Homa's Interrogation

Homa Hoodfar is an Iranian-Canadian professor of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. She chatted on March 2, 2017 with our editor, Metta Spencer; Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, a professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of Toronto; and Amanda Ghahremani, a Montreal-based lawyer who had helped achieve the release of Homa, her aunt, from Iran’s Evin Prison five months ago.

By Metta Spencer (interviewer); Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi (interviewer); Homa Hoodfar (interviewee); Amanda Ghahremani (interviewee)

METTA SPENCER: What happened to you, Homa?

HOMA HOODFAR: I took early retirement because I wanted to finish a book project. Last year I needed archival material from Iran’s parliamentary library. I was writing about the electoral participation of Iranian women from 1900 to the present. I decided to visit family and observe the parliamentary election.

In Tehran I went to public meetings, watched TV programs, read the newspapers and magazines, went to the parliamentary library, and bought a whole lot of documents. I was ready to return to Canada, but on the afternoon of March 9, 2016 six Revolutionary Guards raided my apartment, took all my documents, and said that within five days I had to go to court. They gave me their address, so I went on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday—three whole days—and then on Monday I went to the court. They asked why I was in Iran. What was my research? When I answered, they had me write it down. They asked whether I had met Molaverdi, the vice president of women’s affairs. I said I had just met her for ten minutes accidentally two days before they arrested me.

In December 2015 I had gone to a conference in Lahore. On my way I spent a few days in Iran and gave an interview on electoral politics. They were saying, “You gave this interview because you wanted to influence the elections.” I said, “I gave this interview because I was asked to; it was my area of expertise. Besides, if even fifty women in Iran read this article, I will be very happy, because it is not a topic that interests people.”

They claimed that the West sent me to create a Velvet Revolution. They said, “You were working on reproductive rights, on refugees, and on Egypt. Who told you to change from those topics to look at electoral politics?” I said, “Nobody. I have been teaching on this topic.”

MOHAMAD TAVAKOLI: They believe scholars have assigned research projects, and that someone had told Homa, “Now your assignment will change. You go to Iran and do this or that research.”

SPENCER: Would such a thing happen to a scholar in Iran?

HOODFAR: In the digital world, yes. They pour huge amounts of money into digital research. They give those scholars salaries equivalent to what they would have got in the US to prevent a “brain drain.”

TAVAKOLI: “Digital warfare”!

HOODFAR: Yes, they are proud of it. They told me that they broke into the Pentagon and controlled Obama’s computer for two hours. And they have broken into Angela Merkel’s. After a few days they actually gave my Iranian sim card back to me. They would send me home but follow my phone. After a few days I realized their intention; they asked why I changed phones.

SPENCER: During those three days of interrogation, you were not yet arrested?

HOODFAR: I was already called to the court and couldn’t leave the country. But there was no file yet. Like the saying, “You give me a prisoner, and I’ll find a crime.” They were intelligence officers of the Revolutionary Guard. In Iran they have a national intelligence office. Then they have an intelligence office of the Revolutionary Guard, which has carte blanche. They don’t have to answer to anyone except the Supreme Leader, who wouldn’t know what they are doing.

SPENCER: Were they angry or nasty to you?

HOODFAR: Initially they came in angry. I had two guests who got angry too, so I calmed my guests and sent them away. I was polite and gave them what they wanted. If I resisted it would be worse. They were polite to me too, and when I went to the meeting it was like a scholarly discussion—except for the political element. As far as they were concerned, I was guilty, but they didn’t know what the guilt was. They were also surprised because every time they accused me, I answered back, contesting their views from within the Iranian constitution. I knew the constitution, which I bet none of them had read. I talked about Iranian law and my rights as an Iranian citizen. They kept saying “Western influence.” I said, “I have worked in Iran, in Egypt, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Indonesia. I haven’t just worked in the West. So my work is not Western feminism, as you say.”

TAVAKOLI: So it seems to be a question of national sovereignty.

HOODFAR: They wanted to make it a question of national sovereignty so it would be a security matter. I explained that I am a scholar of activism. My research is on women’s activism but that doesn’t necessarily make me an activist. Yes, I am a scholar at the service of civil society, but it’s civil society in many countries. The next day they would arrive a little more prepared. They had thought about how to come back at me. They were interested in the kind of funding that I had. I had some funding from Rights and Democracy, which was a crown institution. I think it was set up in 1991 and closed down by Harper in 2007 or 2008. They said it has funding from National Endowment for Democracy, which is US-funded. I said, “This organization, as a crown organization, doesn’t get funding from anywhere else. Second, it was closed years ago.” I knew they wanted to connect me to American politics. When that didn’t work, they focused on my work because I was invited by the vice president of Karzai’s minister of women’s affairs, the head of the family court, and the Afghani network to look at marriage and family law and come up with a national marriage contract.

