Victims and Witnesses
"If You're Not a Lesbian, Why Don't You Have a Boyfriend?": Witness Testimony of Rezvaneh Mohammadi
Abdorrahman Boroumand Center
May 17, 2019
My name is Rezvaneh Mohammadi. I was born in 1991 in a small town in Iran. After I graduated from high school, I studied polymers engineering in college, and then obtained a master’s degree in Social Science from Iran Academia Institute. On September 3, 2018, I was arrested in the street by plainclothes agents of the Ministry of Information. Later, one of the charges leveled against me was “acting against national security through activities toward normalization of homosexuality”.
Discovering and understanding one’s sexual orientation is a strange thing. Ever since I was fourteen or fifteen years old, I was afraid [to find that out]. I had heard that there were people out there who were with people of their own sex, and that this was a bad thing, so I couldn’t possibly be one of them! But I could feel that I wasn’t a normal girl either, according to the defined norms of society. Then I became afraid [and asked myself], is it possible that that I could be one of those people who have to undergo an operation later on? Like, could I be a transsexual, as I would interpret it now? Then I would say to myself “no! That’s not what I want!” because I had truly had no desire to be a boy either. But there would be feelings, nevertheless, for a friend, a classmate, or a teacher, for instance, and that you might like someone. In a way, you constantly have doubts about yourself. I doubted myself but I used to say to myself that I would grow up and everything would change and I’ll be ‘fixed’, that I would ultimately end up liking a boy. I had no idea what a transsexual was or what a lesbian was. I didn’t know anything about my sexual orientation when I was still in school. One day, by accident, I believe it was in 2010, I saw a program where they were interviewing a rapper by the name of Saye Sky. It was about the fact that the rapper was a lesbian, what it meant to be a lesbian, and things like that. That was the first time I was hearing the term “lesbian”. I had never even heard it before then. I decided to do a Google search to find out what it was. Then I was like, wow, these are regular people too? So it’s not a problem if you’re like that? Then that’s what I am! And I accepted it very quickly! There are a lot of people out there who run into all sorts of problems when they are going through a period of self-doubt. But for me, as soon as I heard that there was such a thing, I decided that that was what I was, and that up until then, there just wasn’t a name for it!
One of the most significant things that happened to me was that when I went to college, for some reason, one of the girls in the dorm had looked at my cell phone without my knowledge and had discovered my sexual orientation. I had no idea at the time that she had found out. Then gradually the entire university found out. I was excluded from different groups in the course of the following semesters. The fact that I myself tried to stay away from everybody is a different story, that is, I didn’t have any close friendships with the guys from college anyway. But I was being ostracized. I may not have understood it then but I learned it later on from what other people were saying. Later, other people told me what had happened that had let to me being excluded. For instance, I was a member of the science association. I had been elected and I was supposed to become the secretary of the association the following semester. But all of a sudden, they told me that I did not have the votes. And I thought to myself, well, I just didn’t get the votes. Another example: I had joined another association as well, and after a while, they just wouldn’t notify me of the meetings. Later I learned that the people in that particular association excluded me either to please the higher ups, or they were actually ordered by the higher ups that I was not to be there. These things started to happen in my fourth and fifth semester in college. I experienced discrimination and exclusion from various groups to the fullest in my time at the university. Outside the university, we had some groups but inside, nothing and nobody! I didn’t even feel safe. After a while, because of the pressure I had endured, I said to myself, you know what, from now on, whoever is going to be in my life has to be worthy of it, and I should at least be able to tell them my sexual orientation. If they have a problem with my sexual orientation, well then, goodbye! In other words, my circle of friends was eventually composed of people who had no issue with my being a lesbian.
