Sepidah Gholian never intended to be the voice of the voiceless, or to tell other people’s stories of harassment. But she witnessed so much intimidation and injustice in the prisons of Sepidar and Gharchak, and she knows more than most people what it is like for women in these prisons. So she has told their stories, and raises awareness of Arab women prisoners in Sheiban Prison as well.
Witness or narrator, what 23-year-old Sepideh Gholian has gone through over the last 18 months has become part of Iran’s contemporary history: From the labor protests of the Haft Tappeh workers to the women of Ahvaz to the role Iranian media and its employees play in forcing people to confess.
Gholian was sentenced to five years in prison for her part in the Haft Tappeh Factory workers’ protest movement. Unlike others in the case, she was not pardoned. Instead, a week after being released on bail, she was transferred to Evin Prison.
While on bail, Gholian wrote a book, Tilapia Sucks the Blood of Hur al-Azim, about her detention at the Dezful Intelligence Detention Center and Sepidar Women's Prison in Ahvaz and her encounter with Arab women in the prison. These accounts were particularly shocking because very few people knew about these women and what they had been through.
You can read the book, which IranWire has published in its original Persian.
Before Gholian returned to prison, IranWire had the opportunity to speak to her about her book and her experiences.
Tilapia Sucks the Blood of Hur al-Azim is a collection of your experiences and your illustrations of interrogations and arrests in Sepidar Prison in Ahvaz. What does the name tell us about the book?
Tilapia Sucks the Blood of Hur al-Azim is a metaphor about emptying Khuzestan of its indigenous components. Hur al-Azim and the rest of Khuzestan's waters have dried up or been taken over by imported fish and herons for years. Although this may have happened quite by accident, the metaphorical truth cannot be ignored. This can be said about the labor force, the cultural, linguistic and historical characteristics, and even the demographic make-up of Khuzestan. The name should not be considered as a news claim or statement, it is an indirect reference to the countless discriminations committed against Khuzestan, of which only one is mentioned in the book.
The central theme of the book appears to be torture and forced confessions, even when other subjects are being discussed. You have experienced psychological and physical abuse. What makes the torture of Ahvazi Arab women different?
My experience of forced confessions is very different from that of Arab women in Ahvaz. To annoy me, interrogators sometimes focused on this issue. For example, five years before my arrest, I described in an online post a person who had collected garbage on the day of Ashura. The interrogators pointed to my comment and constantly pressured me, saying that I meant that people should collect garbage instead of mourning, and that by doing so, I intended to distract the public.
In the case of Arab women in Ahvaz, the practice was quite different. Imagine an Arab woman who was forced to marry at the age of 14 and was always forced to wear a chador and a burqa, was never allowed to leave the house and was illiterate. This woman’s world is, more than anything, her children. Such a person, whose life is tied to the lives of her children, is separated from them, deprived of the right to contact and meet with her children. In such circumstances, she is pressured by various tactics to confess.
While out on bail, Sepideh Gholian produced a book about prison, and about some of the women she met while incarcerated
And the tactics and psychological torture break these women's spirits?
Yes, this often happens. Several Arab women were pregnant at the time of their arrest, including Sakineh Segor, Elahe Darvishi, and Somayeh Hardani, and one of them miscarried her child because of the pressure. Most of these women were detained with their families, meaning they had no supporters outside the prison, or if they did, they were rejected by them. From the Islamic Republic's point of view, being a woman is a crime anyway, so think about what the situation is like for an Arab woman who is probably Sunni as well.
Sahba, another of these women, was taken to Tehran in a van with 10 men from Ahvaz and returned the next day. She was deceived and told that if she said the things they wanted her to say in front of the camera, they would take her to her husband. Before this, she was beaten and tortured with a Taser and a cable. She was detained a week after her marriage. Imagine the pressure this woman was subjected to when she was forced to say in front of the camera that her husband is a member of ISIS member and a Sunni separatist.
A very young 19-year-old woman, whom no one apart from her husband had every seen not wearing a burqa, was put in front of a camera after stylists put make-up on her at a villa in Tehran.
Sahba said she had to narrate several different scenarios in front of the camera according to the interrogators' wishes so that they could choose later which one would fit into the final project.
Among these women you met, were any of them arrested in connection with the attack on a parade in Ahvaz on September 22, 2018?
Yes. Sakineh Segor is an Arab woman who originally went to Turkey with her husband for infertility treatment. After being in Turkey a while, Sakineh and her husband divorced. Shes married another man, and became pregnant. During her pregnancy, she went to Iran to visit her family. She was stopped at the airport, and told she had been involved in the September 22 attack.
She was told she was being detained so that the authorities could gather information about her ex-husband. She was held at the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit’s detention center for a while, then transferred elsewhere. After a while she was transferred to Sepidar Prison in Ahvaz. This woman’s suffering forced her to confess to everything.
Your account of these women is quite different from the way they are portrayed in Iran’s official media, which is as ISIS members.
Yes, I saw these women up close and lived with them. They have the right to a transparent trial, the right to visit and contact their family, and to have a lawyer. Consider an Arab mother who has just had a baby, is still breastfeeding, and has tried anything just so she can breastfeed her baby, but she is not allowed. Or take Makieh Nisi, who had been beaten by her husband Aref before her arrest. She was arrested so authorities could find out where Aref was. What was this woman punished for?
You described how authorities used these women’s names to target them and accuse them of criminal activity.
