“Roya” is how she wants to be known. She was arrested in Iran in the fall of 1982. She was released four years later and lived in Tehran for 15 months before coming to the US in early 1988. Eric Hooglund spoke with her in Washington in October 1988.
Can you describe the circumstances of your arrest?
One day I was at home alone. Four armed men in civilian clothes came looking for me. They showed me a card from the Revolutionary Prosecutor’s office. They shoved their way in and confiscated all our tapes, books, letters and other personal papers. Then they ordered me to come with them. They pushed me into their car, forced me onto the floor and took me to Evin Prison.
Were you charged with any specific crime?
I asked them why I had been brought there, and they said, “You know.” They asked me about the revolution and about my attitudes toward veiling.
After a half-hour inside the prison, I was interrogated. Then I was left sitting alone for five hours. They brought me to the special interrogation section for leftists. Evin has two main parts — the prosecutor’s building where interrogation, initial detention and judicial proceedings take place, and the general prison consisting of several buildings. The interrogation section has separate wards for leftists, for Mojaheds and for non-political prisoners. There is a separate detention center for leftists in downtown Tehran called Band-e si Hezar, one of the worst prisons in the country. People arrested by the Revolutionary Guards are brought to Band-e si Hezar. Part of Evin prison also was under the control of the Guards, although there were many administrative changes during the years I was in Evin.
In the interrogation section I was told to write all the information I had. I wrote my name, education and so on. “No, don’t write that,” the interrogator said. “Write everything you know.” I didn’t know what he wanted. I had many things in mind that I thought could have brought this problem, but I couldn’t think of anything special. I couldn’t guess what he was looking for.
When I didn’t write more, he hit me. Then they tortured me. They use the word tazir, an Islamic word for punishment. On the floor I saw plastic hoses, blood, many different sizes of shoes. I was taken to another building where they treated me worse. In the long main corridor there were many people sitting there with bloody and swollen feet. The interrogator beat me himself. The first time the men were laughing and talking while they beat me. I don&rquo;t know how long they beat me.
Did you ever figure out why you were arrested?
I tried to collect all the questions to figure out what the interrogator wanted. I realized I had been arrested because of my associations before June 1981, when students had many political relationships — democratic groups, women’s groups, leftist groups, and everybody knew each other. They wanted to collect information because sometimes information from different persons overlaps. But they eventually realized they could find no others through me.
Were you interrogated regularly?
For about six months I was interrogated a lot, but not on any regular schedule. Sometimes a whole month would pass without any interrogation; other times I would be called for several successive days or nights. After six months I was interrogated less frequently. It was not until about 18 months after my arrest that I was brought before the prosecutor’s court. During this period I went to the interrogation building at least once per month.
About one month before my court appearance, I was taken to a building with separate cells for interrogation. The interrogator had me write out everything about myself. It was with these papers that I went to court. After the court appearance I wasn’t interrogated again. But in 1985 a group of us were called before a committee that was considering reducing our sentences. They talked about our past activities and wanted to know what we think now.
Did you have a trial?
A mullah presided. It was the first time that I wasn’t blindfolded before officials. The mullah and another guy were there. Their desks were covered with papers. There was one chair on the side of the room, and I was told to sit there. The mullah read over the paper I had signed and asked, “Did you do all this?” He was interrupted by a phone call. It was personal and he joked and chatted. He left the room for a while and came back. Finally the mullah turned to me and said, “OK, you may go.” I didn’t say anything. I had already accepted all the accusations against me.
That I had associated with anti-revolutionary people, that I had leftist ideas against the Islamic Republic, that I had been seen in university demonstrations. I had argued against some charges, but this file was the final one that I had accepted.
Because it was true or because it would halt your harassment?
Something between these two. In prison you are in a very difficult situation, and it is very important to figure out how to behave, how to find a stable situation for yourself. You need to learn how to control this interrogation, how you can stop your tormentors from getting information, how you can keep other people safe and how you can escape from your situation during torture — or worse than torture, during the waiting period between torture sessions. The fear can drive you crazy. You think, “Maybe I’ll talk this time and maybe I’ll put someone else in danger.” You might be executed. That is the best outcome, because then it is finished. The problem is that you are alive, and you must find something that will enable you to survive without endangering the lives of others. You don’t have the same type of problem with information about your ideology, personality and character.