I was going to class in the afternoon of September 3, 2018. I was at Ferdossi Square when two men in plain clothes and a woman wearing a chador called me. They said: “Ms. Mohammadi?” I was shocked; was that the Ershad Patrol (the equivalent of a Morality Police in Iran), I asked myself? Then I thought, how would the Ershad Patrol know my name? They arrested me and took me away in a Peugeot 405 automobile. They showed me a paper that had the picture of only one of the men on it. He said he was from the Ministry of Information. He showed me the paper and we got in the car. No one gave me a name. It was about 4:45 PM when they arrested me. They searched my bag on the way. They wanted to take my cell phone, so I turned it off and gave it to them. One of the men acted more harshly. For instance, he wouldn’t let me turn my cell phone off. “Give it to me! Give it to me or I’ll put handcuffs on you,” he would say. The other man would say: “Don’t worry, let her turn it off.” They took me to Esteghlal Hotel, I believe to the eighth floor. We waited for about half an hour for the interrogator to come and take me to the 8th floor. When I went into the room, there were two people there. One was the interrogator and the other one was just sitting in a corner and kept smiling, more like a smirk. He would write something on a piece of paper and would hand it to the other guy. They told me to turn my cell phone on. I said: “I’m sorry but I won’t do that.” The main things the interrogators were asking about, once they got to their questions, was the conferences I had attended outside the country, the most important one of which was two ILGA conferences, and about my sexual orientation. They didn’t talk much about my orientation that day. He was mostly saying “you’re a trans (short for transsexual)” in order to get me to say that I was but I said I wasn’t.
I was not blindfolded during the arrest and during the interrogation at Esteghlal Hotel. They told me that they would take me to the hotel and that we would have a very civil discussion and just talk. So I was not handcuffed and blindfolded when they arrested me; but when they took me to Evin [Prison], when we actually got to the prison itself, they told me to lower my head and lean on the seat so as not to see anything. And when we got to the entrance to [Ward] 209, they put blindfolds on me.
I was detained at [Ward] 209 for 26 days. I was completely alone for fifteen days. On the fifteenth day, I became a “general” [prisoner], that is, they brought two other people into my cell. I was subsequently imprisoned in the women’s ward for 21 days, for a total of 47 days.
I was only allowed to contact my family on the fifteenth day. They said my lawyer would come to meet me so I could sign a retainer. I signed it at [Ward] 209. I was only able to talk to my family twice during the time I was in 209, each time for about two or three minutes, and I had one visitation. Phone calls were made through a phone calling card, and there would be a female guard standing right next to you in order to cut off the connection if you said something you were not supposed to.
I had two interrogators. The first one was at the hotel and on my first day at 209. On the first morning I spent at Evin’s Ward 209, the investigating judge assigned to the case said to me: “Think about the offer they made to you yesterday.” No one had proposed anything to me at all. I said: “All they told me was to confess; they didn’t make any offers.” That same afternoon, that first interrogator came and suggested that we cooperate. I think there might have been a lack of coordination between them: they were supposed to offer [a] cooperation [scheme] but had forgotten to do so. They knew I intended to emigrate. I had even signed up for the IELTS exam. The interrogator mentioned some names and asked if I knew them. I said I had seen them on the internet and on satellite [TV] channels. The interrogator said: “We know you have more extensive contacts. Since you like travelling abroad so much, you can come and go and work for us at the same time. And you will live a nice, comfortable life. We pay a lot of money. We can give you money and provide you with a lot of amenities. Go abroad, get close to the activists outside the country, and report to us.”
It was the first day of interrogations and I was really scared. And I was very tired. I thought I would delay until the next day, give meaningless answers and buy some time until at least some people found out that I had been arrested, because no one other than my family knew that I had been arrested and I absolutely did not think that my family would spread the news, and fortunately, they did well. They insisted that I accept [their offer]. I kept saying no, and that I wasn’t looking for trouble, and I didn’t want to give them a nonsensical answer. He would say: “Come on, now you’re working for us, you’re our employee.” I said: “What good does it do you for me to go live there?” “No, you come and go,” he responded. I said I had to go to my cell and think about it. The next day I told him that I did not accept his offer. So the next day my interrogator changed; it was insults until Saturday.
Interrogations usually took place after lunch. When they actually wanted to get on your case, they would show up even earlier, and I would have lunch right there in the interrogation room. The interrogations usually ended around the time of the evening call to prayer, around seven thirty, eight o’clock. As soon as we heard the call to prayer, he would say: “Go on for now.”
I was insulted during the entire course of interrogations. From that very first moment at Esteghlal Hotel when they asked me about being transsexual and I told them I was not, they said they would tell my family. And when they took me to Ward 209, the woman who conducted my body search was asking about my body. And I was like, you see what I am, why are you asking these questions?
