Photos by Mark Mattos
In 1979, the year Islamic revolutionaries overthrew the Shah of Iran, Parivash Rohani fled her homeland for India, where she met her husband Nassar, was declared stateless when she tried to renew her passport, became a refugee, and briefly moved to California and then to Maine, where she has lived since the 1980s. Her flight from Iran was insisted on by her parents and propelled by persecution and violence because of her faith, which is Baha’i.
Baha’i teaches the unity of all humankind, equality between men and women, that all religions come from the same God, and that Bahá’u’lláh – considered the founder of Baha’i – was a manifestation of that god, like Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, and Zoroaster before him.
According to Amnesty International, “Baha’is are Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority. They suffer widespread and systematic violations, including arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearance, forcible closure of businesses, confiscation of property, house demolitions, destruction of cemeteries, and hate speech by officials and state media, and are banned from higher education.”
This year marks the 40th anniversary of an event that took place when Rohani was already in India, but which has haunted her throughout her life – the execution of 10 young Baha’i women by hanging directed by the Iranian government. The victims were friends and fellow students of Rohani’s at the university, and to this day she suffers from the trauma associated with their brutal deaths. She remembers hearing the names of the victims read over the radio when she was on her honeymoon in 1983, and how she screamed when she recognized the names.
Before she fled Iran, her own house was burned to the ground along with the homes of 500 other Baha’i followers. Her parents also received direct threats because Rohani was studying at the university.
Parivash Rohani wants Mainers to know about the year-long human rights campaign organized by the Baha’i International Community that centers on the story of the young women who were hanged. The campaign is called #OurStoryIsOne, and invites people to take action in honor of the 10 women, as well as all women who work for social justice in Iran, by creating artwork, songs, videos, or by writing articles or posting to social media. Rohani’s artwork is featured on these pages.
I vividly remember that winter night when we were awakened by loud banging. My father opened the door to find a young man informing him that a mob of fanatical individuals was setting Baha’i homes on fire. Concerned for my safety as a young girl, he urged my father to take me to a safe place before our house was engulfed in flames. In haste, he left to alert other families with young daughters to do the same. Left with no choice, my parents had to quickly find a solution. Since they couldn’t trust taking me to another Baha’i home, they decided it was best for me to join my cousin in a college dormitory where I would be secure. That evening, my father came to pick me up and deliver the devastating news that our house had been reduced to ashes, forcing us to relocate. (written by Parivash)
Now, with the International Baha’i community launching the #ourstoryisone campaign, I finally feel a tool for embarking on inner healing. This campaign encourages everyone to create art in honor of the 10 women and share it on social media using the hashtag #OurStoryIsOne. I have curated a collection of art pieces titled “The Darkness: Shadows of Ignorance, Fanaticism, and Prejudice.”” This collection serves as a heartfelt tribute to the 10 women in Shiraz.
Parivash Rohani sat with Jean Hakuzimana to talk about her experiences and the #OurStoryIsOne campaign organized by the Baha’i International Community centered on the story of the young women who were hanged.
JH: Please explain the Baha’i faith.
PR: The tenet of the Baha’i faith is oneness of God, oneness of religion, and oneness of humanity. So as Baha’is, we believe that there is only one God. We might call it differently. We might call it Jehovah, or Krishna, or so many names. But in reality, that unknowable essence, which we call God, is one, and the oneness of humanity. We truly believe that every human being on the face of this planet is one. Nobody is better than another because they are white or they are Black … we think all the problems that exist globally are because we haven’t realized that oneness of humanity. If we realize we are one, then the rest becomes much easier.
JH: This campaign is getting quite a lot of attention. Do you know why?
PR: The media outside of Iran is covering the uprising that’s been happening in Iran since last September. I’m sure you’re aware of the killing of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish girl who went to Tehran for a vacation and didn’t have a proper hijab according to the moral morality police. So she was actually arrested and then ultimately she died in prison. This incident made people think … is it possible that these Baha’i also were wrongfully killed and nobody said anything? And now it’s happening to us? So I feel that this story shows how we should not be a bystander anywhere. We just definitely have to be an upstander, who makes sure that if we see any injustice we talk about it, because if we don’t, it could happen to our own community, to our own family.
JH: So you clearly feel it is important for people to know about what happened to your friends.
PR: Their story is not unique. I mean, 10 Iranian women were hung. But if you look through all history, many incidents like this have happened to women, you know, women who fight, in Afghanistan, or Rwanda, you know, or African Americans and Native Americans. So it is not a unique story. That’s why #OurStoryIsOne is not a Baha’i story or an Iranian story but a story about how humanity is one. And this is just the tool to bring issues of justice and equality up, and hopefully we will build a future where these stories will not be repeated.
JH: Are you sending a message to the Iranian government?
PR: Yes, we are trying to influence the government to be more civil not only to the Baha’i community, because we are not the only minority who suffers in Iran. You know, there is the Kurdish community, the Jewish community, the Armenian community, even poets now, reporters, photographers, all of these people who are fighting for freedom right now are dealing with a lot of hardship. Prison in Iran is like a university because most people who are in prison are the cream of the crop of Iranian people; they are all highly educated. They are the ones who want to make a change. And because the government doesn’t like it, they are put in prison. So Baha’i are not the only ones who are being discriminated against in Iran. But we are more so … Baha’i faith is a taboo … even educated Iranians who are out of Iran, some of them still have it in their mind that Baha’i are subhuman, infidels, unclean, spies of Israel. I have been advocating for human rights of Baha’is for as long as I have been in Maine, but not even one Muslim Iranian has supported me or even mentioned publicly at conferences or talks that the Baha’i are suffering in Iran. So this taboo is not only in Iran, but outside of Iran.
JH: Do you think the campaign and the voices that speak out from America can change anything in Iran, since the countries are enemies already?
PR: International outcry is definitely helpful, because no government wants to look bad globally. We have to do our part thinking that we can make a difference. Otherwise we will just be paralyzed. We need to do everything in our power, you know?
JH: I want to thank you for explaining your story.
PR: Thank you so much for giving me the time and platform.