IranWire: Atena Farghadani has confirmed that she was subjected to a virginity test in prison.
The human rights group Justice for Iran originally reported that the imprisoned Iranian painter, cartoonist and civil rights activist had been forced to undergo a virginity test, though her family denied the reports. But now Farghadani has sent a message from prison confirming the rumors. A legal expert with good knowledge of Farghadani’s case also confirmed reports, though there has been no confirmation from her current lawyer, Hooshang Pourbabaei.
Shadi Sadr, the director of Justice for Iran, condemned the practice, saying that subjecting prisoners to virginity tests or threatening to do so amounted to torture. Amnesty International also condemned it, reiterating that violating the physical privacy of women to such a degree is torture.
On October 3, a judge tried Farghadani and her former lawyer, Mohammad Moghimi, in secret. Moghimi and Farghani are accused of shaking hands and engaging in “illegitimate relations.” Moghimi was arrested on June 13, and released a few days later.
On May 28, Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court presided over by the notorious Judge Abolghasem Salavati sentenced Farghadani to 12 years and nine months’ imprisonment after she drew a series of cartoons depicting Iranian MPs as animals.
Farghadani was originally arrested in August 2014 and was released in November 2014 after being held in solitary confinement for most of that two-month period. She was quickly re-arrested after she posted a video on YouTube stating that she had been sexually harassed while in prison. According to Article 134 of Iran’s Islamic Penal code, she must serve at least 7.5 years before she qualifies for release. In the meantime, she has been denied furloughs.
The announcement that Farghadani had been forced to undergo a test to determine she is a virgin has met with fresh anger from activists. “The Iranian judicial authorities have truly reached an outrageous low, seeking to exploit the stigma attached to sexual and gender-based violence in order to intimidate, punish or harass her,” said deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program on October 9.
“Coerced ‘virginity testing’ is internationally recognized as a form of violence and discrimination against women and girls,” Amnesty International stated. “It also violates the absolute prohibition of torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under international law, including Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Iran has ratified.”
After reports about Farghadani’s virginity test were published, a number of women who have spent time in Iranian prisons decided to break social taboos by publishing their own accounts of undergoing virginity tests. After publishing their accounts, some of these women faced verbal assaults from men on social networking sites.
Make Sure they Go to Hell
The practice of subjecting female prisoners to virginity tests has a considerable history in Iran. According to Shadi Sadr, virginity tests or threats of them also took place in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election.
But it goes back further: In the 1980s, when the regime conducted mass executions of political prisoners, the dominant belief within the prison system was that executed virgins would go to paradise. One solution to this was to forcibly marry them to prison guards and then execute them so that they would end up in hell.
In spring 1982, Minoo Homaili was sent to Qom prison along with six other women and was subjected to a virginity test. Homaili, an ethnic Kurd who was arrested because she was part of a Marxist student organization, still remembers the painful experience. “They told us: ’you’re corrupt and have been sleeping around with men,’” she told IranWire. “They told us: ‘Later you are going to claim that we have raped you. So we are going to examine you.’ We were embarrassed, but like sheep we held our heads down and moved with shaky legs, without saying anything. We could not say anything. If we did, we were flogged and tortured. We were told that that was the law in Qom prison. Every woman who entered the prison was tested for virginity. We never found out whether the person who examined us was a doctor or an agent. Perhaps both.”
During the four years that Homaili spent in prison, the same thing happened twice more, only because her irregular periods had prevented her from participating in prayers. “They told us that if we did not pray, we would be lashed or even executed because we would be considered heretics,” she said. “Because of psychological pressures, my periods had become irregular and any little event made me afraid of menstruation. In Isfahan and Sanandaj prisons, when I told them that was why I was not praying, they sent me to a gynecologist. In Isfahan prison the doctor confirmed it, but in Sanandaj what happened was different.”
The woman who accompanied Homaili from prison to the doctor in Sanandaj was a “repentant” prisoner named Gity Shirzad who was trusted by the guards. In her report she changed the doctor’s diagnosis and Homaili was punished harshly as a result.
Homaili, who was arrested when she was 16 years old, was a member of the Marxist militant student’s organization the People’s Fedayeen Guerrillas. “A guard named Sharifi said, ‘didn’t the doctor tell you what to do to end your pain?’” she said. “He meant that I must have sexual relations with him. And two other guards present laughed.”
Excuses for Virginity Tests
According to Iran’s penal codes, any kind of physical contact or sexual relations between men and women who are not family members or married is prohibited and punishable by law. “The charge of illicit relations is one of the excuses for the virginity test,” said Shadi Sadr. “In such cases a virginity test is ordered by the examining magistrate or the prosecution at the evidence-gathering phase. In criminal rape cases the same procedure is employed but in those cases the test is to find possible evidence for rape, not for virginity.”
Sadr told IranWire about one of the many such humiliating cases she has come across. “A woman who was the plaintiff in a rape case was tested and it turned out that she was not a virgin,” she said. “The judge told her, ‘you cannot prove the rape and neither are you a virgin. As a result, you are accused of illicit relations, and you have already confessed to that.’ In effect, the plaintiff was turned into the defendant.”
Sadr says that sexual taboos and the value that the traditional Iranian society places on virginity have caused many people to remain silent over the issue, or even to deny it. Other activists agree that such experiences are particularly traumatic for women in societies that value virginity to such a degree. Farghadani’s former lawyer has said traditional Iranian society has been more concerned with upholding a sense of so-called “honor” than presenting the truth.
Virginity tests are not only used against prisoners or those who go through the court system. In 2007, Sara, a student from Tehran’s Allameh Tabatabaei University who was conducting research into the “criminology of prostitution,” traveled to a “chastity home” in Qom responsible for rehabilitating former prostitutes. The Intelligence Unit of the Revolutionary Guards arrested her and, despite the fact that she presented letters of recommendation from the university’s security department, the police, the department of welfare and the ministry of justice, the judge ruling on the case sent her to the forensics department for a virginity test.
“It was a scandal,” Sara tells IranWire. “The woman who conducted the test used the worst possible words when talking to me. She opened my legs in a rude manner, pushed her head inside my legs and told me, ‘you had your fun and now you pretend to be a student?’ This was very hurtful to me. And when she found out that I was a Kurd she said, ‘you Kurds have beheaded our children. Now you have come to Tehran to do your dirty things?’”
“She was violent,” Sara said. “And what made it worse was that the doctor was a woman. Even the woman who wanted to drag me to the virginity test behaved like a cat lifting a kitten by its neck. I expected better treatment from my own kind. Even though the test proved that I was a virgin, the looks that they gave me in court and the allegations of illicit relations were too much. They want to torture and mess with one’s mind. Even now, I cannot have good relations with men.”