The Women’s Ward in Evin Prison
Evin Prison, Iran’s most notorious prison, is the locus and center of the exercise of discrimination against women prisoners. Interrogators and judges are aware of these circumstances to the point where they use it as a threat: constantly reminding women prisoners who are charged with political crimes that, if they do not cooperate with the authorities, they will be sent to the General Women’s Ward, where certain women there will “take care of them” (i.e., abuse and perpetrate violence against them).
Quite aside from other dangers confronting Iranian women, political and human rights activists also face the grave danger of being incarcerated in the Women’s General Ward in Evin Prison or in similar prisons in other provinces. The Islamic regime is well aware of this danger: when certain women are imprisoned as prisoners of conscience or because they actively seek social justice, it is explained that if they resist, they will be placed in the General Ward. Male political prisoners or prisoners of conscience, however, cannot be thus threatened. From the viewpoint of male prisoners, regardless of their background or associations, in comparison with the solitary confinement wards, the General Ward is akin to paradise. Thus, a question arises as to why the anxiety of female prisoners is so different from that of their male counterparts, particularly if the charges against them are related to either politics, freedom of the press or freedom of expression. Must we search for the source to this difference in the prisoners’ gender or in the security policies and guidelines according to which the prisons and the composition and placement of prisoners are planned?
In spite of the increase in the range of offenses and crimes committed by the country’s female population, itself as a result of economic, social, and security neglect , the number of women prisoners still remains much smaller than that of male prisoners, and further the range and types of offenses and crimes committed by women inmates being prosecuted is fewer than those of male prisoners. As a result, in each provincial and urban jurisdiction, no more than one General Ward is planned or exists for women. This means that regardless of the difference in the offences or crimes committed, as well as the differences in identities and personalities, all women prisoners are placed side by side in the same General Ward. The consequences of this gender-based difference in the planning of correctional institutions in Iran are extremely severe. The degree of this gravity is such that staying in the General Women’s Ward in Evin Prison inflicts brutal injuries and damage on women prisoners of a certain class and character, even if they are not political prisoners or prisoners of conscience. These damages are not necessarily always physical in nature, but often emotional or psychological. Women’s rights activists, the primary victims of the current situation in Iran, are taken into custody or incarcerated so often that prison is frequently considered a sort of second home for them. To remove discrimination against women and preserve women’s human dignity, women’s rights activists must seriously object to this situation and speak up more about the personal and social damages that result from it, in concurrence with the views of medical and professional specialists.
Separating prisoners in accordance with their identity or social standing, age, and the offenses or crimes they have committed, is a key principle of universal human rights and further considered as a fundamental right of prisoners throughout the world. Regardless of their gender, political prisoners must, in accordance with universal human rights standards, have certain accommodations in detention centers, penitentiaries, and prisons. It should be emphasized here that this type of prisoner is supposed to have the right to be constantly in touch with the world outside the prison via access to a variety of media, i.e., newspapers, radio, and television as well as the right to serve his or her prison term while separated from the other prisoners or common criminals.
In Iran, separation of prisoners on the basis of their identity and personality, education, age, and social standing is a generally accepted principle, in accordance with the laws governing correctional institutions and citizens’ civil rights. However, there is no mention in these laws of political prisoners and, therefore, the separation of political prisoners from common criminals is not even a topic for discussion: under the existing system, from the legal standpoint, the very concept of such separation lacks clarity. Thus, political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, whether male or female, are not availed of their rights under the universally accepted principles of human rights. The reason for this is that, officially, Iran’s rulers do not principally recognize political offenses and crimes as such and define them according to the whim of the moment and as so proves expedient for them. This poses the grave danger that any written, spoken word or behavior that is or may be deemed critical of the regime can be included on the list of political offenses or crimes. Under these existing circumstances, wherein the legislature has not defined political offenses or crimes, in accordance with security policies dictated to them by certain military and political institutions, judges and law enforcement officers of the Ministry of Justice have intensified their stance toward the regime’s critics and opponents: not only do these officials not observe the rights of those accused of and those charged with committing political crimes, but they also consider them to deserve the harshest punishment provided for by law. Mixing this group of accused or criminals with those who have committed crimes such as premeditated murder, felony, theft, rape, and drug trafficking, etc., amplifies exponentially the hardship and suffering of those under political offenses or crimes, and especially in the General Wards, which exposes them to grave danger, to the point where their lives and honor are under threat and they do not feel safe there. Such conditions pose a much larger danger to women who have been arrested because of the opinions they hold orexpress due to their political activities and who have passed through the difficult rounds of interrogation and investigation and assigned to the General Ward.
