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Interview: Revolutionary Lives in Theocratic Iran
The following is an interview with S. an Iranian woman who traveled to Los Angeles for the International Women’s Day action of March 8, 2008. The interview was conducted by Michael Slate of the Red Future radio show (on Tues. 5-6 pm on KPFK FM 90.7) This interview appeared in Revolution newspaper and on the revolutionary Iranian website, 8 Mars.
S’s revolutionary experience began as a student in Los Angeles during the days when the Shah was in power in Iran (the 1970s). As the Iranian Revolution drove the Shah from power, she joined thousands of Iranian students who returned to Iran to carry forward the aims of the 1979 revolution—a revolution which through twists and turns ended up being consolidated as the reactionary Islamic Republic of Iran.
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M.S.: Let’s start by you telling me a little about your background, where you’re from, what your family was, what you did when you were in Iran.
S.: My life story is one of the stories of many women who have lived under the woman-hating Islamic regime. Despite my awareness of the essence of the fundamentalist system, which is united with the imperialist world, I have been under oppression, and gone through what one experiences under such regimes, and I have experienced this oppression along with other women who also have experienced oppression such as this.
About 32 years ago, I—with my family who have been a political family and have fought against the Shah’s regime, which was an ally with the U.S.—came to the U.S. and continued my education.
I was a high school student when I came and I started in Santa Monica High School. And after that I went to the major of aerospace, and I applied at college for aerospace. But because of my political activism and the amount of time I was able to put into it, I wasn’t able to continue college.
M.S.: How did you become politically active?
S.: In 1976 when I came here, we enrolled in language classes, English language classes. It was called ‘ISC,’ I believe. And there, a lot of representatives from the student confederation came into these classes and talked about their views, and that’s how we were introduced to them and to what they were doing, and that’s how we got involved with them.
M.S.: That’s very good. That’s very cool, actually. So, what happened when you got involved with them? What did you start doing?
S.: The first meeting I attended, the topic was what to think, how to think about Tudeh Party of Iran, and the Fedayi Party of Iran [other left Iranian organizations], and also opinions and views about armed fighting, armed struggle. I was interested in these topics and I attended the meeting and I was very for the views that were represented at this meeting, and that’s how I became interested in the whole group.
M.S.: The Iranian Students Association, the Confederation of Iranian Students, was a very powerful group, in terms of what it brought to people, the way it organized Iranians, but also the impact that it had on people in the United States. It helped bring a revolutionary edge to the movement. It really meant something to see students and people from Iran out in the streets demonstrating against the Shah and bringing out what was going on, but also taking up the struggle here. Tell people what it was like to be doing that in the streets here.
S.: The first thing that really got me interested in the group, in the confederation, was the revolutionary ethics, and how they carried themselves as revolutionaries. Also, the first formal course that I attended that was conducted by the confederation, the topic was ‘Materialism and Dialectics,’ which got me very interested in the whole group and the ideas.
M.S.: So your family was here, and you had this revolutionary activity, and for all intents and purposes you were living in the U.S. Then there was a point when you decided to go back to Iran. Why? What did you expect to find when you went back?
S.: The first thing that got me wanting to go back was that I felt responsible toward this change that was happening in Iran and I felt responsible toward the people who were in Iran and who initiated the whole process of bringing about the change. That’s one of the main reasons that I thought I should go back. Another thing is that I believed in the leadership of the proletariat, and I believed that if we do go back we could participate in directing or guiding the masses there, and somehow contribute to the change that was happening.
M.S.: What did you find when you went back? What was it like in Iran in those days? It was right after the Shah was overthrown. When you left Iran, it was SAVAK and the Shah and just horrible. What did you find? What was it like?
S.: When I went back, I faced a very open environment. Politically, it was very progressive. People were having discussions all over the city. There were debates going on. It was a very lively and open atmosphere at the time when I returned.
M.S.: Was that in Tehran or all through the country?
