During the 410 days that I spent inside the closed walls of Evin Prison, I often wondered what the human beings alongside me were being punished for. Through the few scattered, clandestine conversations I was able to have with other women prisoners, I learned that I was being held in Section 209 and that everyone around me was charged with "political crimes."
I knew what that meant in my own case. I was a hostage being held in an attempt to extract concessions from the U.S. government. Yet, the people around me were Iranians. What was the Iranian government trying to get out of imprisoning them? What had they done to end up in this cruel, deadening place?
I now know exactly who the people next to me were, and that many of them are still there. They are human rights lawyers like Nasrin Sotodeh, student activists like Baharet Hedayat and women like Fariba Kamalabadi and Mahvash Sabet, members of the Baha'i leadership who have now been held unjustly for a total of 10,000 days without legal representation or a trial.
While in prison, I once had the extraordinary experience of meeting Fariba Kamalabadi. One winter day we were both being led blindfolded down the corridor in Section 209 to the prison clinic. We were being marched in single file, forbidden to look at or talk to one another. The first thing she did when the guard turned her back was reach out and rub my back affectionately. Pleased and startled, I turned around and peeked at her from under my blindfold. She was smiling at me. "I'm sorry you're alone," she whispered. Then, she hastily told me who she was before the guard caught on and positioned herself between us so we couldn't talk.
During that brief encounter I wasn't able to learn any of the specifics of Fariba's detention. When I was later released and did some research, I was astounded by Fariba's kindness and bravery that day. Fariba is one of the leaders of Iran's Baha'ai community, the largest non-Muslim religious minority Iran. The Baha'ai have been subjected to a systematic campaign of cultural eradication by the Iranian government since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. There are currently seven Baha'i leaders (called "The Yaran," or The Friends) being held in prisons throughout Iran, along with 109 other members of the Baha'ai faith, solely for peacefully pursuing the civil rights and education opportunities they deserve.
Evidence of this persecution can be found in a memorandum written by Seyyed Mohammad Golpaygani, Iran's secretary of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, which clearly outlines the Iranian government's policy of banning people of the Baha'i faith from higher education. Golpaygani writes that they "must be expelled from universities, either in the admissions process or during the course of their studies, once it becomes known that they are Baha'is."
The Baha'ai communities' response to this systematic exclusion was ingenious. They developed their own system of clandestine universities that came to be known as the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE). Living rooms, kitchens and basements became classrooms, students earned degrees that were recognized in other countries and new hope for the Baha'ai people emerged.
Then, exactly one year ago, May 22nd, 2011, in cities across Iran the homes of students, administrators and teachers of Baha'i Institute for Higher Education were raided by government authorities. A number of faculty members are now serving prison terms of 4-5 years. A three-minute video, created by the same team that produced the film Education Under Fire, was released today at www.educationunderfire.com to mark this dreadful anniversary.
It's difficult for me to imagine what Fariba and her colleagues must be feeling right now. Even though I experienced that reality myself, it's far behind me now. Fariba and all the other imprisoned Baha'ais have no idea when they will be able to spend real time with their families, contribute to creating a better world or even walk in the sun without a blindfold.
"Men and women sentenced to death for trying to teach," the voice of actress and Amnesty International spokesperson Nazanin Boniadi declares in the film, "a college attacked for giving young people an opportunity to learn. Hundreds of thousands of people persecuted for refusing to renounce their religion."
Simply for trying to teach.