Despite the fact that Evin Prison is comprised of numerous General Wards for men, it has only one General Ward for women: that General Ward is where women are transferred after the conclusion of the investigation in their cases. In the 12 months since the 2009 post-election crisis, having tolerated various forms of verbal, physical, emotional abuse and violence at the hands of interrogators while in solitary confinement, women journalists, women active in women’s rights, and women associated with the university students’ movement and the Green Movement, are constantly transferred to the General Ward at Evin Prison or to similar wards in other locations within the country. Once in these General Wards, in addition to all they have been through, these women are then subjected to violence within from violent women inmates.
Thus, Iranian women suffer discrimination in the prisons as well. Evin Prison, Iran’s most notorious prison, is the locus and center of the exercise of discrimination against women prisoners. Interrogators and judges are aware of these circumstances to the point where they use it as a threat: constantly reminding women prisoners who are charged with political crimes that, if they do not cooperate with the authorities, they will be sent to the General Women’s Ward, where certain women there will “take care of them” (i.e., abuse and perpetrate violence against them). In Evin Prison, women who are aware of the conditions in the Women’s General Ward are terrified by this threat. By using the fact that the number of women prisoners is not large enough to justify having several wards dedicated to women and bring about the possibility of separation of groups of women prisoners, the officials at Evin Prison and in the Bureau of Corrections do not demonstrate any intention to improve the existing conditions. On the other hand, concurrently, male prisoners are afforded more concessions. By way of example, murderers and those who wrote checks that bounced are incarcerated in different wards. Although, as regards the fundamental rights of prisoners, the condition of men in the General Wards is not good either, it is still many times better than the condition of women prisoners, for all of whom there is only a singular General Ward.
While it is true that the laws of Iran do not officially recognize or define political crimes, and that, as a result, both women and men suffer from its consequences, based on all of the foregoings, women bear the brunt of this suffering. Men who commit a political offence or crime, after the conclusion of their trial and sentencing are often assigned to specific wards, in which other prisoners charged with commission of similar crimes are held. Ward 350 in Evin is the most notorious of all its political wards. Often male political prisoners who stay in such a ward regain the self-confidence they lost in solitary confinement, which was meant to “break them down” in the course of the investigation and interrogation phase, yet get back in touch with their intellectual and political selves and lives, and regain some of their former spirit. This regaining of their personal identity and pride comes about because men who are of like mind are afforded the opportunity to become companions to others like themselves in such a ward. They manage to shake off the effects of solitude and, in regaining their identity and personality, as a result of being able to socialize with others, make headway in recovering from their physical and emotional traumas as well.
This vital opportunity to heal their traumas, regain their personal identity and pride, and return to their political lives is denied to female political or journalistic prisoners or prisoners of conscience. In a few cases where the prison officials do not send a female political prisoner or prisoner of conscience to the General Women’s Ward in Evin Prison out of concern for keeping her alive, they have no choice but to hold that woman in a cell along with other women who have committed similar crimes, so as to be able to convince international organizations and tribunals that such a woman is no longer in solitary confinement. However, this is solely for the sake of keeping up appearances and the so-called criminals, in fact continue to live under conditions of solitary confinement, that is, they have absolutely the minimum amount of space in which to live. Within this context, the case of two women from the group of seven Bahai prisoners comes to mind: although more than three years have passed since they were arrested, both of these women are in solitary confinement. This is due to the fact that the General Women’s Ward in Evin Prison is one-of-a-kind, that is, terrifyingly notorious, because its atmosphere is so rife with common criminals that several women, all hardened criminals, have taken control of other prisoners and rule the roost, as it were. Apparently, prison officials fear that radical elements outside the prison may be able to provoke these controlling toughened criminals to the point where they would murder these Bahai women—already victims of lack of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion—in the General Women’s Ward.
A glance at the composition of those incarcerated in the Women’s General Ward demonstrates that young women suffering from economic hardship are prime prey hunted and captured by groups propagating prostitution and recruiting prostitutes, even in the Women’s General Ward itself, according to a precise plan, completely under the control of those women prisoners who facilitate the propagation of prostitution and distribution of narcotics. Those young women are put in touch with networks active outside the prison. A young woman imprisoned in the General Women’s Ward under the charge of having had an illegitimate affair (sex outside marriage) or perhaps even for having attended a party or having committed a deed forbidden under Islamic law, will receive the necessary training and, upon being released from prison, will immediately go to the addresses and places to which she has been referred by the above-mentioned hardened women criminals who control the prison in various ways and find their prey from among the younger female inmates during the time that, as inmates, they are all allowed to go outdoors and taking in some fresh air or exercise.
The above example demonstrates the officials’ negligence with regard to damages inflicted on inmates in the Women’s General Ward and their further refusal to institute several General Wards for women, so that it would be possible to separate various groups and types of prisoners from each other, prove that the government’s plan is not to control social corruption but to spread it.