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. Jimi

    w ww.religionfacts.com/big_religion_chart.htm

    August 31, 2010 at 5:00 pm |
  2. Jimi

    Baha'i Faith

    Founded by Bahá'u'lláh, 1863, Tehran, Iran. 5-7 million One God, who has revealed himself progressively through major world religions. The soul is eternal and essentially good. Purpose of life is to develop spiritually and draw closer to God. Soul separates from the body and begins a journey towards or away from God. Heaven and hell are states of being. Daily prayer, avoidance of intoxicants, scripture reading, hard work, education, work for social justice and equality. Writings of Bahá'u'lláh and other Bahá'í leaders ReligionFacts section


    August 31, 2010 at 5:00 pm |
  3. Dhulfiqar

    Feels like 2002-2003 all over again. Obama setting up for a war with Iran in 2011. Th Neocons are lining up and rally behind their man Obama to bomb Iran. Let the negative press flood...

    August 31, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
  4. Bobby

    Where is UN resolution xxxx condeming the Iranian Gov't????

    August 31, 2010 at 4:57 pm |
  5. Bitwise

    I can't help but to laugh out loud at what people do for superstition. Wake up you brainwashed fools. Reality is so much richer and interesting than all of this made up crap – no matter how long ago it was made up.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
  6. Cattleclass

    Well now.. Now that the demonizing has moved to other major religions, looks like we will be bombing this country before too much longer. I mean after all, let's get EVERY group on board so everyone feels justified when we put this country back into 3rd world status as well.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
  7. Kristin

    All religious debates aside, she is one amazing woman to have survived.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
  8. sean

    no mullahs in iran = a safer world and a safer iran. no more islamic republic of iran.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:54 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      Absolutely. Yet another example why religion should always be kept OUT of government!

      August 31, 2010 at 8:40 pm |
  9. MrHAnson

    I just love how a article about radical islam just brings out the hate for Christians.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:53 pm |
  10. et

    The Bible: Mathew 18:7-9: Cut off your hand, gouge out your eye if it causes you to sin. THIS IS HOW REPULSIVE THE BILBLE IS & you christains are teaching this to your children . This is one reason the bible was taken out of our schools.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
  11. AK

    How could any country with woman who look like that be so damn mean? You think they'd find something better to do.....

    August 31, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
  12. CS

    I totally agree with vanessa's comment.

    I have read Quran too, this religion has nothing to do with peace, in fact the exact opposite. Either convert or die, all non-believers are infidels They cannot co-exist peacefully with other religion period and that's the fact.

    God help minorities in their countries.

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

      Actually– the "Peace" referred to is when Islam is the ONLY faith that exists. Folks leave out that little tidbit when defending Islam. To get to their "peace" billions of people ha ve to be murdered first.

      August 31, 2010 at 9:08 pm |
  13. Meredith

    Please leave the banter to one of the thousands of anti-Muslim blogs if you like. The point of this story is to raise awareness of innocent people being oppressed. Yes, it's in a Muslim nation, but that's not the point. Note, that at no point does Mrs. Vosough degrade Islam as a faith. Learn something from this. A little tolerance goes a long way.

    I was born and raised a Baha'i, and am proud of the morals it has instilled in me. Lighten up a bit, and let people worship, or not worship in peace. If you don't like it, fine! Just don't attack people for fallowing their faith. Christians that trash Muslims, are no better than Muslims that trash Christians! This has been going on for thousands of years! It might not end any time soon, but lets not attack those who try.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
  14. Nicole Jewell

    The best thing to do is to educate yourself about certain religions before you judge. Whether or not you believe in what other people believe in is irrelevant. This is a good resource for anyone who wants to learn more about Baha'i – http://www.schools4me.com/sk/religious-resources.html

    August 31, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
  15. sean

    The world needs to wake up and support the people of Iran who want to overthrow this regime and have democarcy. Why are the only options negotiations with the regime or war. How about a 3rd option of the world engaging the people of iran who want freedome.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
  16. Jason

    Baha'i has things in common with Unity Christianity.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      I think some factions just don't like that whole "Unity" thing... they'd rather have a monopoly.

      August 31, 2010 at 8:38 pm |
  17. shilpy

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

    Quite obviosly, ms. vosough learned little about islam despite her long ordeal. let me help: no, ms. vosough, it is islam.
    the day islam is buried – like nazism was – is the day the world breathes easy, much easy.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
    • Frogist

      Yes, of course, shilpy. We all bow to your knowledge of a religion above a person who grew up with it. And despite being persecuted by an entire country, still has the humanity to defend it's good points.