Also, in 1984 a few of us had set up a network called “Women Living Under Muslim Laws”—not Muslim women but women who live in Muslim countries—to study women’s issues and support each other in our work. This organization has gone cross-cultural, with research in 28 different countries, so the Afghan women wanted someone to help them, especially with Hanafi law. Hanafi is a branch of Islam— the Egyptian school of law. Because I had worked in Egypt, I knew it and Shia law. I had worked with Afghans, have lived in Iran, and at the time my Dari wasn’t bad, because I had worked with Afghan refugees for seven years. They asked why I was invited. I said, “Because I am an expert on all this.” So they kept saying that I was influencing Islamic culture. They kept saying “You have deprived Afghan men of their rights.” I said, “Well, it is the marriage contract that Ayatollah Khomenei signed. Are you telling me that Ayatollah Khomenei didn’t know what rights women should have?” So they were angry. And I said, “If they invited me, who are you to say why I went there? Isn’t that influencing other cultures and politics?” They said, “Americans put Karzai there.” I said, “Well, maybe, but the Iranian government gave millions of dollars to Karzai.” They kept trying to say that Americans are influencing not just Iran but other Islamic cultures.

SPENCER: If you were trying to influence Islamic culture, but doing it on your own, would that have been okay, or was it just because they thought you were a tool of the United States?

HOODFAR: They cannot comprehend the idea that citizens could act independently, especially at such a high level. So they said that whomever I talk to, whether it is greengrocers or women in the Metro, it’s a political intervention because, as a professor, people do not question my word. They just accept it. I said, “Maybe you should come to some of my seminars.” [We laugh.] I said, “People question even ayatollahs’ words. That’s why we have different ayatollahs.”

TAVAKOLI: And the final charge against you after the preliminary interrogation was…

HOODFAR: Collaborating with hostile states. Initially it was under Article 509. But 509 means you have to be collaborating with somebody. They wanted to show I was collaborating with Molaverdi. But later they said it was a typo mistake. It’s not Article 509; it’s 508. In 508 you don’t have a collaborator. The punishments for 509 are more severe but it means that other people are also in it. If they could say that Molaverdi was with me, then she could be given the same charges.

TAVAKOLI: She is the vice president for women’s affairs. It seems that they focused on you because they knew that you had this meeting, and they were using you to fight against Molaverdi and the more liberal part of the political establishment.

HOODFAR: From the first, I knew that was the goal. They were not so much interested in me as they wanted to accuse this vice president for women’s affairs of having links with hostile states.

SPENCER: And you had met her casually?

HOODFAR: I had met with some Ph.D. students who had asked me to discuss methodology. They wanted to make sure there was something useful in their research on women. We met in the building for women’s affairs. They don’t get rigorous methodological training. We discussed how to design research on women in politics. Then one of them said, “Ms. Molaverdi is in her office. Let me see if she can meet with you.”

As a rule I don’t meet with officials because I hear that sometimes they use these linkages with outsiders against them. So I didn’t want to meet with her. It’s not just her, but I don’t meet with any officials in Iran. Twenty years, going back and forth, I have always kept my distance. Even at the university, I have little contact with colleagues. I read their work; they read mine, but I wouldn’t meet them when I was working on family because that’s a policy-oriented thing.

I went to the court five days after they had raided my apartment. They charged me but let me have bail. So my cousin put up his apartment as a bail and they let me go home, but said they can have eight more sessions of interrogation (which ended up to be twelve more) and then we would have the court’s case again. These twelve sessions became big because they had Iranian New Year in the middle. It was a different team of interrogators, who were really nasty.

SPENCER: When did people in Canada begin to worry?

AMANDA GHAHREMANI: I found out the first day. Her sister called me from London. I got an email from Homa’s email account after I knew that those accounts had been taken over, with someone posing as her.

HOODFAR: I told them, “You have sent messages to my family and friends posing as me. You told me not to change the password and I didn’t change it. But isn’t that immoral and anti-Islamic?”

They said, “This is impossible. This doesn’t happen.” He told the other guy, “Go and check that this has happened.” He would disappear and come back. Every time they would say, “Maybe someone else did it.” Then Amanda shut down the email.

