8 Years Old
Full of energy, confrontational, daughter of vice principle, self-assured
Challenging, physically fighting with the street boys, cheating.
The most powerful and fastest runner of the neighborhood.
Wild – I would pull long braids of girls in school for fun of it.
Strong, with black shining eyes and wavy hair, but wanting to have long straight jet black hair.
Burning to win, being admired.
Loving men’s black and white Italian style shoes and flaming red lipstick.
Wishing to be a boy.
Wishing to change my gender.
My left breast was swollen and painful.
My uncle’s wife: “it is not tumor, it’s growing.”
My mom: “how can it be? she is only 8 years old.”
(the boys selling goodies in theater) the first one: “a girl?”
Second one: “no, a boy.”
The first one: “she has breasts”
I look at my breasts, which are not flat anymore, and ache and shake when I walk. Tears well up in my eyes. My girlish dress presses on my chest.
My mother tried to ignore this shameful event and cover it up: “I do not know why this happened? My breasts developed late. My nieces had theirs develop around 14-15 years of age. I don’t know why this happened.” When someone died, she’d always say I don’t know why this happened.
I was in love. My neighbour, a high school boy, tall, with a strong voice and always smiling. He had a little rabbit he would allow me to hug. With our families we would go to the movies and watch Fardeen [an Iranian film star]. He would repeat Fardeen’s words to me. His voice would give me warmth. We would play the hand slapping game but he always made sure not to hurt me.
When I was 11 years old, he took my hands while we were on a swing in the National Park. His body odor reminded me of the rape I had suffered when I was 5 years old and I suddenly hated him. I became disgusted.
I blame my mother for this, for it was she who left me at my uncle’s house.
My mother, to whom I didn’t dare disclose what had happened to me.
My mother, who would also abuse me, with her bad temper and forceful attitude:
“Hope you die!”
“Learn from other kids who are half your age!”
“You should repent!”
“I hope you die young!”
“What kind of walk is that?”
“It is shameful!”
“Stand up straight!”
“Look at that one, how well she talks!”
“Look at that one how well she walks!”
“Don’t laugh too loud!”
“Your loud singing can be heard in the street and there are boys outside!”
She would scrub my skin with a coarse loofah to make it white until my skin peeled and bled. She would force me to wear heavy, tight stockings. She would tug at my wet kinky hair with a comb. I was always being criticized for not eating, making my clothes dirty…
What if I told her that my uncle’s 16-year-old son had taken my pants off? What would she say? What did she have to say?
I wanted to tell my mother, wanted her to caress me and tell me that it was ok, it was over with, and she would never let this happen to me again.
But what did she have to offer me except beating me up, screaming,, insulting me, sulking for a few hours and then drowning me in questions. Oh, save me from her questions that would strip me naked and shame me in front of the whole world. Continued fear. Continued rape.
So hard to talk about these things.
9 Years Old
Television came to our town. I liked to watch the romantic movies. I wanted to be like the stars of TV serials, wearing sexy clothes, dancing with men, watching them compete with each other to kiss me or dance with me. I wanted to be a sexy nightclub dancer, or a ballerina, performing in tutus and bare legs on stage in front of large audiences.
But I was supposed to be: Shy, innocent, covered, chaste, innocent, indifferent to boys; studious, prayerful, quiet and polite.
Every moment that I had to display the chastity and nicety as my mother had defined made me feel more like a cheap slut. In school, girls would talk about virginity and marriage. All these would throw me into despair. According to them, I wasn’t a virgin and therefore couldn’t marry. I had become sensitive to these words and little by little I came to the conclusion that I, not the rapist, was the guilty one. From then on, I started having a strange feeling about being a “good innocent girl.”
It is very difficult to talk about this.
11 Years Old
I was in 5th grade whenmy monthly period started. On the instruction of the pediatric doctor, my mother had explained menstruation to me. But she never told me about sex, sexual abuse, rape or how to defend myself if someone molested me or touched me. She had however warned me again and again since I was two or three that if I touched myself down there I would be a very bad girl.
