Iranwire – On the evening of November 21, 2022, inmates gathered in Hall 1 in the women’s ward of Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison to attend a hybrid theater/puppetry play that was written, directed and performed by prisoners jailed for their activities in support of civil and human rights.
Sixteen inmates contributed to this one-time performance, which paid homage to Iranian student activists, denounced patriarchy in society and exposed discrimination against women and ethnic minorities in Iran, as universities across the country were the scene of angry protests demanding more freedoms and women’s rights.
Iranian women and university students have been at the forefront of the ongoing protest movement triggered by the September death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of morally police. The security forces have unleased a brutal crackdown on the demonstrators, killing more than 500 people and arresting over 18,000, activists say. Many have been handed prison sentences or are facing execution.
The performance at Evin Prison was dedicated to Saeed Zeinali, a 23-year-old university student who was arrested at Tehran University during the student protests of July 1999. His fate remains unknown to this day.
The play, titled “Oil Square,” is divided into three acts, one of them featuring puppets made from flour paste and light dough.
“They did not have the basic ingredients for making the puppets, but [inmate] Niloufar Bayani knew how to make them with Chinese flour paste and taught others. Then they used some acrylic paint that they had in the ward and used it to paint the puppets,” a person involved in the planning of the performance told IranWire. Her identity is not revealed to protect her security.
The play was directed by Mali Jafari, who studied puppet theater at Tehran University’s School of Fine Arts. He was arrested during the November 2019 protests sparked by a sudden rise in the price of gasoline.
Jafari is also a co-author of the play, along with labor and civil rights activist Sepideh Gholian and Hasti Amiri, a student at Tehran’s Allameh Tabatabaei University.
According to IranWire’s source, the project took shape when the three young women staged a sit-in inside Evin Prison last autumn calling for an end to “the suppression of students at universities, the unconditional release of arrested students and a guarantee that military, paramilitary and police forces shall be banned from entering universities.” The protest action ended after a week of harassment by prison officials.
“Seeking justice is a hard Struggle”
Act 1 of “Oil Square” features puppets representing Saeed Zeinali, Fereshteh Alizadeh, another student activist arrested in July 1999, and their friend Ali. It includes conversations between the three characters at three junctures in time, i.e., the 1999, 2009, and 2022 waves of student uprisings. Scene 1 exposes the patriarchal culture in Iranian society, lack of support for women’s demands and their frustrations.
Act 2 is a monologue by Sepideh Gholian about the discrimination that ethnic minorities are facing in Iran and the violence against Kurds and Arabs. Gholian was tortured while in detention and sentenced to five years in prison for supporting striking workers in southern Khuzestan Province.
Act 3 features another monologue, this time by Narges Mohammadi, a human rights defender who is serving a 16-year prison term. Mohammadi talks about the bereaved mothers of the victims of the Islamic Republic who have been seeking justice over the past decades.
“Seeking justice is a hard struggle, an endeavor to gain our rights and the justice that were trampled by theocracy and tyranny, that were denied by the killings in the streets, by executions and torture in prison cells and by imprisoning women in society and at home,” the activist says in her monologue.
The puppeteers included NiloufarBayani, Fariba Adelkhah, Zohreh Sarv (Mahfar), Forough Taghipour and Gelareh Abbasi. Environmental activist Bayani and Iranian-French national Adelkhah are imprisoned on espionage charges, while Sarv and Abbasi are incarcerated for their social media activities.
The puppets were produced by Mali Jafari, Niloufar Bayani, Gelareh Abbasi and Hasti Amiri, and their costumes were made by civil rights activist and poet Jila Karamzadeh Makvandi. The hairs attached to the puppets belonged to Hasti Amiri and Sepideh Gholian.
IranWire has received the script of the play in English and Persian languages: