The Fight for Freedom and Equality in Iran Rages On

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Women, ethnic minorities struggle for equal rights in Iran

By Dr. Mitra Aliabouzar – Special to Higher Ground 


A few days ago, I read an open letter from my former fellow inmate in Iran’s Evin Prison. Fariba Kamalabadi, a grandmother of three, who is one year into a second 10-year prison sentence, was lamenting the raids on the residences of Baha’is in Iran. There have been 29 Baha’is detained in three cities and dozens of homes have been ransacked. Especially alarming was to hear that women (some with small children) and the elderly were targeted.

I met Fariba in 2012. I was jailed for my student activism and was released on bail after serving five months of a three-year sentence. Fariba and another Baha’i prisoner, Mahvash Sabet, became the first Baha’is that I knew well. My favorite part of the day was the evening when Fariba and I would practice English together. We grew so close that when I was finally released, I was reluctant to part her company, even waiting until the last minute to pack my belongings.   

Baha’is have been increasingly persecuted in the last year. Yet, even in 2012, they comprised the largest group of prisoners in the women’s ward. Of the 29 women prisoners of conscience, nine were Baha’is, a number disproportionately large relative to Iran’s Baha’i population. The hostility of the government stems from the theological belief of the ruling clerics that there can be no valid religion arising after Islam. In addition, the Baha’i Faith promotes social teachings, such as the equality of women and men, that contradict official policy and practice.

Their impact on my life was so large that I expressed to my interrogator how grateful I was for being arrested. He became irate and began yelling, saying I was stupid and they were pretending and trying to trick me into converting to their religion.

After the massive protests last year in Iran, often led by young women who have been courageously seeking freedom and equality, it would be easy to overlook some other less obvious but perhaps equally important trends in the thinking of young people in Iran. One of the most remarkable developments has been watching my fellow countrywomen develop not only alliances but genuine, diverse friendships after, like me, being taught by the government and its educational system to shun one another.

For instance, growing up, I was subjected to daily hate propaganda that described Baha’is as spies for Israel and the U.S., enemies of Islam, and practitioners of all kinds of immorality. This propaganda promoted openly in statements or fatwas by the Supreme Leader, even asserted that Baha’is were ritually “unclean” and that touching one was a source of contamination. Although I never accepted these absurd beliefs, I never would have guessed that my closest inmate friends would be Baha’is.  

My story is not unique. Former prisoners and prominent figures ranging from Nobel Laureate lawyers Narges Mohammadi and Shirin Ebadi, as well as former Parliamentarian Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, have forged close friendships with imprisoned Baha’is, learning about their beliefs, practices, and their peaceful response to oppression. We all see our struggle for the rights of women, so courageously advocated since the killing of Jina Mahsa Amini in September 2022, as part of a wider struggle involving all Iranians, regardless of ethnicity or religious beliefs, in a united quest for a free and just society. One has to have grown up in Iran to appreciate what a remarkable transformation this has truly been. In many ways, our many stories of striving for freedom and justice have become one.

The world can assist. I was heartened that, in December, the U.N. General Assembly focused the world’s attention on Iran’s human rights record by passing a scathing resolution on the situation of human rights in Iran. With so many reports of egregious human rights violations during the protests of late 2022 and 2023, the U.N. had already created an independent international Fact-Finding Mission.

Yet, at the same time, one cannot ignore the ongoing violations that have become so common that they no longer capture headlines. For instance, in early January, there was the latest in a series of land seizures by the government in Iran’s Mazandaran Province, this time in the village of Ahmadabad, made up mainly of Baha’is. This stark example of economic apartheid is particularly heart-wrenching for me as I know Fariba and her siblings grew up in Mazandaran Province, sometimes visiting friends in many of the rural villages including Ahmadabad. Her father was a doctor who served the rural communities of Mazandaran Province as part of a government medical service, but after the Islamic Revolution, he was dismissed, imprisoned, and tortured.

Why do I share these stories, both past and present? Certainly, it is healing for me. It honors the men and women currently seeking justice and the memories of those dealt injustices. It is for my dear friends Fariba and Mahvash. But it is foremost so that you know that there are now real reasons for hope.

Dr. Mitra Aliabouzar is a Research Assistant Professor in the Departments of Radiology and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan. She was imprisoned in Iran in 2012 for her student activism and while incarcerated got to know well-known Baha’i prisoners of conscience, Mrs. Fariba Kamalabadi and Mrs. Mahvash Sabet, who are mentioned in the op-ed piece. She was a panelist in the Vulnerables Track on Day 2 of the January 30-31 Civil Society Summit for International Religious Freedom and wrote this Op-ed on the suffering of Baha’is in Iran.


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