Shahrnush Parsipur was imprisoned for nearly five years by Iran's fundamentalist government without being formally charged. Kissing the Sword (The Feminist Press, 2013) is her account of this horrific and life-altering experience—nights blasted by the sounds of machine gun fire as hundreds of prisoners are summarily executed, and days spent debating the teachings of the Quran. The excerpt is from the second chapter, and details the early days of Parsipur's experience as a political prisoner.
On September 7, 1981, they took my mother and me to stand trial. We sat in a courtroom all day, blindfolded. We were tried separately. I remember I was acting stiff and formal. I was angry. From the way the judge was questioning me, it was clear that he knew there were no serious infractions in my record. Regardless, in accordance with Iranian tradition—based on a landlord peasant social structure—as the accused, I was expected to sit there humbly with bent back, addressing the judge as “your honor,” and referring to myself as “your servant.”
The courtroom was comprised only of a judge and a secretary. There was no defense attorney, and as far as I can remember, I was not asked any questions directly related to our case. There may have been one inquiry about the publications. Instead, the judge wanted to discuss issues such as my belief in God, man’s will, and the like. He even raised a question about incest between a father and daughter. I didn't understand the reason for this question, but I said that I knew of a few such cases and that the problem was deeply rooted in history. I mentioned the story of Lot in the Old Testament, who had sexual relations with his daughters. That night, one of the prisoners told me that several months earlier a retired prostitute had been held in the unit and questioned about various forms of sexual relations during her trial. The prosecutor’s behavior had been so offensive that the poor woman had felt greater shame and degradation than she had ever experienced in a lifetime of prostitution.
When the time came for our bread-and-cheese lunch break during the trial, they had me sit in the hallway next to a girl who was lying on the floor. Earlier that day, she had sat near me and asked one of the guards to bring her jacket which she had left behind in a court room; she was cold. When the guard brought the jacket, he quietly whispered, “Farideh, Farideh, what have you done to yourself?” The girl did not answer. And then, at lunch, she was there lying next to me. I peeked at her from beneath my blindfold and she laughed at me. Then she asked, “How are things in the unit?” Without knowing which unit she was referring to, I said, “All is well.” She said, “My name is Farideh Shamshiri. Say hello to everyone for me.”
That night I told my roommates about her and they all became quite excited. I learned that Farideh had been brought to the unit in the winter, and to keep herself busy she painted, using supplies provided by the unit administrator, who had noticed her talent. Every morning and evening she went to the unit office to pick up and return the art supplies and soon these frequent visits became a subject of discussion among her fellow inmates, and rumor spread that Farideh was cooperating with prison officials. Given the seriousness of the accusation, to prove her loyalty to the leftist prisoners, Farideh stopped painting and participated more and more in antigovernment slogan chanting, which the authorities were trying to prevent. The end result was that one day the guards raided the unit, beat everyone severely, and transferred Farideh to solitary confinement. They also installed a speaker in front of one of the windows and started broadcasting their own slogans and readings from the Quran at earsplitting levels. According to those who knew, even in solitary confinement, Farideh continued to chant slogans and to write them in pencil on the walls.
The day after I saw her, reports of Farideh Shamshiri’s execution appeared in the newspapers. The news shocked everyone. Those in the unit who had pushed her toward her death by spreading rumors about her were devastated.
But an hour had barely passed after we learned of Farideh’s death when the sound of laughter again echoed everywhere. The prisoners were still at an age when joyfulness is one’s natural state of being. Even though the unit was becoming more crowded, with three or four people added every day, the young girls rarely complained. Many of them knew each other and were happy to see one another again—even if it was in prison. Or they instantly made friends and tried to get news of the world outside.
Often I would watch as the prisoners who were called in for questioning left the unit. I could easily tell whose case was more serious by the demeanor of her friends—they would follow her to the door with solemn faces and anxious expressions. Being young and inexperienced, many of them had divulged all their group’s secrets to each other, and now they were worried about what would be confessed to under torture.
Around the time of my trial, a few people arrived in the unit whom others called tavvāb—“repentant.” They were members of different political groups who had confessed to all manner of actions and deeds and had promised to cooperate with the authorities. In exchange, they were granted certain liberties and worked as guards in the units where they were being held. The tavvābs were generally cruel and ruthless and were feared and despised by the prisoners. Their arrival ignited new tension and anxiety in the unit.
* * *
A few weeks passed, and I was still waiting for the outcome of my mother’s and my trials. The population in the unit continued to increase and it became impossible to walk in the courtyard. There was less food. The morning piece of cheese was getting smaller and there were no visitors to bring money so that people could buy food from the commissary to make up for the shortage. Occupants of certain rooms claimed they were given less to eat than the others and it soon became apparent they were not lying. The Mujahedin were under greater pressure than the other groups. Day by day, their numbers increased, their food decreased, and a sense of constant fear and apprehension came to reign over them.
The number of prisoners being physically tortured was increasing. Many were black and blue all over. I remember Shahin from those days, a woman with dark olive skin, who was affiliated with a leftist group. One day they took her to the public prosecutor’s office and gave her a severe beating. When she returned to the unit, I asked her to show me her bruises. She laughed and said that because of her dark skin her bruises didn't show. The next night, I saw Shahin in the bathroom, cheerfully chatting with a friend. She had been interrogated again that day, and it seemed she had escaped danger. But two days later, she looked worried and upset. She had been summoned to the public prosecutor’s office again. The following afternoon, we found her name among those who had been executed. I asked one of her friends what Shahin had been accused of. Her friend said she had been caught driving a car with a printing machine in its trunk. On the last day of her life, Shahin had told her friend that she thought they were going to execute her because the interrogator had touched her breasts; to her this meant that she was going to be put to death.
In truth, I never heard prisoners talk about sexual abuse. But it was rumored that on their final night, young girls sentenced to death were wed to the guards so that they wouldn't be buried as virgins. It was said that if a girl was buried while still a virgin, she would lure a man to follow her to the grave. My only proof that this might have been happening were Shahin’s last words. I did know a couple of other prisoners who had gotten close to having sexual relations with the guards, but in one instance it was a prisoner’s strategy to stop her torture, and in another, deeply affectionate feelings had developed between an interrogator and a prisoner.
Reprinted with permission from Kissing the Sword: A Prison Memoir by Shahrnush Parsipur and published by The Feminist Press, 2013.