Or when I was walking in prison, for instance, they would say “She’s a trans”. Or they would insult transsexuals and homosexuals alike during interrogations. They would even say unabashedly “if someone is a trans and doesn’t want to get an operation, then we will deal with them in the appropriate manner”.
Throughout the interrogations, they threatened me with flogging and rape, even though nothing actually happened. For instance, the interrogator who was a man would say: “There are things that we do that I’m kind of bashful to talk about. You know. Things that they do to women!” They would say: “We’ll flog you, that’s part of the interrogation process. It’s not a big deal! We’ll take you somewhere where you can see it actually happening, maybe then you’ll [change your mind and] confess.” But they never did. I would hear a lot of crying, though. During interrogations, I would hear a man crying. And two or three times, I heard a woman crying. Later on when I became a “general” [prisoner] at that same Ward 209, I heard from other prisoners that apparently that woman was an elderly lady who couldn’t even walk and was being pressured to make a confession to implicate her own son. Another prisoner who was my cellmate at 209 had been threatened with the death penalty.
I was severely insulted during interrogations from the Monday I was arrested until the following Saturday. On Monday, when I was interrogated at the hotel, there really were no insults; there were a lot of threats but no curse words and insults. But starting the next day, I was interrogated every day at 209 until the following Saturday. Since they knew my sexual orientation, they had based all the offensive language and insults on that. First he would ask: “Are you a lesbian?” I would say I was not. “Are you a trans?” he would ask. “No, I’m not,” I would respond. I had completely denied everything the entire time. Then he said: “How come you’re not with a boy? How come you don’t have a boyfriend?” I mean, that’s how deeply they delved into the details of my personal life. I would tell them: “I’m asexual, I don’t have any sexual desire for anyone. I have no sexuality.” Whether they had gotten the facts or for whatever other reason, he would start cursing. Most times he wouldn’t be directly addressing me. For instance, he would say things like “we should [expletive] these [expletive] homos” or “you disgusting whore [expletive] lesbian, you’re one of them too, that’s right, you’re one of them”. Or he would say “we execute homosexuals in Iran”. And I would say “that’s not possible, I haven’t seen anything to that effect in the news.” “We don’t make these things public,” he would retort, “we don’t let this stuff get to the media”. One day, they brought in a person to the interrogation room whom they said was the prosecutor’s representative, and I don’t know if he was or wasn’t, but I doubt that he was; the prosecutor’s representative came later on. That very day, he threatened me and said: “We will make a case against you like we’ve never made for anyone else. Don’t think you can talk about transsexuals’ rights, about transsexuals [having the right] to just be transsexual and continue living like that without having an operation, and things like that. You do that and we’ll deal with you in the appropriate way.” There were other times where we were threatened to be tortured, saying things like “let’s take you to see [some flogging]” or “we’ll flog you” or “we’ll do something to you that I can’t even talk about right now”. That was how he talked. Or he would exert psychological pressure, like scream at me suddenly, throw paper at me, slam paper on the desk, or hit the back of my chair with a pen; or he would come and stand next to me and would keep saying “your hair is showing, your hair is showing”. I would say: “Well, don’t look. I am wearing a chador, I have a blindfold on, and so my hair keeps falling out.” “Well then I’ll go out and you fix it,” he would say.
It was summertime and it was hot. It was the first or the second day when the interrogator turned on a fan that was in the room and asked: “Are you hot? Is the fan OK?” “Yes,” I responded, and he turned it off so that I would be hot. I was wearing three times as much clothes as he was. Just imagine: prison clothes, a manteau (a type of Islamic cloak that is mandatory for all women in Iran) on top of that, and a chador on top of that! He kept asking the same question (whether I was hot) in the following interrogation sessions, on purpose. I would say “I don’t know, whatever you want, because you do what you want to do regardless of what I say”. And then he would turn the fan on.
Another thing that was extremely humiliating was when I needed to go to the bathroom. I drink a lot of water when I get stressed out, and when I asked to go to the bathroom, he would say: “Just answer this one question then you can go.” On the Thursday of the first week, he screamed at me and said (forgive me for saying it like this [but that’s what he said]): “Go pee and come back quick!” At that point I screamed back, and he screamed back at me, and I kept screaming as I was in the hallway [going to the bathroom] and the person who usually didn’t talk and just sat next to me, was walking along trying to calm me down. He kept saying: “Sh, sh! Calm down, calm down!” It was evening and they didn’t take me back to the interrogation room until Saturday.
