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Caskets and Rape: The Prison in Iran's Islamic Republic, a review of Chahla Chafiq's "The New Islamist Man: The Political Prison in Iran"
By George Tarabishi
Le Nouvel Homme Islamiste: La Prison Politique en Iran
(The New Islamist Man: The Political Prison in Iran)
By Chahla Chafiq
Paris, 2002, 248 pp.
This is a journey in the hell of the Middle Ages. Neither the history nor the geography is of medieval times; this hell is not Roman Europe, nor are the inquisition courts the courts of the Catholic Church.
Rather, it is Iran in the ninth decade of the 20th century, and the courts are the courts of the Islamic revolution. The time is the Khomeinian period which stretched from April 1979 when Imam Khomeini announced, "Today the government of God shall reign in Iran," to the day that leader of the Islamic Revolution died, June 3, 1989.
Imam Khomeini inaugurated this period when he boasted beforehand, on November 1, 1978, to the French newspaper Lacroix: "In the future state, there will not be political prisoners." However, several months later the Iranian prisons were full of tens of thousands of political prisoners. The authorities of the Islamic Republic had to reopen all the Shah's prisons and build additional ones. Moreover, they periodically organized killings of the prisoners to reduce the overcrowded conditions in the prisons.
According to the estimates of Amnesty International, 4,605 people were executed in 1983 alone, "bearing in mind that this number includes only the executions officially announced and excludes those unannounced." In its 1985 report, Amnesty International mentioned 6,108 new executions. In 1988, after the Islamic Republic was forced to accept the UN Security Council resolution ending war with Iraq, 2,800 to 3,800 political prisoners were executed, according to the estimates in a famous complaint letter by Imam Montaziri. Other sources estimate 4,500 to 5,000 executions in the "black summer" of 1988. The Iranian researcher Nima Berwash, who was a prisoner of the notorious prisons of Jowhardasht and Jazlahsar from 1982 to 1990, has suggested this latter number.
Readers of this book are likely to be shocked and terrified by the facts depicting the Iranian political prisons and will probably find themselves asking: "Why did Chahla Chafiq, the author of this book, choose the ambiguous title, 'The New Islamic Man'?
A woman's rape is frequently the last act that precedes her execution. This is explained by the rule in Iranian political prisons that the sentence of execution cannot be carried out if the woman is a virgin. Since there is a theological belief that if a woman dies a virgin she will go to heaven, the politically active virgin is forced to "marry" before her execution and thus to insure she will go to hell. She is forced to "marry" the hangman who will carry out her execution.
The book is not only a statistical and sociological investigation about the reality of the political prison in the first decade of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, but also and essentially a book about the philosophy of prison in Islam. Prison is the place of "repentance," and repentance is the foundation of the "New Islamic Man." The prison is not only a tool of repression, but also a laboratory or a factory to recreate the new man. The adversaries the Islamic Revolution had to confront took many forms. They were not only represented by the immediate political enemies such as the supporters of the former Shah regime and its intelligence agents, but also the "friends" who supported the Islamic revolution from different ideological positions - Communists, Marxists, democrats, secularists, feminists, nationalists, and Kurdish and Turkoman minorities. The list also includes Islamists: the supporters of Bani Sadr. This last group opposed the totalitarian tendencies of Hizballah, which controlled the country after the dismissal of Bani Sadr. Bani Sadr had been both commander of the army and president of the Islamic Republic, but his positions were terminated in June 1981 by both a decree issued by Imam Khomeini and a decision of the Islamic Parliament.
The supporters who became enemies and crowded the prisons after 1981 had to be recreated in the laboratories of Islamic "repentance." Repentance is the main concept that dominated the philosophy of political prisons of the Islamic republic of Iran.
Depending on the theological classification of a particular type of political crime, the categories of prisoners range from "infidels" to "polytheists," "evil," to "corrupt," to "hypocrite." Based on their position in this classification, their sentences ranged from prison, to prison with tongue-lashing, to prison with torture and execution. In all cases, repentance is the doorstep that every prisoner has to cross, even on his way to the execution stand, because it is a declaration and confirmation of his subordination to the holy state.
