Iranian-Canadian author and torture survivor Marina Nemat spoke to University of Manitoba students Nov. 1, 2013, about how she ended up a political prisoner, and how sexual violence is used against women as a means of political control. Nemat was born in Iran and had a fairly normal childhood. She has memories of hitting the beach in her bikini with her friends, listening to music on their boom boxes. Then at 16, after the best summer of her life, she found herself speaking out against the Iranian government’s imposition of religious law. Before the revolution, schools were free and women could become whatever they wanted: doctors, lawyers, judges, or the prime minister.
Nemat recalls coming home after the summer of 1978 and seeing tanks in the streets. Her parents explained that there was a revolution going on against the current king. Simply put, people were sick of living in a dictatorship and wanted a democracy. The outcome of this revolution was an Islamic Republic, however, no one really knew what an Islamic Republic would look like. Everything looked the same, but it wasn’t. Nemat said “we went to school and the principal wasn’t there… She was executed. Everyone who was a part of the [former] government was being killed. See, revolutions just keep going and this was a cultural revolution. It kept moving and continued to take lives.”
The new laws of the country were based on men being valued more than women. Things began to change little by little: “People don’t notice.” Nemat explains that this is not just something that happens in dictatorships and ultimately it is the young people who notice. It was as if fun had suddenly been made illegal. “If [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper suddenly made fun illegal, do you think I would care? No, I am old and work.” Young people have the time and energy to speak out and make change. Just because Canadians live a democracy doesn’t mean we are safe from losing our liberties, she said. “If you think because you live in a democracy you are safe from Hitler, think again.” She asked the class if anyone understood how three major bills passed in Canadian Parliament before the summer would affect their lives: “See, we don’t maintain democracy, we ignore democracy.”
Nemat told the class what has happened in Iran: liberties were lost within a government democratically approved by referendum. She said the younger generation only wanted back what had been taken by the revolution: social justice. After speaking out against the Iranian government and receiving a life sentence, Nemat was forced to marry her torturer. After learning that he too had been a political prisoner, she started thinking about this “monster of violence.” Eventually, her so-called husband was assassinated and his family fought for her release. To hear more about her story, and the need for human rights advocacy, watch a video of Nemat’s talk.
What is the process to get people out of the prisons?
The more noise that is made about a particular prisoner, the more likely you are to get that person out. You become a pawn in the political game. When something is needed from the West, that is the time they will usually give a little and you’ll see a prisoner released.
What are the gender dynamics of political prisoners and torture?
There is a gendered nature to politics, but it’s complicated. In Iran, a woman is worth half of what a man is – this is written within the law. I grew up in a society where women were equal to men. When the revolution happened, I went to protests where there were more young women than men. Now there are fewer women political prisoners then men. The prison block I stayed in, for example, has been changed into a men’s block. Why? Because now these young women today, they’ve lived under this new law. There has become a cultural side to this: “Well I am a woman, what do you want me to do?”
We’ve also had a lot of reports of sexual violence in these prisons and women are too scared of that to speak out. Fewer women are being released because fewer women are in the prisons due to cultural factors that have put them off speaking out.
You mentioned you have kids. How do you deal with your experiences with your kids?
You can’t pretend this doesn’t happen. The question is what my kids will do about it. At the end of the day, they have to decide what they are going to do with the information.
What are the solutions?
Look around you. Check your good intentions. The Middle East is a war zone. If you are from the West, your army has been there and innocent people are dying. The people see you as an enemy. In order to make a difference, you must really understand the culture. Think about it this way: you are basically entering an ecosystem you don’t belong in. Instead, look around you here in Winnipeg. There is poverty and discrimination that exists. Use your talents within your community and choose something small. That’s the only way to make the world a better place to live.
Shortly before Remembrance Day, Nemat reminded the audience that Western invasions do not help Middle Eastern countries solve their problems. War in response to war turns a country into a pressure cooker that will eventually explode, she said.
To those who fear Nemat’s criticism of Islamic regimes will feed racism, she reminded the audience that when you speak out, you cannot control how people respond. Nemat strives to speak with sensitivity, logic and respect, but she will no longer be silenced. “I have to say what I have to say.”