S.: The progress that was going on was very prevalent in Tehran, but there were families all around the country who were involved in political activism, and had debates going on, whether it was in the houses or out on the street. The debates were usually going on between a group of religious people who were against the Shah’s regime and who had helped get the revolution going and the leftist people, the communists, who always had arguments with the religious people, to try to persuade them that the way they were going wasn’t the right way.
M.S.: And where did you fit in? What did you do when you were there?
S.: From what I had learned here in the fields of philosophy, politics, and economy, when I went back, I tried to relate my knowledge to the people. I tried to get lively discussions, and with those going on in the universities to talk about what I had learned and try to teach others as much as I knew.
M.S.: How long did that go on, and when did it start to change?
S.: Within ten days after the revolution there was an uprising of women against the idea of the hijab. And then afterwards there was the oppression started against the Kurds in Kurdistan, north of Iran. But the whole atmosphere, the more open atmosphere, was prevalent and did go on for almost two years after the revolution. During those years we had a book table in one of the workers’ neighborhoods, and I was the person in charge of one of the tables to get people into discussions and debates, and show them the materials that we had, our books and anything we had to show them and to talk about.
We had daily contact with the Hezbollah, the religious people at the time—it’s the Hezbollah people in Iran—whether it was physical contact or verbal contact.
[This not the same Hezbollah widely discussed in the U.S. media -- which is a religious political movement in Lebanon.]
They would either beat us or grab our newspapers and materials that we had, our tables, and would get into a fight, a physical fight.
What we saw was that they didn’t have any uniforms. They were normal people but it was known to everyone that they were organized groups from the government.
M.S.: How long did that go on, that you had these kinds of confrontations? When did it become clear to you that Khomeini was beginning to consolidate his regime?
S.: First there was a huge protest by everyone who had started to see the things that were going to happen, and mostly the groups that had contributed to the revolution, they had a huge protest that turned into a confrontation. There were even shootings going on by the military, who shot some people from the protest. And it turned into a very gloomy protest. It wasn’t a peaceful protest because of the confrontations that happened during the protest. That was in mid-June. And right after that protest there was repression of all the groups that had all the discussions going on, and the debates going on from different neighborhoods. They shut everything down and the atmosphere just got very closed afterwards.
M.S.: So what did you do then?
S.: We tried to organize ourselves as an underground group, an underground organization, and we weren’t public anymore. We always had to hide when we had discussions or any kind of activity we had, we couldn’t do it out in the public anymore.
The organization divided into two groups. One group was in charge of organizing the struggle that went on in Amol. The group was called Sarbedaran. That’s the group that organized that and actually made it happen. I was one of the people sort of helping out with the whole thing, as someone helping out in the background.
Martyrs of the Amol Uprising
Martyrs of the Amol Uprising
M.S.: Can you explain the impact of the Amol uprising?
S.: The people in that region where the uprising occurred were influenced a lot by what happened in the way that they saw. They were familiar with the revolutionary ethics and the revolutionary way that they took on. It made people more aware of Maoist theories and the way that they took on this struggle. The North was isolated from other parts and there wasn’t much going on. But when that happened it got people very interested in such political activism. It made them more connected to what was going on in other parts of the country.
M.S.: So the regime defeated the uprising. What did they do afterwards to the revolutionaries and the people?
S.: The organization had failed deeply in their plan and everyone who took part in the uprising was executed. But then the impact that it had on the people was that people always remembered them as heroes. It was something that was one of its kind. They’d never seen such courage, and they just remembered them and the whole uprising always remained in the people’s memories. They always remembered the revolutionaries who took part in it as heroes.
M.S.: Did the repression increase? What happened to you?
S.: The repression did increase as you said. People tried to stay underground and tried to do any kind of political activity underground, to hide and not be open to the public. At that time, I had a baby two months old. There wasn’t much that I could actually get involved with. All I could do was sit at home and wait for news, wait to know what had happened.
