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For Bahareh Hedayat and her 30th Birthday

The Birth of Hope

By Sussan Tahmasebi

Thursday 7 April 2011


Change for Equality: Bahareh turned 30 in Evin prison on April 5. Last year for Bahareh’s birthday we gathered in her home to celebrate. I arrived there with trepidation. Would the party be allowed to go on as planned, or would it be interrupted by security forces? It was unclear, but trepidation and fear had become a part of our lives as activists.

I had tried to connect with Bahareh before her arrest. I had sent her several emails to set up a time when we could do an interview. I was doing interviews with members of the One Million Signatures Campaign, to try to document their involvement in the effort. Bahareh was an important figure in our Campaign, who had not only played a critical role in connecting students interested in becoming involved in promoting women’s rights with the Campaign, but was critical in organizing female students to address gender disparities in the university setting. She was instrumental in an effort to set up the Women’s Commission of the Office to Foster Unity (one of the major national student organizations) and had played an important role in bridging the student and women’s movements.

But activists were under pressure during those days and such meetings were difficult to arrange. In the aftermath of the disputed presidential elections, political and social activists had been arrested, often at random with no understandable logic. Some were arrested for doing interviews, others for speaking out or writing in objection to developments in the country, some for objecting to human rights violations generally or more specifically the arrest of their colleagues and some for participating in and organizing protests. But most were arrested based on a perceived threat, as a way to intimidate others, a means to quiet popular protest, or simply for having been identified by security forces as a political, social, human rights, women’s rights or student rights activist in the past. The randomness of the arrests, and the manner in which they were carried out, mostly in the middle of night, had increased anxiety among us all. Most people I knew, including myself, had left their homes and taken refuge with friends and family, in an effort to avoid being arrested, in the hopes that the assault on activists would relent. Bahareh too had left her home and had stayed at the homes of friends and relatives for some time, in the hopes of avoiding arrest. She knew the possibility of her arrest was high, given the fact that she was a well known student and women’s rights activist and given her outspoken objections to the pressures imposed on university students, especially the violent storming of the university dorms following the elections.

On December 31, 2009 she came home for a few hours. Her husband, Amin, was nervous. He kept pestering her to leave quickly, and so they did. But upon exiting their home, security forces waiting outside arrested her. She has been in prison since. During this time she spent time in solitary confinement, was interrogated, charged and sentenced to serve 9 and half years in prison—a sentence which was upheld fully by the appeals court. Since her arrest, she has had no furlough and her telephone privileges as well as visitation rights with family have been denied since November, 2010.

On April 5, 2010, we gathered in Bahareh’s home, to celebrate her 29th birthday in her absence. She had barely enjoyed the apartment that she had rented with her husband. They had very little time together in their new life indeed. The guests arrived one by one, student and women’s rights activists, journalists, political activists and her friends and family. They all came together to pay tribute to this young woman who was in prison for speaking out and for demanding justice, for hoping for and working toward a better future for our country.

Bahareh’s cellmates, many of them ordinary women, had given her all that they could on the occasion of her birthday. They had given her their phone time, a precious gift indeed, so she could call home and talk to her husband and their guests. The telephone moved from one person to the next, each telling Bahareh how proud they were of her, how they missed her and how they appreciated her sacrifices. As they spoke to Bahareh and Amin, each of the guests tried desperately to infuse hope and levity into a situation clearly fraught with injustice. Someone handed me the phone and it was my turn to speak to Bahareh.

“Hi Dear Bahareh, happy birthday! We miss you” I said trying to sound jovial.

“Who’s this?” She asked

“This is Sussan.”

“Sussan…?””

“Yes, Sussan.”

“Oh My God. Sussan! What are you still doing in Iran? You haven’t left?”

“No, I’m still here.”

“Are you okay? They haven’t harassed you? Have they? I am worried about you.”

It was interesting to me, there she was, in prison on her birthday and she was worried about me. She was still the Bahareh I remembered. Always putting concern for others ahead of concern for herself. Bahareh will not be calling home for her birthday this year, though her friends gathered once again to celebrate the day in her absence. I have no doubt that despite over a year of being in prison and despite all these pressures, she remains the same Bahareh, putting concern for others ahead of her own needs. I have indeed heard stories about how Bahareh has taken less experienced prisoners of conscience under her wing in prison, helped them adjust, protected them, nursed them through illnesses and assisted them through the difficult transition of getting adjusting to prison life.

I can’t talk to Bahareh this year, like I did last, but these days of all days she is with me, in my thoughts and in my heart. And so I write for her, though I don’t take to writing about imprisoned activists too easily. There is much that makes me weary of doing so. The reluctance does not stem from a lack of willingness to acknowledging the great sacrifices that those imprisoned have made in their path to secure justice and human rights for all of us. Nor is it a sign that these sacrifices—made in the course of a struggle which will impact each of our lives directly and intimately and for the better—are not valued. The truth is that these tributes focus largely on the strength of character of those who fight for justice, recognizing them as the true heroes and heroines they are, but in so doing I fear the loss of their humanity, the loss of their personal stories. Truth be told these heroes and heroines, are indeed ordinary people who have done extraordinary deeds, who have made extraordinary sacrifices, and who have suffered unbelievable injustices. I fear that we may forget to think of them in their full humanity as our sisters, daughters, friends…each with personal hopes and aspirations that they have forgone in the path to achieve our collective hopes and aspirations. What is lost here in telling the story of Bahareh the heroin, is that she was a newlywed. She wanted to make a life with her husband, to have children and to start a family. But instead, she chose to think of others, to act in the interest of the greater good, to speak up in condemnation of injustice and in support of human rights and women’s rights and in so doing she has to pay a heavy price. She is sentenced to spend her 30’s in prison.

This weighs heavy on my soul. It weighs heavy on the souls of all those who have fought for freedom and justice. I wonder if those who have imprisoned Bahareh, think about how their iron fists have impacted the lives of individuals, if they think of the destruction they have inflicted not only on masses, but on the lives of individuals. I hope that for one day they too can see Bahareh not as one who contests them, or threatens them, but rather as a young woman, who wishes for the most basic of rights: the right to think freely, the right to speak freely, the right to associate freely, the right to be equal to her male counterparts, the right to have a say in her education and in her university, the right to dream, the right to have hope, and the right to a future. She is and could be anyone’s sister, daughter or friend. She is a woman, who has embarked on an extraordinary path—a struggle in which, sooner or later, she will be the victor.

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