Q&A with Marina Nemat: Author who survived Iran's Evin prison reflects on Homa Hoodfar's arrest
Author of bestselling memoir Prisoner of Tehran says 'arrests in Iran do not follow logic'
For Iranian-born, Toronto-based author Marina Nemat, hearing that Concordia University Homa Hoodfar had been arrested and thrown into Iran's notorious Evin prison last weekend was a case of déjà vu.
Hoodfar, an Iranian-born, 65-year-old anthropologist who holds dual Canadian-Iranian citizenship, was visiting friends and family in Iran, doing a little archival work on the side, when first detained last March. Iranian police didn't allow her to leave the country, and she was arrested again over the weekend.
Authorities took her to Tehran's brutal Evin prison, alleging she was "co-operating with a foreign state against the Islamic Republic of Iran." The arrest adds her to a long list of political prisoners already sitting behind its walls.
Nemat was hauled into the same prison by Revolutionary Guards in 1982. Just 16 at the time, she spent three years in Evin, enduring beatings and rape. She wrote about her experience in a best-selling memoir, Prisoner of Tehran, and closely monitors Iran's human rights scene.
She spoke with CBC News this week.
For those who don't know your personal story, tell us how you came to be in Evin in 1982 and what happened to you there.
I was born in 1965 in Tehran. Just before the Islamic revolution in 1979, I was an average 13-year-old girl who was interested in boys, the Bee Gees and partying. After the revolution, dancing, singing, wearing make-up and nail polish — among other things — became illegal. I protested the new rules at school and was arrested, along with many of my school friends. We were all sent to Evin prison. I was 16.
I had two interrogators. They tied me to a bare wooden bed and lashed the soles of my feet with a length of industrial cable about an inch thick. With every strike of the lash, my nervous system would explode. A few months later, my interrogator told me that I had to marry him or he would arrest my parents. It was rape under the name of marriage.
I spent two years, two months and 12 days in Evin and was released after my torturer husband was assassinated by a rival faction of the government. A few years later, in 1991, I made it to Canada.
How surprised were you to hear about Hoodfar's arrest, and what do you know about her work?
I have read some of her works on women in Islamic societies. Her writings are purely academic. I couldn't find anything in there that would be considered anti-Islam or anti-Islamic Republic. If anything, I think she was actually sort of positive toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. Her books are on Amazon.
I wasn't surprised about the arrest. Arrests in Iran do not follow logic — it's a roll of the dice.
You have said her arrest is related to a wider campaign against women in Iran. What do you mean?
In Iran, everything is in cycles. You get a "hardline" president or two and then you get a "moderate." The moderate Mohammad Khatami (in power from 1997 to 2005) gave women some cosmetic freedoms. His regime said: 'You can wear your headscarf a little further back and wear nail polish and lots of makeup and the morality police won't arrest you." Meanwhile, Iranian law maintains that the testimony of a woman is worth half that of a man's.
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Recently, President Hassan Rouhani's government has been on the attack against women. A few weeks ago, a few models — beautiful, young Iranian women who dared to post hijab-less photos on Facebook — were arrested. They were forced to "confess" to their "sins" on TV. Rouhani is sending a message to the people of Iran that the nuclear deal and renewed relations with the West doesn't mean more freedoms for Iranians. I believe Hoodfar's arrest is a continuation of this wave of attacks on women.
You believe the arrest has to be seen in the context of the 2015 nuclear deal, in which Iran has agreed to limit nuclear research and the West has agreed to ease economic sanctions. Explain this.
The government of Iran wants Iranians to know that the nuclear deal doesn't mean more freedom. The government of Iran has been known to take dual-citizen nationals as hostages and use them as bargaining chips in negotiations with the West.
You were arrested in the '80s by the Revolutionary Guard and imprisoned in Evin. Tell me about the Guard and the prison today.
Not much has changed. If anything, their brutality has become more sophisticated and intelligent, for lack of a better word. They have torture and intimidation down to a science. But since Canadian-Iranian photographer Zahra Kazemi's death under torture in 2003, they usually do not physically torture dual nationals, as they know it will make headlines and is very bad publicity.
Canadians likely remember Kazemi's story and her brutal death in Evin prison in 2003. What calculations is Iran making to avoid another situation like that?
They are careful, especially with the nuclear deal. They want to intimidate, which is their nature, but they know it can backfire if they go too far.
Canada cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 2012 under the former Conservative government. There's still no Canadian embassy there. How does that impact diplomatic efforts to help Hoodfar?
I was against shutting down the embassy. At the time, I was assisting Antonella Mega in her campaign for the release of her husband, Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, a Canadian-Iranian who had been put behind bars in Iran. Antonella was talking to the people at the Iranian embassy in Ottawa and there had been a little progress. That was when the Canadian embassy was shut down. Antonella and I were very upset. I believe one has to negotiate with one's enemies, but with eyes wide open. If you know the enemy and his ways well, if you keep at it with perseverance and caution, you might be able to save a life or two. It's worth the effort.
What are the best strategies for Canada and other advocates when it comes to getting Hoodfar out of prison?
Keep talking. Keep making noise about the case. Talk to our allies who have relations with Iran. There are many of them. They can help us negotiate her release. And keep talking about Iranian prisoners of conscience, all of them, not only the dual-national ones. Ask for their release at every opportunity.
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This Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity.