A Survivor's Account Of Persecution In Iran

There are those stories that -- because of their drama, their connection with great and heroic events, and their illumination of the human spirit -- deserve to be told again and again.

Such is surely the nature of the stories associated with the persecution of the Bahá'ís of Iran in the early 1980s, when thousands of Iranian Bahá'ís were systematically deprived of property and livelihood, imprisoned, and, in several hundred cases, tortured and executed -- solely because of their religious beliefs.

Part of what makes these tales so moving and timeless is the distinctive serenity and spiritual dignity with which Bahá'ís faced their tormenters. In virtually every reliable account we have, Bahá'ís were always offered the option of recanting their Faith and converting to Islam, with the promise that they would go free if they did. And in virtually every case, the Bahá'ís said no, choosing continued imprisonment and the very real possibility of death.

Further, the Bahá'ís did not fight back. Rather than taking up arms and going underground, the 350,000 Bahá'ís in Iran continued as best they could to go about their daily business, striving to show to the Islamic Government that it had nothing to fear from them, and, indeed, that the only goal of the Bahá'ís was to promote the highest possible social, moral, and economic development of their country.

In this context comes Olya's Story -- the personal account of Ms. Olya Roohizadegan, who watched as her friends, neighbors and relatives in the Bahá'í community of Shiraz were arrested, tortured and executed, and who then was herself arrested by Revolutionary Guards and held for more than a year in prison. She was ultimately released, apparently in the hope that she would somehow "incriminate" others on the outside, and she managed to escape to Pakistan and freedom.

By itself, the story is dramatic and stirring, and worth reading simply in terms of human interest alone -- even though it comes more than a decade after the events it focuses on.

At the same time, however, the deeply personal nature of this memoir makes it particularly valuable and important because of the insights it provides into the mindset of those heroic Bahá'ís who were singled out for torture, imprisonment and execution.

At the core of the book is a series of intimate profiles of ten women who were executed on 18 June 1983, an event which ultimately helped trigger a huge international outcry against the treatment of Bahá'ís in Iran. Ranging in age from 51 to just 17, the women were accused of "crimes" which focused largely on their service as teachers of Bahá'í religious education classes for children.

Ms. Roohizadegan was incarcerated with these ten women, and early on in her imprisonment she decided that one of her missions in life, were she ever to escape, would be to chronicle their final days.

And so it is that she tells about 17-year-old Mona Mahmudnizhad, who despite her young age constantly expressed more concern for others than for herself, telling her mother once that no matter how downhearted she felt about their imprisonment she must nevertheless make a point of laughing and giving "positive energy" when they were around others, so as to uplift the whole group.

And about how 28-year-old Zarrin Muqimi faced seemingly endless interrogations, all designed to break her spirit and force her to deny her Faith, without voicing a thought of uttering the simple lie that would have brought freedom. "Now that we have this opportunity, we must teach them the truth and help them to understand it," Ms. Roohizadegan quotes Ms. Muqimi as telling her. "We can't afford to be scared of what they might do. We have to be honest, answer every question they ask us in detail, and not leave anything unexplained."

Equally moving are stories of the way that the hardships of prison life were faced -- all while maintaining a sense of dignity and compassion. One day, for example, a single delectable sour plum, a gift to one of the Bahá'í prisoners, was carefully cut into tiny pieces so that all in the cell could share.

Among the most difficult tests that Ms. Roohizadegan herself faced in prison was the separation from her three-year-old son, Payam. At one point, in their efforts to force her to recant, a prosecutor brought little Payam into the interrogation room, hoping the boy's presence would cause Ms. Roohizadegan to succumb to motherly instincts. "If you truly love your child and want to go back to your home and family, just write two words on this paper, `Bahá'í nistam -- I am not a Bahá'í', and that you have become a Muslim. This is just on paper -- it means nothing. "

"I can't tell such a lie," said Ms. Roohizadegan. "I would rather be hanged."

Despite the resulting sentence of death, Ms. Roohizadegan was released in early 1983, apparently because prosecutors hoped she would lead them to other Bahá'ís who they presumed were in hiding. Ms. Roohizadegan instead took the opportunity to flee the country with Payam and her husband, making a dangerous and difficult trip through the mountains to Pakistan.

Ms. Roohizadegan spent about a year in Pakistan before obtaining a visa to Great Britain, where her eldest sons were studying at the time. She has lived there since, earning a living as a beautician and hairdresser.

Olya's Story was published in June 1993 to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the hanging of the ten women in Shiraz, and upon its release, Olya's Story garnered a series of positive reviews. The London Saturday Times Magazine devoted a whole page to her story, and the BBC and CNN both featured interviews with Ms. Roohizadegan.

The book has sold more than 10,000 copies, is shortly to be published in German, and is being translated into Japanese.

Few such accounts of unjust imprisonment and torture have been written by women, and Olya's Story stands out as a special contribution to the literature created by prisoners of conscience. In this sense, Ms. Roohizadegan's work takes on a special importance in bringing forward the story of a group of heroic and still largely unknown women who were willing to sacrifice everything for their beliefs.

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