Nine female political prisoners began a hunger strike on October 31, 2012, to protest the “insulting” treatment they suffered at the hands of their guards at Evin Prison in Tehran. In all the photos and posters that have been published regarding the news about these women, only eight of them are pictured.
The ninth prisoner cannot be seen in any of these pictures, and searching the internet does not yield any images of her. In some reports, she is referred to as: “The Unknown Prisoner.”
On the two posters circulating among social networking sites, alongside the frames holding the faces of the other eight women, an empty frame can be seen with the name Raheleh Zokayi beneath.
Thursday November 22, 2007 – Evin Prison, Oblivion Ward
I met Raheleh Zokayi for the first time five years ago, when I was arrested for my activity with women’s rights defenders. It was the birthday of a prisoner in the financial offences section, and her cellmates had organized a surprise party with two tarts put aside for them by Shahla Jahed1 and 22 cheese sticks pressed into the tarts as candles. The room was one of the smallest in the ward, but more than 20 people were there that night. The washbasin was turned into a drum, and the girl who had been arrested the previous night was singing. Every once in while someone would go to the centre of the room and take a few dance steps and then, suddenly, as if the weight of the prison walls was crushing down on everybody and they would all fall silent.
I saw Raheleh there for the first time, with her short straight hair, pale face and big dark eyes. Her arms were covered with needle marks and tattoos.
The birthday party ended with the guard’s reprimand as the lights were turned off. Raheleh approached me and pointed to the book I was holding: “Hey sis, let’s have a look at your book!”
I asked: “You like poetry? It is Forough Farokhzad, the young poetess who died young in an accident.”
She took it in her hands and began reciting “Another birth” from memory:
A dark and chanted verse is what I am
Forever bearing you
In myself imbued with you
Forth to the morning of eternal burgeonings and blooms
Forough’s book was the only thing I had sneaked into prison. Raheleh also loved Forough and knew many of her poems by heart. We became friends that very night. As the women began to return to their cells one by one, we sat side by side under the dim light of the corridor, relating the stories of our lives.
She was 24, and I had heard that she was in for “armed robbery.” She said her uncles would carry out armed robberies and, since she was 11, she had to accompany them as a cover to throw off suspicion.
At 13, she was married off to one of the gang leaders at the Iran-Pakistan border region. He was violent and rough and had made Raheleh hate and fear all men. Her husband was killed a few years later in a shoot-out and left her with a son. At the time of her arrest, he was one year old. After the death of her husband, she had returned to her father’s home and once again had to accompany her uncles on their armed heists.
Once when she was telling me that story, I asked: “Couldn’t you have refused and run away?”
With a bitter smile she answered: “They would have cut off my head. Run away…what about my son?”
Raheleh Zokayi was arrested in 2002 at the age of 19 for the charge of “participating in armed robbery” and was sentenced to four years in jail. Later, when drugs were found in her cellmate’s belongings, she took responsibility for possessing some it in order to save her friend from hanging. The sacrifice added another 10 years to her sentence. She said, however, that she did it for the sake of friendship: “Friendship has a price!” Raheleh paid the heavy price, but the price turned out to be even heavier when her cellmate was once again found in possession of crack and ended up being executed.
Later, Raheleh herself resorted to drugs in order to relieve some of the pain, or, as she put it: “When you’re full of pain, when you have no way out, and drugs can be in your hand in a blink of an eye, it is the easiest way to bear the misery.”
When I saw her, she had just given it up. She said it was a tough struggle but she had done it for the sake of her son and for Asal. Asal was her five-year-old niece from a sister whose husband had been executed, after being arrested on charges similar to Raheleh’s. Her sister had then committed suicide. So Asal and Raheleh’s seven-year-old son were now living with Raheleh’s 20-year-old sister, who was also looking after their 11-year-old twin brother and sister.
Raheleh didn’t say much about her son. More than missing him, she was concerned that he had reached school age and lacked the birth certificate needed to register in school, and there was no one to face the bureaucracy for him. Her 20-year-old sister had enough on her plate taking care of four children, let alone coming all the way from Mashhad to visit her or chasing down her son’s paperwork.
Raheleh had spent all of these years without any visits. At Evin Prison, having visits is not just a matter of seeing relatives and relieving some of the pain of separation. More significantly, having visitors means getting some cash to be able to buy some of the basic necessities of life inside prison. While all prisoners get three meals a day, the meals are so low in nutritional content that those prisoners who rely only on prison meals for nutrition and have no money to buy some milk or fruit will soon perish.
Prisoners who have no visitors will usually try to make money doing odd jobs for other prisoners such as washing dishes or clothes or standing in the long line-ups to buy fruit, dairy or tuna. Instead, Raheleh would go to the doll workshop. It was more work, but Raheleh preferred the workshop because it was some time away from the ward. Drugs were easily available in the prison ward, and she was afraid of getting caught up in it once more, so the doll workshop was a kind of refuge for her. She earned 100,000 rials a month for working from dawn till dusk everyday, and in the evening she would go to the library to get a book for her sleepless nights. She said she had read the Harry Potter novels at the library four times and was dying to read the next installment and see the films.
She was young, very young. If you ignored the tattoos and needle marks on her arms, she wouldn’t even seem 24. Her eyes were full of life before she relapsed into drug abuse.
One night, when she asked me why I was in jail, I told her about the One Million Signatures Campaign to End Discriminatory Laws and the women who were struggling on the other side of the prison walls to change the laws and attain some degree of justice. She listened carefully, and later I heard she was telling other women about the campaign and the struggle for women’s rights. On the day when Parliament approved equal inheritance rights for husband and wife, I was still in jail. I had just returned from an interrogation session when I heard women cheering and applauding in the lower ward, and later I saw Raheleh running up the stairs, saying she had good news.
