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. Jrad

    I know a lot of people that make similar claims. Things like: "The root of all evil in the word is relgion" and "if relgion were banned and/or didn't exist the world would be in harmony".

    Really? Do you really think all this violence in the world is stemming from religion? Do you think if the concept of religion was never concieved the world would be a peaceful and happy place?

    No, the world would be just as violent. We would find other reasons to kill people that have different colored skin. Humans are simply inherently violent and untrusting. It's just how we are.

    August 31, 2010 at 3:59 pm |
  2. Western liberal

    It seems to me that the West wants to murder as much as the crazy Mullah's do. The never ending drum beats of the Zionists and there supporters to lay waste to Iran, it really seems like a mental illness.

    August 31, 2010 at 3:58 pm |
    • Really?

      Why not go to Iran and make a similar statement about their country? You have the freedom to speak that here, but there you are instantly condemned for your belief.

      August 31, 2010 at 4:37 pm |
  3. The Number

    @Hmm... I agree. As an atheist I am ashamed of the religion bashers here. The issue is a matter of freedom – this is what American is supposed to stand and fight for. It is sad that in the year 2010 people are still so afraid of those who are different of them.

    August 31, 2010 at 3:58 pm |
  4. Matt McHugh

    People should never be persecuted for their faith. Ridiculed is fine... but physical persecution crosses the line.

    August 31, 2010 at 3:55 pm |
  5. Peace please

    Baha'i Fiath info:

    August 31, 2010 at 3:55 pm |
  6. Ruth

    And there you have it. That's peaceful Islam.

    August 31, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
  7. MNCitizen

    What's notable is that no Iranians from outside of Iran have posted on this story. Why don't you speak up and condemn what happened to this woman and what is happening to Bahais in Iran? What Iranians don't want to admit is that they supported Khomeini and the misery he brought to their country. They were so eager to get rid of the Shah they were willing to support someone worse than the Shah. The current government in Iran reflects the Iranian people's values. Khomeini could never have taken control without their support.

    August 31, 2010 at 3:51 pm |
    • Farzad

      Ah Hello MNCitizen you do remember those demonstrations and rallies against Ahmadinejad? There were people literally in the street chanting for his removal from office. But what happened? Like every dictatorship in history there was a brutal government crackdown. Those in power would rather beat, intimidate, and murder their own countrymen then admit that they rigged the election. The people didn't vote for Ahmadinejad to stay in power they wanted him out but the Iranian Theocratic Oligarchy reared its ugly head to deny them even this simple right that alot of Americans don't even exercise! Now all illusions of democracy have been swept away from the Iranian government to show to the world that they are nothing but thugs, gangsters, and, thanks to this womans testimony, tyrants capable of the most despicable acts. So don't lay this squarely at the feet of the people, place blame where it is due to the government and clergy of Iran.

      Now that my rant is over I wish to give Minoo Vosough a warm welcome to the United States. May you and yours live long and prosper here in liberty and equality.

      August 31, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
    • Kraznodar

      Liar! Two posts before yours is a post exactly like what you say isn't here. You FAIL! Liar! Liar! Sinner! Evil!

      August 31, 2010 at 5:25 pm |
    • yas

      Hey why don't you shut up! Im Iranian and you have no idea what hell I had to go through. So don't go off saying something you don't even know about. The government is stupid, but we the people are not. We have just as good values as any other decent person.

      August 31, 2010 at 5:55 pm |
    • rachbell

      Iranians supported Khomeni and the revolution in order to get rid of the Shah [and rightfully so]. But most of them did not approve of the hostage taking the followed.

      August 31, 2010 at 6:30 pm |
    • Sh.M

      Here I am! Yes Iranian people maid mistake and I think they are now aware of the mess they caused. The revolution was distorted right after Khomeini took power! But I disagree to what you said “The current government in Iran reflects the Iranian people's values. Khomeini could never have taken control without their support." over 60 Percent of Iran's population now is under 30. 60 percent have not been even born at the time revolution happened...so you can't say the IR gov is a reflection of Iranian people's value. The world also supported Khomeini. The story of Baha'is is only one of example of IRI gov brutality that been going on for 32 years. All these years the world was so occupied with signing the Oil and gas contracts with IRI gov that didn't even care! There are more stories behind the scenes that you can't even imagine my friend!

      September 2, 2010 at 8:23 pm |
  8. Waldorf and Statler

    "is best to be thought a full than to speak and remove all doubt""

    Well, my doubt is completely removed from you, no question about it.

    Arguing with brainwashed 12 year olds just isn't as fun as it used to be.

    August 31, 2010 at 3:51 pm |
  9. Jake Up

    as long as humans are stupid enough to believe in, or too chicken to challenge, any of that religious nonsense- holy books or what have you – we are all in trouble – islam, catholicism, scientology, mormons ... – it's all superstition...garbage ... WAKE UP. IT'S 2010
    Pls read Richard Dawkins' 'God Delusion'

    August 31, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
  10. Carlton

    Yep Islam the religion of love and tolerance. This is the biggest bunch of crap that many American so-called leaders are bowing down to and making concessions for. Islam promotes and spreads their belief by any and all means with the intent of taking over the world. When are all you who think this belief is good going to wake up to the truth. This belief is determined to make everyone convert or die. This is what their holy book, the Qu'ran teaches. Wake up and get spiritually educated people by true Godly spiritual leadership!!!

    August 31, 2010 at 3:47 pm |
    • The_Mick

      Ditto! This is like the "Demilitarized Zone" in Vietnam. The North was allowed to cross it to the south but the South (and the Americans, S.Koreans, Australians, etc.) were not allowed to cross to the North so the eventual outcome was predetermined. Now, majority Christian countries are supposed to tolerate Muslims while Muslim countries do not tolerate any other religion. Of course, as long as we feel the need for low-mileage cars, we're not going to force the Muslims to do anything about it.

