New Internationalist

Mahboubeh Hossein Zadeh

June 2007

Mahboubeh Hossein Zadeh writes an open letter from Evin Prison in Tehran. She was arrested on 2 April for organizing a ‘One Million Signatures’ campaign for women’s rights in Iran. Most of the women arrested with her, including NI contributor Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani (NI 398), have since been released but Mahboubeh and Nahid Keshavarz (both pictured) remain inside as we go to press.

‘Our husbands are lying in enclosed graves and we are in open graves. We too ceased to live the very day that we killed our husbands.’ These are the words of a woman who spends her nights on the three-storey bed across from me who has nightmares about the death of her husband – a husband she stabbed to death.

This is the women’s block of Evin Prison. Of the 16 women with whom Nahid and I share a cell, 10 are here on charges of murdering their husbands. These women have lost faith in a legal system that offers no hope and no protection. If our laws had the capacity to defend women charged with murder, they would not be here now, waiting for ‘the day that will swallow them’ – which is how female inmates describe execution day.

These women all seem kind and patient to me. They were forced into marriages they did not choose, married off at the age of 13 or 14 to husbands chosen by their fathers. One of these women was forced into marriage by her father, who slapped her repeatedly until she accepted her fate – agreed to marry a man who was 45 years her senior.

Another asks: ‘Why doesn’t anyone listen to our problems or pains? Where was the judge when my husband forced me on to the streets, into prostitution, to earn enough money to support his drug habit? Which laws were intended to save me? I grew weary. The law provided me with no refuge. I defended myself. Yes! I killed him!’

Another woman explains: ‘I cried. I asked my father: “Didn’t you marry me off by force at age 13? Now I want a divorce.” My father refused. But when I saw my husband that night with another woman, in my own bed, I could no longer take the abuse.’

The victims are not just the women with whom I share a cell. The victims are all women in this land.

The victims are not just the women with whom I share a cell. The victims are all women in this land

Today a few judges come for an official tour of the prison. One of them pokes his head into the cell and asks: ‘Are there any problems in this room?’ It seems that the only problems female inmates can face are nutritional. He finds out that I am a reporter, and asks about our other problems. I explain that I am charged with ‘actions against national security through spreading propaganda against the State’. He says that my presence in prison, given that they have processed my papers for release on a third-party bail guarantee, is illegal. Enthused, I ask his name so that I can quote a reliable source at a time when the judge assigned to our case does not respond to our families or our lawyer.

Immediately he retreats: ‘There is no need to know my name. I should explain that the judge in charge of your case has the authority to keep you in prison for as long as he sees fit!’ I laugh. He does not even have the courage to speak his name and to defend his opinion.

Another judge pulls me to a corner to ask how I am being treated by the other inmates. I recall the smoke-filled cells of Block One of Evin Prison (the punishment block, as it is infamously referred to) and the immense insecurity we felt during our time there. I remember standing at the foot of the stairs in Block One, as several female inmates beat a woman to within an inch of her life, while others held her hands so that she could not escape. I want to tell the judge about a girl with scar-filled arms, testimony to repeated attempts at suicide, who shattered the glass of a window with her head. But instead I only tell him that he should visit Block One. To date, no reporter has managed to visit it. The doors to this section remain perpetually closed – and even judges do not bear witness to the atrocities that take place there.

My dear mother, my sister and her small child come to visit me. My nephew Soheil is a year and a half. He places his small hands on the window of the cabinet that divides us, and laughs out loud. My sister cries. Her tears are warranted. She is spending her last days with her child. After four months of uncertainty, with the unrelenting assistance and support of her lawyer, she has finally managed to get her husband to agree to a divorce – but only on condition that she gives up all her rights to this very small child. My sister worries for her child, and I feel more powerless than before when faced with her tears. She is only 23 years old. ‘I too am one of the victims of these laws,’ explains my sister. ‘From today, I will start collecting signatures in support of the Campaign. I will collect so many signatures that these laws finally change.’

The fellow inmate who has started recording her own experiences in a small diary pulls me aside and asks: ‘Can I help you in collecting signatures for the Campaign?’ She wants me to use whatever means possible to get her a signature form, so that women who are condemned to spend their days in Evin Prison can also bring hope to other women.

And this reminds me of the last question asked by my interrogator before I was brought here. ‘Your demands in the Campaign are in contradiction to the foundations of Islamic jurisprudence and the Islamic Regime. Given these facts, will you continue to ask for changes in the laws?’

In response to this question, I wrote: ‘Yes! I know that our demands are not in contradiction to Islam.’ And today, after this experience, I am more determined than ever and I write: ‘I ask for changes to these discriminatory laws. I ask them in an effort to honour the dignity of all the women in my country.’

The Million Signatures Campaign can be accessed at

This column was published in the June 2007 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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