Baha'i woman recalls imprisonment in Iran
August 31st, 2010
11:10 AM ET

Baha'i woman recalls imprisonment in Iran

Minoo Vosough can still hear the guards' boots marching down the cold hallways of Iran's Gohardasht prison. The screams of other inmates burn her ears.

She can feel the thud of a fist coming down on her head. And the world going black as she was blindfolded and shoved in a courtroom to hear her fate.

She was arrested in Tehran more than 25 years ago - beaten, interrogated and thrown into solitary confinement. Once a week, she was taken out for a shower. She could tell if it was bright or overcast only by the small window high up in her cell. She cherished the chirping of birds outside.

All she had was a blanket, a spoon and a broken fork.

The Iranian regime accused Vosough of espionage, though she was never charged or afforded legal representation. Her crime in the Islamic republic, she says, was - and still is - her faith.

She is a Baha'i.

She has not spoken publicly about her terrifying experience in an Iranian jail. Until now.

This month, the spotlight again fell on Iran's 300,000-strong Baha'i community as seven national leaders were sentenced to 20 years each in prison for espionage, propaganda against the Islamic republic and the establishment of an illegal administration.

Seven Baha'i  leaders are  imprisoned in Iran's Gohardasht prison.

The Baha'i International Community says the charges are trumped up in an effort to stifle the religion, the largest minority faith in Iran. The sentences were condemned by human rights groups and by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who sternly reminded Iran that "freedom of religion is the birthright of people of all faiths and beliefs in all places."

Iran denies mistreatment of Baha'is and says followers of  the faith are free to live in Iran. But it says  it considers activities against the Islamic state illegal and thus views the seven Baha'is accused of spying for  Israel as criminals.

Vosough, a petite, soft-spoken realtor in Atlanta, Georgia, has been following the story of the Yaran, as the seven Baha'i leaders are known. One, Saeid Rezaie, is a classmate from her days at Pahlavi University, now called Shiraz University.

Vosough has tried to keep her own heartbreaking memories locked in the crevices of her mind. But seeing Rezaie's gentle face, reading about the plight of the Yaran, everything came rushing back.

"I want the whole world to know what is happening in Iran," she said.

"What was my crime? What is their crime? We simply believe in our faith. Why don't we have that right?"

Stamped an infidel

Vosough was born in 1956 into an Iran ruled by the shah. Her religion was then just over a century old, founded by two prophets: the Bab (the gate) and Baha'ullah (the glory of God).

Baha'is consider Baha'ullah the most recent in a line of God's messengers that includes Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Christ and Mohammed.

She learned from her parents and from her days at a Baha'i school about the key principle of her religion: oneness of humankind.

Baha'is had never been accepted in Iran but their station in life plunged with the arrival of the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Vosough, right, had to rent a cap and gown after Iranian authorities denied her a college diploma and a place in commencement ceremonies.

A young college student then, Vosough was forced to rent a graduation cap and gown to celebrate with her Baha'i friends after she was denied an official diploma and consequently, she was unable to land a job. These days, Baha'is are barred from enrolling in universities. Or even having a gravestone.

Vosough's father-in-law was buried with just a paper marker bearing his name and the number of the cemetery plot, she says, staring at an old color photograph of the grave.
Four gladioli lie before the crude marker. Otherwise it's hard to tell that a father lies there.

The Tehran government seemed to be looking away for a while, but repression for all religious minorities in Iran has worsened since the presidential elections of 2005 and in particular after the disputed polling last year, according to a 2010 report compiled by the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"A consistent stream of virulent and inflammatory statements by political and religious leaders and an increase in harassment and imprisonment of, and physical attacks against, these groups has led to a renewal of the kind of oppression seen in the years immediately following the Iranian revolution," the report says.

Baha'i blood is "mobah," which means members of the Baha'i faith can be killed with impunity, the report says. Iranian authorities view Baha'is as "heretics" who may face repression on the grounds of apostasy.

