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Jila Goes to Prison: Interview With an Iranian Feminist

07/17/2014 09:06 am ET | Updated Sep 16, 2014

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Jila Baniyaghoob is a well-known Iranian feminist and journalist. Incarcerated several times, she is now banned for life from practicing her profession by the Islamic Republic. I read her prison memoir, which has recently been translated into English and was delighted when she agreed to answer my questions via email.

Evin prison has a notorious reputation. People, especially activists, have lived in fear of landing there since its inception. The 209 section of Evin, reserved for political prisoners, has held so many of our revolutionaries throughout the years that it has become hallowed ground. Women of Evin: Ward 209 is an extremely readable and honest account of Jila's stay there on two occasions, one after the women's rights demonstration at Haft Tir square (June 12, 2006) and another after the trial of one of her colleagues (March 2007). I was impressed by how Baniyaghoob managed to give an account of her time there without making herself either a victim or a hero. The prison memoir even manages to keep a sense of humor and is never too heavy or judgmental, which is rare for the genre. Jila's book lifts the mystery over Evin and exposes it as a badly managed and anachronistic institution: keys to prisoners' vans are lost, blind folds never work properly, files get misplaced, and people get misnamed. I often wonder if sheer incompetence and disdain for any kind of expertise, which Jila's husband, journalist and activist Bahman Ahmadi Amouee, pointed out in one of his great articles on the economy, saves the authorities from becoming more despotic.

Do you remember the first time you heard about Evin? How did you feel when you were told that you are being taken there -- what went through your mind?

I don't know exactly when I first heard of Evin. But, I do recall that I heard the name of the prison often since early childhood. Many of our friends and acquaintances were imprisoned there, at different times, because of their ideas. I became more familiar with the name when I became a journalist and many of my friends and then myself where imprisoned there. Evin has become a second home for Iranian journalists. The day they arrested us after the women's rights demonstrations at 7th Tir Sq. I first did not believe that they would take us to Evin. When the van turned up the famous road to Evin I was both excited and afraid. As a journalist I had asked for and been rejected permission to enter the prison many times. I was excited that I would finally get to go and see the place. I thought they would keep us for a few hours and let us go and that it would be a valuable experience. But I was also very worried for my family especially my mother. Also, the book that you read is the account of only two of my stays in Evin. I returned back to Evin twice after the 2009 elections which also saw the imprisonment of my husband, Bahman. I'm now working on another book about those stays.

Why did you choose journalism as a profession? At the time did you really think that you could perform your profession in a country that has one of the largest number of journalists in prison?

I knew that journalism would be difficult to practice in Iran. But, I thought that I could overcome the obstacles. Also, they would give us hope telling us that things would get better. And sometimes under some governments it was better but, then again, there were times when things got worse. After I entered the profession I realized that being a journalist and a critic of the political authority in Iran meant that your publication could be shut down and you could end up in prison. However, I had fallen in love with journalism. I loved investigating and reporting to the people. For that love I continued. I love reporting to the people.

How did you meet, fall in love, and marry Bahman, who is still serving his sentence having been arrested during the 2009 election uprising? Do you consider him a feminist, a new kind of Iranian man? Why?

I met Bahman at a friend's gathering. He was not a journalist then. It was me who made him interested in the field. He had studied economics and knew little about journalism. He borrowed textbooks on journalism from me and taught himself. Soon he was working at a financial journal writing articles that became very popular. Bahman was arrested after the 2009 elections because of his work criticizing the economic policies of Ahmadinejad and exposing corruption. He is now serving his five year prison sentence. Many of the representatives now in the Majlis (parliament) make the same critique of Ahmadinejad's economic policies that landed Bahman in jail.

What can you tell us about what I see as a new fearlessness of post revolution Iranian women? It seem like they are less afraid of authorities than we were back in the Shah's day. Is that because they are used to arrest and interrogation? From an early age they are told how to dress and behave and find ways to circumnavigate that. Perhaps, that is what makes them tougher. Has prohibition toughened Iranian youth?

I don't think that women of the Shah's era were any less courageous. Of course, I was just a child at the time but I have heard and read accounts about the struggle of many women of that era. There is much legend around those women. One of them is Fatemeh Amini who died for her cause. There is a revealing book written by Vida Hajebi about women's struggle during the Shah's rule. I believe the increase in women's activism after the revolution is a product of their increasing awareness. Of course the huge rise in the number of female university students is also responsible for the increased socio-political awareness of women. This new consciousness is spreading daily. In the past couple of decades women activists have used group meetings, workshops and the internet to raise awareness and spread their struggle for women's rights. Of course, it has not been easy and women have paid a huge price which I discuss in my book on Evin. I think the biggest difference between women's activism during the Shah's rule and now is that women, back then, made their struggle in the political arena rather than after the revolution where women took the struggle into the women's own sphere.

In the book you engage, like former member of Majlis Mousavi-Khoeini, in very deliberate acts of civil disobedience and I believe you mention having attended a "civil disobedience" workshop. How did you learn about civil disobedience first and how prepared were you for getting arrested one day?

Running into Mr. Mousavi-Khoeini in the prison taught me a lot. I used his experiences when I was incarcerated again as well. I have also praised his kind treatment of fellow prisoners. I came to understand the concept of passive resistance and peaceful struggle after the victory of the Reformists in the presidential elections in 1997. I tried to study the subject and learned much from my reading of Gandhi, Mandela, and Desmond Tutu.