The paradox is that the confessions of the "repenters" do not help them, in most cases, to save their own skin. First, repentance is used to justify their condemnation, torture, and execution; second, it is used to destroy the resistance of other prisoners who refuse to repent; and third, it fulfills a somewhat theological function: if confession does not guarantee a prisoner will stay alive, it serves as a passport to eternal life. Without this, a prisoner's fate would surely be hell. For that reason, the extraction of repentance from the condemned, even by torture, is a good deed for the sake of the repenter, for it will help his soul in the day of the resurrection.
This is the origin of the symbolic "casket," "grave," and "resurrection" concepts in the political prison of Iran. All of these terms are names for different types of cells and collective sleeping quarters in the prison of the Islamic republic. The big dormitory is divided by wood panels into small spaces the size of a grave, actually named the "casket," where the prisoner cannot move. He can only kneel down or lay down in it as he would in a casket. Likewise, he would only leave it to go the restroom. The length of stay in the casket ranges from two weeks to two months. If the prisoner does not "repent," he is often moved to the "resurrection" cell. Resurrection is a also a term to designate collective sleeping quarters, in this case especially made for those prisoners who insist on resistance and non-repentance. The most famous "resurrections" are those of the Jahlahzar prison in Tehran, run by one of the most famous prison guards of the Islamic regime, known to prisoners as Hajj Daoud. As a matter of fact, Hajj Daoud invented the concept of resurrection. After being tortured during the day, the prisoners are submitted to a group interrogation when they are put against the wall; they are given paper and pen and asked to answer questions pertaining to the nature of the Islamic regime, the war with Iraq, and their position toward the United States, the Soviet Union, and Israel. They are also asked their opinion about the way they are treated in prison. Often the last question asked is: "Do you want to repent?"
If the answer is positive, the prisoners are asked additional information they did not give before, such as naming comrade-prisoners who are believed to be the most determined to resist. If the prisoner refuses to do so, he is sent back to the "resurrection." Blindfolded, the prisoner is put against the wall and forced for hours to listen to tapes of speeches of the leaders of the Islamic regime or to confession tapes by political opposition leaders. The prisoners are deprived of sleep for days. If they happen to collapse and fall down, they are beaten so they will get up again. This routine may go on for weeks and even months. Rada Ghafari, a university professor who spent six years in prison and left almost blind and with paralyzed feet, wrote in his memoir that not one day passed without a prisoner shouting:"Hajj Daoud, give me a paper and a pen and I will write whatever you want." Instead of resurrection some other prisoners chose suicide. . . or madness.
It remains to be said that the fate of women in the prisons of the Iranian Islamic Revolution is worse than the fate of men. It is not necessarily because women are less resistant and less tolerant to torture, but because women are considered from the theological perspective of the Iranian regime to be an element of seduction, and their bodies a place of evil and impurity. The torture of a woman's body may take the form of rape. Despite the necessity of secrecy that imposes itself in these cases, some women political prisoners have dared to speak up in their memoirs about the torture and rape they were subjected to. However most of the women either were not given the chance to talk or have chosen not to talk. In fact, raped women were often executed. A woman's rape is frequently the last act that precedes her execution. This is explained by the rule in Iranian political prisons that the sentence of execution cannot be carried out if the woman is a virgin. Since there is a theological belief that if a woman dies a virgin she will go to heaven, the politically active virgin is forced to "marry" before her execution and thus to insure she will go to hell. She is forced to "marry" the hangman who will carry out her execution.. This marriage is conducted as a legitimate and official contract which includes, among other things, an estimated dowry. This "dowry" is subsequently paid to the family of the victim; it simultaneously becomes the equivalent of an official notification that she was executed.
Translated from the Arabic by Elie Chalala
This book review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 9, Nos. 42/43 (Winter/Spring 2003)