When she took me to a gynecologist, I had to let him look at and touch my naked body. I felt ashamed. I didn’t understand my sexual feelings yet although I masturbated daily. I couldn’t imagine that any boy whom I would love, could give me as much pleasure. I wanted to fall in love with a man who was in love with me, would hug and caress me, tell me how much he cared for me, and take me on trips, take me to the cinema and record stores; someone who would take me from that house of terror to his safe house.
12-13 Years Old
I didn’t know yet where the menstruation blood came from. One day during the afternoon nap time, as I was masturbating I found an opening that I had not sensed before. I was sure it wasn’t where I peed from. I put a thin rod in it. Wanting to know how deep it was, I pushed it in more. I had a strange feeling. Not pleasure, but like something getting released there. When I got up I sensed something sliding down my vagina. In the bathroom I saw that it was a coagulated blood that was so thick it would not be absorbed by my panties.
A few years later, a biology student told me about hymen and explained, with diagrams, how it would break. I realized that I had not lost my virginity at age 5, but lost it through my experiment with the rod. I was very upset. I felt ashamed about masturbating,felt guilty. My body’s odor disgusted me and increased my feelings of dirtiness. I felt I myself was the cause of all my misfortunes.
5 Years Old
My uncle’s house, winter time. My mother, my uncle, my uncle’s wife, and their eldest daughter were all in black outfits and went to a funeral. I stayed with my uncle’s sons, aged 5, 9, 12, 14, and 16. We were playing different games inside. Then my oldest cousin became a doctor. The second oldest became his assistant and sent us in turn into the doctor’s office which was in the room’s closet. My turn came.
He pulled up my shirt and examined my chest. Then said he had to measure my body temperature. He first put a finger into my anus and then a spoon handle. Then I felt his body’s heat on my back. His penis was between my legs. He told me to be quiet. When he was caressing my buttocks, it felt good. That part of my body was always considered dirty and shameful but he treated it with kindness.
Eventually his weight made it hard for me to breathe. I felt a burning between my legs. His hands held me down tight. I was scared, but I didn’t dare make any noise. I wasn’t sure what was happening. I knew that that part of the body was forbidden and shameful but I didn’t know what to do. Then I smelled a terrible odor that really bothered me. A warm liquid slid down on my body. It felt like he was urinating on me.
I can’t remember anything after that. I don’t know how I got out of that closet. I don’t know when my mother came back or when I came home that night. I felt injured. I was burning and weak. I didn’t dare tell my mother what had happened. She would blame me for having gone into that closet in the first place: bad girl. It’s your own fault. I felt dirty. I had felt curious at the beginning and it had aroused a good feeling in me. I felt ashamed, like I had done a dirty thing. For a long time after I would touch the skin sore on my vagina and think it was because of that encounter.
21 years old
Several years of depression and feeling suicidal. From age 18, at the time of university entrance exam, my depression had begun. Then came expulsion from the university. Then prison and isolation from my friends. Then my boyfriend informed me that he had married, and he left the country. I cried all the time to the point that I would pass out from fatigue. And I cried again when I awoke. On my cousin’s recommendation, my mother took me to a psychiatrist and I was put on medication.
The psychiatrist asked me to let him tell my mother about when I was raped at age 5. The scolding in my mother’s gaze when she looked at me was harder than being in hell. I still feel her looking down at me from the other world and blaming me. You are a bad girl. Shameless. Dirty. You went into the closet on the 40th day of your father’s passing. From age 5, actually from the day you were born, you were nothing but trouble. What sin did I commit to be stuck with you.
11 Years Old, Revisited
I enjoyed men’s gaze on my body as long as they didn’t stare for long and I was certain they wouldn’t try to touch me. Although I always had crushes as soon as the guy paid too much attention to my body I would hate him. As if there had to be a special ritual to his touch like touching a holy book. I picked tight cloths and would see myself as a beauty queen, a dancer with great figure. But street harassment and catcalls bothered me. At the same time, the only times someone complemented me about my body was when they made lewd comments about my breasts.
My poor mother couldn’t help taking out on me her hatred of my being and becoming a woman. She said time and again that she always wished to have a girl. It was as if this girl wasn’t supposed to turn into a woman. As if she had to dump on her girl all the anger she felt because of her situation. She’d scrub my breasts with a coarse lofah with anger and disrespect until my skin would bleed, and I felt her mad anger when she looked at my shapeless body. She couldn’t wouldn’t do that to a boy.