M.S.: Your husband survived the Amol uprising?
M.S.: After the uprising, you were at home. Did you have more than one kid?
S.: Yes, after the Amol uprising, my daughter was one and a half years, and my son was two months old.
M.S.: How did you get arrested? How long after the Amol uprising did you get arrested?
S.: Eight months after. I was at home. They broke into the house and took the kids from me, took them away from me and just yelled at me and told me that I had to go for an investigation.
M.S.: And your husband was arrested too?
S.: He was arrested four months before I was.
M.S.: What did they charge him with?
S.: Because he was a theoretician, and he was very educated in the theories that led to the uprising. And they said that because he had all the theories and he did the educational part of it, he was charged with more, with a bigger of a crime than the people who took part in it were. And his sentence was death.
M.S.: Then four months later they came into your house. Tell me again what happened.
S.: I was taken to the jail where my husband was being kept, and as I was taken there, I just heard the voice of my husband for a minute and at that moment I was just so happy to hear him, to find out that he’s alive, and right after that I was taken into a cell and kept there for eight months. It was solitary, the cell.
M.S.: What did they charge you with?
S.: They assumed that, because my husband was one of the leaders of the organization, I must have also had a very high position in the organization, and had contributed in many ways. They told me that because of that, there was going to be a death sentence for me, too. They had charts at the time, to figure out the hierarchy of each organization, who was the leader, and which people were operating under which group, under which leader. And in their charts, because I had been staying at home with my kids for about eight months before I was arrested, they couldn’t find any actual documentation as to my status, and that’s why I didn’t get the death sentence that they told me about.
M.S.: What sentence did you get?
S.: The main sentence that they first gave me, they asked if I had a religion, and I said I had none, and they gave me 10 years imprisonment for that.
M.S.: What was done to you in prison by the regime?
S.: When I was in solitary confinement, there was no sanitation, there was no nutrition that we could actually live off of, and we were constantly hearing the pleas of the people who were being tortured.
Every morning they would take us for interrogation with our eyes closed up and as we went into the offices of interrogation, they would kick us and hit us and beat us to get us to say what they wanted to hear. And as we were there they would make people who had gone through tortures crawl by our feet to make us fear what was going to happen to us.
Because I refused to do the prayers, and I had told them that I didn’t have a religion, I was kept in solitary as the others were taken into the public cells. I was kept in solitary, but because I had no new information to give them, I wasn’t interrogated anymore. I wasn’t tortured, because really they knew I didn’t have anything new to tell them. I was just kept in solitary, though. Yet they would constantly put me in a situation where I would hear my dad’s pleas as he was getting whipped. My father was kept in the same place. He had contributed to the Amol uprising. He had helped them a lot in many different ways. He was kept there also, and he was being whipped every day. He was going under a lot of torture. And I was constantly put in a situation as to make me hear him. And how they treated my mother, they would shout at her and curse her every day from somewhere nearby where I was kept so that I would hear and be mentally tortured in that way.
M.S.: What happened to your mother and father? Did they survive?
S.: Because all the people with whom my parents had been working and all the leaders with whom they had been cooperating, because none of them had given in to the torture, and had not said anything about anyone who was within those groups, the government did not have anything against them, did not have anything solid in their hands against my parents and so after three years they were both released.
M.S.: You said you heard your husband’s voice when you first came in. How long did your husband live in jail, and did you ever see him again?
S.: Eight months after I was taken into jail, they gave us an appointment for me to meet my husband before he was going to be executed. That’s the last time I saw him.
M.S.: How long did you spend in jail?
S.: Three years.
M.S.: Eight months, and then your husband was executed, and then they put you in the public cell. Did they keep coming at you to get you to capitulate? Did they keep trying to make you say prayers.
