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Rape and the Republic: Iran's Victims Speak Out

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All is not well in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

For some time now, even its own ranks have turned against it. Perhaps none more so than cleric Mehdi Karroubi, whose most public split happened in 2005 when, among others things, while campaigning for the Presidential election, he paid a visit to prisoners in several political prisons and later publicly accused the Supreme Leader and his son of fraud when he lost the election to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Karroubi's defense of Iranian political prisoners took a new turn this week as he came under fire for publicly stating what for decades has been public knowledge in Iran: The systematic rape of political prisoners as a means of permanently disabling them from society, let alone from political activity.

Nearly one month after the Huffington Post drew attention to the systematic rape of Iran's opposition protesters and prisoners, word is coming out that opposition leaders in Iran are finally chiming in. In an open letter to cleric and fellow opposition leader Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Karroubi stated that "a number of detainees have said that some female detainees have been raped savagely...young boys held in detention have also been savagely raped."

Karroubi, himself twice the Speaker of Parliament, has been denounced by the current Speaker, Ali Larijani, for fabricating lies about the growing number of testimonies from survivors of this type of rape. Larijani responded to Karroubi's calls for an investigation by stating that an investigation has taken place in [the now-closed] Kahrizak and Evins prisons and that "no cases of rape and sexual abuse were found."

Later last week, a semi-official spokesperson for the Supreme Leader -- newspaper editor Hossein Shariatmadari, who is personally appointed by the Leader himself -- suggested in an editorial in the Kayhan newspaper that the "main aim of the [Karroubi] letter is to denigrate Islam [and] the revolution" -- a curious statement which, by associating systematic rape with the state religion, seems a denigration of Islam in itself.

Shariatmadari went on to seemingly threaten any victim who may want to come forward with their story. "If [Karroubi] does not show any evidence, which he will not have and will not present, he should be punished without any reservation," Shariatmadari wrote, touching on the heart of the matter: The fact that very few victims of this abuse will actually come forward and openly admit to what happened to them in time for a medical examination to demonstrate its validity.

As in many cases of sexual violation, the victim must shoulder the burden of proof -- a task that is significantly more burdensome in Iranian society because of its already inflated attitude toward sexuality in general.

"When in a society sex in itself is considered a sin, it is no surprise that these rape victims are keeping silent, sometimes not even telling their own families," says Shima*, a young woman whose own friends have returned from detention "in a condition that can be called a living dead." According to Shima, "In the traditional views of Iranian society, a young woman who has been raped can never be touched again and a young man who has been raped is considered impotent. They are doomed to a life of solitude either way."

Now, Karroubi -- who was also a vetted candidate for President in this year's election -- has addressed the one name which has come to symbolize the brutality of the systematic rapes of prisoners in post-election Iran: Taraneh Mousavi.

She is reported to have been gang raped so brutally that she was hospitalized with severe injuries to her anus and her womb, died in hospital and then had her body burned before it was returned to her family on the condition that they silently bury her and never speak of what happened to her.

The publicity surrounding Taraneh's story has not been lost on the Iranian government.

In a continuation of the government's efforts to refute the systematic sexual violation of the protesters and prisoners, shortly after Karroubi's pronouncements about prison rapes, the official state broadcaster produced a news segment last week in which a man presented as the head of the National Birth Registry (a man later outed by some observers as a senior state security official) announced that in all of Iran's over 67 million population, in which Mousavi is one of the most common family names, only three people exist with the name Taraneh Mousavi. The broadcast went on to show an interview with two members of the "only Taraneh Mousavi whose age corresponds with that of the Taraneh in question." The family members chuckle as they attest that their Taraneh Mousavi is alive and well in Canada.

To his immense credit, Karroubi did not back down.

In another open letter on August 16, he questioned this government broadcast and described in detail the circumstances in which this family was strongly persuaded to participate in the broadcast to discredit the numerous reports of the gang rape and murder of Taraneh Mousavi. He took exception to what he described as a "dishonest" report.

He stated in no uncertain terms that Taraneh Mousavi's story is real and "she is dead."

In reply, the government has now shut down the leading opposition newspaper which Karroubi founded, the Etemaad-e Melli (National Trust).