GHAHREMANI: Initially it was her choice to keep this private and we wanted to respect that. We didn’t want to make things more complicated. We felt that, given her academic work and her profile, maybe this was an over-zealous group of interrogators who, if they had the information, would quietly stop. So we sent private letters to the president of Iran, the head of the judiciary, to the ministry of foreign affairs, and to the UN representative in New York. We hoped to stop it before it escalated to something more serious. For the first three months, before she was imprisoned, we worked diplomatically. We told the Canadian government and the Irish government—because she’s Irish.

TAVAKOLI: Irish-Canadian-Iranian. [Surprised laughter.]

GHAHREMANI: Homa considers exposure counterproductive to a lot of movements in Iran—especially the elected government. The elected government has been trying to get dual nationals and expats back to Iran. They want to grow the economy. She didn’t want this story to work against some of the administration’s great progress. Her priority was, “I don’t want this to cause a problem for Iran.” But everything continued to unfold, despite her mindset at the beginning.

SPENCER: So the president couldn’t get you out! The anti-president faction was in control of you and using you as a lever against the president!

TAVAKOLI: The equivalent is Obama and the Republican Party.

HOODFAR: Except that in Iran, imagine that we have two states. The non-elected body of the state, which is the Supreme Leader, controls the Revolutionary Guard, (the important military part of Iran), the police, the judiciary, and radio, and television. If the intelligence of the Revolutionary Guards is arresting me, the elected body has no power over this group. There are two parallel systems, but they have to negotiate. So they have more power than the Republicans would have in the US because the [US] Republicans still have to go through the judiciary. It’s one system. But in Iran, the judiciary is actually controlled by the Supreme Leader, whereas the republican side tends to be more democratic. They are elected and so they need the support of the citizens, so they are more attuned to what the public wants.

TAVAKOLI: The Islamic institutions are accountable to the Supreme Leader—and the Republic to the people who are elected. And these two are in conflict.

SPENCER: Are they always in conflict or just right now?

HOODFAR: Sometimes when the republican section is also conservative, like during the time of Ahmadinajad, this conflict is a bit less. It’s like when [the US] has a Republican president and a Republican congress they are more in line. They stlll have some tension, but it’s less.

SPENCER: So Amanda, you were working on her behalf. What was it like, negotiating from here?

HOODFAR: [laughs] If she had gone there they would have arrested her right away!

SPENCER: You’re also an Iranian citizen?

GHAHREMANI: I’m considered an Iranian citizen, though I was born in Canada. Because my father is Iranian, I will always be considered an Iranian citizen.

Homa needed legal representation in Iran. My efforts were coordinated with Global Affairs and they were working diplomatically behind the scenes. We shared information. And there was the “Free Homa” campaign, which was using Homa’s own networks. As a scholar she knows many grassroots groups, so she had an amazing network already in place.

SPENCER: You’re talking now about the time after this exploded in a public way. At first you didn’t want that to happen, but then it did happen. What turned it into a big public cause?

HOODFAR: I had said that if they put me in Evin Prison, it has to go public.

GHAHREMANI: Throughout those three months when she was out, we had a regular schedule of chatting every morning and evening. I needed to know if something had happened to her, and the best way was if she missed one of our calls. The choices we made when she was in prison were the result of the conversations we had had while she was out. When she finally went in that day, we thought it was a regular court hearing and assumed she would come back. Then she didn’t. From that moment we had no contact with her. I think it was two days later when we submitted our first press release. We went both to the Iranian language press and the Canadian press.

SPENCER: Was it publicized in Iran?

GHAHREMANI: During the first three months, nothing was mentioned and I suspect nothing would have been mentioned except that we went public. Then the conservative right-wing media tried to counter our angle. Contrary to Iranian law, her lawyer had no access to her file, and yet members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were leaking information about her case to the conservative media. We were learning more about the case from the reports in the media than from what her lawyer had access to. The “dabbling in feminism” and all those things actually came through the Iranian conservative media.

TAVAKOLI: What was this “dabbling in feminism”? You had interrogations that focused on feminism. What were they asking?

HOODFAR: Oh, there were about thirty hours discussing feminism. I said, “You have to define what you mean by feminism.” They said, “You can’t deny it.” I said, “I’m not denying it. I’m just trying to understand your question because feminism means different things to different people. It is an ideology, a conceptual framework, an analytical framework. I don’t know what you mean.” At first they said, “You imported feminism to Iran to subvert Islamic culture.” I said, “If you want to subvert Islamic culture, go to Indonesia and Afghanistan and Egypt.” I gave them a long lecture—four hours—discussing the difference between feminism and women’s rights, and the evolution of the feminist approach, and the debates between the First World and Third World. They said, “That’s not how people in Iran understand it.” I said, “That’s because you don’t allow the discussion. If you allowed the discussion, people would understand it.”