Having a husband meant having peace for me, going to theaters and discos, wearing red lipstick, holding a man’s hand while strolling in the city.
I still long for a home where I do not get bombarded with why-did-you-do-this, where I am not in fear of being put on trial as soon as I enter. I still long to be able to ask for guidance when I am weak and inadequate without being judged and told It’s your own fault. I often dream that someone is holding me and stripping me naked. I die of fear in the dream.
It’s so difficult to talk.
15 Years Old
The years of girls high school and its gossipy environment finally passed. My new school was co-ed and exciting. I loved attention. But religious teachings would not leave me alone and I was filled with guilt and anxiety. I didn’t feel ugly any more since I had lost weight. I always sucked in my stomach fearing that the boy that I liked wouldn’t like my figure otherwise.
I wore tight skirts and walked like Japanese women in movies. Unlike before when I walked with my head down and slouched shoulders, I now walked with my head held high and my back straight. For a month I practiced walking with a book on my head until I learned to walk like that.
I rarely remembered my age 5 and the fear of being forbidden from marrying because I wasn’t a virgin. Now I could fall in love with a body that I had to see every day at school. There, the girls worked very hard every day to attract the attention of the boys and male teachers.
All of our teachers were men, but they weren’t as threatening as the female teachers in primary and middle schools. Some of them were even friendly and supportive towards us. We’d heard about the teachers who cared about us more that they were political dissidents and most of them had been in prison. But nobody talked about anything openly.
17 Years Old
The beginning of the revolution in 1976. I was religious but trendy. I would not watch TV because it was sinful but couldn’t stop wearing sexy dresses. I would choose them carefully so they would make me look thinner and more feminine. And I constantly felt guilty that I was not veiled and was getting attention.
In political and philosophical discussions that were the trend I would vehemently defend god. As if it wasn’t true that according to religious books I was guilty and an outcast because of the rape I had experienced. . Men could abandon their wives even without formal divorce if the woman had not mentioned before marriage that she was not a virgin. If I didn’t say I would be cast aside. And if I said anything, I would have to face my mother’s hell which was worse than god’s hell.
In the fall of 1978, I got turned off by the dogmatism of religious kids. All of a sudden the entire foundation of the logic that had put god on the throne crumbled. Like the crumbling of the foundations of monarchy. God disappeared. As if it never existed.
I became a maverick and took the law in my own hands. Zahra is free. Zahra is innocent. Zahra can marry someone who doesn’t believe in god. Zahra can get away from her mother’s hellish house.
But Zahra was ignorant of the power of tradition.
18 Years Old
I told a boy who considered himself a communist that I wasn’t a virgin. First he said he would save me and then he said he wanted sex.
I became dependent on him. I begged to be with him. I was ready to pay any price to get out of that depressing home. To get away from the scolding, to get away from Why don’t you get married so I don’t have to be concerned about you when I die, so I know that somebody is looking after you.
I agreed to have sex with him. When I first saw his naked body, I almost fainted. He ejaculated with the first touch. I pushed him away with fear as soon as I felt the sliding of the warm liquid on my skin. The memory of the rape at age 5 distressed me. I said I would get pregnant. He kept saying don’t worry, I’ve already ejaculated.
After that whenever he wanted sex, he meant anal sex. I fell into a deep dark hole again. It was really painful and humiliating for me but if I resisted he would sulk and walk away.
I wanted him to hug me and kiss my face, but nothing more. No kisses on my lips, no touching of my breasts, no rubbing of my ass, nothing that came from sexual desire. I wanted him to enjoy my presence and enjoy hugging me as a father would his daughter.
I hated the smell of sex, the smell of his ejaculation. I would be terrorized. But I submitted to keep him.
I lost some golden opportunities including a trip to Canada to continue my education. I was still caught in the fear of being single. My awareness couldn’t penetrate the fear. I used loyalty and love as excuses to accept the misery and pain.
22 Years Old
In the spring and summer of 1979 I got attracted to a political party and in fall I started university. Two years later the party was declared illegal and I got arrested because I hadn’t turned myself in. After the Cultural Revolution (that closed the universities from summer 1980 to spring 1983), I was expelled from the university because of that.