These people don’t just want information. They also want to change the way you think. You must understand, these interrogators are very crude but self-righteous. They are not ashamed of what they do. They believe they are right. They say, “We are helping you by torturing you because during the resurrection you must answer these questions to God. Now you only have to answer to us. Your punishment now can reduce your punishment after death.”
These comments make you mad. They beat you and say, “You didn’t have good influences during the Shah’s regime. We’re trying to bring you back to God. You must be broken to be brought back again.” They play with your thoughts, how you look at life. If you want to keep these safe from their eyes, from their attacks, you must somehow hide your views, not only your information.
You must believe in yourself in order to keep safe some part of yourself. But it makes you afraid. You are far from yourself, and you miss yourself, not just your parents and friends. In this way they are very successful, because they mix physical and psychological torture together. After you finish your interrogation and return to prison, every day you feel tension about what you said or somebody else said.
Were you alone in a cell?
At first I was in a cell about 6 feet by 9 feet with a sink and a toilet. These small cells were designed for one or two prisoners, but there were usually more than four of us, and sometimes mothers had their children with them.
In jail with them?
Yes, several. The children were arrested with their mothers. Four buildings at Evin were reserved for women, with a total of about 600 prisoners. In our section there were about 20 children at any time. They were always very young, ranging from newborns to three and four-year olds, once a five-year old. Some women said they were told to bring their children when they were arrested; others said they had no one to keep their children. Many women said they needed their children for psychological support. In some cases the government wouldn’t let the children leave because they wanted relatives and friends to think the women were dead.
Did you have opportunities to talk with other women?
It was difficult to talk freely. When you talk with someone about your feelings, a sense of mutual responsibility is created. But you can’t afford this in the situation we were in. So you talked about general things, romances, memories of childhood, food.
Were they leftists? Mojahedin followers?
Most of the women were not political at all, but were arrested for their associations with men who were political. Two or three in our section were monarchists. Some were there for a short time for violating hejab. The Mojahed women are difficult to categorize. They comprised the largest number of prisoners, but they were very diverse. Some of them had repented, and the others did not agree with them. I didn’t think like any of them. Their attitudes had an effect on their relations. Some of the leftists did not accept the Mojaheds at all; some of the Mojaheds hated the leftists. But all of them controlled their feelings. After a time the prisoners got to know each other better and past attitudes were less important.
When you were released were you required to sign anything?
No. But you are not completely free after being released. Former political prisoners must report every month to the revolutionary committee and be interrogated about what they think of the government and Islam.
After four years in prison, did you notice any changes in society?
There was not much evidence of destruction. Everything did seem poorer and the faces seemed sadder. People talked against the government in public — in taxis and in food lines. This was especially true of poor people, for whom life has become harder. People with money complained, too, but things were hot as difficult for them. Bureaucrats had to find a second job to make ends meet. Everything was more expensive.
The black market had not been very obvious in 1982, but when I came out of prison I discovered that the black market was everywhere. The quality of everything had become poorer. Lines at stores were longer now.
But people felt more at ease talking among themselves. You got a sense that they knew better than before who their enemy was. In 1980-1981, people were more confused. They had had a revolution and then found that the leader of the revolution was against so much that they valued in their lives. In 1980 or 1981, you would see more arguments among friends, within families, over the war, over government policies, over religious practices. When I came out of prison in 1986, everything had found its place. People now talk more easily against the government, but there was more seriousness before. Now it’s like they can’t do anything besides talk.
How would you assess the extent of popular support for the government?
I would say it’s less than 20 percent of the population, perhaps as little as 10 percent. The major support comes from the poor people in the large cities — not the workers but migrants from the villages mostly. They have no permanent jobs. Many join the Revolutionary Guards or support them. Some find a position with the government. Most were not religious before, especially the peasants who had a very simple religious faith. When they join the government, they find it is advisable to become more religious. But it is limited to those people with a position in the government and their families — not ordinary people, especially not workers, not bureaucrats, not teachers.
