Amnesty International published a report in December which drew the world's eyes to systematic rape in Iran’s prison system. The report detailed that Iranian authorities used rape to punish and intimidate detainees from the Mahsa Amini “Women, Life, Freedom” protests in 2022. It identifies 45 cases of sexual assault against men, women, and children while stating it believes the actual number of victims to be far higher.
Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman, was killed following her arrest for wearing a headscarf incorrectly by Iran's ‘morality police’. Tens of thousands of activists and demonstrators were arrested while protesting her murder. The 120 pages of Amnesty's report detail the punishments they were then subjected to:
“Sexual violence was used by state agents with total impunity as a weapon of torture to crush protesters’ spirit, self-esteem and sense of dignity, to deter further protests, and to punish them for challenging the political and security establishment and its entrenched system of gender-based discrimination, as enforced through draconian legislation including abusive compulsory veiling laws.”
Maryam, a protester arrested at the protests, testified that after being gang raped by Revolutionary Guards agents “they said ‘You are all addicted to penis, so we showed you a good time. Isn’t this what you seek from liberation?’”
Maryam’s testimony speaks to an almost half-century-long tradition. The weaponisation of rape against men, women and children found roots in the suppression of dissenters in the wake of the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
The former head of Tehran’s Evin prison, Hussein Mortazavi Zanjani, spoke out in 2023 about the use of rape on women inmates in the 1980s as part of this wider effort. He attested to the practice where virgin female prisoners were coerced into "marriages" with guards and raped before execution—a perverse warp of the Shia belief promising paradise to virgins—allegedly to deny them a heavenly afterlife.
That this was endorsed by those at the helm of the regime is confirmed by a letter penned in 1986 by Hussein-Ali Montazeri, the once heir-apparent to Ayatollah Khomeini, asking: “Do you know that in some of the Islamic Republic prisons, young girls have been violated by force?” Montazeri was later removed as heir.
Reports of this practice started being consolidated and collected by human rights groups in the international community in the 1990s. The practice continued into the twenty-first century, coming to prominent global attention again as former inmates, prison officials and medical staff corroborated that those arrested amid the disputed presidential election in 2009 were raped.
Iranian state media reported that Iran's judiciary would look into such allegations. Nevertheless, a 2014 interview with Mother Naomi, a former detainee at the Evin facility, published by Iran Wire, confirmed that the practice did not abate. Faced with the imminence of her execution, Mother Naomi expressed her distress not for her fate but for "the girls who are raped before they are executed.
Also at this time, the Guardian put forth allegations that guards in Iranian prisons were enlisting common criminals, providing them with condoms and tacit encouragement to rape young activists behind bars.
The Iranian government has consistently dismissed such reports as politically motivated fabrications. But with the turn of each decade, new reports and investigations on the part of international and Iranian human rights groups illuminate the continuity of sexual violence as a weapon employed by Iranian prison authorities.
While these justice groups intensify their pursuit of human rights and call for accountability, victims continue to suffer at the hands of the Iranian authority’s historic abuse.
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