Since 1979, the Iranian government has executed more than 200 Baha'is and more than 10,000 have been dismissed from government and university jobs, the commission's report says. Baha'is may not establish places of worship, schools, or any independent religious associations in Iran. In addition, Baha'is are barred from the military and denied government jobs.

"This is a community that has really felt the jackboot of the Iranian government," says Leonard Leo, chairman of the commission.

Vosough says the Iranian government is determined to sow prejudice against the Baha'is. Even Muslims who associate with Baha'is are often harassed by authorities, she says.

On public forms, people are asked to mark their religion: Muslim. Christian. Zoroastrian. Jewish.

There is no box for the Baha'is.

"So you are stamped an infidel," says Vosough. "You have no rights."

Making a 13-day escape

She had been married two months in 1984 when she was arrested after a family gathering. The government suspected her of "illegal activity."

Officials stopped her car and demanded documents she didn't have. There were no Miranda Rights. No lawyer. She was wrestled away to Tehran's notorious Evin prison, her family left to scour the route she took.

She was only 27 - and frightened.

Vosough at her engagement party in Tehran.

"I didn't know what was happening," she says. "In my heart, I knew I was there because I was a Baha'i."

In jail, she reflected on her faith. That gave her strength. She recited prayers and tried to count days. That kept her lucid.

She was taken to Gohardasht prison on the outskirts of Tehran and kept in a cell by herself. Later, when she was returned to Evin for her trial, she was placed in a room with 60 other women. A Baha'i woman was nursing her six-month-old baby. Vosough gave the woman her share of prison milk. The mother needed strength.

"Why should a baby be in prison?" she asks. "For what crime? Was that baby also a spy for Israel?"

After three months, Vosough was released. But she could not escape prison. She could no longer walk the streets without fear. And when she became pregnant, a panic set in.

"I wasn't going to let my child ever be in a prison like that," she says.

Or t be unable to go to school, get a job. Or do anything freely.

On a summer day in 1985, Vosough said goodbye to Iran. She took with her only a small bag with two changes of clothing for an escape that took 13 days. She and her husband traveled by the darkness of night, on horseback, on foot, over the mountains into neighboring Turkey.

The next year, with the help of the United Nations refugee agency, Vosough began a new life in the United States. She has no Iranian passport, required of all returning Iranians. Nor does she own any documentation of the life she left behind.

In her native Iran, she is more of a nobody than before.

At 53, Vosough does not know if she will ever again touch Iranian soil. Perhaps, she fears, she has already embraced her 86-year-old mother for the last time.

But in America, she says, she can practice her faith freely.

"You don't know freedom until it has been taken away from you," she says, sitting under a framed drawing of Baha'ullah¹s son Abdu¹l-Baha in her suburban home.

"It was taken away from me."

Ensuring survival

If Vosough could talk to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, she would tell him one thing: "This is not what Islam promotes."

The seven Baha'i leaders imprisoned now were the pillars of their communities, Vosough says. They are even more important because the Baha'is do not follow clergy. Instead communities plan their own meetings and services.

In Iran, the seven were working to ensure the survival of their way of life in a country that does not recognize them.

"I think I survived everything pretty good," she says, a moment of acute sadness interrupting the smile that is often splashed across her face.

But she worries that her 300,000 Baha'i brothers and sisters in Iran may not.

She has felt emboldened to write to her congressmen, to push them to apply pressure on Iran.

If the world forgets, she fears, what will become of her people?

