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Beauty Persecuted Marina Nemat

This past September, 22-year-old Iranian student, Mahsa Amini was arrested in Tehran because her hair was showing from under her headscarf. While in custody, she fell into a coma and died. Her death unleashed a torrent of global rallies in support of a woman’s right to her own body, mind and soul—a calling that’s central to Canada’s day and med spa industry.

For award winning Canadian author, Marina Nemat, it brought back traumatic memories of the religious fanaticism and violation of human rights that gripped Iran four decades earlier. Nemat was just 16 years old then, when she was arrested and tortured by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard in 1982. In a desperate bid to escape, the young Russian Orthodox woman was forced to convert to Islam and marry her prison interrogator. A few years later, he was murdered, freeing her to marry her childhood sweetheart. She moved to Canada with her young family in 1991 and wrote two books to share her ordeal: the best-selling Prisoner of Tehran and a sequel, After Tehran. We caught up with her at her lakeside cottage, hoping to understand how she was able to protect her body, mind and soul in the face of terror.

Some might describe you as intelligent, a human rights advocate, passionate, courageous and spiritual. What words would you use to describe yourself?

I see myself as a woman who is stubborn, opinionated, and who cannot tolerate injustice. Something inside me usually pushes me to say something. When we speak out against a situation, it can get us into trouble—even if we do it respectfully because those committing the injustice just don’t want to hear about it.

What are your thoughts about the current situation in Iran: the surge of protests against the way women are treated under the present Islamic government? Does it remind you of the rallies from forty years ago?
What’s going on in Iran today seems like déjà vu to me. But now the difference is that there are more young people and young women in Iran. The population has grown significantly, more than double since we were there. There’s also the power of today’s social media to connect people and override efforts to shut them down. After more than 40 years, people are tired of this brutal dictatorship that attacks women.

Could you explain what happened to you back then?
As a high school student, I had attended protest rallies and spoken against the government because the laws had changed and we were forced to cover up, not allowed to dress the way we wanted, or wear makeup or be seen in public with boys that were not relatives. Suddenly, everything we had enjoyed was considered satanic. Then people started getting arrested, disappearing, just like today—taken from their homes, from the streets and even from school. I was taken around 9 o’clock at night from my home and brought to Evin Prison, a brutal place for political dissidents where I spent three years.

Where did you get the strength to walk through hell and come out the other end?
Like many who have post traumatic stress disorder, my distress did not show outwardly. I was in an emotional coma. PTSD symptoms usually appear years later. And by the time the symptoms appear, they’re difficult to treat. Then around 2000, everything came crashing down; I began having flashbacks and nightmares; I had difficulty adjusting and there were strains on my relationships. I realized then I had PTSD.

How did you heal from the PTSD?
I can’t call it healing. You learn to manage it. You carry it with you like a heavy backpack you can’t place down. Managing emotional trauma is not the same for everyone. Some require therapy or medication and a good support system. I found writing. Now, I teach memoir writing at the School of Continuing Studies at University of Toronto.

Since the publication of both your books, you have been interviewed many times. What is the one question you wished they had asked, that no one ever did?
I wish my closest relatives had asked me how I was after my release from prison. I may not have been ready to answer, but at least they would have shown that they were ready to listen. But they were silent. When you ask a question like that from someone that has been traumatized, you’re basically telling them that you care. That even though you know the experience is difficult, you are there to listen to what they went through.

What can Canadians learn from your experience?
There were many girls my age and younger in that prison. We had been beaten, tortured and bruised, but we had each other to rely on so we shared our meager rations and supported each other in whatever way we could. In them, I saw the height of human goodness. In prison, I discovered both the absolute insanity of human cruelty and the absolute beauty of human dedication, selflessness and love. When the world seems ugly, we have to search deeply to find beauty. Beauty heals, it makes things better.

What does beauty mean to you?
I believe beauty lies in nature. I’m happiest when I’m in the forest or by the lake, marvelling at the animals and scenery around me. For me, beauty needs to be natural. In my selfcare, I try to go as natural and simplified as possible with products that don’t harm the environment. I threw out my make up and keep things easy with a cream and serum for moisturizing and just a few other things. I went with a Canadian brand, the Rocky Mountain Soap Co., that uses simple, effective ingredients that when combined with eating right and regular exercise, makes me feel so much better.

Jana Manolakos
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