SPENCER: Were there any women interrogators?

HOODFAR: No, except when I was going to the empty building. Later there was always a woman sitting there. Her job would just be to say “pull your scarf forward.” In the middle of this heated discussion between me and the police, she’d say [whispering voice] “Madam: Please pull your scarf forward.” I’d turn back and tell her, “A woman of my age doesn’t need to observe the hijab in Islam.” Of course, the poor woman had no idea what I was talking about but the two interrogators knew. Once you are at menopause, you don’t have to cover. Now they are changing that definition to say that once you are no longer attractive, then you don’t have to cover. [We laugh.]

GHAHREMANI: Who would determine that you are no longer attractive?

HOODFAR: They kept saying, “Feminism has come.” I said, “Feminism has existed from the nineteenth century.” They had no clue that women had been activists or had participated in the constitution.

TAVAKOLI: So you were educating the intelligence officers. Did you give them reading assignments?

HOODFAR: I wish I could!

SPENCER: When you got thrown into prison was it a surprise?

HOODFAR: I had given it a 50:50 chance that if there is no agreement between the two sides—the government side (the republic side) and the theologians, then they would put me in jail. But I thought they might keep me there a few months and then let me go, saying, “Don’t come back.” My lawyer said, “Maybe they won’t put you in because they don’t have enough evidence. They may even let you go but not close the file.” That’s what they do with a lot of reformists. Every time elections come, they re-open those files so those people cannot become candidates. If you have a criminal file ongoing, you cannot be a candidate. So like President Hashemi’s brother—these big reformists— all of them have got files. It means they cannot leave the country but most of them are not interested in leaving the country anyway.

A friend had introduced my lawyer to me and I had signed the paper, just in case they’d take me. But they didn’t let him come to the court. I had a public prosecutor, a lawyer and the interrogators. The three of them were sitting there but they didn’t let my lawyer come. They kept asking me about all the work I had done on sexuality and I kept answering back, but then they decided to put my bail to 500 million. It was 100 before. I said, “I don’t have that much,” so they sent me to prison right away.

SPENCER: Evin Prison is famous as a terrible prison.

HOODFAR: There’s a prison and there’s a detention centre. I was in the detention centre—a small cell the size of a twin bed with a very tall wall. No natural light. The give you two military blankets, prisoner’s clothes, and a toothbrush. No pen, no books. They take away everything, including watch and jewelry. They took my glasses. I kept saying “I can’t see anything.” Then they brought my regular glasses. For months, every day, I would say “I need my reading glasses and newspapers.” So after a month they gave those to me. Both kinds of newspapers—the undemocratic and the democratic ones. I had never read the newspapers so closely in my whole life! I got them every day except Friday.

SPENCER: Could you communicate with people in the cells around you?

HOODFAR: Initially not, but then they brought other women to my room—young sex workers. Every few days they would change them. I was interested in what kind of interrogation they went through. The Revolutionary Guards had arrested them for doing sex work in Dubai. Evin is for political prisoners, journalists, writers, or financial corruption at a high level. It’s a political prison. These women had not committed sex work in Iran but abroad, so by crossing the border, it became a matter of security. They were surprised that they were in Evin Prison. Everyone knew that a professor was in the next cell. They would talk about their cases, and discuss their problems with me, so I became kind of a social worker. But when they asked me questions, even though I answered at a level that they could understand, they were frightened. They didn’t want to know my story. They wanted me to know their stories. Their interrogation was like pornography. That’s my second paper: “Interrogation as Pornography.” The interrogators would ask them questions: How often, with whom, how long does it take…/span>

TAVAKOLI: It turned them on.

HOODFAR: Yes. Over and over again. They repeat it. They make you write it. It was amazing for me, and every single one of them had gone through that.

TAVAKOLI: You turned your cell into a centre for anthropological investigation. What did you discover from this unique opportunity?

HOODFAR: Some of them only had high school, but quite a few of them had master’s degrees. Middle class. One of them was the daughter of quite a rich man—a doctor who had a hospital in Iran. They were spending a lot of money on their bodies. It was a kind of rebellion—but it helped them live the way they wanted. They had a flat of their own, even in a small town. They could live a life like they saw in Hollywood movies—women living on their own. But this went against the ideology of the regime. They would do sex work in Dubai for a month or two and make enough money for the year. They kept saying to the interrogator, “When I was working,” and the interrogator would say, “Working? You mean when you were a prostitute.” The women weren’t aware of the debate outside, but they saw it as work. Continuously, the interrogator would correct them. They would laugh but two sentences later they would say, “when I was working….