      August 31, 2010 at 10:12 pm |
  18. Jessica

    It's amazing, The United States is this amazingly free nation – and at every turn in this nations history regarding fighting for peoples freedom, LIBERALS & PROGRESSIVES have been the ones champion the rights of all of us. Yet, there's Beck and the crazy conservatives, blaming the decline of this great nation on US? They keep wanting to roll back the clock (thusly the freedoms gained)...and re-write history in a way that distorts what side of history the faux-christians have been on. Im sorry, I dont want to go back in time when there were seperate drinking fountains, or when women didnt have the right to vote, or when any non-christian were accused of being spies for communism. Places like IRAN should remind us of WHY we need to keep forging ahead and working every possible day to ensure EVERYONES freedom and equality in this nation are honored...or each time we take away someones rights and freedoms, we set ourselves up to have our rights and freedoms taken away next...by the next angry mob in charge.

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

      Liberals championing human rights? SINCE WHEN??? As far as I can see– it was the liberals who pitched a fit when we liberated Iraq from the Taliban. Apparently the suffering inflicted by the Taliban was perfectly okay with liberals. Also– it is the liberals who are perfectly okay with keeping Mexican immigrants at near slave-status, as evidenced by the vigor with which they demonish immigration reform. They talk like they are all about providing warm-fuzzies for all the world– but when it comes right down to it– the lovey dovey feelings only apply to themselves. The moment we have to work or sacrifice for the freedoms of another– you can count on liberals to want to start minding their own business.

      August 31, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
    • Salvatore

      Beautiful... Your words are a diamond among rubble. Vanessa... The fact that you think we freed Iraq from the Taliban says it all... change the channel now and then or pick up a good book.

      August 31, 2010 at 5:47 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      That was absolutely mind-boggling, vanessa. Talk about immigrants at slave-status, do you realize it was once a very progressive, liberal idea to think that actually owning another human being and treating them however you liked, was WRONG?? Where would we be without progressives?! You for one thing would not be able to vote...

      August 31, 2010 at 8:37 pm |
    • vanessa

      Fabulous, MrsFizzy! Lincoln was a republican. What else ya got? Liberals are all for protecting the defenseless as long as they do not have to make a personal sacrifice of any kind. They cry about how horrible women are treated under the Taliban but are unwilling to get their hands dirty in ousting them from power. At their very very best– liberals stand for the legalization of the weed that they are so desperate to smoke. While historically they may have stood for decency– today they are purely selfish creatures.

      August 31, 2010 at 9:13 pm |
    • Frogist

      Thanks for that Jessica.

      @vanessa soundslike you've been smoking the good stuff... although it seems to have somehow made you a bit paranoid. "Liberal" does not equal Democrat. The Iraq war was predicated on the existence of imaginary WMDs. And Islam is a religion with the same good and bad points of every religion. Your posts point to a need to single out an enemy instead of solving any actual problems.

      August 31, 2010 at 10:05 pm |
    • David Johnson

      You are blessed among women! I salute you! You are so right!!!

      September 1, 2010 at 12:27 pm |
  19. Saint Ringo

    I like God – his fan clubs suck

    August 31, 2010 at 4:45 pm |
    • karen

      I agree.....mankind (all of us) has pretty much derailed things....

      August 31, 2010 at 8:28 pm |
  20. Frank Rizzo

    Everyone in the Media, and Intel World knows she and others were employed by Intel Agencies for many years. Iran knew as well, like others in this field, these People choose to assist foreign governments in revolting others to overthrow the Iranian Government. There are no victims here, just lessons on how to do your job and not get caught!

    August 31, 2010 at 4:44 pm |
    • Saint Ringo

      if she wanted to blend in as a spy.....don't you think being a muslim would have helped a little.

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

      Human Beings–what does it mean to be one?

      August 31, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
    • Babak From Los Angeles

      Frank in any other place you might be right. In Iran, I don't think so. If they have any knowledge of this person working for other govenments, she would never see day light. She would disappear and so would her friends and family. That government does not take any chances .... They just don't care ... They will kill everyone in the country and sit by themselves before they that chance ... Yes my friend they are that ruthless! Don't understatimate them.

      August 31, 2010 at 5:03 pm |
    • David Johnson


      You said, "Human Beings–what does it mean to be one?"

      Well for me, it means a 2 beer limit except on Friday nights.

      September 1, 2010 at 12:18 pm |
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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.