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An Iranian American scholar talks about her time in a notorious Tehran prison


Haleh Esfandiari remembers many details of her time in Iran's Evin Prison - one sound in particular.

HALEH ESFANDIARI: Every time I returned to my cell from interrogation and when they shut the iron door and locked it, I knew that this was it. I mean, if I wish to go out, I couldn't. And I think it was such a horrible noise that it would stay with me forever and ever.

MARTIN: Esfandiari is an Iranian American academic. In 2007, she was imprisoned for what Iranian officials described as anti-government activities. She was held at Evin Prison in solitary confinement for 105 days. Esfandiari has watched in awe as women in Iran remove their hijab and protest in the streets. These demonstrations started after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody after being accused of wearing her headscarf too loosely. Human rights groups estimate that around 200 people have died since the protests began last month. Thousands more have been arrested and detained at Evin Prison. Haleh Esfandiari told me what she remembers of that place.

ESFANDIARI: The tattered rug, the broken sink in the corner, and my cell happened to be, I think, over the kitchen, because it had some iron windows on the wall and the smell of food would constantly come in. Plus, the lights were on 24 hours a day, and the 105 days in solitary confinement, your companions are your interrogators and the women guards. And I was interrogated eight to nine hours a day.

MARTIN: Did you get a sense that women prisoners are given certain allowances? Are they treated differently or better than male prisoners?

ESFANDIARI: No, I think political prisoners are being treated equally, I mean, really because, you know, I read about women being tortured. You must remember that - I think something around 20 years ago - a Canadian Iranian journalist who was taking pictures outside Evin was arrested, and she died in Evin because they hit her so much on the head during her interrogation.

MARTIN: Do you know, Haleh, how and why the prison came to be? I mean, it is often reported in the Western press as the notorious Evin Prison, which ascribes to it a certain level of darkness - right? - that prisoners are routinely mistreated there. What is its history?

ESFANDIARI: All I know about Evin is that it's a fearsome and forbidden place. It's a place where people have been tortured, have been executed. People have disappeared. And therefore, it is known as the notorious Evin Prison, you know? I don't think it ever had a good reputation. So it's not a rehab center. It's a terrible place to be. I mean, when they told me, we are taking you to Evin, you know, I was ready for everything because I just didn't know what was expecting me there. I mean, I was not physically tortured. I mean, I must be fair. I was not physically tortured but mentally all the time. You know, I was threatened that they will keep me as long as it is necessary - maybe years and years in Evin - until I confess. I didn't have anything to confess, you see. So, I mean, it's worse than what you hear.

MARTIN: You understand what it's like to have to spend days, weeks, months in Evin. In light of that, what goes through your mind when you see these Iranian women walking down the street, taking off their hijab, filming it, posting it on the internet, protesting this way?

ESFANDIARI: You know, I'm full of awe, honestly, and full of respect and admiration. And on the other hand, because I was involved also in the women's movement before I left Iran, I think the torch has passed to a generation which is much stronger and bolder than we were.

MARTIN: Does it feel like you're watching a historical shift right now because of these protests?

ESFANDIARI: Definitely. You know why? - because it's the women who are leading these protests - young women, you know? Young women who have their whole life ahead of them are willing to sacrifice themselves. I mean, this is exceptional. And the government better deal with them and listen to them because otherwise, I mean, they will have this kind of rebellion and this kind of demonstration and protest movement - if not going on for a long time, I mean, happening in a couple of months again.

MARTIN: Do I hear you saying you think this is an actual threat to the regime itself?

ESFANDIARI: I mean, it should be. It should be a threat to the regime. It is their children. It's their children, people who grew up in Iran. It's not - they can't blame it on the U.S. They can't blame it on Israel, although they do. They can't blame it on the previous generation anymore. No. This is people who lived in Iran and felt the hardship, felt the corruption, were angry about the economic disadvantages they were having. Plus, the women didn't want to be anymore considered as second-class citizens and humiliated all the time - constantly somebody telling you, cover your hair. Why is your robe tight? Why do you have a bit of makeup? I mean, how much humiliation - I mean, you know? They really have it up to here today. This is the way they feel, and the government is not doing anything for them.

MARTIN: Haleh Esfandiari is a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center and the founding director of its Middle East program. She spent 105 days in solitary confinement in Tehran's Evin Prison. Thank you so much for talking with us.

ESFANDIARI: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.