I was in detention and then in prison for a total of 33 days. The first night they brought in 8 more people from our party. By the end of the week there were 11 of us. I cried continuously for two days. I was worried for my mother who was alone now. I feared she’d have a stroke or a heart attack. Gradually I calmed down and got to know other girls in the ward.
It was a hot summer and flies were ready to kill. Even in the women’s section we had to wear long sleeve dresses and head scarves all the time. There was space for at most 30-40 people but there were 104 of us in the detention cell. When we slept our bodies touched unless we slept on our sides and kept ourselves straight as arrows. Or we had to sleep on the back with our knees in our stomach. Sleeping was exhausting.
In the first 17-18 days I wasn’t taken for interrogation. There were a few fun girls from our party in the cell. Those days were among the happiest in my life. I had no responsibilities. No worries about my mother’s intrusion. I was happy like kids. I was concerned about impending interrogation but in spite of all the idea of staying there gave me a kind of peace I hadn’t felt before. I told jokes and found in everything a reason to laugh. There I discovered that I had a talent for humour. I don’t’ know why I laughed so much. Others would warn me don’t laugh so loudly, it’ll reflect badly on you. I don’t know why it would but that’s what others said. Perhaps it incited others to laugh and be happy and that would be held against me.
There were many who snitched. Self-censorship was harder than what was imposed on us from outside. I couldn’t imagine prisoners selling each other out, but those who’d been there longer warned me, Don’t answer anybody who tries to get friendly and ask questions because in here those who are straight don’t ask questions. Those who ask are trying to improve their own chances by selling out others. The snitches were distinguished by their kindness.
Then the interrogations started. I don’t remember much from the first time because I was in shock. I remember they flooded me with insults and accusations. “You went to a co-ed school and then to university, the places where boys and girls roll over one another like worms. You wore mini skirts. That’s why you became a communist. How many boys did you sleep with? Did you sleep with your group leader too? None of you are virgins. Did you have an abortion too? You became an activist only to sleep with boys.” That was completely wrong. My boyfriend in high school who wanted to marry me deserted me precisely because I became an activist. I stayed silent.
They took me into a room where a friend was being flogged. She was screaming and begging, swearing that she had already said everything she knew. The guy who took me there was hovering around me. I told him I had to go to the washroom. He left and a woman came. She said, Weren’t you ashamed? I said why should I be ashamed of needing to go to the washroom? She returned me to the cell. We couldn’t see the interrogators because we had blindfolds on. The guards dressed as usual: Pants, long dress over it, a head scarf, and a long veil over it. We had to dress the same way when we were taken for interrogation.
The second interrogation was very polite and respectful, kind and considerate. I said, Why did you insult me last time? Is this the way you want to represent and defend the Islamic Republic? I really did not know anything more than what they already knew. I told them that. They returned me to the detention cell.
I’d been in detention for 22 days. After the interrogations, one day they took me to a room where I saw my mother and our neighbor who had come with the deed to our house to bail me out. The official gave me a letter to sign. In that I was accused of having acted against the security of the regime and having cooperated with enemy groups and I had to promise not to fight against the government. I told them I had been active with the Tudeh Party and we had no plans against the government. My mother was crying and begging me to sign the letter to be released. I didn’t. They returned me to the detention again. It was very hard to see her crying.
After that I and some others including a few from the Party were transferred to prison. We passed the body searches and entered into the ward. There was a group of recanters (prisoners who had renounced their former groups and now collaborated with the guards) waiting for us. I saw my cousin in the first row. I was happy to see her, but she was cold and distant.
They divided us into different cells. There were two persons in each cell. Everybody tried really hard to keep the ward clean and hygienic. We feared infection as much as fearing execution. Every day two people would be responsible for cleaning the toilets, showers and the hallways. The prison building was much older than the detention centre and the facilities were poor. And there were many more prisoners here. The nights were hot. When we killed the flies they’d leave a big fat blood stain on the wall. At night two guards walked around. We weren’t allowed to stay up. We weren’t allowed to take off our long sleeve dresses and head scarves.
One day I was talking to my cousin and her friend about university. I said I could teach them mathematics and physics. The first day I started with logic. The next day they stopped the teaching. I slowly realized why my cousin was so depressed. She felt sinful. They’d broken her. They’d made her believe that the only reason she’d become an activist was because she was a harlot and all she did was to satisfy her desires.
Many religious activist broke down in interrogations. They were made to believe that they had been sinful and had become activists only to be with boys and that was all they cared about. The girls would come to believe that they’d been sluts. They felt so overcome with guilt that they would be willing to do anything to be free of the guilt. They believed that being in prison was necessary for their rehabilitation and cleansing. They became recanters and snitches.
There was a beautiful 18-year-old girl in our ward. She was friendly and never asked questions. She had a fiancé, and cried often saying that her fiancé would not want her any more. Many prisoners were so frightened of the possibility of never being able to marry that they became collaborators. Many were depressed because they thought even when released nobody would want them. It was a much sadder and more hopeless environment than the detention centre. Most people had their sentences. Some were sentenced to life and some to execution. Some thought that if they had good behavior and proved themselves trustworthy to the guards they would be released sooner.
On Thursday nights we had the special prayers. We’d be taken to the big yard to listen to and recite the prayers. The cries and wailings were unbearable. Those who were sentenced to execution cried from fear, the recanters from regret, and some cried because they thought it would be held against them if they didn’t. And some cried fearing an unknown future.
It was Ramadan. We’d heard rumors that on the 19th and 21st – the days when Imam Ali had been stabbed and then martyred – many would be executed. On the 18th some of the prisoners were taken out of the ward. One of them was a chubby girl that everybody thought was a snitch. On the early morning of the 19th when we had the meal before the fast we heard wailings. I don’t know how far the place of execution was from there, and I don’t know where the wailings came from. As it got lighter the cries stopped. A few days later the chubby girl was returned to the ward. Her rosy complexion had turned dark and lifeless and she had lost a lot of weight. Nobody asked her anything. The other prisoners that were taken out did not return.
It’s so hard writing about this.
24 Years Old
One of the neighbours sent a young man of their acquaintance to our house to propose marriage. For the first time I accepted a suitor. He was 28 and a teacher, and he was nothing like the image I had of a lover and a husband. But the fear of remaining unmarried made me accept to spend a period of courting. For a few months we went out for walks once or twice a week. And he telephoned almost every night and we’d talk for a hour or two. But I felt no love for him.
The news came that a law had been passed to allow those who’d been expelled from the universities during the Cultural Revolution to return to school. I had to go to Tehran to an office that had been indicated in the news. There, after receiving a lot of humiliations and insults, I got to submit an application for my case to be reviewed. A month later I went back to Tehran with my mother to get the result. I was accepted. After having been out of the university for 5 years, I was really happy and felt like giving the news to J, my suitor. A good vibe got established between us. From then I began to like him. We were getting serious. I thought it was important to tell him about not being a virgin. And I told my mother that I had told J. Our house got filled with anxiety.
My relation with J became sexual. We’d go out seemingly to stroll on the streets or to a restaurant, but we always went to his house. I hadn’t forgotten the rape yet. Feelings of fear and hurt would mix with sexual excitement and pleasure. In order to be happy I needed to hear that I was good, beautiful and desirable. And J told me all that.
One day my mother said, You have to make it final. She only knew about our outings but nothing about the sex. I told J that my mother is demanding an answer. He was going to declare in 10 days whether he was going to marry me or not. He called on the evening of the 9th day. He was crying hard and he turned me down. I fell into depression again. The house was filled with my crying and my mother’s scolding.
My psychiatrist suggested that I go for hymen reconstruction surgery. That was very painful and humiliating for me, but in the end I did it.
I can’t remember anything in my life having been so awful and upsetting.
28 years old
Because of anti-depression medications I was numb and slow. The smart girl of previous years was nowhere to be seen. A new psychiatrist put me on a new medication that was very effective. It made me happy and easygoing, relaxed and upbeat.
Around the new year I went to a wedding with my friend. There I danced almost all night and became the center of attention. Many men were hovering around me. Then came time for dinner. A young man with a handsome face and attractive body served us. I said to my friend, “He’s so cute.” My friend asked, “Would you marry him if he to come ask for your hand?” I said, “Of course, why not.”