- Moni Basu

Filed under: Baha'i • Iran • Journeys

soundoff (456 Responses)
  1. joefunda

    How come the Bahai community has suddenly become a downtrodden lot according to the Americans? During the 8 years long Iran/Iraq war, the Iraqis were an ally & all Iranians including the Bahai community were their bitter enemies. Saddam was an ally & anyone who opposed Saddam was an enemy including the Kurds. The Kurds were gasses & killed by Chemical Ali in 1988 but it was not until Saddam became an enemy that American decided that it was a crime against humanity. No one heard a whisper in 1988 about this event. Sudan was a good regime until the Chinese & Indian’s were allowed to exploit their resources by the Sudanese government. Suddenly Dafur has become the most evil place on earth. Taliban was created to counter the Russians but now they search every cave on earth & have spend close to 3 trillion dollars to find & put an end to this Frankenstein. They have also become virtually bankrupt in the process. So the truth is American decides the good & evil in this world not according to other people’s deeds but according to their own needs. Any Middle Eastern country including Iran which does not allow their corporate giants exploit their resources is termed as a rogue regime. Unfortunately they cannot change their policies unless they want to end up in history books. tweet @joefunda

    September 2, 2010 at 11:45 pm |
    • Angela Shortt

      Baha'is have not "all of the sudden" become a downtrodden lot. These atrocities have been going on since 1844. But everything has a time and place, and the world was not ready to hear about what has been happening to Baha'is in the Middle East. The news of the human rights violations are now readily available through social media. After all, Alexander Graham Bell sent the first telegraph on the day The Ba'b revealed that He was the One Promised by God. That act led to a firestorm that waxed and waned over the years, but has never gone away in Iran. Had smart phones and other devices been available back then, you would have heard of these atrocities earlier. Peace. 🙂

      May 12, 2013 at 9:42 pm |
  2. Dave

    I'm glad to see CNN covering the Baha'i Leader's Imprisonment in Iran. Human Rights Violations be they religious, racial, sexual or political need to be brought to he world's attention. I sincerely hope that Justice is served.

    September 2, 2010 at 9:45 pm |
  3. Sam

    its so funny how ex arab prisoners publish thier prison time stories in global media sources. but we never see personal accounts of rape and torture of iraqi prisoners by america, we never see personal stories of ex guantanamobay who were falsly prisoned without trialed and tortured by american. thats one of many reasons why the world hates america, hypocracy.

    September 2, 2010 at 9:19 pm |
  4. Sh.M

    Unbelievable! These threads make me sad! Religion against religion! This is the purpose of the religion to ignite the emotions to lead the war amongst nations! Where are all those 1400 prophets now???The true believer would only love and respect all the nations, religions, notions and nature! It’s time to think beyond the circle of religion! Religion is created for a fearful mind who do not have courage to contemplate and prefer to stick to the promises religion made! It’s time for new religion and that’s called religion of love that unites us all!

    September 2, 2010 at 8:52 pm |
  5. anti frogist


    September 2, 2010 at 8:45 pm |
  6. anti frogist

    @frogist, if you seriously think America uses the same tactics as Iran, you need a serious reality check. We as a country should deport you to the Islamic Replublic then let you fend for yourself.

    September 2, 2010 at 8:44 pm |
  7. suicidal tendency

    Religion doesn't attributes with human being... Religion only guides you, but men can always do what he wanted to do...

    September 2, 2010 at 8:16 pm |
  8. Adrian E. Pereyra

    I had the same thing happen to me in the United States but my crime was opposition to the Iraq war.

    September 2, 2010 at 7:20 pm |
  9. aru

    I sincerely beg the peoples of the world to help free the Bahais from these indecent and inhuman treatment . Dear friendly peoples of world, hope the all mankind could kindly arise with joint effort to save this peace loving people from the wicked and severe tortures and baseless accusations.How mankind in this century of light can treat another human being simply heap false accusations and put in prison for so many years when they have done no wrongs.l . These people only preach and practice peace and treat another human as a creation of the same ONE GOD.
    Hope we can make this world a better place to live .

    September 2, 2010 at 2:19 pm |
  10. peace through superior firepower

    I love how the muslim extremists who killed so many on 9/11 in Allah's name were out at strip clubs before their holy deed.

