Former political prisoner says violence is the only enemy at human rights lecture

Content warning: This story discusses topics like rape and abuse, which may be triggering for some readers.

Former political prisoner Marina Nemat said with the rise of populism, the only enemy is “the monster of violence.”

Nemat said to an audience of 400 people at the 29th Vigod Lecture in Human Rights at St. Thomas University’s Kinsella Auditorium on Oct. 3, the belief the enemy is a nationality or ideology are stories sold to people to distract them from the truth.

During the lecture, Nemat primarily told the story of her time as a political prisoner in Tehran, Iran.

When Nemat was 16, she was about to take a bath when she heard her mother calling from downstairs. She knew something was wrong by the way she called her name.

When she opened the bathroom door, two guns were pointing at her face. She wasn’t scared, she was in shock.

“[Shock] doesn’t protect you against bullets, but emotions,” said Nemat.

Nemat was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1965. Nemat was arrested on Jan. 15, 1982 for protesting and writing against the government in her school’s newspaper.  She spent two years in Evin, a political prison, following the start of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The revolution was started in opposition to the dictator rule of Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini, the King Shah, who was controlled by Western powers meddling with Iranian oil affairs. She was tortured and almost killed.

In 1981, mass arrests started taking place in the city of Tehran. Young people who spoke against the government were imprisoned.

“Everyday you go to school there would be another empty desk,” she said.

Fun activities, such as singing and dancing at the beach became illegal and slowly the restrictions became more serious.

“Horror in history doesn’t happen overnight,” said Nemat.

“It happens little by little.”

In prison, she was tortured and forced into marriage with a man named Ali, who also tortured her. Ali told Nemat her family and boyfriend would get arrested if she didn’t marry him. Nemat said she was raped over and over under the “mask” of marriage.

Nemat talked with her cellmates to stay alive. In Evin, she and her cellmates talked about “what makes them human,” such as birthday parties, Puma shoes and their families back home. They couldn’t talk about social justice, because they knew it would result in further torture.

Sharing these stories reminded her there are people at home who loved her.

Sixteen years later, she moved to Canada. She published a memoir of her life in Iran, Prisoner of Tehran, in 2007.

Now, she speaks at high schools, institutions and conferences around the world. She sits on the Board of Directors at the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture and on advisory boards at Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture and PEN Canada. She also teaches at the School of Continuing Studies at University of Toronto and writes book reviews for The Globe and Mail

According to Amnesty International, torture is still practiced in 130 out of 180 countries around the world. Nemat said torture isn’t only used to extract information out of people.

“Torture is designed to kill the human soul,” she said.

Nemat reminded the audience democracy doesn’t guarantee anything and gave the example of Hitler, who took power in a democratic country.

“Democracy and freedom are like water: you hold in your hand, as soon as you take your eyes off it, it slips through your fingers and it’s gone,” she said.

Nemat told the audience at Kinsella Auditorium to hold politicians and the world accountable.

“We need to change the way we do things,” Nemat said.

“We need to change the way we think, change information into wisdom.”

With files from Emilia Gutiérrez

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