She told me with childlike excitement: “It’s on the news; they are going to fix the inheritance laws to give husbands and wives equal rights. I was just telling my cellmates about the campaign and they were all telling me, ‘Get out of here! These laws can’t be changed.’ And then we suddenly hear this on the news and we all cheered.”
Then, with a kind of hope I had never seen in her eyes before, she asked: “By the way, sis; do you have one of those petitions for us to sign?”
She had begun studying and kept saying that she wanted to get rid of the tattoos on her arms. She had heard that some prisoners may be pardoned and she was caught up in the fever of getting out. She wanted to get her diploma, as she had only gone to school as far as seventh grade, then studied up to tenth grade at nights on her own and passed the exams. She wanted to get a job and take charge of her son and niece and twin brother and sister. She said Asal was only five but she was a handful, and her sister could not handle her, so her husband had sent her to live with her uncles. Raheleh was afraid that she too would be taken on their heists and would fall into drug abuse.
Then she would suddenly break off from these musings and say: “These are all just a bunch of useless fantasies. In 10 years, when I get out, I’ll be a 34-year-old illiterate and unemployed woman who cannot even feed her 16-year-old son. That’s, of course, if he can even remember me then.”
“Well, this is my lot. I shouldn’t think of it too much. I am used to prison. I have almost forgotten how it is out there. I don’t even know what to do if I get out.”
A few weeks later, the authorities began separating prisoners based on their offences, so Raheleh was moved from the financial offences ward, which was relatively safe and had less overt drug use, to the ward specifically for drug offenders, where drugs were to be openly found in all the cells and most of the 35 prisoners in each room were addicted.
Raheleh and her friends protested against the move, saying she had been clean and a return would make her very prone to a relapse; the authorities did not listen. Within two weeks, Raheleh fell back into her old habit. She had lost all hope and had no strength to fight it anymore.
I couldn’t see her much after that, and the few times I did, her eyes had lost their little rays of hope. She did not care for books anymore and was mostly drowsy. Once when I gathered all my determination to talk to her, she looked at me demoralized, saying: “What could I change? You know what it means to be here for eight years? Do you know that even when I get out I have to return to the same house and go back to robbery and smuggling? A lonely addicted woman with no education or skill, even if she is released..what’s she gonna do? With a young boy who god knows how old he’s gonna be then…”
She said these things and got going. I didn’t see her again until the day I was released. She did not look well. She had shaved her eyebrows but her eyes had regained some hope. I heard she had once again stopped using drugs. She was studying again and had even started painting. I heard this from others who served time later. The last I heard, she was transferred to a prison in a small provincial town, and then I never heard from her again.
She was, however, always on my mind; maybe because she was the same age as my sister. I always wondered if she could turn her life around with all those natural aptitudes and zest for life. Maybe it was our shared love for Forough… or knowing her dreams… I don’t know.
The last time I saw her, I gave her my copy of Forough’s poetry and wrote in it: “For days that may be brighter and free”; she whispered: “Perhaps…”
September 15, 2012: Dublin
It was September, and the Dublin sun was still strong enough to allow breakfast on the balcony. I was eating with a friend whose sister had been recently released from prison, and she was telling me recent tales from the political ward of Evin Prison.
Her sister had told her especially about a girl who had been given a death sentence. She had told her that the girl was in love with Forough and wanted to learn English; that she had no visitors and was funny and decent.
I thought of Raheleh. I said I also had met someone in the general ward who was like that, and soon she told me that she was called Raheleh.
I thought: had Raheleh been given the death sentence? Raheleh who was lost and anonymous behind prison walls? The more she told me, the more I was sure that it was the same Raheleh. She had been sentenced to death, and no one had heard about it. I heard that she had gone on a hunger strike in protest against the unreasonable sentence they had handed her. I heard she had sewn her lips together, and no one had even heard of it.
She said: “In the first days after the 2009 election protests, political prisoners in Evin Prison were first being taken to the general ward, and Raheleh had helped some of them circumvent their restrictions on getting phone calls, and the prison authorities had used this as an excuse to slap her with a death sentence. They had accused her of links to the People’s Mojahedin Organization and charged her with enmity against God.”
Her hunger strike had forced them to reconsider the sentence, and they reduced it to an additional one-year jail term, which landed her in the political ward of Evin Prison. I emailed a few people in Iran; no one had heard of Raheleh and did not know that she had almost been executed.
Now, after months of no news, Raheleh Zokayi’s name appears alongside those of the other eight women in the political ward of Evin Prison who are refusing food. But she remains the “unknown prisoner” whom no one has heard of. No one knows what she is in jail for or where she came from, and there are no pictures of her.
Raheleh is not a prominent human rights activist or journalist or political or social activist, nor does she have a family to be her voice on the outside.
Her vacant frame is being passed around in the poster of the women on hunger strike, and sometimes even the empty frame is omitted. She is perhaps the symbol of all the men and women who now and for many years before have been incarcerated, tried or even executed without anyone seeing their picture or hearing their voice.
Men and women who have suffered alongside others but with voices never heard, only to become another cipher in the endless procession of prisoners and the executed of these past years.
1- Shahla Jahed was an Iranian woman jailed in 2004 accused of murder of her boyfriend's wife. Human rights organizations campaigned to have her death sentence commuted and insisted that she did not get a fair trial. She was executed in December of 2010.
[translated from the original in Persian]