S.: There were many women who refused to do the prayers. When we refused to do the prayers, we were taken into an isolated room. It was room number 6, that was an isolated room from the rest of the whole prison. It was sort of like a quarantine, and we were kept there. We were treated as non-humans. It was like we were some sort of other animal like a dog because even like when we wanted to wash our hands, there is a concept in Islam, that when you are an atheist, when you don’t have their religion, you are considered filthy.
M.S.: You were released from jail after 3 years. Where did you go when you were freed from prison?
S.: My mother- and father-in-law, who were taking care of the kids at that time, they were waiting for me outside the prison. Because of cultural issues and atmosphere that was prevalent at the time, what really happened to me was I was released from the prison of the Islamic regime, to only go to another metaphorical prison of where I was living with my mother- and father-in-law.
M.S.: Explain to people what that was like. How did the country change between the time you were arrested and when you were released? What was that like?
S.: After repressing all revolutionary forces, Khomeini’s regime had infused people with such fear, and such contempt against any revolutionary force, that we weren’t even welcome in society anymore. We didn’t feel welcomed by the people, because there was just so much fear going on that they feared any group that had anything to do with revolutionaries or any revolutionary ideas. People showed much contempt for them.
And as I was faced with so much contempt and this repressed atmosphere, I constantly kept trying to bring about a more lively atmosphere at home for my kids as I continuously tried to sing revolutionary songs to them and just show the joy of such struggle. But unfortunately because of patriarchal culture that people had at the time, I was repressed even at home by my husband’s family. And I couldn’t do much to bring about another change even in that little society that I was living in.
M.S.: When you talk about it being a patriarchal atmosphere, what did that look like? What did it mean for a woman like you to be living in this patriarchal society?
S.: An example of what I mean was, because I was a widow, I was condemned to wear black for 10 years. I was condemned to not express any opinions of myself, and I was condemned not to have any friends around, anyone to talk to, anyone who would sympathize with me. I was condemned to stay at home, and help out with housework.
I did not even have the right to take care of my children. I could not have any kind of relationship with them that was independent of my husband’s family. Within the ten years that I was living there, what I thought I should do was to read books about psychology, to figure out what I could do with myself, my mental situation, my mental state at the time, how I could gain back my autonomy, my self-confidence. I tried to work on these ideas to rebuild my strength, to rebuild my character. After I successfully did that, I left their house, after ten years.
M.S.: Where did you go after you left their house?
S.: My father had a property that wasn’t really inhabitable. There was a cellar at the place, and I went to the place and I was living in the cellar, and one of our family friends helped to find me a job, that was a very, very low-paying job, that paid very low at the time.
M.S.: How long did you live like that?
S.: I met a comrade who wasn’t politically active any more but he helped me take some psychology classes, and some self-realization groups. I became involved with them and a woman in one of these groups was very sympathetic with me and she helped me get a job that did not require a background check, because if they did there was no way I could get a job. But she helped me get that job, and that’s how I could move out of the cellar.
M.S.: How long did you stay in Iran until you left? When you got that better job, did you work at it for a while, or did you leave Iran soon afterward?
S.: For almost a year I worked at that job, because I was not allowed to leave the country for about 10 to 11 years after I was released from prison. I had no passport and I just couldn’t leave the country. I kept working there. After a while I applied for a passport and they gave me a one-time passport. I could only use it one time to leave the country, and when I came back I was supposed to turn it in to them. And that’s how I actually left after 12 years after I was released.
The only thing that made it possible for me to get a visa to leave the country was that I had a job, I had documentation that I could provide for them, and I had two children that were living in Iran, and that provided for some background based on which I could get the visa. I got the visa for a month only.
When I went to Germany, I still had not found the right organization for me, somewhere that I would fit in with my ideas, my Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideas. But everywhere I went, I would still have debate and discussions about my own ideas, about what I had learned with the confederation here, or during the revolution in Iran. I would always promote these ideas although I had not found an organization that had such sympathies.