Nonetheless, the Taraneh Mousavi story still plagues the government -- "mainly because it's true," says Nader Sani, an Iranian living in Sweden who runs a website which includes topics pertaining to Iranian politics and was one of the early sites to bring attention to Taraneh's story. Sani states that before any information came out about Taraneh's death, an acquaintance of his in Iran whom he has known "for more than five years" and "fully trusts" detailed that a close friend, Taraneh Mousavi, is known to have been detained resulting in "serious injuries to her anus and womb" which led to her being transferred to a hospital for care.

Her death was reported shortly thereafter on the Internet by the bloggers and Internet journalists who have become the mouthpiece of those who the government has tried to silence.

"Taraneh Mousavi's story is sadly true but the government continues to take advantage of the fact that her family has not come forward like Sohrab [Aarabi's]," Sani says. "Speaking out would be a political act. You can do no worse in the Islamic Republic of Iran than identify yourself as a political activist. Sohrab's family is from a historically political family. Taraneh's isn't. It's as simple as that."

Amid new reports that Taraneh's father has now passed away following a heart attack, in her immediate family only her mother remains to speak for her, as Taraneh was allegedly an only child. According to Sani's logic, this is a risk she understandably is not willing to take.

As most Iranians know, the Islamic Republic's use of rape against political opponents is nothing new.

And it is through the immense courage and personal strength of those who have spoken up about their prison experience that this information has seen the light of day. The Internet's boundless library of human experience reveals page after page of testimonies, video-taped interviews, documentaries, and recent reports based on witness testimonies corroborating a long tradition of sexual violation in the IRI prison system.

For Iranians, before Taraneh's name came out, a few other names had come to be associated with prison rape in Iran. Ziba Kazemi is perhaps the most prominent. After the Canadian-Iranian photographer lost her life within days of her 2003 detention in Tehran's Evin prison, medical reports came out indicating that she had been raped before she died in custody. The revelation of the medical information was considered so sensitive that the doctor allegedly in charge of her care had to find his way out of the country for safety reasons.

Azar Ale-Kanan (also known as Nina Aghdam) is another name. She is one of the few victims of this policy who, after years of suffering the secret, have come out to their families and the world about what exactly goes on behind the walls of Iran's political prisons. She has lived in Europe for years, but as a teenager in the 1980s, she and her baby daughter were detained in a prison in Western Iran. A YouTube video of an interview with her on the topic has received over 100,000 hits (an English subtitled version is now available).

"I had never heard of such a thing -- the thought never crossed my mind that they would go so far as to rape," Ale-Kanan says in the interview, discussing the first time she was raped while handcuffed to her prison cell. "The interrogator [who did it] had always gotten very close to my face and body during interrogation, but until the very moment when he started unbuttoning my shirt, I didn't believe they would do such a thing."

"He told me he'd do something to me that would break me down," Ale-Kanan says, "and it did."

But while these well-known names tend to be female, more and more testimonies of male rape are making their way to the public consciousness. Babak Daad is an Iran-based journalist in hiding -- he has left his family behind as he tries to make his way to a safehaven so that he can provide not only the story of 18 year-old Mehdi's rape in the post-election prisons, but also to show the world the photographs and video he says he has which proves beyond a doubt that the rape is happening and that men and boys, in addition to women and girls are being systematically sexually violated.

In an interview with the Voice of America Persian network several days ago, he repeated the now oft-heard description of these victims of repeated gang rapes in the Iranian prisons: that they are "lumps of meat without souls." But Daad adds that these Iranians are "the heroes of Iranian freedom," suggesting that the Iranian attitude toward rape must take a turn for change -- that society must hold these Iranians up in honor, not hide them in shame.

"The goal of the rape is to isolate these people from society," Shima says, "men tend to distance themselves from society on their own, women are automatically isolated -- for them it is much worse." She describes the case of a friend of hers whose husband divorced her when he discovered that she'd been raped. "You will find few Iranians like me who have been raised and lived all their lives in Iran, and who do not feel a prejudice against victims of rape."

And what of the attitudes about the rapists? "They themselves are not ashamed of such acts -- that much is obvious," Shima says, recalling a story from a now-freed friend who witnessed the revelry of the prison rapists. "On the outside, if someone is known to be a rapist, if anything the public will be afraid of them -- but society will not be lost to them as it is for the victims."

As more and more rape testimonies become public knowledge, there is a growing hope that Iranians will not only change their government for the better, but will also change their attitudes toward victims of rape. Democracy seems inconceivable without empathy for all.

*Pseudonym. Name has been changed to protect the safety of the interviewee.