‘People Know If they Give Up there Will Be Another Massacre’
More than 150 protestors are estimated to have been killed by state security forces in Iran following the death in morality police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Adrian Goldberg spoke to human rights activist Nasrin Parvaz, who fled to the UK from Iran in 1993, for the Byline Times Podcast
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AG: Tell us about your story.
NP: When I was arrested in 1982, I was taken to an interrogation centre. We were there to be tortured and one of the aims of interrogators was to force us go on TV and condemn our own views, and our struggle to have rights. I didn’t accept that, and I was given electric shocks. But some of the prisoners were tortured so severely that they died.
I was tortured with ‘bastinado’, where they use a cable to beat your feet and sometimes your body as well. One day they bashed my head on the wall and, as a result of that, I developed a brain tumour which was extracted here in 2012.
What were you arrested for in Iran?
For the same thing that young people now are on the streets – my generation wanted freedom of expression, the right to join a union, equal rights for women.
They accused us of being agents of Western countries and many of my friends were executed. My sentence was execution as well, but my father went to people who had influence, so instead I spent eight years in prison.
In 1988, there was a massacre [of political prisoners]. The regime appointed a committee which chose which prisoners to kill, and the current Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was the head of that committee.
Clearly, it’s a very ruthless regime, and has been since the founding days of the Iranian Republic in 1979. How did you manage to get out?
When we were released, I engaged again with struggle against the regime, and they started to arrest us, so I had to escape.
Some of my friends escaped by walking in the snow, and crossing the mountains, but I was lucky my father had an agent who could cross my name from the blacklist on the regime’s computer. They helped me get a passport and, at that time, it was easy to come to the UK.
There seems to be an element of religious revolution now, with women seeking not to wear the hijab. How much of this is an attempt to shrug off a very strict interpretation of Islam and how much of it is against the political rulers of the country?
It’s both. Because of the religious regime, people don’t believe in Islam anymore.
The uprising was started by women after Mahsa was killed [in the custody of] the morality police, but soon the demonstrations changed to being against the regime… because the hijab is a big thing for the regime, women started to burn the hijab. It’s a rare thing because usually men start uprisings and women join them. But this time women started it and men joined them. The women started a slogan ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ and men chant these slogans as well.
Aren’t people putting their lives at risk every time they protest against the regime?
Of course, but they say ‘we don’t have anything to lose anymore’. Now it’s not only about Mahsa’s killing, it’s about inflation, lack of jobs and money – people’s money is used by the regime. They send their children to Western countries, they have a good time, they don’t observe their hijab here.
But in Iran, forcing women to wear the hijab, cover their hair and bodies, is a tool to suppress. Women are not in control of their bodies. For 43 years, they’ve been pushed down, humiliated. This anger that you see, it’s 43 years of anger – it’s the anger of their mothers, their grandparents, their brothers, their sisters who were executed, arrested, tortured.
People know that, if they give up, there will be another massacre. Look what happened three years ago, when there was a similar uprising. The regime arrested so many people and many of them were executed. Some of them were chained and dropped into a dam.
Iran was quite a secular society before the Revolutionary Guard took over from the Shah in 1979?
Yes, but the problem was the Shah didn’t allow people to have freedom of expression and, from 1975 to 1978, there was a lot of inflation and unemployment. The Shah brought people from small towns and villages to Tehran and other big cities to use them as workers, but he didn’t provide houses. That caused people to come out against the Shah, and the mullahs used that uprising, and unfortunately, Western governments helped the mullahs to come to power. They thought they would still have the oil.
In France [where he was exiled] Ayatollah Komheni had publicity, lots of Western media interviewed him. He said people would be free, and would have free gas, electricity, things like that. But when he came back to Iran, he said women had to cover their heads.
Thousands of women poured into the streets. Unfortunately, that time, men didn’t support them. It took more than two years before the regime could force women to observe a hijab – and then they started to arrest anyone who was asking for freedom of expression.
The US is trying to broker a deal with Iran, allowing it to develop nuclear power without nuclear weapons. Do you think that constrains Western governments and prevents them from taking action against Iran?
Nuclear weapons are dangerous in any country, not only Iran, but the regime is frightened. So many people are being arrested or tortured right now. People are in the streets, they are being shot in their head.
The internet is shut down in Iran, but a few clips of demonstrations and news are coming out. Western governments should close the Iranian embassies and send them home. They shouldn’t engage with the regime.