My only belief that always gave me hope was that I always knew, and I always was sure that such ideology was the only way to emancipation. And now it’s been five years that I have found the right group again, the Communist Party of Iran [MLM] and have been involved with them, have been politically active again.
M.S.: You left Iran in 1995. Tell me about the situation in Iran today, what’s the oppression like?
S.: I think that, in the first place, I have to say that there is a characteristic that all Iranian women share, be it religious women, or political women, and I think it applies to all Iranian women. They have some sort of resentment toward oppression and toward anything that puts them down. They deeply have this resentment, even the women who are religious, who have religious sympathies. The main problems that they’re facing is one, that the laws of society are against women, are anti-women laws that are enforced by the government, and second is that a lot of women do not see an alternative to the way they are living now. They don’t have an alternative to their current situation.
M.S.: What are the laws you’re talking about?
S.: Laws such as women not being allowed the custody of their children. They cannot go on vacation without the permission of their husbands. They cannot leave the country without the permission of their husbands. The whole system is designed in a way to treat women as means to patriarchism.
M.S.: What about things like ‘honor killings’? Are they common in Iran?
S.: In the more modern cities it is not seen as much but of course in small villages it is very common, and it’s even broadcast on the news. And on the news they either call it honor killings or they say that a woman has committed suicide.
M.S.: Would honor killings include things like punishing women for having affairs, or being in sexual relations when they aren’t married? What happens to women in situations like this? Are they killed?
S.: For someone to commit these killings, it suffices for them being a father or a brother to be suspicious of either their sisters or their wives or their mothers. It suffices for them just to be suspicious. And it might be on no grounds, but as long as they are suspicious, they can go ahead and commit the murder, and there is no lawful process that this thing goes through. They just do it themselves and it’s done. It doesn’t go through a process.
M.S.: Does the state play a role in any of this?
S.: Indirectly, the state encourages such behavior by promoting concepts from Islam that they preach about, or laws that make it possible for the men to commit such murders.
M.S.: Is this what’s meant by Sharia law?
S.: What that amounts to, the Sharia law, is how women should consider the Islamic leadership of Iran, or the laws that they pass, as the holy laws of god, and also the promotion of the idea that, if women are not abiding by the restrictions set for them by their husbands, but most women do fight, even on a personal level, with such restrictions of such laws, from within their families, within the scope of the private life, or in the society in a broader picture. But there’s a very, very small group of women who are submissive to such laws, and those are women who share the same fundamentalist ideas that the government promotes. And those women, because they have the full hijab and do abide with such Sharia laws, have no reason to get punished.
M.S.: You describe the regime as a woman-hating regime. What do you mean when you say that?
S.: What I mean is that the laws that they have passed and the ones that they’re enforcing in the country right now are those that are to the advantage of men in the society, and the laws make it absolutely the case that women have to abide by all restrictions set for them by men in this society. They have to abide, and be obedient to men at their work or in their private lives, at their home or society in general, wherever they are, whatever they’re doing, these laws make it the case that they have to abide by what is told to them by the men in society.
M.S.: Are many women still arrested and thrown in jail?
S.: Yes. it happens daily and for any kind of accusation, they keep them 24 hours, 48 hours, which usually ends up in the women being raped or somehow wounded or whipped, and also some of them are just kept for longer, without their families knowing anything about where they are or how they’re doing.
M.S.: You said that women resist, sometimes in small ways at home, sometimes in big. Tell us what the resistance looks like.
S.: The main group who resist in a more active way are the groups of students who go to the main parts of cities, and organize protests along with the male students at universities. They also plan many peaceful protests, as well as protests that end up in confrontations. And many of those students are arrested and put into jail without any kind of sentence or news for their families about when they’re going to get released, or why they’re even being kept in jail.
