by Andrew Gelfand
Freedom is such a subjective word that a lot of people in the Western world have no concept of the liberties they have. But some people experience oppression that most couldn’t begin to fathom.
Marina Nemat, author of the memoir Prisoner of Tehran, knows what it feels like to be persecuted for simply being. Having grown up a Christian in Tehran, Iran, she was attending a Zoroastrian high school when the Ayatollah Khomeini took power in the early 1980s.
With Iran experiencing a religious revolution, Nemat was one of the first in her school to speak out against the replacement of qualified teachers with young members of the revolutionary guard under control of the Ayatollah. After causing a school-wide strike and starting a school newspaper protesting the Islamic changes, Nemat was put on a blacklist of people to be watched for not submitting to the new protocols Iran was facing.
On Jan. 15, 1982, at the age of 16, Nemat was arrested at her home and taken to Iran’s notorious Evin Prison.
“Being arrested was really like watching a movie. It was like I was watching this happen to someone else, it wasn’t really happening to me,” Nemat said. “Now I understand that I probably entered a state of shock that just kept on going.”
Once at Evin Prison, she was blindfolded and led to a room where she was questioned about a separatist that she had met only once. When she told the guards she didn’t know anything, she was led into a hallway full of other prisoners like herself.
When the guards returned for her, Nemat was led into another room and placed on a bed. She was then tied up.
“Because I have very small bones, they realized that my hands would come out of the cuffs. So they put both of them into one cuff, and just that… that metal digging in your bones. I screamed. And that was when I realized… oh, this is really, really bad,” Nemat said.
“But once you are tied up and they are beating you, there’s nothing you can do.”
Later, when she went to the cells, she realized that the number of people coming in to the prison was much more than the prison could hold. Because she was perceived to have lied in her interrogation by withholding information, she was sentenced to death.
Nemat and a group of girls were blindfolded and marched outside on lashed feet. After walking outside for a long time, the girls arrived at a large, empty field with wooden stakes in the ground. Their blindfolds were removed and they were tied to the stakes.
At the last minute before the execution a guard that had arrested Nemat the previous night, Ali Moosavi, drove up with in a car. He whispered orders to the commanding officer in charge of the execution, untied Nemat and threw her in to the back of his car.
Having no idea what was going to happen to her next, Nemat was more terrified than ever. She was taken back to Evin, processed and sent to a place known as 246, the women’s section of the prison.
Four months later, Moosavi returned and told Nemat that she had to be his bride. He forced her to convert to Islam and released her from 246 for a short marriage and honeymoon, where he repeatedly raped her.
About 16 months after they married, Moosavi was assassinated. Having grown close with Moosavi’s family, Nemat’s father-in-law secured her release from prison in March of 1984.
Nemat went home to live with her parents, but being a political prisoner in Iran at that time was a very taboo topic and her parents refused to talk about her experience with her. So she tried her best to just put it out of her mind.
A few years later she secretly married her Christian boyfriend, Andre Nemat. The marriage was outside of her now Islamic religion and she was arrested and sent back to prison for another stint.
In 1991 Nemat was able to escape to Canada, but was still haunted by her time in Evin. After the death of her mother, Nemat experienced a mental breakdown where she realized she was still a prisoner of her experience.
“If I had discussed it since the very beginning, that need [to psychologically deal with Evin] would have worn out. But it didn’t, so kind of like I was a volcano that just blew. And the result was the book,” Nemat said.
However, even that didn’t give her all of the freedom she was seeking. She received a harsh response from some of the Iranian community for discussing a taboo cultural issue in such a public forum.
“Iranians feel this is dirty laundry and you don’t hang it in public,” Nemat said. “Maybe if it had changed, and maybe if this was an issue of the past it would be easier to discuss. But it’s not.”
Evin Prison still stands in Iran today, one of the most notorious prisons for mistreatment of political prisoners and execution without reason.
While the Western world is preoccupied with the economic hardships and unemployment rates that many feel is stealing their freedoms, it’s a world better than what some are being forced to live through.
In what many feel is a time of trials and tribulations, it’s important to never forget that things could always be much, much worse.