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Prison Memoirs

"Brainless": A Woman Lawyer's Brush with Sexism in the Iranian Judiciary

Mehrangiz Kar / English translation by ABF
Nashr-e Baran
January 1, 2002
Book chapter

They have brought the prisoner to the third branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Tribunal for her trial. A dark blue chador with judgment scales is covering her head. The woman is resourceful and articulate. She is charged with carrying a large amount of opium and trying to sell it. I am also summoned to the court. My interrogation is over, and the judge has invited me to sit through the woman’s trial, as if he is trying to convince me that he is qualified to be a judge. I comply and witness a unique trial. The woman is now denying everything that she has stated on the interrogation papers. During the three-hour trial she does not accept any of her previous statements. She stares defiantly at the judge and denies the very existence of her crime.

Apparently, the officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Tribunal first contacted the woman as drug buyers and then arrested her while she was committing the crime. One of the dealers is her ex-husband. She repeats herself:

“Everything is a lie. If you want to know the truth, go after Mr. Said.”

She describes what Mr. Said looks like. Scoffingly, the judge calls the officers one by one. The woman says:

-“It’s none of them. Said is someone else.”

Finally, the judge gets on the phone and starts talking. He laughs. It is obvious that the speaker’s name is not Said; but the judge tries to pretend that he is the one that the woman is talking about. The speaker does not seem to realize why the judge is obviously avoiding his name. The judge laughs and stares at me with his mischievous look, trying to impress me with his deceit. Then he says on the phone:

-“Haj Agha! When I say Said, I mean the organization. Why don’t you understand? All the officers here are called Said and all the judges, Ahmadi. Why have you forgotten?”

I am shocked. So in Iran’s judiciary, Said is the name of an organization in a division controlled by special security forces, not that of a person. I can no longer listen to the conversation between the judge and the defendant. I am thinking about the organization that could be identified by the password “Said”. I think about Said Eslami who was said to be the mastermind of the murder of dissidents (known as the chain murders). I think about the organization that had assigned Said Askar to assassinate Said Hajarian[1], the theoretician of Do Khordad[2] and the architect of governmental reforms. Said Hajarian is also tossing in my muddled mind. How could all these “Said”s have a role in the major security events? What is going on here?

I can’t help thinking about the role of Said Mortazavi the judge of the Press Court during the reform era. The words of the judge ring in my ear; he is still on the phone:

-“Haji! Said refers to the organization. I know your name is not Said”.

The more I commute between the prison and the Revolutionary Tribunal, the more it stuns me. I do not understand what is happening or who is playing games with whom. The only thing that is clear is that this is the Tribunal dealing with narcotics and it is no place for strangers, but swindlers; and this is the only comprehensible part. The judge hangs up the phone and says to me following a loud laughter:

-“ All the officers here are Said and all the judges, Ahmadi!”

His words add to my distress. As if giving this name to all the judges of the Revolutionary Tribunal would help him conceal his past. He first had appeared to us as Judge Ahmadi, and did not want us to call him Moqadas (Sacred). Later on, he had no choice but to sign the verdict he issued, Ahmadi Moqadas. Judge Ahmadi Moqadas loved the name Ahmadi, although he clearly got anxious whenever he was called Moqadas. I never understood why. Perhaps the answer must be sought in his past, which of course is not my job. It requires a man such as Akbar Ganji, with such perseverance, connections, and power to access sources of information[3].

That day the judge humiliated the woman’s lawyer in front of his client and me. After hearing his defense, he bluntly said to the defendant:

-“You’d have had a better chance without a lawyer. What a shame that he ruined your case. Do you have money to burn? I would have helped you myself. Why did you have to trouble this gentleman?”

The lawyer’s face turned red; he was infuriated. He did not know how to communicate with a man who sits as a religious judge, is authorized to issue verdicts, and who can even, if he sees fit, send a lawyer to jail. The appointed judge who has the rank of a religious judge and even allows himself to break the laws of the Islamic Republic –the regime he approves of–, was trampling on a lawyer in front of his client.

My eyes met those of the lawyer. I was in a rage too. The lawyer did not know that behind this chador, the woman witnessing the contemptuous behavior of a judge with no respect for the dignity of the legal profession, is another lawyer, herself trapped in the grip of that same judge. He did not know that he had become a pawn in the factional infighting playing out in the court.

The lawyer left the court in shame. The judge immediately became gentle with the accused. In the absence of the attorney and in my presence, he liked to hear the woman begging for mercy. He continued to speak until the woman changed her manner of defense. She had understood the judge well, and had seen how the attorney, assaulted by the judge’s insults, had left the Court crushed. She knew that everyone had testified against her and there was no way to escape. Her feminine instincts also made her realize that the judge would be the only one to help her. With a seductive voice, she said:

-“Haji! Even if I have done something wrong, you’re generous enough to forgive me. Women are brainless. Please be considerate. I didn’t have a real guardian to guide me either.”

She cleared her tears with the corner of her chador. The judge laughed loudly. He was ecstatic, as if he had been enjoying the first night of his marriage, and was all excited. He stared at me and said:

-“In the past few days, I have heard a similar defense from another woman. Do you recall that?”

