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. Heloisa

    OmidHi dearThey haven't released them yet?Is any one tniyrg to get them out ? You know what Omid, the mullahs do not wish to recognize Bahais at the same time they feel jealous that bahias have a pacific pilgrimage to Israel and they can practice their faith there and visit theri holy shrine. We need a movement to make the bahais faith recognized in Iran. I mean before any thing else, before thinking about major changed in the whole system, that might take a long time, but right now, because there are many Bahais in Iran and because of the way they are being treated..

    June 27, 2012 at 4:46 am |
  2. Serene S.

    I'm an American Baha'i and Iran has been persecuting Baha'is pretty much since the Baha'i Faith started in Persia in 1844.

    January 20, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  3. Catarina Cavalcante de Jesus


    Uma poesia transformada em canção, em homenagem ao heroísmo de nossos irmãos no Irã desde a fundação da Fé naquele país. Baseada em trechos da história da perseguição aos babis e bahá'ís seguidores do Báb e de Bahá'u'lláh. A Fé Bahá'í narrada desde o início da História do Báb. Embasada no livro: A Presença de Deus, escrito por Shoghi Effendi. Dos três primeiros capítulos.


    Acompanhai-me amigos, acompanhai-me e vede!

    Estes que acorrentados, conduzidos por seus algozes.

    Acompanhai-me amigos, acompanhai-me e vede!

    Estes que enfileirados, queimando vão como tochas.

    Acompanhai-me amigos, acompanhai-me e vede!

    Cantam em voz ressoante, diante do povo calado.

    Verdadeiramente de Deus nós vimos,

    Verdadeiramente de Deus nós vimos,

    E a Ele voltamos e a Ele voltamos!

    Acompanhai-me amigos, acompanhai-me e vede!

    Homens, mulheres, crianças! Sorvem o copo da graça!

    Acompanhai-me amigos, acompanhai-me e vede!

    Ainda hoje no Irã, berço da Amada Fé!

    Acompanhai-me amigos, acompanhai-me e vede!

    Prendem, maltratam e perseguem, os seguidores de Bahá!

    Prendem, maltratam e perseguem, os seguidores de Bahá!

    Acompanhai-me e vede...

    Uma homenagem aos Sete Yárans presos em maio de 2008, e que foram condenados a 20 anos de prisão.

    Seus crimes?Simplesmente por serem Bahá'ís!

    "Ser bahá’í significa simplesmente ter amor a todos; amar a humanidade e esforçar-se por servi-la, trabalhar pela paz e fraternidade universais."

    Os Porta- Tochas da Fé

    September 9, 2010 at 7:31 am |
  4. Nonagon47

    Hey – anyone out there know the Vatican's email? I'd love to send this forward to them ...

    September 6, 2010 at 10:42 am |
  5. Hannibal

    I'm still waiting for her to reveal how many hundreds of private sexual encounters she was afforded by the prison guards.. Afterall, she was in solitary confinement which is obviously private & they most likely allowed her very little in clothing.. Under those circumstances, prison guards cannot be accountable for exploiting the situation to take care of their need..

    September 6, 2010 at 7:32 am |
  6. Ron Adams

    I was in a town between Isfahan and Shiraz called Abed-eh (spelling may not be correct). Twenty-five years later I was in a Philadelphia hospital waiting for treatment for my mother.We were outside the office of a doctor that was obvious to me Iranian. When she arrived, we chatted. Telling her that this town (Abed-eh) to me always felt very morbid. She related a story that explained so much. She said she was Baha'i. She explained that the religion developed from seeking ways to utilize and apply Islam as no one new what to do with it. Thus a movement started to apply Islam to the lives of people. This event disturb the religious leaders because all the people were following the teacher of the pragmatics of Islam. So there was a mass killing of the followers that started in Isfahan. The heads of the beheaded were marched from Isfahan to Shiraz when someone realized how ghastly it looked. Then they were buried in the town of Abed-eh. Now the point is that these comments are introduced as the first conflict between the Shia Muslims and Baha'i religion. To put that slant on the conflict is not completely true. It is historical and not a contemporary issue. i knew Baha'i woman married to a friend. Very sweet lady. To me I regard Baha'i as an extension of Islam. Let's stop using short sited history to project political pretext. All these conflicts throughout the world have long term historical contexts especially in our own back yard.

