Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Roxana Saberi and the women of Evin Prison

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

As I start to write this, I keep feeling I should apologise for getting too serious. This blog was started as a light-hearted foray into all things that might be of interest to women. There were recipes for Charlotte potatoes, diversions into ballroom dancing or the nature of fame, adorable snapshots of small people in Easter bonnets. There are pictures of my dogs, for heaven's sake. I allowed myself the occasional rant, with one eye firmly on the self-indulgence police. So today, when I am going to hit you with a post that contains not one ounce of levity, I have a tremor of alarm. Shall I finally go one step beyond, descend into po-faced how can you laugh when the world is so oppressed self-righteousness, and lose every single one of my loyal readers, whom I cherish so much? And why is it that I even think this might be true?

The whole point of Backwards was that it celebrated the fact that women have the alluring ability to turn from profound to frivolous on a dime. It said: there will be no putting of the ladies into boxes, thank you so very much. You may enjoy deconstructing great eyeshadow disasters of our time with just as much vigour as you bring to the ethics of waterboarding. And yet, and yet. For some reason, I still want to say - forgive me. Perhaps it's not a gender thing at all; perhaps it is because I am British, and I have been taught all my life to do anything in my human power not to grow earnest and dull. Now I must close my eyes, take a deep breath, and risk both. But then, it's not really the end of the world, is it? It's not being locked up after a secret trial with no explanation.

So - As if the story of Roxana Saberi were not strange enough - from illicit wine drinker to international spy - now it seems that her entire case may be part of some labyrinthine political grandstanding within Iran. Commentators can only guess at what the real endgame is: it's hardliners rattling their sabres, it's a massive double bluff on the United States, it's a test of the novice President Obama. Sometimes, in moments of despair, I start to think it's just that the Iranian courts really love locking up women. There seem to be tiny green shoots of hope: an appeal has been allowed, Ahmadinejad has, for reasons of his own, made a vaguely conciliatory statement (before going off and bitch-slapping Israel at the UN), a Nobel Laureate has joined the defence team. We still do not know how this will end.

Here is what we do know:

Delara Darabi was sentenced to death at the age of 17 for a murder she clearly did not commit. She is now 22 and still on death row. If her appeals are not successful, she will be executed in two months' time.

Evin prison, where Saberi is being held, is a black hole of legal limbo. Mahboubeh Hosseinzadeh, an activist who helped organise the million signatures movement to work for improved women's rights, was arrested and sent there in 2007. She reported on a hellish scene of ill, drug-addicted and suicidal women. Several of them had killed their husbands. Forced into marriage at ages as young as 13, beaten, raped, made to work as prostitutes, unable to divorce, they turned to murder.

In March, Marzieh Amirizadeh and Maryam Rustampoor were arrested on charges of being anti-government agents and sent to Evin. Bail was set at $400,000. Amazingly, their families managed to raise the money, but it was then rejected on the grounds that the charges had changed, although they were not told what the new charges were. It appears that the women's real offence was to be Christian.

In 2003, Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was incarcerated in Evin prison for taking photographs just outside. She died in custody. Her body showed signs of extreme violence and brutal rape. Official cause of death: stroke.

This is what we know of the prison in which Roxana Saberi is being kept and the judicial system that condemned her.


  1. Isn't it odd? You can be a successful author, write a book on 21st century feminism in such a lucid and intelligent fashion that I alone am determined to buy for all my friends (add another 2 copies to the royalty statement this week!) and can step into the wide world of internet 2.0 (or whatever the hell that means), there is still a tiny part that has to apologise for being female AND AT THE SAME TIME perfectly serious and addressing an issue that demands the attention not only of women everywhere (and if i were Hillary Clinton i would be a lot more strident on this issue than she currently appears to be) but society in general. (Sorry - long and inelegant sentence). Actually women - so long the unheard voice, need to stand up and be FOR other women - but you know that. I just found your hesitation interesting. I suspect that actually many people are more interested in having a culturally divisive but globally appalling issue introduced to them by someone who can write about it plainly, without 'doublespeak' and talk of 'if you can.. then i can...' and a lot of standing about saying 'oh it's just dreadful what's happening in Georgia' (as apparently David Miliband is fond of doing). I hadn't even picked up on this story, even though i pride myself on reading all the papers online - so much good the media does. And i do happen to be a recent convert over the last year to the power of blogging as dissemination of information i didn't even know i wanted to know.

