Sarvestany: Could you please introduce yourself and share something of your personal experience as a girl from a religious minority growing up in Iran before the Islamic revolution?
Sabet: I would like to say that I am a cry of genocide from the hearth of history.
I was born into a Bahá’í family. I remember I was five years old when my father, who was among the few educated people in our small city, brought electricity and a mill engine to the city. For the first time, we had electric lights. Everyone was so happy and thankful, and the mill engine changed completely the life of the farmers and their families.
But this happiness and joy didn’t continue long. Very soon, the Muslim clergy ordered the lamp posts and wires to be destroyed. The mill engine broke and the city sank into the darkness of ignorance and religious prejudice. My father said: “We bite the dust!” I did not understand what this expression meant, but my mother told me not to worry; we did what we could for the betterment of our city, and we would do it again. We would build our life again together! I think that was the first time I understood what it truly meant to strive.
When I started school, it was customary for girls and boys to walk to school together. I remember I was the first kid in the queue. The older boys often threw stones at the Bahá’í children and called them names. This made me sad so I complained to my mom. But she told me that they didn’t know anything about the Bahá’í Faith and could not hurt me. She told me to be patient and pray for them. My mother taught me how to love and pray for those who were tormenting me. From her, I learned this crucial lesson: I have to be a strong woman. My mother showed me how to be an agent of change, not a victim.
I remember the teachers and principal of my school trying to coerce Bahá’í students into observing Islamic practices and traditions. Though the Bahá’í parents complained to the school board, saying it was not right to force children to perform a religious practice they did not believe in; nevertheless, we were forced to act like Muslim students.
I remember one day students made up a story about me which spurred a group of them to start hitting me. When the principal saw this and asked why the other students were hitting me, I tried to explain, but she wouldn’t listen and proceeded to beat me herself with pomegranate branches that had been soaking in the middle of the pool so they could be used as a whip. The principal whipped me on my palms and elsewhere — so hard that blood flowed. In the end, she expelled me from school.
For six months, my body burned with fever and infection. My hands became so infected that, finally, my parents took me to the main hospital in the capital city, Tehran, where I underwent serious treatment. My father complained to the police and I returned to school but nothing changed.
Finally, my parents decided to move to Tehran. I was ten years old. Life in the Tehran school was better, but Muslim clergy there, too, spread nonsense about Bahá’ís, so we were often harassed. The mullahs called the Bahá’ís untouchable — infidels. But even as a child, I knew this was not true.
I was 14 years old when a man attacked me on the way to school. The only thing I remember is the bitter, violent face of that man. He hurt me so badly that I had to be hospitalized. The man cut my face, and the mark is still there. My father told me that we would complain to the police and the law would protect us. I believed that the law would bring us justice, but the man who attacked me was released from prison and I have carried the scar he left on my face and soul ever since.
When I was 20, I found my soulmate. At the time, I was a university student and was working as a school teacher. When my son was three years old, the Islamic revolution came and changed our life. I was expelled from the university because I was a Bahá’í and fired from my job by the principal of the school. It was written on my dismissal form that I was a follower of the “deviant Bahá’í sect.” I believe the Bahá’í Faith is divine truth and it is not some cult or deviant sect. But it was defined as such by the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran and, as a result, no rights are enshrined for Bahá’ís in the constitution of Iran. In this constitution, which is based on Sharia, the Bahá’ís are not even recognized as a religious minority.
Sarvestany: After the Islamic revolution, policies were established that resulted in restrictions based on gender and religion. What is it like for you as a woman belonging to a religion not recognized by your government, someone who can claim no civil and human rights? Could you tell us something about your personal experience of this situation?
Sabet: After my dismissal from my workplace and the university, my husband tried to comfort me. He told me not to grieve, but it was not easy to accept the new situation. I was so keen to continue my education and my work as a teacher. However, I accepted the situation and I felt assured by the fact that at least we were financially secure because my husband owned a mine and a crusher and production plant that made sand. Very soon, however, revolutionary extremists intruded into my husband’s workplace, threatening him, intimidating him, and eventually confiscating all of his property. We lost everything and my husband was without a job for three years. At this time, many Bahá’ís were arrested, arrested, kidnapped, or executed. I was pregnant, and I knew my baby was being nurtured on the poison of grief and sorrow. Our beautiful girl didn’t live in this world for more than a few months. It was the same story for other Bahá’í mothers who were pregnant at this time. After my loss, ten Bahá’í women and girls were executed in Shiraz. One of them was only seventeen years old. Before she died, she kissed the rope that ended her life.