Another thing that bothered me very much was that every time the interrogator wanted to take me back [to my cell] after interrogations, he would roll a piece of paper, I would hold one end and he would hold the other, and would take me from one end of the hall to the other. I was blindfolded but I could see my feet. He would walk and I walked behind him. I didn’t understand why he was doing that. Not to touch me? When I asked others about it, they said they had not experienced such a thing.
Another instance of feeling humiliated was when I was walking and the prison guards who had nothing to do with anything would say: “That’s the trans, that’s the trans!” They wore me out.
I had two main demands from day one of interrogations: I asked them to let me call my family so I could talk to them, and told them that I wanted an attorney. But the interrogator would tell me: “You don’t have any feelings for your family at all. You homos don’t have families at all!” At one point I told him: “You don’t let me contact my family because this is a way for you to torture me and put pressure on me,” to which he replied: “You haven’t seen torture! We do have torture, and how. We should take you to such and such place.” And then he repeated the same stuff about flogging and such. That was when he threatened me with “things that I can’t tell you right now”.
They had my laptop and they would show me pictures of my friends, who weren’t necessarily LGBT (and even if they were, I would never tell). For instance, they would show me the picture of a girl with short her and say: “Is she a lesbian? So why does she have short hair? Why did you cut your hair short?” Or he would put a picture in front of me and would say: “Insult them, curse them, curse them to hell!” And when I said I wouldn’t do it, he’d say: “What is it? Are you one of those who say you shouldn’t chant ‘Death to …’?” Then he would ask: “What is your opinion about the death penalty,” trying to get me to say I was against it so he could add the charge of being against the death penalty to my charges. So I would say “I don’t have an opinion”. That was how badly they tried to trick you to level false charges against you.
They would ask things like “have you been to ILGA? Have you been to Gay Pride?” I would say: “What’s Gay Pride? I don’t know what that is.” “That’s not a bad thing,” he would respond, “you can tell me! It’s not in Iran, it’s not a crime; it’s in another country. Tell me it, it’s fine.” “I’ve never been, I don’t know what it is,” I would say. Or he would ask: “How come the people around you look like that. They’re strange looking. There are trans people around you.” Or he would say something like: “Did you go on such and such trip? What happened the first day? What happened the second day? The third day? Tell me what you did. What did you have for lunch?” Even if I had gone on a regular trip and had done nothing special, I would logically not remember these details. There was so much psychological pressure on me to tell a story, even if there was not a special trip. For instance, my trip to Shiraz, which really wasn’t anything special: they wanted me to give details, and I had to make up a story. I couldn’t understand what was going on. What was I supposed to have been doing in Shiraz?
* The interrogator would ask: “What is your opinion about the death penalty,” trying to get me to say I was against it so he could add the charge of being against the death penalty to my charges.
“Why did you go to Shiraz? Why did you go to Turkey? Why did you go to Cambodia? Why did you go to Thailand?” [What they brought up] was information that only a particular group of people could be in possession of. The thing I mentioned before about the university came up in interrogations. It was maybe the second week of interrogations, and they were combing through my college records. The interrogator told me: “That’s why you kept getting expelled from everywhere.” “They didn’t expel me,” I said. “They didn’t tell you,” he replied, “but they excluded you, right? Didn’t they?” I think they had contacted the university Herassat (Islamic unit in every state body charged with enforcing Islamic principles, as understood by the Iranian regime) and had learned it from them, because no one else knew that stuff. He said: “So you used to go to the scientific association, here, there, and then they would sideline you. They would throw you out, right?” “No,” I said, “I wasn’t thrown out, I decided not to go myself.” I knew I had that I had in fact been sidelined, but I told him I hadn’t been. He said: “They didn’t tell you openly and directly, but they would expose you somehow! They would sideline you. They didn’t tell you but they excluded you in a way you wouldn’t understand, in a not so palpable way.” “That’s not correct,” I replied, but I knew he was right.
