Shiva Nazar Ahari during a protest in Iran. (Supplied)

By Aida Ghajar

April 02, 2020

The term “home quarantine” has now been added to the daily vocabulary of people around the world. Authorities in cities and countries around the world have required people to stay home to fight the deadly coronavirus disease by limiting its spread. Until a few months ago, coronavirus was not in common vocabulary, and many were looking for an opportunity to catch up on their work and lives; a time to relax, a time to watch movies and TV series, an hour to study, even a chance to tidy up a room in the house. But now many people are not satisfied with these opportunities, are not enjoying themselves, and want to return to normal as soon as possible.

Compulsory lockdowns and the unclear end date for this period of enforced relaxation also make many people compare the experience to time in prison. Some speak of depression and despair, and others go a step further and compare quarantine with solitary confinement. IranWire has spoken with people who have experienced true solitary confinement, in prisons, asking them about the similarities and differences between quarantine and solitary confinement.

Most people who have experienced prison and solitary confinement do not find it comparable to home quarantine. But the strategies they used to maintain their moral in those difficult days are likely to serve as a source of relief for those who are frustrated and despairing today.

Shiva Nazar Ahari, a human rights activist, blogger and co-founder (as well as a former secretary and spokesperson) of the Committee on Human Rights Reporters, spent a hundred days in solitary confinement during her several imprisonments for her activities in Iran. Ahari now lives in Slovenia and, like everyone, is living through the coronavirus crisis; a different experience in a different country.

Many people around the world have been quarantined or asked to self-isolate to prevent the spread of coronavirus. And many have likened the experience to being jailed or held in solitary confinement. But those with experience of both do not consider the comparisons to be accurate. Shiva Nazar Ahari argues that the only similarly between solitary confinement and quarantine is that we are separated from society – while staying home is more like being held in a communal prison ward.

You believe that being separated from society is the common point between solitary confinement and the current quarantine. But many who are in quarantine feel that they have been imprisoned. What does your experience suggest? What are the similarities and differences between these two situations?

In my opinion, perhaps the only common point is separation from society and the need to live in solitude. This isolation living can mean a person living alone or a family isolated together. But given the range of amenities available to us at home, books, the internet, cooking, TV, movies, and educational facilities, I think spending time at home is not that difficult. It is true that there is no prospect of an end to this quarantine under the current conditions, but you still have control over your life and you have the freedom of your day-to-day affairs. There are no such amenities in true solitary confinement. You are alone in a small cell with no possibilities for keeping occupied or entertained, no control on going to the bathroom. Even your eating and sleeping schedule is not under your control.You are under the constant pressure of interrogation, meaning that even if you are not being interrogated at any given moment, you still feel the pressure. But in quarantine that’s not the case. From this point of view, I cannot even partially make them look alike. I think if I want a comparison for quarantine, I would say it is not like solitary confinement but more like living in a communal prison ward.

Does this similarity resemble your own imprisonment in a communal prison ward?

For me, the current situation is more like living in a women’s communal prison ward than like solitary confinement. The facilities and conditions are somewhat similar. In the political women’s prison ward it was possible to cook, read, do handicrafts and exercise. Phones and the internet were not available in the ward at that time. We had visits only once a week. There was one television in the ward for everyone and it was not possible to watch movies and TV shows freely. Other aspects of living in quarantine look more to me like living in a general non-political ward. From that point of view, I thought to myself that I had to do the same rigorous planning as I did in prison and spend these days as productively as possible.

I also expect that after quarantine, something may happen to us which will be similar to the experiences of people who have been in solitary confinement for a long time. We may find that we have a heightened desire for privacy and an unwillingness to associate too much with others. It may take a while for us to be the person we were before the quarantine. We are likely to return home as soon as we can, to find our safe spaces, because it is the kind of calm we have become accustomed to over a few months. This also happens to people who come out of solitary confinement, who may at first be happy to be released, but after a while, the feeling of insecurity and anxiety and frustration prevails for someone accustomed to being left alone.

This happened to me after I was transferred from solitary confinement to a small communal prison ward. I wanted to remain in solitary confinement even though it frustrated me. But it is human nature that prefers one’s habits. And quitting a habit is always difficult.

What did you do in solitary confinement and how did you cope?

Everyone who has asked me how I spent the time in solitary confinement, I have always said I was asleep. Sometimes I wonder how I could spend hours and days sleeping; not really sleeping, but somewhere between sleeping and dreaming. No one can sleep all those hours. So, for me it was more about helping my imagination to escape the cell. I must say I wasn’t aware of what I was doing at the time. But now I know how much imagination and imagery helped to keep my spirit as healthy as possible. But it wasn’t all 24 hours of the day. I can’t really tell how it went. For example, I had set myself a schedule for eating fruit or milk and biscuits. In Evin Prison, in the communal Ward 209, we could give the guards a shopping list every two weeks for supplies from the outside. Our shopping list was limited but it was better than nothing. Sometimes I would walk or exercise a little. Honestly, I wasn’t very into sports at the time; there were a lot of prisoners who were walking or exercising in the same small space for two hours. I did that from time to time. There were hours of curiosity or being nosey about what was happening around us. Bathrooms and toilets were also another thing we used to get out of our cells to somehow pass the time. But everyone has their own way of dealing with the conditions in their individual cell. Some ways are common and some, such as exercise and walking, may not be common. But now, with today’s experience, simply exercising in the same cell space and paying attention to your body and mind can certainly keep a person alive and hopeful.

People who have been in solitary confinement sometimes say their motivation to survive is the hope that the difficult times will end. What did you do to keep this motivation alive? Can this motivation be compared to dealing with coronavirus?

I do not see much similarity between solitary confinement and the coronavirus quarantine. But I think humanity lives thanks to hope. … The hope for a brighter tomorrow has a different meaning to people around the world. For me, the hope and motivation in solitary confinement or even in prison came from knowing that thousands of people had been there before and then had left; knowing that each day, I would come closer to my own freedom. The passing of days, though difficult for me, and the promise of getting closer to freedom, can also help in a different way. Looking at what is happening through the window of history helps to make it easier to get past these difficulties. And now we must know that the world has already experienced much more difficult and dreadful days. Some of us don’t get through these days, some of us don’t see the next day, and some of us get lost, but despite this, our ancestors have already had more difficult experiences and experienced similar hardships. It is important that we strive to prevent future similar events, to whatever extent possible, and to pursue the demands to transform these difficult days to a fight for a series of basic rights.

Fresh prison sentences for many activists and journalists have been handed down in the current situation, when the world is fighting in the spread of the coronavirus disease, and they may soon be sent to prison. Perhaps your experiences are a roadmap for them especially now that they are going through quarantine before prison.

I am not in a position to advise anyone, nor do I think my model or method of dealing with imprisonment can be useful to everyone. I think those who go to jail have a relative familiarity with the situation, and there are those who show them the way on how to spend their days, as others have shown me. So I can only wish that as soon as their sentence and imprisonment are over, they will be released and brought back to life; and again I wish that the prison, with all its hardships and difficulties, will make them better people.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.