He was right. It was last week that Shahla Lahiji[4] –the other defendant at the Berlin Conference– and I had a meeting with the judge. I finally dared to say: “Isn’t it true that you think of women as injudicious?”

He did not answer me. I twisted the question: “Are you one of those who believe that women cannot be judges?”

He moved in his seat and said: “Yes”.

I asked, “Is the premise that women’s feelings prevail over their mind the reason that you deem them unfit to be judges?”

He said: “Yes. Indeed, this belief has a scientific basis. I have recently read an article saying that women’s skulls and brains are smaller than men’s.”

I said: “ In your opinion and in the opinion of the other rulers of Iran, a woman’s skull is smaller than a man’s, her feelings overcome her logic, and she cannot judge correctly. With such a belief, how would you still insist on women’s penal and civil responsibilities? Why are you putting two brainless women, who have accidentally talked about serious issues in Berlin, on trial? Do you have the right to imprison a simpleton who is not even capable of making a distinction between good and bad?

Remembering this, our eyes met. Triumph was pouring from his face. My face was all suppressed rage. Unaware of our exchange, the defendant said to the judge: “For God’s sake give back my son’s car. He’s in debt for it and he’s given checks to people. He works with the car. He has a family to take care of.”

The judge answered: “The smuggled items were carried in this car.”

The woman got exasperated: “Haji, what items? There aren’t any items.”

The judge gave her the good news: “If your son is willing to cooperate with us, maybe we can do something.”

She asked, “Like doing what?”

And she heard: “You’re all set. Good luck.”

She was taken away by the officers. It was now the judge and I. I was trying to hide my rage. I continued asking some trivial questions and I joked a bit: “If it were not against the law, I would have chosen this illiterate defendant as my attorney. She is resourceful; she can contend. Attorneys speak the language of law. They are not able to deal with you.”

The judge was thrilled again. He laughed and said:

-“You must see her step-daughter; then you’ll know who is smarter here, you lawyers or them. She has been in jail since the age of twelve, because of her father who forced her to sell drugs. And now she is the tool of the father and the stepmother. She manages their smuggling deals. They have created a family mob all together. The head of the mob is the girl who has been in jail since childhood. I don’t know how she has grown a mustache and beard...”

His words were bullets in my heart. For eight years, they had imprisoned a child who was compelled by her father to carry drugs. She was brought up in jail and is now a professional with mustache and beard. Chemicals meant to turn off prisoners’ sexual desire had been added to the young girl’s food and caused hormonal imbalance during her puberty.

Without noticing my discomposure, the judge was having fun with his prison and court stories. He was enjoying his own braggadocio as usual:

-“You know... According to the law and the weight of the smuggled drugs in this case, she should be sentenced to at least ten years in jail. However, with the help of God, I’ll arrange for her to stay only for two years instead of ten.”

He was showing off his power to save the defendant. Nevertheless, I had gradually realized that having a position in the Revolutionary tribunals, especially the ones dealing with drugs and smuggling, requires an entry fee. Not everyone is allowed there. The attorneys who accept such cases, but are outsiders, will end up where the woman’s attorney did, berated and held in extreme contempt. The judges scorn them in front of their clients so that they would leave the scene in favor of attorneys who are insiders. Those insiders with connections to the judge are treated with respect and they might even draft their defense while negotiating with the judge. If they come to an agreement, the deal is easy. Omitting the Prosecutor’s office from Iran’s legal system has brought a sigh of relief to the wheeler-dealers. Both sides, the defendants and those involved in the case [[What exactly does this mean?]], benefit from this trade. The punishments are supposed to be in proportion to the weight of the drugs. If that weight is reported less in the report, the punishment will decrease considerably. Now it is clear why the Mafia wants to extend and maintain the Revolutionary Tribunals twenty-two years after the revolution. The protectors of this highly profitable business must justify the necessity of its existence once in a while and accuse some people of violating national security, in order to keep the business alive.

The sun had set. I returned to my cell with a heart torn from bitter stories of the twelve-year-old kids who reach their twenties in prison next to the adult criminals, grow a mustache and beard, and run a family gang for dealing drugs. I wished I could have died. I felt filthy and it seemed as though my only solution was death and getting washed in the morgue. As soon as I drank a sip of the hot tea that the friendly jailer had brought me, I gained back the joy of life, and forgot about the stories of that day and of the other days.

 

[1] A former cadre of the Ministry of Information who supported the reformist movement led by President Khatami. He survived an attempt against his life by elements close to conservative milieu.

[2] Do Khordad (May 23, 1997) refers to all Islamist reformists who supported President Khatami's vision of reform. The first election that resulted in Khatami's victory was held on May 23rd, 1997.

[3] Akabar Ganji, is a former Islamist who has become a dissident journalist. He investigated state sponsored extra-judicial killing in Iran. Ganji has been arrested at the same time as Mehrangiz Kar and was held in detention until March 20th, 2006.

[4] An Iranian journalist and women rights advocate.