It was a dark atmosphere, full of sorrow, fear, grief, and insecurity. The Bahá’í community was bearing this pain and trying to comfort its members, but some of the Bahá’ís left Iran for their safety or because they couldn’t find a way to live a normal life. Around 300,000 Bahá’ís stayed in the country and tried to build some kind of life for themselves. Bahá’ís started to help one another, setting up social institutions to assist families which were suffering economically, mentally, or socially. But the Islamic government didn’t allow this to continue. In fact, as we discovered when the various official documents came to light, the government had developed a systematic plan to eliminate the Bahá’ís of Iran, by restricting them economically and socially. I should mention that at that time all Iranians were in a difficult situation, both economically and socially, because of the eight-year long war with Iraq.
Spreading hatred, lying, distorting the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, and invoking the help of government tribunes to persecute the Bahá’ís — these have been four strategies used by the Islamic government since the Islamic revolution to weaken the Bahá’í community. Not only did they confiscate all properties belonging to the Bahá’ís but also they leveled charges of disseminating propaganda against the Islamic Republic and of collusion to undermine national security. Bahá’í homes have been looted and books and computers, laptops, mobile phones, family photos, as well as valuables, such as gold ornaments, taken.
For two decades, Bahá’ís have been deprived of passports. The situation has been unbearable for all the Bahá’í families in Iran during the last forty-two years. Like others, my family and I have experienced many deprivations and injustices. Though we are familiar with the aim of the Islamic government, over all these years we have never allowed ourselves to feel like victims.
Imposing extreme poverty through dismissals and by creating barriers to income and employment, exclusion from the intellectual and cultural life of society, and obstructing students’ access to higher education, trying to create divisions within the Bahá’í community, and shutting down the elected Bahá’í administration — all these are among the methods the Islamic government has used to persecute the Bahá’ís in Iran. The goal is nothing less than the genocide of a people, yet the world has remained silent in the face of these atrocities.
When I lost my daughter, I believed I would have another daughter in a better situation. My daughter was born a few years later but the situation was not better; in fact, it was worse. When she was one, we held a birthday party for her with our family and friends, but Islamic guards attacked our intimate party and sowed fear among the children and the guests. My daughter was shocked and was crying in my arms.
Just a few years after the Islamic revolution, the Bahá’ís decided to develop their own strategies in response to their persecution by the Islamic government: constructive resilience, a strategy in which the persecuted do not seek reprisal but rather peace, prosperity in their own pursuits in the context of an overweening commitment to a vision of unity for all mankind. It has been a learning process, but I feel sure that, in future, history will draw many lessons from the response of the Bahá’í community of Iran.
A few of us had the vision of creating an opportunity for the Bahá’í students, all of whom are deprived of higher education by the state. At the time, my daughter was two and a half. Working systematically, we established an unofficial university that is now recognized by many universities around the world, and many Bahá’í students who have graduated from this institution have gone on to pursue graduate work in other countries. However, the Islamic government has resisted this effort, repeatedly arresting professors and students of this institution for teaching or studying in it. For nineteen years, I was a member of the academic board of this institution to which the professors give their time without remuneration and which is tuition-free.
It was at my daughter's wedding celebration that, for the second time, Islamic security guards attacked my home and I was arrested. My daughter was still getting her hair done and, and everyone was waiting for her to come in with her white dress. I had to step out for a minute to do some last-minute arrangements. When the Islamic security guards burst into our home, my husband promised them that I would report to their office the next day, but they insisted that I should come the moment I got home. When I was released thirty-four days later, my daughter was still crying.
Fifteen years ago, I was invited to serve as a member of a committee, which was responsible for the social, cultural, and religious affairs of the Bahá’í community of Iran. We were seven Bahá’ís who volunteered to work on this committee. We hadn’t even met before the Islamic government arrested all of us. I was held in solitary confinement for more than six months, subjected to torture and interrogation. The government agents asked me to spy on the Bahá’í community. They threatened and tried to lure me into complying with their unreasonable and immoral demands. They also tried to enter into ideological discussions with me. When they saw that my colleagues and I would not accept their demands, they charged us with serious crimes grounded in baseless accusations so that they could execute us.
