Personal, and inevitably very political, ‘Forbidden Letters’ is collection of letters Golroo sent to her husband while she was in prison because of her journalistic work and activism in defence of women’s rights in Iran. Detained on charges of ‘propaganda against the state and intent to disrupt national security’, journalist Mahdieh Golroo found herself needing to report on the experiences of women in prison. She did this by writing on napkins and stuffing them in knitted dolls.
In this interview, Mahdieh Golroo tells us more about her literary debut, her hopes for its impact, and the ongoing battle for women’s rights in her home country of Iran and beyond.
ICORN: ‘Forbidden Letters’ contains the letters you write to your husband while you were in prison- how did you do it given the enormous risks?
Mahdieh Golroo: The letters were not written on paper, but on napkins. I couldn’t write on paper and send letters out while in prison, so I wrote on napkins and put them in the middle of a knitted doll, which I could then send out. Some of the other prisoners, who were mothers, made dolls for their children, so it was common to knit dolls in prison. This is why I used the idea and made dolls for my nephew, my husband, or other people.
The first time I sent out the dolls with the napkins inside, I was waiting for a signal from my husband that he had received it. We had visits but those were with a glass between us and over the phone, so guards could hear our conversations. I could not ask directly whether he had received the dolls and whether he had figured out that there is something inside them.
So, I kept waiting. One day my husband mentioned how interesting my dolls were and thanked me for them. But when I was released several years later, I realised that he never found out about the letters and thought that the dolls were just a symbol of love.
Of course, it was very risky. In those times, we couldn’t send letters or other messages. The security services found out about the dolls in 2020 and now it is forbidden to send knitted dolls out from prison. I thought that now is the time to publish my letters.
ICORN: How did the idea of writing letters to your husband come about and where did you find inspiration while in prison?
Mahdieh Golroo: When I was young, I used to keep a dairy where I wrote about my feelings and experiences, so I thought that it would also be a good way to document my situation in prison. But I needed a trusted audience for my writing, and nobody is more trusted than my husband. I could explain everything to him and release my emotions and experiences.
At the time, I couldn’t imagine that one day these letters would be published. I documented my daily life in prison, as well as other people’s experiences. I spent more than a year with ordinary prisoners, such as murderers and drug traffickers, and I talked to them from morning until night. As a journalist I was very curious about what they have gone through and what led them to prison. When they told their stories, I wrote them on napkins and sent them out. ‘Forbidden Letters’ includes the stories of many women prisoners.
ICORN: At what point did you decide that you wanted to publish your letters in the form of this book?
Mahdieh Golroo: We couldn’t keep the letters at home in Tehran as the security services were monitoring me and my home all the time. So, I gave them to one of my non-political friends and they kept the letters for me. When I arrived in Turkey, the letters were still with my friend and when I finally got to safety in Sweden, I asked me friend to send them to me. Since the security services in Iran check all incoming and outgoing packages, the letters were sent to Turkey as part of someone’s luggage. Once they had arrived in Turkey, my friends were able to send them on to Sweden.
One day, my ICORN coordinator Sofia came to our apartment and saw the napkins on the table. She was very surprised and interested, suggesting that they can become a book. She told me about the various options for publishing support, and how the municipality can help with a translator, so I agreed.
It was difficult to find a translator from Persian to Swedish as any connection with my name is dangerous for Iranian people. Now my book is published without the translators being named.
ICORN: Now that your book is published, what is it like to share such personal thoughts and insights into your life while imprisoned?
Mahdieh Golroo: It honestly requires both bravery and weakness. When you read the book, you can see both a little girl who is afraid of prison and solitary confinement, but you can also see a brave woman trying to fight the patriarchy and the dictatorial government.
When I read my napkins after so many years, I realised that they talk about real life. Sometimes we trust our decisions, and sometimes we are unsure, and both these things are evident in the book. I found that some parts of my experience were disappointing and full of weakness, but I let my audience face the real feminist in prison.
I think it is very important for people to know that feminist activists and other human rights defenders, who spend their lives unjustly imprisoned, love life. They also laugh and miss the trees, the sky, the streets while they are forced to spend their lives behind bars and walls.
ICORN: Who do you hope to reach with your book and what would you like your readers to take away from the letters?
Mahdieh Golroo: The real situation of women in Iran. The Islamic Regime’s propaganda shows women in Iran as happy to comply with Islam and traditional values. Honestly, this is not true and as everyone has seen in the past year, the women protesting, burning their hijabs, and dancing in the streets show that we do not support the Islamic Regime.
When I arrived in Sweden, many activists thought that women like me, who were born and raised in Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East, culturally adhere to Islam. And so, I think the most important result of the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ movement was to show the world that conservative values and oppression are not part of our culture. It is torture, it is not our culture.
Every morning in Iran, women must wear a scarf to go to university, to go to work, to go shopping- this is a fake face, it is not us. We live two lives- one inside at home, our real life, and one outside, where we are forced to adhere to our fake face. I think and hope that feminists all over the world have realised the truth over the past year.
ICORN: You have continued to be a strong voice in the fight for women’s rights and human rights in Iran and beyond. Having published your first book- what is next?
Mahdieh Golroo: Right now, I am working on promoting ‘Forbidden Letters’. It is very important because of the audience and because it has been a difficult process publishing it. But if that goes well, I am working on my second book which is about life after immigration. The Iranian Regime constantly tell women that they are not secure outside of Iran, and when I arrived in Sweden, I found out that all of this was a lie, and I learned many things about freedom.
One part of my next book will be about my own journey. I was born and brought up in a very traditional and strict Muslim family, and it was not easy for me to change my mind and my destiny. I lost my family because of ideological differences, and I know how challenging it is for women in Iran or other similar countries to change their lives. In my new book, I will try to explain this and share my experiences.
Like all daughters, I would have liked to have a good relationship with my father, but I made decision to change my life.
The second part of my new project focuses on how we can deal with the new culture in Western countries, because that was also not easy. Even for an educated, modern, and feminist woman like me, it was still difficult. I hope this book will be able to help women create a new life.
Mahdieh Golroo arrived in Sweden in 2020 and was the ICORN resident in Sandviken between 2020 and 2022. Golroo has continued as a journalist and women’s rights activist, and has worked with international media outlets, such as the BBC, Radio Liberty, and Radio Zamaneh, covering politics and human rights in Iran.
You can find and purchase ‘Forbidden Letters’ by Mahdieh Golroo here.