The pain never goes away; an Iranian refugee’s story

When the Iranian revolution happened in 1979 and the dictatorship of the Shah ended, Zohreh and many millions like her were full of hope – they yearned for freedom, liberty and equal rights for women and men.

It was not to be. Instead Zohreh endured years in jail, was lashed and tortured and saw her family and friends killed by the Revolutionary Guard of the Islamic Republic under the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Now, 30 years after fleeing Iran and gaining asylum in Britain, the memory of those times is still very vivid.

“Every night I dream about the prison, I can’t sleep well because the past hasn’t finished, because it continues. Every time I hear of someone being arrested it takes me back to the corridors of the prison, to those cells.”

Prison by cupoftea93 licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Prison by cupoftea93 licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Zohreh, now 57, sits opposite me. She is dressed immaculately in a cream hijab and beige suit, with a pot of tea between us, as she tells her story.

Zohreh was only 19 when she was arrested in Tehran in the autumn of 1981 for disobeying and protesting the fatwa the Khomeini regime had enforced declaring that all Iranian women must wear the black chador.

“They made me lie down in an open area and they started lashing me. After 15 or 20 lashes they were getting tired and another guard would take over, so I think, although they said 150 lashes, it was more than 200.

My body became kind of black. My back, my feet, my legs. They put me into a small cell with nothing. I was there for two weeks on my own.”

Eventually she was moved in with other prisoners.

“Sometimes we could hear at night big bang noises and we were thinking they were building a new prison”.

Later, it became clear that the sounds were of executions.

“Sitting and eating from a bowl, there would be four of us together and we would hear the speakers calling the names.

We knew these people had to go for execution and we had to say goodbye to them. After an hour or two hours, we were just sitting and waiting for the massive noise.

They used a firing squad. And after that, we used to sit and count how many people… each bullet noise was ending the life of a cellmate, one person, and sometimes we could count to 250.”

Zohreh and her fellow prisoners had no contact with the outside the world, except for a few newspaper clippings that the guards gave them detailing the latest round of executions. Time became an abstract concept.

“We keep you until your hair becomes as white as your teeth” one guard said. A chilling thing to say to a 19-year-old with her whole life ahead of her.

Prisoners had not only to endure cramped living conditions, little food and the ever present possibility of execution; there were also forced marriages and sexual violence carried out by the Revolutionary Guards.

The Islamic Republic has always rejected these allegations as propaganda. However, numerous former female prisoners have testified to such acts being committed. The United Nations has also said these practices were widespread in Iranian prisons in the 1980s.

Zohreh says the twisted logic behind temporary marriages for virgin girls was based on the Revolutionary Guards believing that if virgin girls were executed, then the girls would go straight to heaven.

To prevent this, the girls’ virginity had to be taken away before they were killed.

“In many cases, after a girl was executed the Revolutionary Guards would take a box of chocolates as a sort of dowry to the family. They would say;  

“Yes, we have executed your daughter but because she was virgin we had to get her a mut’a – a temporary marriage. She was married to one of our Revolutionary Guards before execution, so this a sweet for you.”

For Zohreh, recalling all these events is intensely painful. She remembers how both public and private lives were, and still are controlled; women were forbidden from singing, musical instruments were hidden, and children were urged to inform on their parents.

“In Khomeini’s time the Revolutionary Guards would ask nursery school children ‘When a man comes to your home, does your mother wear the hijab or not?’ or ‘Do you have music at home or a TV?’

“Whatever I have said, there is much more to say – there are many, many untold stories.”

Zohreh was released from prison in 1983, she married and had a daughter. In 1988 there were more upheavals.

Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed a fatwa, ordering the execution of all political activists in Iran. All past prisoners were to be interviewed again – some were executed. Tens of thousands are believed to have been killed in this new crackdown.

“One of my cousins was young – he had originally been given a five-year sentence. But when his term was up, they didn’t release him. Instead he was executed.

They called his family who thought he was being released. When the family arrived at the prison the Revolutionary Guards handed over my cousin’s belongings. My cousin’s father had a heart attack.”

Zohreh felt her life – and those of her daughter and husband – was in danger and decided to try and escape.

In September 1988 she and her family travelled to Turkey on a forged Italian passport. The plan was to head to Canada where members of Zohreh’s family were living.

But they never crossed the Atlantic. On New Year’s Eve 1988 Zohreh, her husband and daughter, landed at Heathrow and were detained by the police. Zohreh had documents showing she had been in prison in Iran; the family were taken to a detention centre.

“They took us and another young couple, and said we had to go to a detention centre and tomorrow we will interview you. I imagined I was in another prison.

But then, when we arrived, a policeman asked us, “What would you like for breakfast?

We were all put in a room with separate beds and the young couple were complaining but I said, “Look at this – it is heaven!”

Zohreh, occasionally adjusting her hijab, looks back on her life from the safety of her home and community in London. Despite everything she has been through, she still feels it is important to remember those she has lost.

 “Obviously remembering all of those cellmates, friends and families I have lost since my childhood is difficult to talk about.

They were just ordinary people but they were people who could change the lives of millions of others for good, and they were valuable. 

They are like stars, they still give light. They are still in the minds of many people.”


By Emily Algar
Edited by BBC journalist Kieran Cooke


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