    Isn't it the case that actually - as you wrote in your post about Twitter on the same subject - that through the internet (blogging, twitter, forums, etc) pressure on such important issues can be brought to bear on the politicians whose job it is to SORT THIS OUT? I often wonder about the power of petitions, but when society as a whole is much more interactive with each other, t'internet must be the way forward.

    If the government really is tracing all our emails and blogs and whatever else, then there needs to be more of such comment to make an impression.

  2. Tania,
    Your recent posts have been simultaneously thought provoking and trenchant. Exactly what's needed to keep this issue at the forefront of debate - and, it is hoped, put increasing pressure on politicians to ACT!

    These poor women mustn't continue to suffer in silence.

  3. Jo and Nora - Thank you, thank you. It continues to astonish me that occasionally I need reassurance; perhaps it is something about being so new to the medium of the blog. But I think Jo has a fascinating point that even now, after we have come so far, women still fear being thought preachy or hectoring if they address serious political, or, God forbid, feminist issues.

    The thing I love most about this blog is that when I started it, I wanted it to be a conversation. Sarah and I conceived our book originally as a kind of conversation, and so the idea was to try and continue that online. And what has overwhelmed me is the exceptionally high quality, generosity and intelligence of the women who comment on this site.

    Thank you so much.

  4. You should never apologise (or feel that you have to apologise) for getting too serious. Crikey - you would be inhuman if you didn't feel the need for a rant at least five times a day (oh sorry that's just me). Anyway, a blog is a personal thing and you should be able to write whatever it is that you want. People don't have to read it... But, you have raised important issues and I will follow this story with interest...and if you write about your dogs then I will follow that with interest too!

  5. At any one moment, there are thousands and thousands of people in prison across the world who are there because the authorities or officials have picked on them for their own motives. Argue, push, rant, rave, and never let their existence be far off the agenda - what you are doing - and some, if not all, one day, will be free. It sounds like street-corner evangelism but it *can* work. Several years ago, I was put in prison in Liberia, West Africa, for absurd (similar) charges of espionage. And it was only because of family, friends and total strangers coming out of the woodwork and pushing, shouting, ranting, doing constructive stuff, that I got out. Important thing is just to ensure that the captors can salvage some form of honour and 'face'. So f*c* blog protocol, keep going and twitterdom and all will listen. and Roxana will be free.

  6. Maternal - what a lovely comment. And you are doing exactly what I hoped people might, which is to follow the story.

    Picasso - what an incredible story, almost a parable. I feel rather humbled, hearing it.

    Thank you both for your great support. The fear of seriousness is, I realise, the more I read the comments from my readers, absurd. I start to wonder if it is partly because I was brought up in a very unserious household. Gravest issue at home: what would win the 3.30 at Kempton Park. Childhood dies hard.

    Next week: the old university professor with dodgy kidneys who was locked up in Cuba in 2001.

  7. I'm a fairly new visitor to your excellent blog and am so glad that you have written about Roxana Saberi. An Iranian friend of mine was arrested in Tehran in the mid-1990s, locked up in solitary confinement (in a cell barely 6'x6') in Evin Prison for several months, released without charge and then immediately put under house arrest for several more months. It was a truly horrendous experience and there is nothing to suggest that that life within Evin's walls has improved since then.

  8. Fantastic post and NEVER APOLOGISE for saying things that need to be said. I wish more of us spoke out on these things that really mattered and banded together instead of worrying about that people might think we were too strident/loud/bolshy or, God forgive us, unfeminine.
    It has become, latterly, very unfashionable to talk about women's issues, as if since we were allowed to have jobs AND children in the first world, all was magically well elsewhere. But all is not well, and we need to speak up. Now more than ever. THank you


Your comments give me great delight, so please do leave one.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin