My fellow inmates and I were gathered in the women’s ward of Evin prison in Tehran one evening when we saw a television report of Mahsa Amini’s death. Just over a year ago, she died in the custody of Iran’s morality police for allegedly failing to wear a proper hijab. Her death set off an immediate and widespread uprising – led by women – that rocked the country.
In the women’s ward, we were filled with grief – and rage. We used our short phone calls to collect information. At night, we held meetings to exchange the news we’d heard. We were stuck inside, but we did what we could to raise our voices against the regime. Anger reached its peak a few weeks later, when a fire swept through part of Evin on October 15. We chanted ‘Death to the Islamic Republic’ amid the gunfire from security forces, explosions, and flames. At least eight people were killed.
Thousands of people protesting Ms Amini’s death were arrested in the months afterward. As the anniversary of her death approached, Iran’s leaders worked hard to suppress dissent. I have been imprisoned in Evin three times since 2012 for my work as a defender of human rights, but I have never seen as many new admissions to the women’s ward there as in the last five months.
Other women’s wards also filled up. Through friends in Qarchak prison southeast of Tehran, I learned of about 1,400 new detainees being held there. Other women have been sent to high-security wards, including Evin’s Section 209, run by the Ministry of Intelligence. A detainee who was transferred to Evin from Adelabad prison in Shiraz told us of hundreds of new female detainees in Adelabad.
What the government may not understand is that the more of us they lock up, the stronger we become.
The morale among the new prisoners is high. Some spoke with strange ease about writing their wills before heading onto the streets to call for change. All of them, no matter how they were arrested, had one demand: overthrow the Islamic Republic regime.
During recent months, I met many female prisoners who had been beaten and bruised, their bones broken, and who had been sexually assaulted. I have tried my best to document and share that information.
Still, we continue to raise our voices. We have issued statements and held general meetings and sit-ins following the news of mass demonstrations, street killings, and executions. The security and judicial institutions have tried to intimidate and silence us by cutting off our phone calls and weekly meetings with family, or by filing new court cases against us. In the past seven months, they have opened six new criminal cases over my human rights activities in prison and added two years and three months to my sentence, which is now 10 years and nine months.
I started campaigning in Iran 32 years ago, as a student. My goal back then was to fight religious tyranny, which along with tradition and social customs has led to the deep repression of women in this country. That’s still my goal. Now, seeing the groundbreaking efforts of young women and girls during this revolutionary movement, I feel my feminist dreams and goals are closer to realisation.
Women emerged as the vanguard of this uprising, demonstrating immense courage and resistance, even in the face of heightened animosity and aggression from the religious authoritarian regime.
In the past, before Ms Amini’s death, I had heard some accounts of sexual assaults against women within the women’s prisons, but I had never personally witnessed so many life-threatening beatings and injuries, nor had I encountered tales of sexual assault and harassment of this magnitude.
The regime seems to be purposefully propagating a culture of violence against women. However, it will not be able to intimidate or restrain them. Women will not give up.
We are fuelled by a will to survive, whether we are inside prison or outside. The government’s violent and brutal repression may sometimes keep people from the streets, but our struggle will continue until the day when light takes over darkness and the sun of freedom embraces the Iranian people.This article originally appeared in the New York Times on 16 September, 2023.