Civil society activist Sepideh Gholian, who came to prominence both internationally and in Iran for her tender, honest and hand-illustrated prison diaries, has described conditions at Bushehr Central Prison as a “forgotten hell”. The young journalist and labor rights activist said she held the prison warden directly responsible for the sexual exploitation of female inmates.
Gholian, who is currently out on medical leave, wrote on Twitter that human rights violations were rife in the prison. "Women prisoners in this ward are being held under the most brutal torture and inhuman conditions possible,” she wrote, indicating that female prisoners were facing particular discrimination at the hands of prison guards.
Gholian said that she had been documenting the horror and brutality of the prison since being transferred there in March. The experience of being incarcerated there, she said, was like "standing between four walls of stone and shouting".
She also described both the physical and psychological torture to which women prisoners had been subjected, relating the story of an Afghan woman who escaped from the Taliban with her child. In the prison, the woman’s child has been labeled a “bastard," adding yet another layer of humiliation to her unjust confinement.
Gholian tweeted that female prisoners faced “double pressure” because they are women, adding that the law on compulsory hijab was being enforced in Bushehr Prison at a level beyond what is standard in the Iranian prison system. Prisoners, she said, were required to wear a full chador in queues, in corridors, and at all times while out of their cells. Essentially, she said, women prisoners were being forced to cover themselves completely all day except when in bed.
The activist also gave a horrifying account of women inmates being sexually abused by prison guards. She said these violations were actually being coordinated by the prison warden, who had allegedly “presented” women convicted of financial crimes to prison officials and forcing them to perform sex acts with them.
Gholian confirmed that she had reported 20 cases of serious violations to the prison authorities, in writing, but had so far received no response.
Among the incidents she documented were sexual health examinations being carried out in front of other prisoners, beatings, quarantine, torture, assaults, no access to telephone calls, and the cancellation of visits and of leave.
These derelictions of duty were regularly being used as punishment, she said, if prisoners complained or protested against the deplorable conditions. "In the dungeon of Buhshehr,” she wrote, “any disobedience or defiance of the cruel and inhuman orders of the prison administrators leads to being further and further crushed in this filth, tantamount to becoming a faceless person without a voice.”
Sepideh Gholian has previously reported on the disappearance of an unnamed Arab woman prisoner, as well as the conditions in Sepidar Women’s Prison in Ahvaz, Khuzestan. First arrested in September 2018 for covering a workers’ protest at the Haft-Tappeh Sugarcane Factory, she has recorded her observations and experiences of her time in detention ever since, in both narratives and illustrations.
Tilapia Sucks the Blood of Hur al-Azim, Gholian’s 19-chapter memoir of her time in custody at Ahvaz Intelligence Detention Center and Sepidar Women’s Prison, was published by IranWire in English and Persian last year. As well as helping expose the contemporary face of oppression in Iran, Gholian’s narratives tell the stories of Iran’s forgotten women prisoners, whose fates would otherwise have been kept in the dark.