As a Woman and Political Prisoner of Iran

In the 1980's, Iran's fundamentalist government took many political prisoners from those who supported the old monarchy, or advocated greater freedoms. The author is one woman who was imprisoned for her beliefs.

| April 2014

  • Former political prisoner and author, Shahrnush Parsipur is known for speaking out against abuse and her defiant portrayal of women’s sexuality.
    Photo by Fotolia/Sylvie Borchard
  • "Kissing the Sword" is Shahrnush Parsipur's moving account of her time as a political prisoner, jailed by Iran's fundamentalist government in the 1980's.
    Cover courtesy The Feminist Press

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.

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