Initially I wasn’t studying sex work. I just thought I was studying the anthropology of interrogation. That’s what I called the project. I contacted a colleague and said: Send me Hannah Arendt! I need to re-read it. I always thought it was a good work, but now I can feel it. People are just like machines within the structure—not allowed to think for themselves. Sometimes things go wrong and they do think for themselves, but this frightens them and they change the topic.

The most intelligent interrogator was also the most sadistic one. You come there blindfolded, and sit facing the wall. But I had already seen the main three when initially I used to go to the empty building without a blindfold, so I recognized their voices in Evin. Whenever they moved us from a cell we had to have a blindfold. They would take me down there and walk back and forth behind me, even though I had seen them. It was as if they had seen movies about spying and interrogation and were re-enacting that—shouting. Sometimes the questions were stupid, as when once they asked me, “Who is Shahnaz Azad?” Shahnaz Azad was one of the women who had signed the constitution in 1915. I had said these feminists are home-grown, and one example I had given was Shahnaz Azad. So he said later, “Tell me when you met Shahnaz Azad.” He was shouting and trying to be intimidating. I laughed and said, “Shahnaz Azad died when I was just born.”

Their main concern is to get you to say what they want you to say. They would ask me a question. I would answer, and then I would have to write it. They would ask me the same question two days later. It rattled them that I wasn’t intimidated. This project had given me power. I was observing them, as they were observing me. They didn’t know that I was looking at them through this lens. I was anthropologizing them, as they were criminalizing me.

SPENCER: Were they surprised at your courage? Are they used to seeing people crumble and weep or scream?

HOODFAR: I could hear them interrogating some young guy who was not Iranian. They were shouting. Every half hour, he had to go to the bathroom. Sometimes women would cry. Making the person cry was one of the first things they had to do. It was a problem for them that I couldn’t cry.

Once they were behind a one-way mirror. We were talking about Afghanistan. They said “We have the right to protect Islamic culture when people are trying to change it.” I said, “How do you know your Islamic culture is what the people want?” They said, “We know. We believe in Islam.” I said, “That’s exactly what ISIS says. If anyone disagrees with them, they just chop their heads off.” They said, “You can’t compare us with them.” I said, “But that’s what they say. You think your interpretation is correct. They think theirs is correct. And none of you are listening to people.” He got so angry and excited that he left the room and came into my room.”

TAVAKOLI: Did his behavior change?

HOODFAR: Well, they realized that I know a lot more than they do and that I’m not changing my position to satisfy them. In the long run, maybe they hated me but they also respected me.

They wanted to frame me as a person who poses as an expert on Islam. So they brought my judge, who was also a Mullah, behind the mirror. They asked me how many times a day a Muslim is expected to pray. It was so unexpected a question I couldn’t remember. I think maybe I wrote fifteen. Then they asked me to write the five pillars of Islam. But that’s not what Iranians teach, so I wrote the five things and added, “And of course some people today put jihad as part of this, but jihad has never been.” Then they asked how many surahs are in the Koran. I didn’t remember. They asked me: What are the surahs that discuss women? That I knew. Then I could hear them discussing whether I knew Islam. I wrote about the five pillars of Islam the way I lecture, as the difference between the Sunni and the Shia. So I heard him say, “She knows this. It is not the way you and I say it, but she knows.” So they gave up testing me on Islam.

SPENCER: Amanda, when did you make a breakthrough in getting her out?

GHAHREMANI: I give a lot of credit to the Canadian government. They were at the forefront of the diplomacy. But we had several key moments that were reactions to events—especially Homa’s hospitalization.

HOODFAR: The rooms were so small and they put two people in them, so there was not enough air. My lungs got infected and I lost my voice. My vocal cords still have not quite recovered. I was short of breath, so they took me to hospital.

GHAHREMANI: We publicized the fact that she had been hospitalized. That mobilized a lot of people. That was also a pivotal moment on the diplomatic side because this was a woman in her mid-sixties who had health problems. Since an Iranian woman Zahra Kazemi was beaten to death in Evin Prison, neither the Canadians nor the Iranian authorities wanted such a thing to happen again.

SPENCER: But Harper had broken diplomatic ties with Iran.

