some individuals has made these boys depressed and psychologically and physically damaged. They have become recluses in their own homes. . . “
Since [the publication of Karroubi’s letter], interviewees, officials and political activists, who have sought to affirm or deny this issue, have limited the question to the events that have taken place after the election. In this manner, the rape of women political prisoners as a continuing form of sexual torture has been reduced to an “incident.” The fact is that this issue has a long-term history.
It is a fact that proving rape and other forms of sexual abuse has always been difficult. First, these acts take place surreptitiously and without possible witnesses. The victim’s shame or fear prevents her from reporting the case to government officials. While it appears that women have the freedom to act, move and complain to officials, in prison, where government forces and the individual or the collective rapist become one, the victims of rape have no recourse. The issue becomes more complicated when rape is used not only as a means of domination, of satisfying sexual urges and disabling and vanquishing the victim, but also as a means and method of torture in order to demean a political prisoner, break her, extract confession and in sum vanquish her or the organization, party or tendency to which the victim belongs. Under these circumstances, it is incumbent upon independent and mass-based forces to present a precise analysis of the nature of this type of rape/torture. This effort is not possible without assistance from the victims.
It is the responsibility of human rights activist and especially women’s rights activists to review similar experiences in Bosnia and Sudan. We need to learn from the methods by which the perpetrators of systematic rapes have been exposed, and legally prosecuted for their crimes against humanity.
May the names of Taraneh Mussavi, Zahra Bani Yaghub, Zahra Kazemi and other dead victims of rape-torture, come to life in a trial to justly prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes.
August 14, 2009
*This paragraph was added a day after the original publication of this piece and was based on a document which I came across in Mehdi Aslani’s prison memoirs, The Crow and the Red Rose.