    September 5, 2010 at 7:13 pm |
    • Angela Shortt

      Ron, Baha'is believe that God reveals His Manifestations (Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Muhammed, The Ba'b and Baha'u'llah) when mankind has reached enough spiritual maturity to understand His Message. The Manifestations bring new enlightenment to the world, or another way to look at it, a new chapter in an ongoing Message. Baha'is call this progressive revelation. The Baha'i Faith is not an extension of Islam anymore than Christianity is an extension of Zoroastrianism (which preceded it). The spiritual message of God has always been the same: love God, your fellow man and yourself. Take care of those who are needy. Treat others as you would want to be treated. Pray. Detach yourselves from the dross of this world. These spiritual teachings are repeated in every Revelation. The difference is the social teachings, which are instructions on how to live in a world that has changed since the previous Revelation. Those are the only differences. The social teachings of the Baha'i Faith are very different from Islam because the needs of the modern world are different from what they were during Muhammad's Revelation.

      May 12, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
    • Saraswati

      @Angela, I only wish Bahai weren't so backwards on hom.ose.xuality because mostly it's a fairly progressive religion. Like most religions, unfortunately, it has locked itself in a bit tight and has problems growing and changing with new information.

      May 12, 2013 at 9:36 pm |
  7. David Johnson

    The article said, "All she had was a blanket, a spoon and a broken fork."

    WoW! She had a fork? When I was growing up, we were so poor, all I had was a pointed stick.

    September 3, 2010 at 10:38 pm |
  8. Barbara

    Unless I'm mistaken I think an earlier report stated that several Baha'i religious leaders were put to death. So Islam.... this is the same religion that in this country is demanding religious tolerance. Yet.... what groups of Muslims ever put pressure on countries like Iran to do the same? They don't for fear that they will be seen as traitors to Islam and perhaps become targets themselves. It's one of the many reasons, some people have trouble being open minded about Islam.

    September 3, 2010 at 10:20 am |
    • Angela Shortt

      Please, Barbara, do not confuse the actions of the fanatical, misguided Muslims in Iran and other countries in the Middle East as being typical of the adherents of Islam! I am an American Baha'i, born and raised here in the United States. I became a Baha'i in 1985 when I was 27 years old. Through the years, I have met many Muslims who have hugged me, called me "sister", and shared food with me while we laughed and talked. When I think of Muslims, I think of them, not those who are the oppressors. There are fundamentalists in every religion, and usually they are people who THINK they have been granted their wordly power by God. It is an illusion. Unfortunately, many other suffer for their illusions. Please, pray for the Baha'is in Iran and other countries in the Middle East who are being oppressed, but recognize that it is those who are drunk with the false idea of power who are committing these contemptible acts. I can tell you from personal experience, not all Muslims are like them.

      May 12, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
  9. shab

    @Maida. I don't deny the hypocrisy in western policy towards middle east! But, how could you call Ahmadinejad a brave man? So you should believe that Hitler was a brave man too! Haven’t you read the news? Do you know how many journalist and students lost their lives since June 2009? Do you know how many people had to fleet from Iran because their lives were on the line? Are you aware of tortures and rapes in Iran's prison? He is a dictator with a big mouth that's who he is!

    September 3, 2010 at 7:17 am |
  10. maida

    Lolz..how funny this western media is....did u people forget what happened to Doctor Afia Sadiqui in Amercan jails..when she was rapped so many times and taking her clothes off she was forced to walk on Quran to get her clothes back. When it comes to some Islamic country and some brave leader like ahmadejad who shows americans and westerns their actual faces you people start making foolish and ridicolous stories.

    September 2, 2010 at 11:53 pm |
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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.