Author and activist Marina Nemat speaks at U of M

A survivor of the infamous Evin prison in Iran, author and activist Marina Nemat shared her story at the Strangers in New Homelands conference held at the University of Manitoba last week.

In 1982, at age 16, Nemat was sent to prison and condemned. She was sentenced to death and tortured for speaking out against the infringement on personal rights in Iran after the Islamic Revolution in in the late 1970s. She narrowly avoided execution after being forced to marry her interrogator and convert to Islam.

Her husband was killed while she was still imprisoned, and in an unusual move his parents secured her release. She had been in prison for approximately two years.

After being released, Nemat married her teenage love Andre. Six years later they fled Iran, eventually moving to Toronto in 1991.

Nemat is the author of two autobiographical books, Prisoner of Tehran and After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed, which detail her experience in prison and immigration to Canada.

Nemat spoke to approximately 70 conference attendees about her experiences. She said she felt it was important to share her story, to put a human face on why people choose to leave their home countries to come to Canada.

“Living in Canada and seeing people who have had the gift of being born here, they cannot understand why people would leave their countries, their homes, their families and come here,” she said.

Nemat grew up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a time she described as the age of the miniskirt.

“Iran at the time was 98 per cent Muslim, and 90 per cent of the women I saw on the street — and I’m not exaggerating — wore miniskirts and tight t-shirts,” she said.

“And that was because they had chosen to wear them. If someone had chosen to wear the hijab, then they were welcome to do it. If someone wanted to wear the miniskirt, they could.”

When the revolution began, life in Iran changed dramatically, she explained. Nemat recounted coming home from the family’s summer cottage to see tanks and soldiers outside her window.

“I literally watched from my window as the revolution unfolded,” she said.
“I think it is for everyone’s advantage that we understand why revolutions happen and that things can go wrong with revolutions.”

Nemat explained that, at first, her friends and family viewed the revolution as a means towards creating a democratic society in Iran. People were excited and hopeful after Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was removed and the country approved a theocratic constitution, with Ayatollah Khomeini as supreme leader of Iran.

Yet slowly, Iranians found themselves stripped of many of their personal freedoms, she said.

“Horror in history unfolds little by little. It is not like we will go to bed tonight and wake up tomorrow with Hitler on your hands,” she said.

“Dancing became illegal. [ . . . ] You couldn’t hold your friend’s hand or boyfriend’s hand in public, you would be arrested. Women had to cover up their hair [ . . . ].”

In response, many students organized rallies and wrote articles against the new government, which led to mass arrests. Nemat was arrested in her home in January 1982.

“I opened the bathroom door and saw two guns pointed in my face,” she said.
“People have asked me, ‘Were you scared?’ No, I was not. [ . . . ] You might not realize that fear is a luxury. I’m afraid of cochroaches. [ . . . ] That is fear. But when you have grown up reading Jane Austen and dancing to the Bee Gees, and now you have two guns pointed in your face, what are you going to do? Scream and run?

“So what you do is go into a state of shock.”

Nemat recounted her experience of being tortured in prison. Too small to fit regular handcuffs, guards put both of her hands into one cuff, severely injuring her wrists, then lashed the bottoms of her feet.

“The pain is indescribable. It’s like being struck by lightening over and over again. You hope you will die, you hope you will pass out and you don’t. Death is a beautiful thing when that is happening to you,” she said.

“Those who use torture will tell you that it is a means of getting information. They lie. Torture is used as a way to kill the human soul. Once they succeed, they will stop. If they don’t succeed, they will shoot you.”

One thing that helped get Nemat through the horrifying experience was the conversations she had with other women in her cellblock while in line for the bathroom.

“We talked about all the things that make you human, [ . . . ] about birthday parties, about cooking, baking, shopping,” she said.

“I didn’t realize how important it was back then, but those conversations created a beacon of hope for all of us. Even though the world had forgotten about us, we were human.”

For 20 years, Nemat said she remained silent about her experience in prison, her family unwilling to ask her about it. She raised two children with her husband in Canada and worked at fast food restaurants to help support her family.
“I was happy as a bird. Everybody asked me why I was so happy all the time. I just had so many things to be greatful for,” she said.

This was until her mother’s funeral, where she suffered a nervous breakdown.
“My father looked at me and he said, ‘Marina, your mother forgave you before she died.’ I knew what he meant, but I wanted to ask him ‘What do you mean?’ And when I opened my mouth, what came out was a horrific scream,” she said.
“I couldn’t breathe. I could not stop screaming.”

Before her breakdown, Nemat said she was a “prisoner of [her] past,” afraid to face the horrific experiences she had been through. Now, she says she speaks about her past in order to speak out against torture — on behalf of those she met in prison who didn’t make it out alive.

“There is no such thing as closure [ . . . ] but you can deal with the past, you can engage it. It is a never ending battle,” she said.

“The cycle of victims becoming torturers and torturers becoming victims has been going on since the dawn of time. I’m sick and tired of it. It’s enough.”