Day 2/16 of Activism Against Gender Violence: Somayeh's Testimony
Justice for Iran promotes and defends women’s rights in Iran and challenges impunity for sexual violence against women by the Iranian regime. Established in 2010 by the human rights lawyer and women’s rights activist Shadi Sadr, the organization works to raise public awareness and demand accountability for egregious women’s rights violations committed by the Iranian government.
Justice for Iran shines a spotlight on these violations and brings forward the silenced voices of women who suffer and have suffered such state-sponsored injustice. In December 2012, they will launch the first-ever comprehensive report on sexual violence and torture in Iranian prisons: Crimes & Impunity. This first of three reports will examine the way in which women prisoners were systematically subjected to sexual violence as a gender-specific means of silencing young Iranian girls and women dissidents.
Crimes & Impunity is based on the testimonials of victims, survivors and witnesses. What follows is one account - the story of a girl named Somayeh.
Somayeh Taghvaei was only nine years old. She was doing her homework when the house she was staying at was stormed by security forces looking for her parents. Somayeh was subsequently arrested. Minutes before her arrest, Somayeh witnessed a struggle between the pasdars and two of the members of the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organisation who were living in the same team house. One of the two men- whom Somayeh considered ‘uncles’- were shot in front of her bewildered eyes while the other escaped. It was said that Somayeh was so scared from witnessing the scene that she hid between the kitchen wall and the refrigerator and screamed non-stop.
As soon as she was transferred to Evin, Somayeh was interrogated. Her interrogations continued until she was released at the age of 14. Meanwhile, the nine year old girl witnessed the torture and lashing of other prisoners at the prosecution branches. All the interrogation questions were about Somayeh’s parents, Mehdi Taghvaei and Nahid Taheri, who were members of the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organisation. Somayeh was not the only member of the family taken hostage. The security forces also took Hassan Taghvaei, Somayeh’s uncle, into custody. Two years after Somayeh’s arrest, she came face-to-face with her uncle at Branch 7 of Evin Prison. In a written narration of this meeting, Hassan Taghvaei writes:
Believe me when I say that the weight of the world hanging on my shoulders would have paled in comparison to what I was witnessing. I was completely confused. I stood there staring at her dumbfounded, without the ability to even step an inch forward. My niece held me tightly and kept calling my name. Finally, I knelt and hugged her. My throat was stuffed. I squeezed her, took her scent in and kissed her. I was bewildered as to what she was doing there…[t]hey could not find the mother and in order to force the parents to return to Iran and introduce themselves to the prosecution office, they had taken a nine year old girl hostage too!
Testimony of Somayeh’s ward mates attest that she was provided with no educational opportunities in prison. She was instead put to work at the women’s sewing workshop. The sewing machine was as big as her because she was so tiny. She learned to be a seamstress and to sew. This is how she spent her days.
Initially, she established close relations with some of the female prisoners who either had children or were her mother’s age. However, after one of those women to whom Somayeh was very close was taken to be executed, Somayeh didn’t eat for three days. Somayeh’s ward mates decided that in order to prevent further psychological damage to Somayeh’s psyche, none of the ward mates would get particularly close to Somayeh.
In her last year of detention, the prison officials asked one of the prisoners who herself had a daughter to take responsibility for Somayeh. According to the woman’s testimony, during her entire prison term, Somayeh suffered from nightly urination.
She says, “due to psychological and mental pressure she was subjected to, she had nightly urination. The first night, she came to me and said, “Promise not to be upset if I say something.” I asked what she wanted to say. She said, “I may wet my clothes at night. What would happen if I am sleeping next to you?” I said it was no problem and that would change her clothes and then take a shower.”
Somayeh had told the aforementioned prisoner that she had pigeons at home and missed them. Throughout the five years Somayeh was imprisoned, she was never allowed to be a child. The prisoner who had been placed to care for Somayeh describes her days as:
When her work would end in the sewing workshop, she would come to the ward, eat her food, pray and go back to the workshop again. At nights, she used to sit in a corner and talk to me and other girls... Even as a child, whenever the news would come on she would be all ears because maybe she would hear news relevant to her parents. When she walked and spoke, she looked like a miniature doll; she was so beautiful.
At times when she slept next to me I placed her head on my bosom. Unfortunately, in those days in the prison, people were so mixed that one could hardly trust the woman sitting next to her. There were those who were executed because of one report alone. Although she was young, Somayeh understood that and tried to keep her silence as much as possible. I seldom remember her joking or laughing… Even the games were momentary for Somayeh because after them, she would be alone. She sat at the corner of the room and would stare in silence for long stretches of time.
In 1986, when she was around 14, Somayeh was handed to the custody of her paternal aunt. After that, Somayeh’s paternal uncle accepted to be her guardian and she lived in his household.
In a letter written to her family dated April 16, 1986 and after her release from prison, Somayeh wrote:
“Dear father, if that incident had not taken place, I should have been in 8th grade. In order to make up for the lost time, I am currently studying. If I can, I would like to make up the missing classes in the three months of summer when the school is closed.”
A few years after her release, a woman came to Somayeh’s uncle’s home and asked for Somayeh’s hand in marriage for her son. Somayeh’s uncle rejected this, reasoning that Somayeh’s parents were not around. Following that incident, Somayeh and her uncle were summoned by the Revolutionary Prosecution Office at Evin Prison where Somayeh was told by one of the prosecution office’s officials that if she did not accept the marriage proposal, she would be returned to prison again.
Thus, at the age of 18, Somayeh Taghvaei was married to a man who was a close associate of certain governmental officials and had served in the Iran-Iraq war. The forced marriage resulted in two daughters.
Somayeh was in her early twenties when the doctors noticed of the presence of cancerous tumours in her body. The medical treatment received in Iran was not fully effective. Somayeh was sent to London to the care of her parents to pursue further treatment. A year later, on March 15, 1998 and at the age of 25, Somayeh lost her battle with the advanced stage of cancer in a London hospital.
She was never given the opportunity to feel secure, safe and calm enough to retell what happened to her in her lost childhood.
For more information on Justice for Iran’s pioneering and essential work on gender violence, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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- Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Rashida Manjoo*
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- 35 Years of Forced Hijab: The Widespread and Systematic Violation of Women's Rights in Iran