Are the workers especially alienated from the government?
Of course. In 1986 there were many strikes. They fired many workers, as many as 200 at one time from one factory. It was in the government’s own newspapers. Many people I knew who supported the government before no longer do so. But they don’t know what to do. They feel defeated.
Is organized political opposition within Iran likely?
I don’t think people accept this government, but they don’t see any alternative. You can hear people say, “How long are we going to let these people do these things to us?” But there is little or no support for political groups. The government keeps people off balance by attacking from time to time. In the last two years the government periodically came into the streets and suddenly arrested women or young men for dressing improperly. And they rounded up men to check if they had served in the war or had valid exemption papers. These raids seemed to occur whenever there was a setback in the war, or when international opinion was against Iran. It might be possible for this opposition to become organized.
How would you assess internal support for outside opposition groups such as the monarchists or the Mojahedin?
There are many people who say that the Shah’s period was better than what is going on now, but they don’t say that the monarchy should return. It’s an attitude like the one toward the government — distrust, passive resignation. There is no sense of doing anything to assist the monarchists. The Mojahedin have lost credibility because of their support for Iraq. And because the Mojahedin are religious, people say they would be worse than Khomeini. This is what I hear.
What about support for the left?
To be honest, there is not very much.
Does former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan retain any popular support?
People are impressed because he’s there and speaks against the government, but they don’t take him seriously. People are just tired of politics and the pressures of the past ten years. They are preoccupied with daily living. They feel insecure about tomorrow; the rest of the future is too far off.
Is Khomeini still revered as the leader of the revolution?
People now criticize him, but not by name. They refer to him as “this man.” They say “Why doesn’t this man die? It will be easier to bring down the others.” But this is careless talk, not serious.
Do people hope things might improve once Khomeini dies?
People hope so. Before, people did not know what they wanted. Now they know they don’t want what they have. The only thing people have is bread, because the government keeps it at a low price. And sometimes sugar. But cheese, meat, everything else is too expensive. That was one of the interesting things that I saw when I came out of prison. In some busy intersections young men and sometimes women sell and buy coupons. When you drive past, they say, “We have oil, we have sugar, we have meat or gas coupons.” They sell their own ration coupons because they need the money for heat or rent.
Have these conditions contributed to class antagonisms?
Rich people are against the government also, but for them it’s cultural pressure more than money. The poor people are more opposed to the government than they are to the rich people, and they are especially opposed to the rich people in the government.
Can you speak about the role of the Guards?
When I was in prison I thought that all of them were supporters of the government and had some belief in what they do. But after I was released, I had opportunities to observe many Guards. Most of them do not have an ideological attachment to this government, but they have found a position and do not want this situation to change. If this government falls, they have nothing. I have heard them talking about the different leaders in the government and discussing what they should do about factions. This is totally different from the beginning of the revolution. This is their job, not their ideology.
We read in this country about Iran being a joyless society, without movies, music, television or any entertainment.
Movies are heavily censored so that people will not see women who are not veiled, and there are some non-religious TV programs. But the quality of entertainment is very poor. Poor people go to the parks for picnics, maybe splurge on ice cream, which is very expensive. The rich have video cassettes of American and European movies. Videos are popular with the middle class, even though they are expensive and illegal to own. Many families prefer a video to a car. There is quite a black market in films.
You can get cassettes from all over the world. Once a week a man comes to your home and leaves two or three films for a fee. In 1986, right after getting out of prison, I saw three American films at the home of friends — Platoon, Room with a View and The Color of Money. Cassettes of popular American singers are also all over. When I got out of prison Michael Jackson tapes were popular and young people did breakdancing at parties.
Even alcohol can be obtained on the black market. Vodka and wine made in Iran is available through discreet channels. Many people make vodka at home, from raisins. So people have found ways to entertain themselves.