      August 31, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
    • Laura

      I invite you to become educated about the world and the beauty it contains. Study all the religions–it'll instruct you that there is a common thread among them–if you care to be a human being and not act like the Militants in Islam or the Zacharis or Zealots (Jews) at the time of the Roman Empire. Use the rational mind God gave to you to think for yourself.

      August 31, 2010 at 4:51 pm |
    • Kraznodar

      Carlton – read the Bible you ignorant sheeple. The old testament is full of orders to kill with accompanying examples of mass murder. Islam is just doing what all religions do, they only started later.

      August 31, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
    • rachbell

      The Koran has as many interpretations as the Bible, which is why there are also so many variances in Christianity. Same goes for Muslims. Many Muslims have a more liberal view of their religion and are peace loving people. Others take the more radical approach and interpret the Koran literally. And groups like Al-Qaeda go totally extreme. The same goes for Christianity. Right-winged Christians have gone extreme in this country recently, trying to infuse their beliefs in our politcal system. Rellgion does not belong in any government, in the USA or Iran.

      August 31, 2010 at 6:27 pm |
    • rachbell

      Well, your comment is very interesting because I have a new daughter-in-law who is Iranian. And her parents came from Tehran for our USA wedding dinner party. And they are just like us. They are a peace loving, very family oriented family, well educated and the best family my son could have married into. And they are practicing Muslims. And my son and daughter, who now live in the USA, are also practicing Muslims, maybe not in a mosque attending way, but in how they treat other human beings with kindness and on a more personal level, but eating halal meat products and foregoing alcohol. My new family is against their current president and hope for a better replacement with the next elections.

      My point with all this? Don't generalize when you don't know all the facts.

      August 31, 2010 at 6:37 pm |
    • vanessa

      @Laura– have you actually read the book??? It's great to become educated about the different religions, but you need to sit down and read the book. According to the Q'uran, people who tolerate other religions than Islam must be killed. This is not to say that there aren't wonderful Islamic people out there– we all know that there are. BUT– they are not following Islam the way it was written. All those who actually follow Islam as it was written will think nothing of killing you for your beautiful tolerance.

      August 31, 2010 at 8:02 pm |
  11. BigChainRing

    Prove that you have commen sense.

    August 31, 2010 at 3:46 pm |
  12. Ali

    I'm Iranian and muslim by name but I don't believe anything in this religion or any other religion for that matter. More people have died because of religion throughout history than any other cause. Religion is bull s**t.

    August 31, 2010 at 3:44 pm |
    • FInally

      Finally someone who gets it! Thanks Ali!

      August 31, 2010 at 4:34 pm |
    • Kraznodar

      I have or had several ethnically Iranian friends. All are currently USA citizens. None of them are currently practicing Muslims. They all converted to Christianity or became atheists. Isn't it funny how broad generalizations such as demonizing Muslims are so inaccurate?

      August 31, 2010 at 5:22 pm |
  13. Mo

    That is Islam and Moslems do to every other religion, hopefully this is a lesson to American and the world so they can understand what Islam does to the other, currently only Islam poison everyone and anyone touch it

    August 31, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
    • Kraznodar

      Mo – you left out the "ron" from your name.

      August 31, 2010 at 5:18 pm |
  14. Zebula

    I agree, Tim! And Bahai? A religion? Ba ha ha ha ha ha ha more like it. People are laughable. Keep 'em coming, morons. There is no god.

    August 31, 2010 at 3:42 pm |
  15. John

    Hello!! Catholics were the first christians....my mother always said " is best to be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt"

    August 31, 2010 at 3:42 pm |
  16. Danny Boy

    When I red the headline I thought it was talking about America.

    August 31, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
  17. leggs67

    Just another in a series of stories to shape in the mind of America the Iran is bad bad bad ... I think we (Americans) consider Iranian blood mobah.

    August 31, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
    • fuzzybeard2016

      The sad part is that you're quite probably right.

      August 31, 2010 at 4:48 pm |
    • vanessa

      If you are looking for a story to support mobah, read the Q'uran. You'll find all the intolerance you'll ever need.

      August 31, 2010 at 7:57 pm |
  18. John

    If you hate and preach intolerance towards others then you are not a good member of your faith, since all of them preach peace and understanding. It is plain hypocrisy!

    August 31, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
  19. james dean poynor

    all in the name of the "one" GOD

    August 31, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
    • fuzzybeard2016

      What about those who practice polytheistic religions (Hinduism comes to mind)?

      August 31, 2010 at 4:47 pm |
    • Kraznodar

      FuzzyBeard Wins!

      August 31, 2010 at 5:17 pm |
    • Anu

      Fuzzybeard.. Hinduism is not polythiestic.. Its one god in many manisfestations.. here is a quote from Rig veda:
      "There is no second God, nor a third, nor is even a fourth spoken of
      There is no fifth God or a sixth nor is even a seventh mentioned.
      There is no eighth God, nor a ninth. Nothing is spoken about a tenth even."

      But the same God can be called Agni when he manifests himself as fire, Vayu when he is wind, Bhumi when he is earth etc. But I didnt see the point why you brought up Hinduism here. Hinduism is an assimilating religion by nature not discriminating. Lots of zoroastrians who got out of Iran because of persecution had thier refuge in India

      August 31, 2010 at 11:34 pm |
  20. scott

    Yes its good to know the facts. Hmmm. Catholic Church founded 300 plus years AFTER Jesus. Not the first I guess. Incorporating all the Pagan traditons and Idols to get everyone in Rome to support it.. Thats a fact too.

    August 31, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
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.