GHAHREMANI: Right. There were no Canadians in Iran. Canada relies on its allies—on the Italians, the Swiss, and Oman. Oman has created a niche for themselves in the Middle East as an arbiter of peace. They work on hostage situations and have good relations with their neighbors. They’re the peacemaker of the Middle East. I know only as much as they allowed me to know. The UN General Assembly was happening in New York just before Homa’s release. Canada met there with the foreign minister of Iran, and I think brought up Homa’s case. The Iranian elected body didn’t want a prominent Iranian-Canadian who has been beneficial to Iranian society imprisoned in Iran, so they probably tried to see that she was released.

SPENCER: Homa, how long were you in prison?

HOODFAR: A hundred and twelve days. They brought another woman to my cell to make sure that if I got sicker, someone would knock to ask for help, which did happen several times.

TAVAKOLI: What is your message for readers of Peace Magazine?

HOODFAR: One conclusion is that, even when we don’t agree with other countries, having a channel of communication is important. Had we had an embassy in Tehran, I could have gone there the next day, not just a month later. A hostile relationship doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk.

Also, though I was very angry, I didn’t dehumanize anyone. I see them as people with different goals—even if they go about it unethically. In order for one human being to kill another, we just dehumanize the other. If we knew they are like us, it would be harder to shoot. To advance, we have to go through discussions. We have to be a bit more generous. We can criticize, but criticizing is very different from dehumanizing.

TAVAKOLI: How has your detention changed your life?

HOODFAR: I used to get invitations to media, such as CBC television. I would talk to them on the phone, but I didn’t like to go. I wasn’t interested in having a name for myself. The university wasn’t very happy about that—especially when there was a discussion about the veil. They said, we have the only expert in Canada here and you don’t give interviews! But now it has changed. Like it or not, now I am in the media more often.

Some topics—academic freedom, for instance—I used to take for granted. It is harder for me to talk about feminism now because I am more concerned about academic freedom. That’s where my mind is.

They said that academic freedom is a Western concept—just like human rights—and we don’t need it. I thought, if I have this right in Canada, do I lose it when I leave? I published a book on electoral politics. Here it was fine, but once I enter Iran, it becomes a cause for my arrest. That makes me ask: Is academic freedom universal or is it national? Is it a collective right or individual right? And if it is universal, what makes it universal? A lot of the discussion that makes it universal has not happened beyond Western culture. In Iran, they do not take it for granted, and they know the red lines. If we discussed it, we would also start questioning the red lines.

The anthropology of interrogation was never part of my research. Nor pornography. I never thought of it as research. It became part of my interest in Iran because they accept this “Islamic morality,” though what they do in interrogation is actually immoral. It’s pornographic. I retired because I wanted to finish my book. It is three-quarters done.

SPENCER: Now what kind of work you want to do?

HOODFAR: I see three articles: academic freedom; the anthropology of interrogation, and pornography as interrogation. And then a short memoir of this experience. I didn’t dehumanize them. I wanted them to understand. It was a strange classroom because usually the teacher is in a more powerful position, but in this case they had to be in power. But in the discussions I was in power. I wasn’t taking away their power but I was showing them my power with my knowledge. Two different kinds of power were at play.

SPENCER: Do you think they were changed by the experience?

HOODFAR: I think they change each time they arrest someone. Once the sadistic interrogator said, “We have decided you are a Basiji.” I answered that I don’t mind. A Basiji is someone who is committed to an idea. I said, “If that means I am committed to my cause and work for my commitment, I have no objection to that.” I went back to my cell thinking: What does that mean? Are they telling me that they recognize that you have done these things, based on your commitments? I didn’t quite understand but I thought that he wanted to communicate. I took it as meaning that what I had said had not gone into a deaf ear.

SPENCER: During the Green Revolution, weren’t the Basiji those guys who went around beating people up? I just assumed that the word meant something like “thug.”

HOODFAR: We use it like “thug,” but initially that was not it. Many Basijis went to the villages to help people. I redefined what I mean by Basiji and said I don’t mind. But the women prison guards would talk to me and report that I didn’t pray. I was the only one who neither fasted nor prayed while I was there. They would call me “haj khanom,” which means a committed Muslim who has gone to Mecca. I have secular friends who would take that as an insult. But I said no, I don’t mind. They have a stereotype of feminists who have been abroad, but I didn’t fit into that. Now I am out on bail, but I can’t go back. My file is still open.

Peace Magazine April-June 2017

Peace Magazine April-June 2017, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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