Shabnam Madadzadeh, a former student activist in Iran, says speaks cautiously as she recounts her five-year prison ordeal that included beatings with sticks, whips and chairs.

“They would blindfold me and put me in a chair and kick it so I would hit the walls or the floor,” she tells i. “And they tortured my brother in front of my eyes. It was very horrible. I could accept that they punish me and torture me, but when they beat your siblings, it is so much worse.”

Ms Madadzadeh, now 35, was arrested when she was just 21 and is now exiled in Europe. She is from a previous generation of Iran’s women protesters and is encouraging from afar the latest wave of female-led opposition to the regime’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that began last autumn. That began with the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had refused to follow instructions by the “morality police” to wear her hijab, or headscarf.

By some estimates, 750 people have been killed outright in crackdowns and 30,000 arrested since then, while in recent months, thousands of schoolgirls have been poisoned in what is thought to be an act of revenge by the regime.

“These new protests did not come overnight,” says Ms Madadzadeh. “But this uprising is different from the previous ones. Most of the women in Iran support this – and they have internet connections and they can communicate. The government is much worse than you think. But it is very weak – it cannot solve the problems and it doesn’t want to either, which is the difference from the past.”

The protests last summer were sparked by Iranian women throwing off their headscarves, but Ms Madadzadeh, who wears a turquoise hijab, says this is not the real target.

“The hijab is not the main issue – women can wear it or not,” she says. “The main chants and slogans are ‘Death to Khamenei and death to the oppressor.’ What we reject is the compulsory hijab and compulsory religion.”

A computer science student at Tehran University, Ms Madadzadeh was arrested in 2009 and sent to the notorious Evin prison in the capital, where political prisoners are held. Handed a five-year sentence, she was kept in solitary confinement for 70 days in a cell three metres by two metres, with no facilities apart from a wash bucket.

“There was only a small window on the door, and the light was on all the time so you could not recognize day or night,” she says. “Of all the torture, the hardest was mental. When you are confined, you don’t have any connection with society. You don’t know any things about your family. My interrogator told me ‘You are alone, nobody can hear you.’ But some people knew my secret and they told me that my voice was being heard. And because of that, I survived.”

During that time, she was haunted by the screams of women beaten and raped. “It was the most horrible sound. And with this latest uprising, I know what the women are going through,” Ms Madadzadeh says.

Finally allowed out of solitary confinement, she was shuffled around other prisons, such as Raja’i Shahr in Karaj, west of Tehran and Qarchak in Veramin. She found ways to sneak letters from her cell, telling outsiders of her plight, and generating name recognition: she was mentioned several times by Amnesty International and in annual US State Department reports on Iranian human rights. Shortly after her release in 2015, she fled the country.

“It was difficult because this was my whole life. But by leaving, I found my humanity, my values and my identity as a woman,” she says.

Ms Madadzadeh is now based in Europe, but will not say more, citing the risk of targeting by Iranian hit squads – and pointing to the case of Asadollah Assadi, an undercover intelligence operative posing as an Iranian diplomat, arrested in 2018 after he brought an explosive device to Vienna.

“Europe actually seems a safe place. But killers come here as diplomats – they come here with bombs. The regime does that. It does this terror here in Europe,” she says.

Ms Madadzadeh is now part of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a broad coalition of exiled democratic Iranian organisations, led by Maryam Rajavi. She is hopeful that the regime will fall. “The uprising is going to continue,” she says.

“I’ve seen the real face, the brutal face of this regime. We stand on the right side of history and we will continue.

Source »