It’s been more than 30 years and still the image of their faces, not to mention the news of their execution, captures the imagination of all those who struggle for religious freedom. On June 18, 1983, ten teachers of Baha’i children’s classes were executed in Shiraz, Iran. All of them were women and all of them died by hanging. The oldest, Mrs. Nusrat Yalda’i, was 54 years old. The youngest, Mona Mahmudnizhad, was only 17.
What makes their execution different from other tragedies is that each of them was given four separate opportunities by the Islamic court to escape the hangman’s noose. All they had to do was repeat a few words and they would walk free from the prison where they were being held. All they had to say was “Baha’i nistam” (I am not a Baha’i). They didn’t even have to mean it. The words would have only been for the official record, anyway. They refused.
In other religions, dissimulation, or concealing the truth about one’s religion, is permissible. Shi`ite Islam, in fact, requires that believers hide their true belief if they think their lives are in danger due to religious persecution. The concept is referred to as Taqiyyah and there is historical relevance in Shi’a Islam for this practice dating back to the 16th century. But denying one’s religion is not allowed in the Baha’i Faith.
The 10 women had been arrested in the fall of 1982. Along with being accused as “spies for the state of Israel” and “insulting Islam,” the charges against them included “teaching Baha’i children’s classes,” the equivalent of Sunday school classes in the West.
Almost a year after their execution, details of their ordeal were entered into the U.S. Congressional record at a hearing called by a sub-committee of the House Committee on Foreign Relations on May 2, 1984. According to that record, the Islamic jurist appointed by the Iranian Revolutionary Court, Judge Qazai, questioned Mona’s understanding of religion. He said to her, “You are just a child. How could you possibly know the real meaning of the word religion?”
According to an eyewitness account, Mona replied, “What more proof do you need than that I was dragged out of school and put in jail and now, for many months, have endured all these interrogations for the sake of my religion? What else but my faith could give me the strength and power to stand here in front of you and answer your questions?” Because of her age, Mona’s courage in the face of tyranny became emblematic of the group’s resolve.
Another of the 10 Baha’i women was Mashid Nirumand. She was 28 years old and had served on the Youth Committee for the Baha’i Community of Shiraz. Ms. Nirumand was arrested on November 29, 1982, at her family’s home. She was a physicist and was selected for arrest partially because of her advanced education. Like many of the other Baha’i prisoners, she was taken to the Sepah Detention Center and tortured. Just days after her arrest, Mashid Nirumand was subjected to a mock execution on December 2, a technique designed to break the will of the accused.
Since Baha’is are considered “najes” (religiously unclean), physical contact with the Baha’i prisoners was repugnant to the Shi’ite Islamic guards. When the blindfolded prisoners were escorted to the interrogation room, for example, they would be given the end of a folded newspaper to hold while the guards held the other end, avoiding the defilement of direct contact.
The day of their execution was “Shanbeh,” a Saturday by the Western calendar. It had been a very warm day, typical for Shiraz at that time of year. Later that evening, they were taken from Adelabad Prison to a polo field on the outskirts of the city. A gallows had been erected in preparation for the execution. The driver of the bus that brought them from the prison later reported that they seemed to be in good spirits and had even sang songs during the bus ride.
The ten women were hung one at a time while the others were forced to watch. Mona asked to be the last to be executed so that she could pray for the strength of each one who died before her. According to an eyewitness, when her time came she kissed the rope and put the noose around her own neck. Before she died, she said, “What makes me happy is that I see that we have been chosen by God to be strong.”
A few months before her arrest, Mona had written an essay in school about religious freedom. She wrote, “Freedom is a heavenly gift, and this gift must be bestowed upon all.” By refusing to deny their religion, the ten Baha’i women of Shiraz defended their right to religious freedom. They gave up their lives rather than give up their faith.
It’s been 30 years since the execution of the ten women of Shiraz yet the persecution of the Baha’is in Iran continues to this day. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, hundreds of Baha’is have been killed, thousands more imprisoned and an entire generation denied access to higher education. A group of seven Iranian Baha’i leaders are currently serving 20-year prison sentences for charges similar to those levied against the ten Baha’i women.
But charges such as “insulting Islam” or “spreading corruption on earth” are merely catchall terms widely used by the Iranian government to prosecute not just Baha’is but also Jews, Christians, Sufis and even Sunni Muslims. It’s been more than a generation since the American government first held congressional hearings on the abuse of human rights in Iran. Since that time the curtain of corruption in that country has been lifted exposing a corner of hell where persecution, torture and death is met with the courage, character and endurance of the Iranian people.