Marina Nemat is a Toronto-based world-renowned author and human rights advocate who wrote the bestsellers Prisoner of Tehran and After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed.
As the world was horrified by the brutal torture and murder of Mahsa Amini (22) by Gasht-e-Ershad, or the Iranian morality police, for not wearing the hijab properly and a tsunami of protests gripped Iran, Marina Nemat was reminded of her horrifying experience of defying the Neandertal diktats of Iran’s first spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini and the resultant confinement to a hellhole around 40 years ago.
Marina, unlike Mahsa, was fortunate enough to survive but only to have a hellish experience of more than two years in Tehran’s dreaded Evin Prison, where Iran’s political prisoners have been incarcerated since 1972.
At merely 13, Marina, who was a Christian by faith, witnessed the first seismic shift in Iranian politics when the United States (US)-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s autocratic regime was overthrown and replaced with Khomeini’s Islamic rule on 11 February, 1979, with the big promise of expansion of social and political freedom and the right to self-expression.
However, the second tectonic shift in Iran changed the lives of Marina and her fellow Iranians forever. To their utter dismay, the country plunged into a theocracy within a year with the same revolutionary leaders, who had lured Iranians into a revolt by tapping their grievances against the Shah, choking their few remaining freedoms and rights to death.
“In less than a year, women’s rights to self-expression were stripped away: dancing, singing, holding our boyfriends’ hands in public and wearing bikinis all became largely forbidden activities,” Marina, whose grandmothers had fled to Iran during the 1917 Russian Revolution in search of freedom, wrote in an opinion piece for CNN in November 2021.
The 16-year-old, whose father taught Muslim couples the cha-cha and the tango and mother styled fashionable Muslim women’s hair, felt stifled.
When the rebellious teenager objected to the imposition of fanatical rules, like the forcible wearing of the hijab and the introduction of the Quran in her school, by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and started attending protest rallies, she was arrested along with hundreds of others on 15 January, 1982, and imprisoned at Evin.
Hell awaited her. Marina and her fellow rebellious inmates were interrogated, tied to bare beds and their soles lashed with cables. “I was later led to a mock execution, threatened, and raped,” she wrote in another opinion piece for CNN this month.
While several of her cellmates were executed, Marina was converted and forced to marry one of her interrogators who had fallen in love with her but was assassinated within 15 months. Finally, she was released after more than two years in March 1984.
In 1991, Marina escaped to Canada, rebuilt her life and subsequently became the world-renowned author of two bestsellers Prisoner of Tehran and After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed, published in 30 countries. She has received various awards and has delivered several lectures at high schools, universities and conferences around the world. She teaches memoir writing at the School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto.
In an email interview, the Toronto-based author and human rights advocate recounts her terrifying experience under Khomeini, how nothing changed even under his successor Ayatollah Khamenei, how the ongoing Iran protests are different from earlier ones and whether the leaderless movement will survive the IRGC brutality and the regime will make some concessions to women.
The Shah had turned increasingly authoritarian but women and minorities still enjoyed basic rights. Khomeini’s jolt was totally unexpected considering that he and his fellow theocrats had fooled Iranians into believing that a better future awaited them. It was a big lie.
“I believe that it was a lie, and so do many others. I believe that from the beginning, Khomeini’s plan was to create a strictly fanatical system based on a backward version of Islam,” Marina says.
“I believe any ideology, including any religion, as history shows us, can be abused and misused in the hands of those who want power and will do anything to get it.”
Even though she believes that Khomeini “had plans to turn Iran into a medieval hell”, she also believes that “many close to him and certainly, the majority of average Iranians who supported him truly believed that Khomeini’s Islamic Republic would be much better than the Shah’s monarchy”.
Marina’s parents, who were very modern and believed in women’s rights and freedom like her, “saw through Khomeini’s lies from the start”.
“They did not believe that he and a group of clergymen with no political, real-world experience would be able to create a stable political system. My parents and many like them who were against the Islamic Republic from the start believed that it would collapse within months,” she recounts.
Subsequently, she and “thousands of young Iranians who had dared to stand up to the new autocratic laws were arrested”.
“Soon many were executed, and the stories of the torture of prisoners travelled far and wide. At the time, Iran was at war with Iraq and anyone who criticised the regime was accused of being Saddam Hussein’s spy–the penalty for which could be death.” According to her, “this situation forced Iranians who mistrusted the regime into silence. And, at the time, there were still many Iranians who believed in Khomeini and supported him especially now that there was a war going on”.