Traditionally, Arab women often have other names within the family environment besides the name on their birth certificates. Security agencies have sought to link these names to the names of organizations. For example, in my own case, because I wore a lot of floral dresses, a lot of people called me Goli [flowery]. They insisted that this was a secret name for an organization. This is even more bizarre and more painful for Arab women. They call each other by their children's names, such as Umm Farooq, Umm Yasri, and so on. Zahra Hosseini, who had a son named Farooq, was arrested and tortured to death on her first day of detention by agents forcing her to tell them her nickname. She did not even know what the nickname was. She learned that they meant Umm Farooq.
How have agents used these women’s religious beliefs against them, and as reasons to arrest them?
The "crime" committed by Sahba, Kholoud, and Zahra Hosseini was that they had set up a Telegram group for their religious activities. They used it to organize recitations of the Koran and religious ceremonies.This constituted a crime for the interrogators because they think that an Arab woman should stay at home and be beaten. Otherwise she is suspicious.
Some of these women were arrested and targeted because of their husbands, and often agents wanted to use them to find their husbands
Yes, in some cases, women were taken hostage so that their husbands would surrender or so the authorities could find their husbands and arrest them. One of these women was Makieh Nisi, whose son's name was Qusay. They beat her several times for naming her son after Saddam's son. Makieh would say this is a beautiful name in Arabic and did not know that Saddam had a son with that name. They told Makieh why they thought her son had a hard time understanding Persian, which they considered to be a crime. Makieh’s family lived in a poor area of Ahvaz that did not have proper schooling. She was in custody for a long time without being interrogated. She had even kissed her interrogator’s feet so he would question her."What is my husband’s role in this terror?" The interrogators replied, "We don't know. You tell us. For example, say he brought a bag of guns home."
Political and security pressures on the Arabs of Khuzestan appear to have intensified after the attack on the military parade on September 22, 2018.
The amount of repression and harassment of Arabs in Ahvaz increased tenfold. Those murders were condemned by all of us, and I have said that before. But one has to ask: how could people in their 20s have carried out such a big job? How did Hassan Darvishi, who was released two weeks before the incident after being tortured and was supposed to be under surveillance at the time, take part in the operation? Why were no bodies handed over to the families? Also, it should not be forgotten that this happened right after Hassan Rouhani made gave a speech in which he said, "We are victims of terrorism."
We know that two people who took part in the attack survived. Where are they? We know that Somayeh Hardani saw her husband's body at the Guards Intelligence Unit detention center, which led her to miscarry her child. It is rumored that all of this has been an excuse to call all Arab cultural activists separatists and members of ISIS.
Arab activists also say many people not linked to the attack were arrested in an effort to frighten the community.
Our arrest also took place not long after the September 22 killings. At the same time as our arrest, many people were detained at the Ahvaz Intelligence Office and were constantly tortured. We heard the tortured people being forced to admit that they were involved in the operation, while many did not know what "operation" meant. The Ahvaz Intelligence Detention Center is actually more like a torture chamber.
I witnessed a young Arab man being tortured for 20 days to make him admit that he was involved in the operation. They were tortured so much they would admit anything: they are terrorists, they are separatists, and they are members of ISIS. Papers later released for a so-called documentary claimed that Sahba Hamadi intended to poison the food of a convoy of Shia pilgrims traveling from Ahvaz to Iraq. Sahba's only crime was that she was an agricultural student.
You were arrested during that time, but you are not an Arab and you are not known as an ethnic activist.
Those of us who were arrested during the workers' rallies — everybody witnessed that we had our share of pressures. We were told that, with our trade union activities, we were distracting authorities from protecting the security of the country. I wasn't even properly aware of the news of the attack [in Ahvaz]. I was interrogated for five days, and I filled out 50 pages about why I did not react to this incident. In their view, non-response meant agreement. Now think about the pressures that the Arab women, who were already treated as suspects just because of being Arabs, endured.
Very little information has been provided about Arab women prisoners in the media and by human rights organizations that focus on Iran. What do you think are the reasons for this lack of attention?
Part of this indifference is due to ignorance and part of it is completely intentional. No names or photographs of these women have been found so far. But in my book, names and pictures are published. Human rights activists need to work, they have to try to get a lawyer for them and go to Sepidar Prison to represent them. Imagine: because of several news pieces published about the Sahba Hamadi’s condition, this led to her being granted bail.
Informing people can make an impact. Because a non-Arab person — not necessarily me — published news about Sahba, her father publicly stated that his daughter needed bail and asked for everyone's help. Sahba told me that the media knows about what they have been accused of and so find it easy to ignore them. It is only through sharing information that the taboo of talking about Arab prisoners and the stereotypes about them can be broken. I hope this book is a small step on this path.
Your book talks about political prisoners, but also about ordinary prisoners too. Can you say a little about this?
Yes, this book focuses on non-political and non-Arab prisoners as much as it deals with Arab and female political prisoners. Khadijeh and Ebtesam are not political at all, but they are present everywhere in the book. Nessa, Somayeh Shahbazi, and Mina Khayyat are not Arabs. I believe that non-political prisoners are discriminated against in various ways. For example, most of the prisoners killed in the recent incidents at Sepidar Prison were not political and were [from the] Lor [ethnic group].
As someone who was in Evin prison and will continue to be imprisoned in Evin prison, I can say that one day water was cut off and there were protests and the problem was solved. But in Sepidar Prison, water was cut off for two weeks and no one cared. Of course, I do not mean that they do not discriminate in Evin Prison too, but the discrimination in Sepidar is not comparable to other places. A woman in Sepidar Prison is deprived of even the smallest rights. She is not even allowed to see her husband for religious reasons, with her children. Such a thing is impossible in Tehran prisons. Sakineh Segor's child was called an ISIS member before she was born, simply because her mother was facing security charges in a non-transparent and unfair trial, and had been in temporary detention for two years.