Negar Is Fasting but Is Not a Muslim. She’s Not Alone

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Negar Sabet at the Baha’i temple in Sydney Source: SBS News / Sandra Fulloon

The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan is underway and coincides this year with fasting for followers of the Baha’i faith. Most of the 15,000 Baha’is in Australia have migrated from Iran, where followers face ongoing persecution.

Produced in collaboration with SBS Persian

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Worship is underway at the Baha’i temple, north of Sydney, where a diverse group of followers have gathered to pray.

Among them, Negar Sabat who migrated from Iran and is fasting from sunrise to sunset for 19 days this month.

“It’s not just merely about the food and drink rather a time to reflect, a time to constantly remind yourself of why you are not drinking, why you’re not eating.”

According to the 2021 census, Ms Sabet is among 15,000 practising Baha’is in Australia.

More than 10 per cent of Australia’s 80,000 strong Iranian diaspora are followers of the Baha’i faith.

“I come to this beautiful place, this Bahai temple that we can say prayer as freely as we want. Living in Iran as a Baha’i is just a constant terror because you don’t know the next morning you wake up, are you still at your home or in jail? Are you still alive or not? Do you still have your job or not? So nothing is secure for us.”

Growing up in the capital Tehran, Ms Sabet says she learned as a child about the daily discrimination Baha’is face.

“The first experience was at the age of six when I started school and the teacher would encourage the other kids not to talk to you, sit next to you, share food with you at any level. Nobody would make friends with me. And during the break times that every kids were playing laughing and having fun together, I had to just wander around alone. And that was the very first time that I tasted the really bitter, unjust treatment that we receive.”

Ms Sabet says her elderly parents in Iran are also struggling. Her father’s business was recently confiscated and her mother is currently serving a sentence in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

“She’s a 71-year-old innocent grandmother who’s the only desire she has is to come here and visit the only grandchild she has, my daughter.  My dad has lost his job. It was the only thing we had. And my mom is in jail. We are here. We cannot do anything for them. The situation is not good at all.”

Baha’is are denied access to public universities in Iran so eventually, Ms Sabet enrolled to study law at the specialist Bahai Institute for Higher Education.

Despite her legal qualifications, she says finding work later was not easy.

“Finally I got a job at a pharmaceutical. It was a really great company. And the only thing the HR told me that was to not mention your religious to anyone. And I was there for a few months and one day I was heading to prison to visit my mom and I saw the CEO in the elevator and he asked me, where are you going? I was like, to the jail. And he was like, okay. To the jail doing what? And I explained to him that my mom is in prison. I was jobless at the end of the week, like in three days, I was jobless, I was fired.”

Roya Shahgholi also migrated from Iran and is Director of the Sydney Baha’I House of Worship. She is concerned about the 300,000 Baha’I followers who remain there.

“Baha’i in Iran, they have been persecuted, especially after the revolution. They’ve lost their jobs, they lost their homes, the children weren’t able to educate, even people couldn’t have higher education and properties were taken, their homes were raided. And it’s been very difficult conditions.  It’s sad, but at the same time to see their strengths, we draw strength from their suffering.”

The Baha’i faith began in Iran in 1800s and worldwide is now estimated to have around 5 million followers. Baha’is believe in the oneness of humanity including gender equality, and devote themselves to and the abolition of racial, class and religious prejudices.

In Australia, Baha’i follower Hari Remala is running projects in Sydney’s west, helping to feed families struggling during the cost of living crisis.

“The juniors group that I have, after listening to the challenges faced by their families and how they’re spending thousands of dollars on groceries every fortnight, they decided to go to the markets together early in the morning and they buy groceries in bulk and they come back to the neighbourhood and they distribute it. It’s reduced the cost by hundreds if not thousands of dollars. And it’s also improving the social cohesion and unity of our neighbourhood because every Saturday they visit the families to give them the groceries and they’re able to have conversations, they meet new people.”

Mr Remala is proud to break the fast with other Baha’is after evening prayers at the temple.

“Just being able to share a meal and enjoy the sense of friendship and common calling that we all feel, it’s really profound. For us, each one of us is striving, essentially, to be a better human being and to contribute more fully to the life of our community and also to the life of our society.”

The United Nations has called on Iranian authorities to ‘stop the persecution and harassment of religious minorities’.

The Iranian Embassy in Canberra has previously denied allegations ‘about 1,000 Baha’is awaiting imprisonment’ telling SBS Persian that claim is based on

But Ms Sabet fears for her parents in Iran and calls for more support from the Australian government.

“To make Iran accountable for what they’re doing and ask the international entities to come in and shed the light on the situation of the Baha’is in Iran and let the world hear our voice, be our voice.”


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