The reason for the brutal arrest was plainly obvious: Gholian, who was on furlough from the notorious Bushehr prison, had written a devastating exposé of conditions in the women’s ward, calling it a “forgotten hell” in a Twitter thread that went viral and elicited reactions from many Iranians and civil society activists. Among the forms of torture included in her exposé: sexual abuse.
Gholian noted that women who didn’t have money were forced to perform sexual acts with guards or enter into “temporary marriages” with inmates in the men’s ward. She also noted how one Afghan woman, who had sought refuge in Iran with her child after the Taliban takeover, had ended up in the prison, where the guards called her child “the bastard.”
“A host of tortures awaits any prisoner who protests: threats of a full body exam in front of all staff and other prisoners, solitary confinement, assault, loss of phone privileges and cancellation of visitation rights or furloughs,” Gholian wrote on Twitter.
Political prisoner Mahboubeh Rezaei, another inmate in Bushehr, reports that guards in the prison threatened to rape and kill Gholian. Rezaei also says that she was herself pressured to enter a temporary marriage in return for money.
This wasn’t Gholian’s first time in jail. She was just 23 years old when she was arrested in November 2018 for reporting on a labor protest at a sugar factory. Shortly afterward, both she and fellow labor rights activist Esmail Bakhshi were arrested and subjected to torture in prison. For 25 days she and Bakhshi were abused by Iran’s intelligence services before being released on bail.
Needless to say, helping protesting workers to assert their rights infuriates the Iranian government, which bases its legitimacy on the claim that it is providing citizens with a just and happy life.
In Gholian’s photographs, she is often seen flashing a smile from under hair dyed blue, green or blonde. The Iranian regime is not tolerant of those who depart from what it considers to be acceptable behavior or appearance. It is difficult to imagine what horrors she has endured in the prisons.
After her release on bail, she refused to remain silent. Gholian told investigators from Amnesty International that her jailers had beaten her, slammed her against walls, and flogged her. They were trying to force her to confess to charges of “overthrowing the government” and “hijacking the demands of the laborers.” During long hours of interrogation, she was repeatedly called a “whore” and accused of having sexual relations with the striking workers that she was defending. This psychological torture is part of the playbook, threatening to bring shame on women prisoners to break them.
After she went public about the torture she endured, Gholian was rearrested in 2019. Khodarahm Gholian, Sepideh’s father, said the security forces had beaten her daughter up in front of him. When his son Mehdi tried to prevent authorities from entering the house, they beat him and arrested him as well.
Gholian’s experience is far from unique in Iran, where thousands of individuals are arbitrarily detained and tortured by the regime every year. Yet there is one thing that makes her case different. During her temporary release from Sepidar Prison, Gholian published her diaries from imprisonment, which contain 19 painful scenes from her months in detention.
Her account illuminates the arbitrary cruelty of the Islamic republic’s prison system. This is a world where many are forced into giving false self-incriminating confessions. The sexual humiliation of women includes rape and forced shavings in the corridors.
After the book appeared, Gholian was rearrested and taken to Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. In March of this year, she was moved to a prison in Bushehr in southern Iran as part of a policy to move women political prisoners to remote facilities.
The clerical regime has long been among the world’s worst jailers of dissidents and protesters. But the authorities take extra measures to crush the spirit of female dissidents, especially someone like Gholian.
Yet her revelations have touched a nerve. In a rare reaction, Mohammad Mehdi Haj-Mohammadi, head of Iranian prisons, took to Twitter to deny the allegations and to claim that prisoners were being treated fairly. Mohammadi had earlier apologized for a footage posted on social media by an Iranian hacker group that showed guards at Evin viciously beating inmates.
If there’s one thing that rattles Iran’s ayatollahs, it’s the revelation of torture and abuse in the country’s prisons. Gholian has paid an enormous price exposing the flagrant abuse of human rights in Iran’s places of detention. The world needs to recognize her bravery and pressure the Islamic republic for her release.