true crime

'They wouldn't give me a tampon.' Kylie Moore-Gilbert spent more than 800 days in an Iranian prison.

On September 13, 2018, Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert was arrested at a Tehran airport as she was making her way back home after attending a work conference in Iran.

She spent the next two years and three months - 804 long, lonely, and pain-filled days - in some of the worst prisons in the world.

"I had no conception whatsoever that I would proceed to prison. I would not have believed it had they told me because I'd done nothing wrong," Moore-Gilbert tells No Filter host Mia Freedman. "I thought, Okay, this is a misunderstanding, I will explain to them that I've done nothing wrong, I'll show them that I'm innocent. They'll interrogate me. And then they'll let me go and get on the plane and fly back to Australia. So I cooperated... I was naïve. At the beginning, that's what I thought would happen."

Listen to Kylie Moore-Gilbert in conversation with Mia Freedman in the No Filter podcast. Post continues below.


Her crime? While the Iranian government accused her of being a spy (and then bizarrely tried to recruit her to be their spy during interrogation), the Australian government would later reveal it was her marriage to then-husband, Israeli-Russian Ruslan Hodorov, which initially prompted her arrest.

At the prison, Moore-Gilbert was immediately placed into solitary confinement. "When they put me in the solitary cell, they'd given me a prison uniform to change into and I just thought this was a change room for the uniform," she says. "It was so small. It didn't even cross my mind I would have to sleep in there. It was tiny. It had no window, no natural light. There was just a light on 24 hours a day in the ceiling, a very bright LED sort of thing. No furniture, no stimulation whatsoever. It was designed to torment you, designed to break you for the interrogation."

The only object in the room was a telephone for calling the guards, but because she couldn't speak Farsi and the guards couldn't speak English, nothing would happen when she used the phone. "I'm saying, 'I need to go to the toilet' and they didn't understand what that meant. So they would just hang up on me."

To use the toilet, Moore-Gilbert would initially bang on the door, which the guards did not like because of the noise. In the first month, she would be blindfolded as well to obscure her vision of the hallways and other parts of the facility. She was given one square of toilet paper. "If I spent more than 30 seconds in there, they'd bang on the door and yell at me. Going to the toilet was a fraught experience in and of itself."

Which begs the question: What happened when she got her period?

"Oh my god, this was a nightmare," the academic tells Freedman. "Honestly, every female prisoner in there, you can have an hour's long discussion about these things with them. I've heard countless horror stories. Principally, Iran doesn't believe in tampons. It's very difficult to get tampons in Iran because they believe that it takes a woman's virginity. There's all these superstitions about tampons. So it's impossible. The prison guards basically banned tampons, because they said only an immoral woman would use such a thing."

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Kylie Moore-Gilbert spent more than two years as a prisoner in Iran. (Image: Facebook)

The idea is so pervasive that many other prisoners believed that no man would want to marry a woman who used tampons. Instead, the women were given "terrible, huge, fat nappy pads that looked like incontinence pads for elderly people."

"I had many fights over it because they would give me one at a time," Moore-Gilbert says. "They wouldn't give me a packet; they'd come and dole out one every time. And even communicating that this was what I needed, when I didn't speak Farsi, was very difficult. It was a very unhygienic place - the toilets were very, very dirty and there was no toilet paper to clean yourself."

In the beginning, as a form of torture, she was only allowed to shower once every three days. "I'm not going to go into the gritty details. But these feminine hygiene issues were huge."

Over time, Moore-Gilbert formed deep friendships with other female prisoners and would spend hours trying to devise ways they could communicate. She wrote secret messages on toilet paper and squirrelled them away into the inseam of clothes in order to talk to her fellow inmates.

She underwent several hunger strikes.

She dealt with her psychological trauma by developing coping techniques like thinking of song lyrics, looking back on childhood memories, and even reciting the timetable.

All the while, Moore-Gilbert was being interrogated. 

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The lead interrogator grew obsessed with her, even going so far as to organise a birthday party in her honour. "We had a very conflicted relationship. There's a lot of animosity between us," she reveals. "He had a classic male ego - he wanted to call the shots, be in charge. I think he was used to getting his way with everything, including among his colleagues... I would often make jokes and mock him, laugh at him. I think in a way, he liked that, because nobody else really had the balls to do it to him."

She admitted to using his obsession against him. "I entered into this dangerous, risky game of trying to toy with his affections and use his weakness for me to my benefit, but without properly understanding the rules of the game and the parameters, and therefore shooting myself in the foot a hell of a lot of the time."

Upon her release from jail on November 25, 2020 - following a prisoner exchange - Moore-Gilbert returned to Australia. Her mother was the one to tell her the truth: that her then-husband was having an affair with her PhD supervisor.

"It was a double betrayal," she tells Freedman. "And the nature of it was quite a strange... two people I would never have put together to be honest. It was quite a head f**k. As I said, I knew the marriage was over. So it wasn't that I came home and I was expecting him to be there waiting for me and for us to just embrace and go back to our marriage and go back to living together. It was the nature of that of how it ended. That was shocking to me, rather than the fact that it ended at all."

For her part, Moore-Gilbert has no animosity towards her former husband and former friend. "It is what it is. And, you know, I wish them all the best. Like, I don't know if any relationship started under such circumstances has any hope in hell of ever surviving, but I'm not bitter. I've moved on and I'm not interested in what he's doing."

While she is still processing what happened to her, Moore-Gilbert says that writing a book about her ordeal has helped her deal with the trauma and she hopes that it helps bring awareness to those still imprisoned. She's looking forward to spending time with family and friends now that the pandemic restrictions have lifted somewhat.

And she is also dating again. "I have been on dating apps since last year. And I had some very hilarious and bizarre experiences because I wouldn't tell the truth obviously - I'm not going to put my real name or that I was in Iran or anything. And I definitely had these conversations, 'Aw, the Melbourne lockdown of 2020, how terrible it was'. And I've got to make a decision here: Do I make [it] up?" she says with a laugh.

"But I'm very open. I'm happy to talk about anything. These days, if anyone approaches me with questions, I'll just answer them straight up."

The Uncaged Sky: My 804 days in an Iranian prison by Kylie Moore-Gilbert is available from March 30.

Feature Image: Supplied + Mamamia.

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