    September 2, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
  11. crazy population

    we will never be able to reason with islamic extremists. there is something wrong with an entire population that believe it is okay to kill their own children because they shame their family when they talk to others. How do you reason with someone, saying you want to agree-to-disagree and live in harmony together and they want to kill you and do not think you even have the right to exist? The rest of the world has progressed over the last 2 centuries, these people have not.

    September 2, 2010 at 12:50 pm |
  12. khala

    now this is a good example as in the west and united state can not tolerate islam and there is there is some physical violence even aganist the moslem citizens in us . iran can not tolerate some of kind of religion as well and they have reason for that. but i think iran is the home of bahai's they are iranian whether their religion is true or not but they didnt come from somewhere else / they should have the right the same as the other iranian minories and improve their homeland

    September 1, 2010 at 7:31 pm |
  13. Craig

    I am a proud American who chose to become Baha'i around 20 years ago, and I am very proud of the strength and resilience that the Baha'i community in Iran is demonstrating, while attempting to live their lives in obediance to Baha'i principles, which include obediance and loyalty to their government even when it is trying to destroy them.

    I have never lived in an Islamic country, but I know many Muslims and others of Middle-eastern extraction, and as a Baha'i I feel that it is important to answer all the false accusations that people make against ISLAM.

    Vanessa, I have also read the Quran, I have "tried it", and I have never read what you continually say you "have read" in the Quran. Your last posting, which you started with "According to the Quran", was so full of "misrepresentations" that my jaw dropped. I would like some clarification from you.

    Could you give me the chapters and verses that say all that you claim is written in the Quran? In discussions like these, it is important to be truthful, and the only way to remain truthful is to give facts. After all the defamation that you have made, can you give some facts please?

    September 1, 2010 at 7:15 pm |
  14. khala

    i agree the iranian authoritis should free them and let them practice in their own way like the other iranian minorites they are iranian and their tradition and costums is not dissimilar to other iranians . they can help our country to improve

    September 1, 2010 at 7:09 pm |
  15. Deedz

    Things need to change in Iran. While the world progresses, the muslim countries have not only regressed, but some still live in the time of their prophet. Very sad.

    September 1, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
  16. Hereitis

    Anybody ever came across this? Illuminati...Take a look. Just curious. Takes a while to load, its pretty long.


    September 1, 2010 at 12:46 pm |
  17. David Johnson


    We did not liberate Iraq from the Taliban. Maybe Afganistan. We invaded Iraq, because Bush lied and said they had weapons of mass destructions. Bush talked to god. Actually we invaded a country that did nothing to us. We were following the Bush Doctrine.

    September 1, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
  18. roberto


    September 1, 2010 at 9:36 am |
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    September 1, 2010 at 8:05 am |
  20. food for thought

    Many of the posts here center around the unjustness of religion, but it is people who are unjust, not God.
    The faith that Minoo believes in, teaches that all these religions come from the same source, all the spiritual teachings of these religions are in alignment! arguing about which religion is 'true' is a further disservice to this long suffering woman, as is not allowing other people their beliefs, that is why she was imprisoned in the first place.

    What is it Baha'is believe that has caused such a controversy in Iran? Baha'is believe that there is one God, and that when people corrupt the religion God has given them, or are in need of further guidance or new social teachings as the time requires, a new prophet comes to renew their commitment to Him.
    When the people after Abraham turned to idol worship, Moses taught the people again about God. During roman times, people were again in need of more spiritual guidance and Christ brought that, and much more. Muhammad came to the contending tribes of Arabia, unified them and ushered in an unrivaled civilization. but over time that civilization has crumbled and again is in need of renewal. Baha'is believe Baha'u'llah brought teachings that would heal the problems that currently afflict not only the Islamic nations ( hence the feelings of fear/ threat voiced by Iran that their religion be changed) but the world. this is not a movement of destruction (Baha'is believe that if religion is the cause of disunity, better that there be no religion at all) Baha'is are trying to help heal the arguments centered around religion, bring healing in general. that is why this injustice is particularly sad, and telling.

    September 1, 2010 at 6:56 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.