Homa Hoodfar trying to get back to a normal life after Iranian imprisonment

Montreal Gazette

Homa Hoodfar’s Iranian captors never succeeded in breaking her spirit — not when they confined her to a tiny cell without a bathroom, not when they interrogated her for hours on end, not when she endured countless sleepless nights in a brightly lit cell with no pillow.


Not through 112 days in Iran’s notorious Evin prison, which others, including Montreal photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, had not escaped alive. Not even when they told the 65-year-old Concordia University academic they would keep her locked up for 15 years, until she died, and then ship her home to Montreal in a casket.

“They discovered they couldn’t intimidate me,” Hoodfar said in an interview. 

If anything, her defiance may have broken her captors. It certainly frustrated them, with interrogations often degenerating into shouting matches as they tried to cajole her into admitting she was an activist and not merely an academic doing research in Iran.

“I told them I’m 65, death can happen at any time,” she said with a steely glint in her eyes. “I said I’ve lived my life, I’ve achieved a lot, I have no children, my husband has passed, my mother has passed, my (siblings) will adjust to living without me. If I am to spend the rest of my life in Evin prison, in the company of intellectuals, it’s fine.”

Dressed in a cheery red jacket and enjoying a summery breeze on the Concordia campus Thursday as she met with a succession of journalists, Hoodfar seemed relaxed as she recounted her ordeal in a country she will never again visit.

She was fortunate that after many public and gruesome deaths at Evin prison, including Kazemi’s rape and torture in 2003, she believes tactics now involve mainly psychological torture and intimidation. 

But there is no denying that prison was an often unbearable hardship which required incredible resilience to endure. She faced implacable and hostile interrogators dozens of times. One tactic she employed was to count her blessings, reminding herself often that 20 years ago her imprisonment would have been much harsher.

After her release on Sept. 26, Hoodfar returned to Montreal from Oman and made herself a cup of tea. It was a moment she had dreamed about through months of captivity and isolation and despair.

After nearly 4 months in jail, Canadian-Iranian Homa Hoodfar is greeted by nephew Saam Hamzavi at P. E. Trudeau Airport in Dorval, on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016. DAVE SIDAWAY / MONTREAL GAZETTE

Her research as an anthropologist has often focused on women in Muslim societies and Hoodfar was particularly interested in the Parliamentary election going on last February, when she arrived in Iran. She says she was observing the political machinations, not doing anything subversive, and never even interviewed anyone during her time there.

“But the conservatives did badly in the election and they started to blame outsiders,” said Hoodfar, who holds Canadian, Iranian and Irish citizenship. In early March, she was arrested by the counter-espionage service of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, set up to protect the Islamic system. Her computers, identification papers and data she had gathered were seized, but she was released on bail. Her data has still not been returned.

She contacted family, knowing her phones were tapped, but tried not to implicate people she knew in Iran. She was concerned, but not panicked, despite understanding that researching social sciences in Iran is a criminal activity.

Iran’s prosecutor cited “dabbling in feminism” as her violation, then said she was trying to undermine the Iranian government. 

On June 6, she was told at a court date that her bail had increased fivefold, up to some $200,000. She always believed she was being used as a pawn between the Revolutionary Guard and elected officials, and the stakes were just getting higher.

“I wasn’t pleased but I kind of expected it,” Hoodfar said. She was taken to Evin prison where she was forced to wear a pink prison uniform, including a head scarf. She was blindfolded any time she was escorted anywhere.

After a few days of intense interrogations, she decided to treat her time there as field work. Although lacking pen and paper, she used her toothbrush to scrawl her observations on the stone wall of her cell, prompting her cellmates to view her as a kind of mad professor, she said, laughing.

“My age and the fact I was an anthropologist and quite familiar with their techniques was a problem for them,” said Hoodfar, who now plans to write a book on the anthropology of interrogation. The interrogations were draining and often resulted in accusations from her captors that she wasn’t co-operating or telling the truth.

Surprisingly, she said they actually had engaging conversations at times. “There were no nasty (swear) words directed at me, although there was a lot of shouting,” she said. 

But Hoodfar endured long nights, often with no sleep whatsoever, on an uncomfortable bed with just a blanket and no pillow. That, she says, was the worst part of her captivity.

She believes it was intentional, that her captors hoped it would help break her by weakening her. Instead, it contributed to making her sick. Although she was taking medication for a neuromuscular disorder and had a mild stroke last year, she developed a lung infection.

She was taken to a hospital, where a guard sat outside her door, although she believes her captors “did their best to take care of me,” allowing her to take the necessary antibiotics and even bringing her fruit.

Remarkably, despite the comfortable bed in the hospital, she asked to be transferred back to prison because it evoked too many painful memories of her husband’s confinement to a hospital bed during his illness.


Hoodfar believes she was imprisoned because Iranian officials wanted her case to be publicized. Diplomatic ties between Canada and Iran were severed in 2012. Global Affairs Canada says Canada is committed to “step-by-step re-engagement with Iran,” although no timeline has been established.

Her experience has only deepened her commitment to her research on Muslim women, especially those she left behind in Iran who don’t have dual citizenship and another country to lobby for their release, as Hoodfar had. 

She is grateful but still overwhelmed by all the support she had from around the globe. Now, she just wants to get back to normal, saying she was thrilled to get on the 80 bus as usual. She has new appreciation for the most mundane things.

“Answering the phone, frying an egg, it’s all wonderful,” said Hoodfar. 

Most wonderful of all?

“They didn’t break me in the way they had wanted.”