A few days later my friend called me and said that there was someone who wanted to be my suitor. It made me happy. I had never thought that a man that I found attractive would become my suitor. I agreed to let him come to our house. He and his family came to propose on April 2nd. On the 4th we became engaged. The agreement was that we would be engaged for 6 months and then get married. From the next day my mother’s nagging started.
“Be careful with this guy so he wouldn’t leave you like the others.”
“Don’t tell him anything about your past.”
“Don’t get too close to him.”
One day while I was out he came to our house and colluded with my mother for us to get married sooner to avoid his family ruining the wedding plans. It made me very upset but because I was still under the influence of the medication I didn’t feel alarmed. Less than a month later our marriage vows were made with only 6 people present, none from his family.
I prayed to the god whom I had abandoned for many years to not let him become suspicious about my past. I tried very hard to love him and become his desired woman. He tried to be happy and made me participate in things that he liked. He didn’t make any effort to understand me or fulfill my needs. He didn’t even know how to consider my needs during sex. I taught him things, but I couldn’t reach satisfaction. He saw in me only my body and expressed his pleasure in that. But I didn’t see any deep feelings in him toward me. It was painful for me to think that in spite of all my claim to be an intellectual and a freethinker I had agreed to marry someone whom I didn’t know.
To keep our marriage from falling apart, I agreed to get pregnant. The pregnancy period was horrific. He sided with his family and would say things like, “If it turns out a boy we’ll take him from you and never let you see him.”
I was in a hell-hole of regret. I’d become a way for my husband to feel manly in a society that did not recognize any rights for women and a man can take a suckling infant from his mother and give it to another woman to feed and raise, where a man could take my child from me forever as soon as he turned two. I threatened abortion even if that meant loosing my life.
My child’s early years were filled with my fear and apprehension. My husband would scream and be mad at the slightest thing. He and his family would keep repeating, “He’s our child, he belongs to us. The child belongs to his father. So and so took away his child from his wife and registered him in his sister’s name.” I was frightened and didn’t know how to protect myself and my son from these dangers. Again I started taking anti-depressants.
Today it’s been years since those times. In order to tolerate my husband, I have to lock away these memories in my mind’s deep recesses. When I remember, I can only think about killing my husband, suffocating him, throwing him somewhere far far away.
56 years old
A phenomenon named Zahra. At age 18, even though I hadn’t studied, I ranked 315 out of over 130,000 who took the university entrance exams. At 19 I sold books for our political party, and people said that Zahra could sell any book that she chose to any person that she chose. But one of the strongest motivations of my life has been the affection of the opposite gender. I had learned that if I make eye contact with any man he would have no option but to fall in love with me. And this reaction was exactly what happened in hundred percent of the cases. Until now, every man whom I’ve considered to be a worthy person has professed his love for me.
When he was a year old, I realized that my son was different from other children. The doctors had no answers. As he grew the difference became more obvious. Because of his behavior, I was always under attack by my husband and his family. But nobody ever find fault with my husband. When my son was ten, I saw a film about an autistic girl. I guessed that my son had a similar disability. Three years ago I started a series of events to inform and educate my community about autism and Asperger syndrome, and have been getting help from people to spread the word to others.
Since the age of 52 I have been getting counseling to pull myself out of the influence of memories that without my awareness condition my behavior in unwanted directions. This is a painful challenge that continues to today.
Gita: Please choose a pseudonym. For your safety I want your identity to be protected. Zahra: My name is important to me because it’s been a cause of suffering in my life. I hated that the sound of my name resembled the noise of a red bee. Many times people would call me zahrab (urine). Sometimes my mother would call me, “Zahra” and when I responded she would say “zahr-e mar.” (Snake poison.) Keep is as Zahra. Gita: Sure. I prefer Zahra too because it’s a religious name [the name of the prophet’s daughter] and introduces interesting contradictions in the story. Maybe we should name your book ghasht(e) Zahra. [Ghasht-e Zahra was the name given to squads of 4 fully veiled and armed women who patrolled the streets in Iran from the 1980s to 2000s to enforce mandatory veiling on women. They had the power to arrest and beat up those who resisted. The phrase could also mean Zahra’s excursion. Alternatively, read as gasht Zahra, it would mean Zahra was or Zahra travelled or Zahra became.]