I apologise in advance to those who do not want to hear this tale, who find a preoccupation with ‘causes’ distasteful. You do not have to read on. I want the story of Mahvash Sabet to find sympathetic ears, because she deserves it.
Women’s History Month is not just about the past, of course, despite the name. Nor is it only about Australia. For the challenges faced by Australian pioneers for women’s rights, women’s education and women’s votes remain unresolved today, at least on a global level. Women in many countries are still struggling with the same basic issues – the right to an education and the pursuit of a profession without harassment; the right to freedom of belief and choice, even at the most banal level of clothing; the right to live their lives in peace and dignity, without fear of violence or discrimination.
Some Iranian women, like Mahvash Sabet, carry on the struggle in circumstances that beggar description.
Before her dismissal from her job following the 1979 revolution, Mahvash Sabet was a school principal and literacy advocate. She was also a poet and encouraged others to express themselves through literature, which according to the traditions and culture of Iran is considered the language of truth.
Now, thirty years on, she is serving out a ten-year prison sentence the notorious Rajai Shahr prison in Karaj, a place reserved for violent criminals, murderers, drug addicts and other ‘hard cases’. Her crime? To quote the wording of the sentence: 'Spreading corruption on earth'. 'Espionage for Israel'. 'Insulting religious sanctities.' Or, in other words, simply being a Baha'i, part of Iran's largest religious minority.
Mahvash was one of an ad-hoc committee of seven Baha’is, all now imprisoned under similar harsh sentences, who had with the knowledge of the Iranian government been peacefully ministering to the needs of their fellow believers. An educator and a teacher, Mahvash had also been concerned with improving the lot of Baha’i youth who were being hounded out of school and denied higher education. When those young people were systematically barred from Iranian universities, she provided an alternative. She served for fifteen years as a director for the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education in Iran, geared towards helping students complete their studies and gain a livelihood. When Baha’i educators were fired from state-run institutions, as Mahvash had been, they came to teach there; together, they tried to provide a quality education for the youth of their community.
One day, in the spring of 2008, Mahvash was summoned by officials in a distant locality, ostensibly to organise the funeral rites of some Baha’is. She was arrested while away from home, incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin prison for two years without trial until the summer of 2010, then subjected to innumerable hearings based on trumped up charges, marred by judicial irregularities. Part of that story is told by Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American journalist who shared a cell with Mahvash during her own, highly media-documented run-in with the Iranian authorities. Ms Saberi was released after 100 days; last June, Mahvash and her companions were convicted to twenty years imprisonment, later reduced to ten.
The charges were bogus, the sentencing a farce drawing international condemnation. So what was Mahvash’s real crime? Why were the Iranian authorities so eager to lock her away?
I believe her case may have been doubly provoking to them, because her so-called crime could not be legally articulated in a court of law. She wasn’t just a visible member of a religious minority, an easy scapegoat along with her six co-administrators. She had done far worse by keeping hope and optimism alive for years in her beleaguered community.
No worse crime can be imagined, in a repressive state, than that of educating people freely, thoroughly, and disinterestedly. No worse crime can be imagined than giving hope to a group deliberately marginalised, and providing them with the tools to help themselves.
Once imprisoned, Mahvash compounded her troubles by giving hope and optimism to her fellow inmates, and gaining a devoted following among the women prisoners. She also bore witness to their suffering in her poetry, continuing to write whenever circumstances permitted.
Some of her work has recently been smuggled out of Rajei Shahr. One poem reads:
We did not realise
what our silent smiles could do.
And so in that hellish misery, we smiled:
at the woman whose legs were beaten black and blue,
and the insane one with frozen eyes
and the sick one with yellow skin
and ones who seemed neither men or women
and the old ones in the embrace of death
and the starved ones with shaved heads,
those with scratched cheeks, and others
who had lost all their hopes and teeth,
and the young with yellow, pus-filled wounds
who smelled of rot that would make you shudder,
with voices like rust and thoughts that withered,
and the innocent ones whose glances appealed
whose fingers clutched like the clinging tendrils
of bindweed, desperate for love.
She had no idea how dangerous her compassion would prove to be. Just a few days prior to the Iranian New Year’s celebrations on March 21st, I heard news of Mahvash's fate: as a result of her befriending fellow prisoners, she had been transferred to one of the most troubled sectors of Rejai Shahr. There, certain inmates with a history of violent crime had been informally encouraged to do what the Iranian state could not openly accomplish, and murder Mahvash and her Baha’i companion, Fariba Kamalabadi, with impunity.
Again, as Mahvash puts it so succinctly, her crime had been one of love:
Along this illusive road, I’ve been looking,
I've been searching for human dignity in vain;
Sitting here, I see at last that I’m in this prison
for nothing but the crime of love again.
So far, no one has killed Mahvash and Fariba, though they have been systematically hounded by gangs of prisoners, chased out of the communal showers they may use once a fortnight and denied access to food and water. Other reports maintain that the two Baha’i women have a calming effect on their cellmates, even in the worst circumstances. People do not wish to attack them, after spending a little time in their company.
I suspect those prisoners realise, even as Ms Saberi did, that to kill Mahvash and those like her would be tantamount to killing hope itself.
On hearing all these different reports, I could not help wondering about Mahvash’s personal response to her situation. How did she maintain her own hope, in the midst of everything? It’s all very well to bear witness to the suffering of fellow inmates, to become a symbol for freedom, a ‘cause’ taken up by Amnesty International and other worthy organisations. But how did she herself survive, facing each day in prison?
Life is strange. Soon after I asked myself the question, I found another of Mahvash’s poems sitting in my inbox. It answers me:
I’ve come to the end of my capacities; not much is left.
The blood in my narrow veins is like an old postman
Creaking up a dark and ruinous path on a decrepit bicycle.
My lungs are filled with the poison of this air,
rank and stagnant with the taste of camphor and of soot;
My ears are deafened by the shattering screams of pain all round
In this stinking, fetid, dead-end place.
Hemmed in by thoughts that are so limited, so closed,
by the corruption and perversity – alas! – of those
who don’t know and don’t want to ask, who don’t seek and so don’t find.
who don’t hear, don’t see, don’t think and yet give orders to everyone:
creatures whose definition of unity consists of the breaking of atoms.
(The Limits of the Spirit)
It seems to me that Mahvash’s words on the subject of her incarceration not only bear witness to her own suffering, but to the plight of an entire country. Even in such an extreme situation, however, this truly remarkable woman has not yet given up. In another poem, she rallies herself with a war cry against despair, praising the power of words:
And so I perfume with poetry,
this stale camphor-tasting bread;
And try to cast the ink of light
on jaundiced faces, on bowed heads.
I send waves of rippling emotion
across the surface of this pond,
stagnant from evaporated anger,
with all trust gone.
And I try to give hope of flight to these caged birds
Wing-bound and broken, trapped without words…
Hope may have been locked up and forgotten in Iran, but it is not yet dead.
The poems I have shared above, with great sadness but also with pride and admiration for so extraordinary a woman, have been provisionally translated by my mother, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, from the Persian.
Mary Victoria emigrated to Wellington, New Zealand in 2000, where she now lives with her husband and daughter. She has worked as an animator and writes fantasy novels. Mary may usually be found on her website: http://maryvictoria.net/