Toward the end of the interrogations, he said “you’re the first one who’s been charged with this”. I thought to myself “what is it they want to charge me with? So many people have been charged with conspiracy”. I couldn’t come up with any specific answers. I did not know what I had been charged with during the time I spent in detention. In fact, it was after I was provisionally released that I found out – that is, my attorney was able to find out – what I was charged with. I was charged with “acting against national security” through a number of actions: Through “making efforts toward normalizing same sex relationships”, “participating in ILGA conferences” that are contrary to Islamic laws and are – I don’t really know – enemies of the regime, and things of that nature, which had absolutely nothing to do with each other. There was something else too, that had to do with the Heifus (Heifer?) Foundation. I was studying at Iran Academia Institution, and they said that the institution obtained funding from Heifus, that I was therefore connected to Heifus.
My family didn’t know anything about my sexual orientation until my arrest. A lot of the people around me knew but not my family. When I was in prison, someone had related the facts to my sister through a third person; they had let it be known on purpose to my sister so that I would be put under pressure and be bothered when I got out. Or something inaccurate had been published that the interrogators used against me during interrogations. They would say things like “What is your relationship to so and so? Are you in love with them? That’s how these people get close to you, through emotional relationships. Is that how they had approached you too?” and I had no idea why they were asking me those questions.
When I got out of prison, I realized that the entire family had found out about [my sexual orientation]. That was their plan so that they could exert pressure on me so that even when I got out of prison, I would find myself in a different type of prison on the outside.
The [interrogators] would ask me questions about other people: “Do you know so and so who is abroad? How much do you know them?” They would also ask me about people inside Iran: “How do you know such and such person?” They would give me a piece of paper and would tell me to write: “Personal features! Height! Eye color!” They would ask general as well as specific things: “Is so and so a homosexual? Show me a picture! How many homosexuals do you know in Iran? How about in Tehran? How many transsexuals do you know?” My response to all of these questions was “None” and “No one!” Being a transsexual is legal, but if I named anyone, just the fact that they knew me could create problems. I would say I did not know anyone in Iran.
They arrested me in the street. It was very scary. They did not show me an arrest warrant, just a piece of paper that had the picture of the man who introduced himself as a Ministry of Information agent. It was a piece of paper that was folded, bearing his picture. They took me to a hotel after the arrest. A hotel is not a judicial venue, it’s not a place you take a suspect for questioning. I didn’t have access to an attorney. From the very first moment they told me about the charges against me on September 4, the investigating judge said I had the right to an attorney. I did not have a lawyer for at least three weeks, twenty some days, after that. They kept me in a solitary confinement cell. I don’t think I deserved it. I don’t think anyone deserves solitary confinement.
Knowing one’s rights is very effective for a detainee. A person’s insistence on having their rights respected has an effect on the interrogators’ behavior. The interrogator then understands that he’s not dealing with someone he can put a lot of pressure on and do with them what he pleases. It’s true that he’s free to do a lot of things, but when you know your rights, he understands that he can’t just do anything he pleases. [I believe] everyone, especially civil activists, must know a series of basic rights; that can prove very helpful. If I had known certain things about detention, even if I had done some research on the Ward 209 building, it would have helped me a lot. It took a few weeks for me to find out what kind of a place it was. The fact that you know what’s what gives you a sense of security. It was at 209 itself that I learned that you can become a “general” prisoner at Ward 209 itself, that is, they bring someone else into your cell after a few weeks and tell you “now you’re a general [prisoner], you’re no longer a solitary,” but in practice you’re still in solitary.
I was severely insulted the first few days, but then the interrogator’s behavior changed. I think two things played a role in that change: One was my initial resistance, the other was the reports that were published regarding my arrest. The interrogator’s change of behavior was very obvious. He said: “I’m sorry if I insulted you in the last session.” I was surprised: Do interrogators ever apologize?! Or maybe he was just mocking me. In the last session he said: “That day I asked you to forgive me, you didn’t, did you?” “Actually, no,” I responded. “Yeah, I thought so,” he replied. I couldn’t tell whether he was trying to bother me or there was something else.
After I was provisionally released upon posting a 150 million Tuman bond, I decided to leave the country, and I came to Turkey, clandestinely. It took a long time for me to regain my sense of security. When I came out of jail, while I was still in Iran and even after I had left the country, I would have a bad feeling if someone called me from behind or even came close behind me; it took a long time for that feeling to go away. The best thing about leaving the country is that I can wear whatever I like.