An example of resistance by the students is just about a week ago, before the beginning of the Persian New Year, students were passing out, in the main part of the city, they were passing out—there’s a tradition that for the new year, people set up a table filled with different symbols, different plants or seeds that symbolize something about their lives, or life in general. And one of the symbols is fish. They purchase little fish and they put it in a jar and they put it on the table. And one thing the students were doing, they were passing out black fish throughout the city, along with a very revolutionary poem to bypassers. There is a story called “Little Black Fish” by a revolutionary writer in Iran, Samad Bihrangi, which is a story about a little black fish. The fish goes on a journey. He symbolizes a revolutionary young student who never stops and always resists, always keeps on fighting, and although the fish was living in a very little river, he goes on with his journey and he finds the ocean and he joins the other fish and he never gives up in this whole process.
M.S.: You’re involved in this campaign around the oppression of women, opposing both the regime in Iran and U.S. imperialism. Can you tell us about this campaign?
S.: Over the years after the revolution, women have come to know that change is not going to happen without them directly intervening and taking initiative to directly cooperate with any kind of change that is promised or that they see coming. And we have come to know that even socialism will not happen without women playing a very important role in the process of bringing about this change. We believe that socialism and the women’s movement are complements of each other.
M.S.: People are told there are only two ways to go here—do you want to be part of the Islamic fundamentalist revolution or the U.S. imperialist fight for democracy. What are you saying about this, and what are people in Iran thinking about this? Can you talk about this other way, and how people in Iran are responding?
S.: We try to show the real face of both of these outmoded regimes and we try to convey the picture of a third pole, and alternative that is available to people, and alternative that does not take the side of either of these outmoded regimes and it determines its own—a third pole that is against war, that is anti-war and that no matter how small it is we have to promote it among people and we have to develop it into a bigger alternative that includes more people and we have to show that this is the only way—we have to promote our anti-war belief before a war happens against Iran. We want to show this alternative to the people of Iran and to women in general. But the organizations that get into our way by trying to get people to somehow go for reform of the Islamic regime, it is our responsibility not only to show the real face of these two regimes, but also show these reformist groups, what their ideologies will lead to and to show that, as happened to the revolution in Iran, such ways will go astray also.
I just want to say that in the past month when I have been here, and I have gone to many universities, many high schools, I have really enjoyed what I have witnessed, the passion that young people have shown—how many young people I have met have shown passion for learning about revolution—for bringing about change, how to make a new world—and it has encouraged me so much to continue this way. I have gained so much strength and I have learned so many lessons that I know I will return to Germany much more stronger than when I came, with much hope of a better world.
M.S.: Tell us some stories about your experiences here, going to the high school classes, and what happened.
S.: These are some examples of questions that high school students in Watts had for ‘us, about Iran and revolution. About the situation of women and young girls in Iran.
M.S.: [reading] What does the typical family consist of? What are the duties of the house? What level of education are girls allowed to have?
Did people ask you questions about what it’s like to be a revolutionary woman in Iran?
S.: There were three students at this high school in Watts whom I have pictures with. They were really interested in the issue of the tree that was cut down. Because of that they were very passionate. They kept asking questions about how one could be a revolutionary, how one could form an organization to get involved with and to do the kinds of things that revolutionaries would do.
M.S.: When you told your story to the students, how did they respond? Because you have a very powerful story, and I’m sure it’s something they haven’t heard before.
S.: They really sympathized with me and had a belief in what I was telling them, especially the African American students, because of their own struggle and what they have witnessed in their own society and the way they’ve been treated in their own society. They really sympathized with me, just wanted to know more and showed a lot of interest and sympathy.
M.S.: Give me an example of the experiences you’ll remember the most.
S.: The march itself on the 8th of March, was great to see the combination of so many different people, and the diversity of the group that was present there. So many native-born Americans, so many African Americans and just many different people who were present and who showed support and who took the initiative to come to this event, although it wasn’t a huge crowd, it was of great quality and I really enjoyed that day. What I concluded from that day, from what I saw, is that we cannot achieve our goal if we do not unite with each other, stand side by side, next to each other.