They leveled charges such as spying for hostile states or ‘corruption on earth’, or acting against national security and against the government, but they did not have a single shred of evidence to prove these allegations. Some well-known lawyers such as Shirin Ebadi, the only Iranian woman who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, for her efforts for democracy and human rights in Iran, agreed to represent us and defend our case; however, the investigating judge issued an indictment against us, requesting the death sentence.
After two and a half years in solitary confinement, waiting daily for the sentence of execution to be carried out, we were transported to another public prison outside Tehran and given a sentence of twenty years in prison. During the two and a half years of my confinement, I was with another woman who was my colleague and dear friend. Fariba and I were imprisoned with other ‘social criminals’ in a public prison for women. This was done to humiliate us, but in fact we seized the opportunity to create a friendly environment in the prison, so we could educate and serve these disadvantaged women. However, before long, the prison intelligence officials asked the other prisoners to stay away from us. They told the women that we were being kind to them because we wanted to convert them. Then the prison intelligence officials deported us to a prison filled with thugs, who were very dangerous.
All the 185 women testified to our pure service but the officials did not accept their testimony. Fariba and I told the women to respect the decision of the officials and not to advocate for us, though they attempted several times.
We were less than two months in the prison of thugs, who were given the mission to kill us, before those ‘thugs’ became our friends. One of the most dangerous women declared that would protect us from any harm.
We were transferred from that prison to a still more dangerous prison, and from there we were transferred again to Evin Prison in Tehran, where we stayed. The political ward of Evin Prison was where we met the most prominent, brave and active women fighters in Iran. Our common life with these women had many achievements. Not only did we hear their stories, but they learned a lot about the principles and vision of the Bahá’í Faith. This, therefore, was a great opportunity to create bonds of friendship between the activists working for causes within a wide and often controversial spectrum of causes.
After eight and a half years, our sentence of twenty years was, they said, found to be invalid, based on some obscure legal article, but, in fact, it was the pressure of public opinion across the world, I believe, that brought the change, and our sentence was shortened to ten years. On the day of my release, my fellow prisoners were so happy, they held a feast for me, distributed sweets, sang freedom songs and danced! I humbly bowed before them in respect for their courage and resistance.
Sarvestany: As a woman who has been in prison not only for ten years but also for 67 years in a bigger jail, do you feel you have lost time and opportunities which could have helped you achieve your aims in life, for your family and community? How do you feel now that you are a free woman, someone who has conquered extreme discrimination and injustice? How to you practice ‘constructive resilience’ in your own life now?
Sabet: I should say that the spirit of Iranian society was totally changed by the time I was released. So many well-known people in Iran, from different walks of life and in pursuit of different causes, wished to visit me. For seven months, we welcomed to our home intellectuals, social and political activists, even the family members of clergy and those in high level governmental and non-governmental positions. Most of them offered an apology for what the Islamic government has done to the Bahá’ís of Iran. It was one of the lessons I learned — how much time I needed and what I did in those last ten years to achieve such success. I believe that my imprisonment, and all the discrimination and injustice that went along with it, were part of this victory. I believe that because of the injustices of the last forty-two years, all eighty-five million of the people in Iran know truth about the Bahá’í Faith.
Just one week after my release, without any justification, the Islamic government confiscated our house and any property that remained after the revolution. Still, Bahá’ís are arrested, imprisoned for years, their shops are closed and their properties and houses are confiscated. Just a few weeks ago, all the lands of Bahá’í farmers in one of the villages in the north of Iran were confiscated and their houses destroyed. Not a single article of Iranian law is designed to defend the civil rights of Bahá’ís.
All my life, I have borne witness to a historical genocide, but I myself am still alive, full of energy and full of ideas. I am still editing and publishing the poems I wrote in prison. My poems in prison were my voice when the Islamic government closed all the doors and deprived me of the opportunity to serve others. My poems were the voice of a captured bird who sang of peace, unity, love, truth, and prosperity of all humanity, in order to bring light into the darkness. My poems are the voice of my faith.
The first volume of my poems was translated into English and published as Prison Poems in the UK, when I was still in prison. The book won the World Writers' Association Award for Brave Writers in 2017. In 2019, it also won the Words Award at the Fredrikstad Literary Festival in Norway. This work has been translated into five other languages — French, German, Italian, Norwegian and Spanish — and it has been published in Persian in Spain. The second volume of my prison poems, entitled Freedom, is also being published, and the third volume, entitled A Love Story, has recently been published in Norway. The fourth and fifth volumes of these poems will be ready for publication soon.
* This interview took place at the University of Oslo.