Despite suffering brutal physical torture and interrogation, Marina feels that it was her duty to speak up to “find peace” after “suffering” from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I was certainly broken. Very much so. I was devastated, and, without knowing it, I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. After my husband Andre, our son, and I escaped Iran and made it to Canada, I tried to put all my focus on survival in our new country.”
Since the family had “very little money”, they “had to work long and hard”. “It took us years to feel like we could make it. When Canada began to feel like home and we became financially stable, I began to show symptoms of PTSD, and that was when I began to write my memories as a form of narrative therapy,” she adds.
But Marina “soon realised that just writing it was not enough”; she had to speak up. “I was a witness to terrible abuses on a massive scale, and it was my duty to speak up in order to find peace.”
Shockingly, things turned worse during the reign of Khamenei. The IRGC and its Basij paramilitary crushed the 2019 protests and killed more than 1,500 protesters and the May 2022 demonstrations met the same fate. But anger against the regime has grown.
“The horrors that Iranians have suffered since 1979 are monumental and immeasurable. We don’t even know all the details of all the atrocities committed by the regime,” she says. “Naturally, under all this pressure, discontent and anger have grown.”
But the current protests are different–they are much larger and have spread to more than 40 cities with women leading them. Besides, most of the protesters are young and were born after 1979. In fact, a fifth Basij volunteer has been killed during the protests.
Incidentally, the late Shah’s son Reza Pahlavi, who is in exile in Washington and has three daughters, has said that most Iranian women are asking for the same rights and freedom “women in the free world experience and exercise”.
Pahlavi, whose grandfather Reza Shah had banned Islamic veils in 1936, told AFP that it is “the first revolution for the women, by the women with the support of the Iranian men, sons, brothers and fathers”.
With women playing a pivotal role in the movement, will it make a difference? Marina feels that “Iranian women were under more pressure since the beginning, and we have seen them being very vocal and visible in protests”.
“The natural flow of history suggests that this rebellion will grow,” she says though “it is impossible to predict when it will become strong and unified enough to topple the armed-to-the-bone and corrupt system of the Islamic Republic. But the time will come–even if not soon”.
But Marina wonders that “if the Islamic Republic falls, what will take its place? “Even though history moves froward, things don’t always work out for the better. The last thing Iranians need is to replace one dictatorship with another.”
Another major difference this time is that the protests have spread to foreign countries. Around 4,000 people protested in Paris and dozens clashed with the police in London chanting “Death to the Islamic Republic”.
Marina believes that that though “protests outside of Iran do matter, but they are not the deciding factor. Change in Iran has to come from within”.
But the protests are also leaderless. Marina believes that it is a big issue. “The major issue right now is that this rebellion does not have a clear leader who can unite a fragmented Iran that is bursting at the seams with ethnic and ideological divisions,” she says.
“Throughout history, Iranians have been known to follow their charismatic leaders to achieve amazing things. We adore and even worship our heroes. So, not having a clear leader is a big issue.”
President Ebrahim Raisi has pledged to “deal decisively” with the protesters. More than 1,200 of them have been arrested and according to Oslo-based Iran Human Rights, 76 killed as against the official death count of 41.
Niloufar Hamedi, an Iranian newspaper journalist who broke the news of Mahsa’s hospitalisation following her arrest was arrested after breaking the news and is in solitary confinement.
Will the protests survive the brutal crackdown? “I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone does,” Marina says adding, “As I said, without a charismatic and unifying leader, this movement might be doomed to fizzle out.”
Marina finds Iran’s accusation that the US and some European countries are supporting the protesters and seeking to destabilise the country “nonsense”.
“After more than 40 years of brutality and murdering Iran’s children, this regime will have to one to blame for its demise than itself,” she adds.
The way the protests are spreading, is there any possibility of the regime making concessions because forcing the protesting women to wear the hijab again will be extremely difficult?
Marina doubts it. “I doubt they would make concessions. Wearing the hijab has always been important to the regime. But if they feel threatened enough, they might back down a bit. We’ll see.”
The writer is a freelance journalist with two decades of experience, and comments primarily on foreign affairs. Views expressed are personal.