TIME MAGAZINE HAS named the women of Iran as their 2022 “Heroes of the Year” and the international community has rightly recognised the bravery and heroism of all Iranians, especially women, who are publicly calling for equality and justice for all.
Amongst these heroes are two such women – Mahvash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi.
Fariba, aged 60, and Mahvash, aged 69, have consistently upheld and promoted the equality of women and men, called for justice and truth for all and have paid a heavy price for upholding these principles. Both women were arrested on 31 July at the start of a fresh crackdown against Iran’s Bahá’ís and have recently been sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Iran leaders’ shame
The Bahá’ís in Iran are all too familiar with persecution, suffering, arbitrary imprisonment, denial of higher education, hate propaganda, executions and daily harassment for the last 43 years. Thousands of Bahá’ís have suffered and continue to suffer from this ill-treatment and it is with heavy hearts that they now see this suffering extended far and wide within Iran.
Mahvash and Fariba both previously served 10 year prison sentences after they were arrested in 2008 as members of an informal group that tended to the basic pastoral needs of the Bahá’í community with the full knowledge of the Iranian government.
All members of this group, which included five men and two women, served 10 years in prison. Fariba and Mahvash were accused at that time of disturbing national security by directing the “illegal” and “deviant” Bahá’í “sect” – charges that were never supported by any proof.
Tending to the basic pastoral needs of their co-religionists is not akin to “directing” an organisation; nor, crucially, has there ever been any proof to support the unsubstantiated accusation that these women were attacking national security. The lawyer for Fariba and Mahvash in 2008, Nobel laureate Dr Shirin Ebadi, said at the time that there was not even a “shred of evidence” for the accusations.
Mahvash Sabet rose to international prominence after a volume of poems she had written in prison was published in English under the title Prison Poems and she was recognised by PEN International in 2017 when Michael Longley nominated her as an International Writer of Courage.
Both Mahvash and Fariba have also been adopted as human rights defenders by Frontline Defenders for their stance on the freedom of religion and belief and the right to education for all.
Several other prominent Iranian women were jailed at the same time as Mahvash and Fariba. Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is also back in prison for supporting the demands of women in Iran, made headlines when she visited Fariba during furloughs and after her release.
And Iranian American journalist Roxana Saberi, who shared a cell with Mahvash and Fariba, said that the two became sources of comfort and hope to their fellow inmates.
Mahvash and Fariba’s latest jail sentences were handed down after a one-hour trial on 21 November, almost four months after their arrest. Judge Iman Afshari, presiding over the Revolutionary Court’s Branch 26 in Tehran, rebuked the two women for “not having learned their lesson” from their previous imprisonment.
The proceedings lasted but one hour and were totally devoid of any semblance of due process. And then, at the end of this sham trial, the judge consigned both women to a further 10 year’s incarceration. This sentence makes an absolute mockery of the Iranian judicial system where judges preside as prosecutor, judge and jury.
In 2013, while Mahvash and Fariba were previously imprisoned, they were signatories to a letter to then President of Iran, Dr Hassan Rouhani, in answer to his public call for everyone to participate in a discourse about the rights and responsibilities of all Iranian citizens. In this letter, they foreshadowed the situation currently being witnessed in Iran.
As they said almost 10 years ago,“If no effective solutions are devised, under conditions where individual rights can be trampled upon so arbitrarily, who can be certain that the fate that has befallen us today will not befall him tomorrow.”
What we see today in Iran unfortunately is the extension of the persecution against the Bahá’ís to the generality of Iranians. A government that oppresses one group will have no compunction in being unjust to others – and perhaps, in the end, unjust to all.
Whilst most of the world last week marked the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Iran made a mockery of its commitments to international human rights law with increasingly violent and repressive actions against its own citizens. As Iranians of every age and all walks of life call for social justice and equality, they have been met only with violence and repression, instead of efforts to engage everyone in a genuine conversation about the future of Iran.
People in Iran and around the world are profoundly distressed that these two Bahá’í’ women, who have both already lost a decade of their lives to prison for their beliefs, are once again imprisoned on the same ludicrous charges. Both are wives, mothers and grandmothers to families who have already been forced to endure their absence and can now look forward to another 10 years of this agony.
The Iranian government must revoke this sentence and free Mahvash and Fariba and all other prisoners of conscience. Indeed, it should dismantle its machinery of repression that systematically violates the human rights of its people.
Brendan McNamara lectures in the Study of Religions Department at UCC and is a member of the national administrative body for the Bahá’í Faith in Ireland.