As the unrest triggered by Mahsa Amini’s murder rages, model Farnoush Hamidian, who was raped as a child by Iranian intelligence officers, shares her story of brutality and vengeance for the first time.
“I grew up in the mountains, 30km from the Caspian sea, in a villa with my two older sisters, younger brothers, parents, and grandparents. I chased butterflies in the garden, climbed trees, read and wrote poetry. My father had a vast library, and we were taught that our bookshelf must be bigger than our closet. We were raised by my mother while my father worked to support the family; this is how it was in Iran in the 1980s. During the week, I went to an all-girls school. When I was in the second grade, during Islamic religion class, my teacher told me that if I was not wearing the hijab by age nine, on the day of judgement, I would be hung from my breasts and skewered through my vagina and out through my mouth. These were post-revolution times and men felt authorized – by the government – to behave a certain way. The idea was put in their head that they were better and that they deserved better than women. I wasn’t sad – I was scared. God was mean and He had every right to be. This was the law, and if I didn’t obey, I would be punished. I said yes to everything I was told.
I began to express myself through poetry; I wrote about the feeling of being mute. When I was 14, I was walking home from school when I was arrested by the morality police. Families already warned girls to ‘not show our hair’ and be careful because ‘they would catch us.’ A car slowed and I was called over: ‘My daughter, my daughter, come, we want to teach you a lesson,’ called out a woman. I got in the van. Two men sat in the front and one woman was in the back. She slapped me. ‘What did I do?’ I cried. Later, I was given papers and asked to write my crime and promise to never do it again. I was told to write that I haven’t been wearing my veil properly and that I was influenced by Western culture. I was wearing Max Mara sunglasses when I was arrested. For seven hours I sat in a holding room with other girls – there were girls everywhere. No one could speak to anyone, and everyone was crying. As a girl, you must have a sponsor, who is your father. When mine arrived, he was forced to teach me a lesson. He had to admit to my mistake and apologize. He also had to pay a fine and offer eggs from his poultry factory for one year.
Back at home, behind closed doors, we wore whatever we wanted. Our house – like those of many others – was full of friends and relatives. No one wore a veil if they didn’t want to. There was a stark difference between what the government wanted people to do and what was done. We listened to the radio and watched television. I grew up listening to ‘I’m a Barbie Girl’ and watching cartoons like Popeye. I would soon be 16 and learn about sexual education at school, in a biological sense. But nothing could prepare me for what would happen next. At 15, I was already very tall. I played basketball and attended yoga classes with my mother and sisters. I also loved music and was the cool girl with all the clandestine tapes, like Linkin Park, my favorite at the time. One morning, I was walking to a friend’s house to drop off a tape when a van stopped me. I was taken from the street by three men – intelligence services officers. There was nothing secretive about this organization and they could be recognized from their extremely conservative civilian clothes, long beards, and so much hatred in their eyes. They tied my wrists together with wires; I still bear those marks on my skin. In the van, they blindfolded me and insulted me with extreme words. Until that day, I didn’t even understand what those words meant. The van stopped and the men took me into a room. It was very cold. They stripped me of my clothes and took turns raping me. I couldn’t see them, but I could smell them, and I could feel the difference. My blindfold came off and that’s when they started beating me, even using a chair. I lost consciousness several times. When they finished, they dressed me, and put my hijab back on. It all happened in a very short time. Five hours. It only took five hours to destroy my mind and my body.
The men did not think they were doing anything wrong. I believe that. I was an object to teach a lesson to. When they finished, I was disposed in the street. I regained consciousness and found myself outside of the city. I somehow managed to walk to a petrol station where I said I was taken and asked to call my parents. When my parents came, I could not control my saliva, which was pouring out of my mouth. My hands had seized and were deformed. I couldn’t speak. I wasn’t crying, I was moaning. I was taken to doctors who confirmed the rape. At that time, no one had heard of such a thing happening. Not by the government. Not to a child. My father was not able to believe it and I know why. It was a year or two before the election for Ahmadinejad’s presidency and my father was against him. He was threatened multiple times, but he never believed something like this could happen to him. Imagine how difficult it is to accept that it’s your fault, indirectly, that your child is taken.
In the years that followed, I went to eight different psychologists, and was prescribed extreme medication, taking up to 11 different pills a day just to survive. I remember my mother caressing my hair, sleeping next to me at night, and following my panic attacks for over nine years. She experienced everything I did. I was the walking dead and she carried me along the way. I didn’t stay alive because I wanted to, but because my mother made me. I have never felt safe in my life other than in my mother’s arms. My mother showed me the strength of a woman. She is the god that I can see. She is the god that I can touch.
I was in Germany the first time I was asked to model. I said no. Modeling in Iran is illegal and, in my country, I wasn’t considered pretty. My nose is too big, my skin is too dark. But eventually, I found a voice. Modeling became my freedom and my revenge. In front of the camera, I have confidence. I can be who I want. I can show and talk through my body the way that I decide. I stand here for every person who has low or no esteem for women. I want them to see my ugly face and my ugly body. To every boy and girl who has ever been brutalized, I say to you, it is not your fault. I want to show whoever has been made to feel ugly and unloved that you can still be happy and become loved, feel safe, and feel innocent.
When I see what they are doing to the girls in Iran, so publicly, raping them in the jails and ripping their bodies, I feel like it is happening again to me. I am reliving my trauma. I am breaking down every day. I overeat, I shake, and at night, I clench my teeth so hard, they break. I cannot let it continue. I’m going to fight this until the day I die. We Iranians fighting for freedom know that no one other than the nation can help themselves. We want countries to stop accepting Iranian money and laundering it.
I have forgiven every person who has ever done anything to me. I will remember them better than who they are because I am better than who they are. My life is not meaningless. I want to be successful to prove to anybody who ever broke anybody – that it doesn’t matter how many times you broke me – you were not worthy enough. This is my revenge. To celebrate my body the way I want. To celebrate my existence. To live.”
Location courtesy: Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, The Palm, Dubai
Originally published in the December 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia