(Photograph copyright Jonathan Lewis)
ISTANBUL, October 2010, The Times
It is a fairytale ending: two lovers, thwarted by disapproving parents and forced to endure persecution and exile, finally win their fight to be together. It comes, however, at the culmination of a nightmare journey.
Last week, at a register office in a provincial Turkish town, Leyla, 30, married her fiancé of two years, Parham, 24. Eight months earlier, in the Iranian city of Shiraz, she was tortured and raped just for speaking to him.
The couple spoke to The Times at a safe house for Iranian asylum seekers in Istanbul, using assumed names because family members are unaware of Leyla’s ordeal. She told of her abduction by people who she believes were members of Iran’s secret police. It happened a few weeks after Parham fled to Turkey to avoid prison when he was caught up in the protests that followed the disputed presidential election in June last year.
After accepting a lift to her university from a couple she believed to be fellow students, she was handcuffed and blindfolded at gunpoint before being driven to an unknown building. Once there, she was ordered to put on make-up, which was forcibly applied, as she was crying hysterically and shaking.
She recounts how she was then beaten and raped by five men. They tried to force her to eat her own vomit and dug a knife repeatedly into her leg. The men filmed parts of the attack with a video camera. They demanded to know about her relationship with Parham and where he was. She realised that her mobile phone had been bugged when they revealed details of her conversations with him.
“I wanted to tell them everything I could, even things I didn’t know,” she said. “The only thing that kept me calm was thinking that soon I would die.”
After being held for nearly two days, she was driven away and dumped by the side of a highway. “They said that if I told anyone they would do the same to my brother and they would put the video of me on the internet.”
After being picked up by passers-by, she spent the next few days recovering at a friend’s house. Her parents were out of town and when they returned she told them that she had been in an accident. To this day she has not told her father about the attack. “He is very conservative. It would destroy him to know this,” she said.
Two years earlier, the couple had met in Isfahan, where Parham was studying electronic engineering. They were part of a generation of liberal-minded students. At an illicit Christmas Day drinks party, they bonded over a shared love of progressive rock music. Parham was a musician while Leyla wrote articles about women’s rights and attended philosophy classes to read banned writers such as Bertrand Russell. “I loved to read books. I wanted to do something where I was on my own and independent,” she said.
Leyla had resisted pressure from her family to marry young, and when she brought home a man six years her junior, both sets of parents were unhappy. But when he arranged to flee to Turkey, their parents allowed them to get engaged, believing that they would soon forget each other. For four months after the rape, Leyla cut all contact with Parham. Twice she tried to kill herself. “I just wanted to stop my head, to stop having to think,” she said.
She had received phone calls threatening to release the video, calls that continued even after she changed her number. Her brother finally persuaded her to e-mail Parham, and she explained what had happened.
“I wanted to find the people who did that and kill them,” said Parham. “I felt responsible because I had left her in Iran, and it was because of me that they did those things to her.”
Two months ago she and her family joined him in Turkey, where she has claimed asylum. Their parents finally accepted their wish to be together.
Leyla’s ordeal has left her with physical health problems, and she continues to suffer flashbacks, nightmares, and depression. The smell of make-up makes her feel ill.
“One thing I tell myself is that this has happened to thousands of others in Iran,” she said. “There are lots of other people who can’t scream about this pain. But I have the chance and I should talk about it, not only for myself but for the people who can’t talk.”