Unveiled Threats

She Found Prostitution Among Iran’s Holy Men. They Found a Way to Put Her in Jail.

At the close of 2000, some 81 journalists sat in jails around the world, confined for the crime of pursuing the truth. Killings of reporters have declined, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, but governments still find ways to suppress free speech. Last year in Iran, Muslim rulers continued their campaign to uproot a blossoming reformist press, banning more than 30 publications and putting reporters on trial. This is the story of one writer, imprisoned there in 1999 and now building a new life in New York.

July 1999—All summer I sat motionless on the cold floor of my cell, gazing at the small latticed window on the ceiling. On a good day, I could hear traffic from the streets of downtown Tehran. On a bad one, I heard only jail guards opening and slamming barred doors, or my fellow inmates weeping and crying out to God. My new home was a six-foot by three-foot room, empty of any amenities. I slept on a moket—a hard, thin mat—or tried to. Even at night, a harsh light glowed overhead.

Illustration by Max Grafe

I had been brought to Tohid, the infamous holding pen for political prisoners in Iran, by officials from the Ministry of Intelligence. They'd knocked on the door of my family's house shortly after dawn on June 24, 1999. My mother had been preparing for morning prayer; when she asked who was there, the agents explained they had a letter for me. But it was no ordinary piece of mail. A judge from the Islamic Revolutionary Courts had authorized the ministry to search my home and incarcerate me for interrogation. They ordered us to sit on the couch and keep quiet while they went through our belongings: our clothes, our papers, our photo albums.

Then they put me in the back of the car and blindfolded me for what I would later learn was a drive to Tohid. Dressed only in my nightclothes and an overcoat, I had become the latest journalist arrested in the crackdown on free speech and dissent. Ever since the 1997 election of the reform-minded president Mohammad Khatami, the press has been at the epicenter of a fierce battle between Iran's elected leader and its Islamic judiciary. During his first campaign, Khatami had pledged to restore the rule of law and civil society, but only after taking the helm in his hand did he realize the real power lay elsewhere, with the courts. With few political allies, he had only one institution to turn to for support: the fourth estate, which gave the president a chance to air his views.

The backlash from the judiciary was swift and intense. Even now, as Khatami campaigns for reelection, the judiciary continues to arrest journalists and shut down newspapers to stop the president's efforts at reform. As recently as January, a journalist named Akbar Ganji was sentenced to 10 years in prison, to be followed by five years of exile from Tehran. The next month, an incarcerated reform journalist named Ahmad Zeydabadi began a hunger strike to protest jail conditions, and several more were arrested and put on trial. In March, The Washington Post reported that two journalists, including a Reuters bureau chief, fled the country after being warned they had committed a crime by interviewing the jailed Ganji.

Almost three months before my arrest, the courts had closed my feminist daily, Zan, which was edited by Faezeh Hashemi-Rafsan Jani, the daughter of a former president. Each week, more newspapers were shuttered and more outspoken reporters and editors charged with crimes like treason, or simply held for months without formal accusations or hope for a trial. Tension was building throughout the country, and we all had reason to fear the worst. "I don't care where you go," I told my captors as we rode through the city. "Just please don't kill me."

A half hour later, still blindfolded, I was led by a guard through winding hallways. I counted each security door as we were buzzed in, 12 in all. Once inside the women's unit, they uncovered my face and gave me a hideous vinyl chador covered with pink flowers and a matching pair of plastic sandals. I didn't have to wait long for my inquisition to begin.

"Get ready for interrogation," said a female voice outside the door. I rose to fix my chador so that it covered my face and my neck. Then the warden again placed the blindfold over my eyes and pulled it tight. I was afraid she would take me to the basement, where I knew prisoners were sometimes tortured into giving confessions. My head was full of stories of people who were whipped, or chained to walls, or threatened with drowning. I tried to seem tough, throwing my head back with pride as we walked, but inside I was terrified. Fear sifted through my body, through every sinew and every vein. For the first time in my life, I felt completely vulnerable.

During the hundreds of hours I was interrogated, I never saw the face of my questioner, because my eyes were covered. But I made sure, right away, that he knew I had no business here. I had worked as a reporter for seven and a half years, mostly for reformist publications. At the time of my arrest, I was awaiting a return trip to New York, where I was scheduled to take an entrance exam for Columbia University. At this, he laughed. "Honey, you should forget about your exams," he said, implying years could pass before I was free again.

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