Soudeh Rad
Last updated: 7 December, 2012

Iranian political prisoners take fight against sexual abuse

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women was marked on November 25. A few weeks earlier, eight Iranian female political prisoners in the notorious Evin prison broke a seven-day long hunger strike.

On October 31, a group of prison officers entered the women’s ward and started a snap body search, which has been described as “sexual abuse” by the prisoners. The eight women who started a hunger strike following the event were Bahareh Hadayat (student activist), Hakimeh Shokri (member of Mourning Mothers), Mahsa Amrabadi (journalist), Nasim Soltan Beigi (student activist), Nazanin Deyhimi (translator of children books), Shiva Nazar Ahari (human rights activist), Jila Baniyaghoob (Journalist) and Jila Karamzadeh Makvandi (member of Mourning Mothers).

“Given the existence of a myriad of security cameras watching prisoners’ every move and the restrictions imposed upon prisoners regarding what is allowed to be taken into the ward, not to mention the modern electronic tools available for conducting body searches in a respectable manner, we are at a loss for words regarding why prison authorities have resorted to such humiliating behavior,” the political prisoners wrote in a letter addressed to the head of the Tehran prisons authority.

The seven day hunger strike finished with an ultimate victory, as the prisoners have been assured by the prison authorities that those responsible for violent, invasive body cavity searches and sexual abuse will be prosecuted, and such incidents not repeated.

The subject has revealed a reality of “sexual abuse” and “sexual harassment” in Iran, which still makes part of a cultural and legal taboo. In fact, in common Farsi language, it’s difficult to differ the terms of rape (Tajavoz Jensi), sexual harassment (Azare Jensi) and sexual abuse (Soo-estefade Jensi). Many people asked what had really happened in the prison, to better understand what the words used could mean.

The weight of this taboo made some reformist Iranian websites change the words of the prisoners in order to keep them “publishable” and “respectful”. Although they corrected their terms after insistence of the families and the women’s rights activists, most of their readers did not recognize the gravity of the acts behind each word.

The “shame” of being the victim of violence and the “chilling effect” enforced by recognizing the victim guilty is in fact not specific to Iranian people and culture; this mindset is very common all around the world and not only in the Middle East.

The successful hunger strike of the eight women in the Evin prison and the insistence to employ the term of “sexual abuse” should be considered a step toward breaking the silence of millions of women who are victims of sexist violence. Religion, ethnicity, language or geographical locations do not matter and the mindset to hold the victim responsible for the violence should change everywhere around the world.

Governments are responsible to provide preventive strategy and facilities for victims and invest in education from very young ages to eliminate the violence. Yet, the very first step is to change all discriminative laws against women and stop all political and legal forms of violence.

In addition to conservative patriarch culture, which considers a woman the belonging of a man, physical and moral violence, sexual abuse, harassment and rape has been used as a means of oppression during centuries. In fact sexual abuse and rape has a long and painful history in Iranian Islamic regime prisons, especially during 1980’s, just after the revolution.

In Egypt women were harassed in Tahrir square right after the victory of the people in their revolution. Maybe the time has come to drive a regional campaign on violence against women in the Middle East and start by calling violence, rape and sexual abuse what they are. A syndrome must be properly addressed in order to combatted and treated.

Soudeh Rad is an Iranian human rights researcher, feminist activist and freelance journalist. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.