Your interaction with the guards, especially the female guards, is very fascinating. It seems like you were constantly engaged in what we, in the West, call "consciousness rising." Was that frustrating? At one point the female guard seems genuinely concerned about you, and was shocked to find out that your husband won't consider you sullied after spending time in prison. She simply can't believe it when you tell her; she seemed to find the idea of a tolerant husband as a foreign oddity. She appeared, like many men and women I have met in Iran, so far removed from feminist concerns that she seems like she comes from another planet let alone culture. How frustrating is it to try to enlighten that stratum of society? At one point she seems to hint at the possibility of rape while incarcerated. Is rape still considered worse than death in the Iranian women's psyche? We have heard from some leftists who were imprisoned in the eighties who were raped at the hand of the interrogators or secret agents. We also heard some horror stories of rape after the 2009 election uprising, Ibrahim Mehtari is one of those who was allegedly raped by IRI agents. I personally know of a woman who was raped at the hands of the Savak (the Shah's secret police). As far as you know, or have heard, where any women political prisoners raped or rumored to be raped when you were in Evin? Besides the regular and random beatings, was anyone physically tortured at Evin when you were there?

My goal was not only to enlighten my fellow prisoners and the female guards but to get to know their thinking. I wanted to know what they knew and thought about us and why, in some cases, they opposed us. I always tried to have a good rapport with fellow prisoners because I see them as victims. They are often victim of their own ignorance and sometimes they are the victims of poverty, economic injustice and cultural poverty. They, too, are women of my country and I cannot ignore them.

I rarely faced physical abuse when arrested or in prison. Nowadays in Iran, as elsewhere, physical torture has given way to more psychological methods. So white torture has replaced black torture everywhere. Long stays in solitary are one of these methods. I have never heard from any cell mates about rape nor have I seen anyone getting raped in prison. I prefer not to comment about something about which I have no knowledge.

We live in times were people have become painfully pragmatic. Heroism is not appreciated anymore. Gone are the days when a Golesorkhi became a legend. Now any form of political activism is regarded either as naive or with suspicion. You mention how your mother-in-law disapproves of your activism. Does she still? Do you feel like most Iranians or most of the women, at least the women around you and in your family, are under-appreciate your efforts?

Yes, my mother-in-law still opposes my activism. Being very old, she has a traditional view of women's roles. She believes that a woman should stay in the kitchen and cook for her husband and have many children. Of course, in the beginning it was not just my mother-in-law who opposed my activities others in Bahman's family were also unhappy about me. But that has changed now that they are more familiar with the nature and reason for our struggle they are more supportive. My own mother and sister have been very supportive and there are many others who support our struggle for equal rights. It makes little difference to me, this path I have chosen is the right one and that is why I remain focused I am not in this for praise from people.

You discuss a fifth generation, consisting of 18- to 25-year-olds, including your sister and several others who were imprisoned with you after the women's rights demonstration on Haft Tir square. It was rather heartwarming how much they cared about their University career. They were so worried about their exams which seemed to me another manifestation of this pragmatism that I see everywhere in Iran today. Iranian women are hardworking and studious -- they have made great strides in every field and are now the majority of university graduates in Iran. How is this generation different from the previous ones? Will they be able to carry the torch of women's rights in Iran?

Yes, this generation is very wise and aware. Instead of drowning in emotions and excitement they search for more pragmatic and wise methods of change.

There seemed to be real solidarity between all the women in your group. After prison or before, did you ever find that ideological nuances kept you apart? One of the problems I have with the reformist movement is that they treat the constitution and the presence of religion in the law in general, with extra care as if it's a precious glass vase. Do you ever feel like the constitution or worse the culture that produced it is really not that malleable to change and that your efforts are futile? Like the Al Qaeda solitary cell neighbors that you had in Evin who believed so deeply in your essential sinfulness that you couldn't change them! At one point one realizes that there is such an ideological abyss between "us" and "them" that no verbal argument is going to win the day. Tell me about your frustrations, with not just the authorities but with people in general. What has happened to the One Million Signature Campaign now? What are the plans for future feminist activism? Does the Rouhani presidency give you hope? Has he made any gestures or lived up to his campaign promises to women?

We have a difficult and long path ahead. In order to reach our goal we have to be serious and determined. I have not lost hope. We have to continue on this path and not expect change to come quickly. The Million Signature Campaign has achieved what it set out to achieve. The goal was to raise awareness among women. It was able to bring the question of women's equality to a broader national level and spread it among all strata of society. The "one million" is just a number.

As far as Rouhani's presidency is concerned nothing is completely clear yet. At the moment we just have an ambiance of hope. We have to wait and see if any major changes come about. There is no doubt that Rouhani and his cabinet are much better than Ahmadinejad and his crew. The Rouhani government has more experts who are more open-minded. But you have to realize that in Iran power is divided and the president doesn't control everything. I must underline that there has only been a sliver of change. Our bloggers and journalists still suffer in prison.

When is Bahman going to be freed? Has he been given the support and admiration he deserves from fellow reformists? Family?

If they don't make up new charges against Bahman he should be freed in six months after five years and four months of prison. I think many Reformists show their support according to political loyalties, Bahman was an independent journalist so he was given less attention and support.