Azar Alkana has come to terms with all the other torture and pain she endured in an Iranian jail. But recovering from the experience of being raped by a guard at the prison, where she was condemned because of her husband’s membership in a Kurdish rebel groups, has been impossible.
“I am over all the other forms of torture and the pain my little daughter went through in those years,” Alkana, who spoke under the pseudonym Nina Aghdam, said to Iranian documentary filmmaker Reza Alallamehzade.
“But the psychological breakdown that rape causes is incomparable and irrecoverable,” she said.
Human rights organizations have recently expressed alarm about the rise of sexual assault on women prisoners in Iranian jails.
According to the Kurdpa News agency, university student Hananeh Farhadi committed suicide after spending two months in an Iranian intelligence agency prison. Her family was warned by authorities not to publicise her case.
Shadieh Basami, 23, from Bisaran village, in Sanandaj province, set herself on fire after being raped by a soldier from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, she told Kurdpa.
Sorour, who uses a pseudonym, is a Kurdish woman from Mahabad who told an Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center that she was arrested for her membership in the Kurdish dissident group Komala, and that she was sexually assaulted in a Tabriz prison.
“After swearing by my ethnicity, the Iranian guard raped me using a bottle,” she says. “The physical injury was eventually healed but the psychological one never did.”
Sorour says that for months following her release she contemplated suicide. “I tremble every time I remember that incident.”
Minoo Homily, from Sanandaj, was imprisoned in 1982 at the age of 17, for her communist beliefs. In Isfahan, where she was later transferred, she says she was sexually assaulted by a male guard while her female warden was away for a few minutes.
Homily, an outspoken activist who now lives in Toronto, believes that recovering from the psychological harm was lengthy and difficult and that the pain worsened when her ex-husband started to abuse her for her experience in prison.
“He would say that I was touched by the Revolutionary Guards and therefore have no value as a human being,” she recalled.
Homily says her reason for talking about her experience is to encourage other female prisoners to speak up.
Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told his country’s state-funded Press TV, after foreign media reported increasing sexual assaults in Iranian prisons, that rape or torture of political prisoners in Iranian prisons is carried out by “enemy” agents, not the government.
Iran's conservative parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, said following a “comprehensive inquiry” that "no cases of rape or sexual abuse" had been found in the prisons.
Kaziwa Salih, a United Nations human rights volunteer and researcher on women prisoners based in Toronto, says that the situation of Kurdish women in Iranian prisons is often politicized and that people should be more sympathetic to the victims.
“Kurds should liberate themselves from this trap by becoming more understanding and supportive of the victims of rape,” Salih told Rudaw.
Salih says that Kurdish women suppress their rape stories in order to preserve their family honor.
“Kurdish women, unlike women of Rwanda, Cambodia and other target groups of genocide, do not admit to the sexual invasion they have suffered. They feel obliged to preserve the family honor,” she added.
A victim of rape in an Iranian prison who did not want to be identified, toldRudaw that fear is a major factor behind many women’s silence.
“It’s hard enough to live with this shame forever,” she said. “But if we mention it in public, we might even get killed by radical members of the family.”
Golaleh Kamangar, a Kurdish activist in Norway, says that in a conservative society where a family’s name and honor is often tied to women, former female prisoners committing suicide is inevitable.
“In a strictly patriarchal culture, that every aspect of a woman’s life is directly related to ‘honour,’ victims of rape find themselves in a conundrum,” she says.
Kamangar says that “victims of rape are not criminals,” and that people need to understand this. .
“For as long as victims of rape terminate their lives, the oppressive regime will continue to use sexual harassment as a powerful tool against the dissidents,” says Kamangar.