Baha'is in Iran, Our Story is One

#OurStoryIsOne: Shahin (Shirin) Dalvand, 25 years old

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Many readers have reached out to me to tell me they find these stories that I am telling as part of the #OurStoryIsOne campaign to be quite heartbreaking.  And yes, they are–but at the same time, they are incredibly powerful.  These women were killed because they stood up for justice and love, for equality and peace.  Imagine the world we would live in if we all did that.  We won’t be killed, but we will be giving up our lives for the sake of the same things — and it’s also something very hard to do, quite honestly.  Slowing down in a frenetic world; getting off the materialism bandwagon; changing intergenerational patterns of behavior — it’s all part of the same work, essential to bettering the world.  So don’t just be sad at these lives cut short; be inspired by the firmness of their beliefs, and remain firm in yours.

The next of the ten women I cover here is Shahin Dalvand.  Born into a Baha’i family in 1957, her family affectionately called her “Shirin”, Persian for “Sweet,” and the name stuck. Shirin loved flowers; a single blossom or a green leaf could always be found in her room. She also loved the ocean and visited the beach as often as possible.

Shirin completed elementary school and high school in Shiraz before continuing her education at Pahlavi University in Shiraz in sociology. Her university career was interrupted when the 1979 Islamic Revolution shut down universities across Iran. Shirin and her family emigrated to Britain but, after universities were reopened, she and her father returned. Shirin resumed her studies and graduated with high grades. Her dissertation, “A study of the characteristics of a group of drug addicts and the reasons for their addiction,” caught the attention of her professors who invited her to participate in a TV program on the subject, although this did not happen because she was a Baha’i. But some of the professors would still quote from her thesis.

After graduating, Shirin chose not to leave Iran, living with her grandparents. She managed her father’s business affairs in Shiraz in his absence and dedicated time visiting and comforting the families of Baha’is who had been imprisoned or executed. She also tried, as much as she could, to help Baha’i villagers who had been driven out of their homes.

Shahin was arrested on 29 November 1982 during a Baha’i meeting, while having dinner at the home of a fellow Baha’i named Rouhieh Jahanpour. At about 11pm, Revolutionary Guards agents banged on the door; seven or eight of them pushed their way in and, without producing any warrants, searched the home, confiscated religious books and pictures, and arrested the two women.

The agents used offensive language and called them “unclean”. Rouhieh recalls them saying, as she and Shirin were being arrested: “We have no doubt that we are doing the right thing because we are preparing the way for the return of Holy Mahdi. We must get rid of all of you because the only reason that he has not returned is the existence of you, the unclean.” The agents also went to the home of Shirin’s grandmother, searching the residence and confiscating Baha’i books and pictures.

Shirin was taken to the Sepah Detention Centre, where she interrogated, harassed, threatened and mistreated in other ways. The interrogators had two goals: forcing the Baha’is to recant their faith and extracting the names of other Baha’is. Shirin was a calm, polite and shy young woman, according to those who remember her, and she had never claimed to be brave or strong. But she he resisted the threats and violence of the interrogators who wanted her to renounce her faith and convert to Islam.

About a month later, she was eventually transferred to Adelabad prison, where due to the difficult detention conditions she contracted a cold and kidney infection. On 26 December 1982, she faced her first interrogation session. A few days later she was again interrogated and was told that she could be freed in exchange for a bond of 400,000 tumans—a sum soon doubled. When her grandmother presented the required amount to the authorities, she was told that the defendant’s file had already been sent to the Religious Magistrate for final review and trial.

Authorities informed Shirin that she would be subjected to four “sessions” in which she would be given the opportunity to recant her faith and accept Islam. She was informed that if she did not sign a prepared statement rejecting the Baha’i Faith, she would be killed. The sessions were part of a project to convince the Baha’is to “repent”. The magistrate would threaten Baha’i inmates with the death penalty if they refuse to convert to Islam. Prison guards also participated in this project. They repeatedly went to the cells of Baha’is, summoned prisoners, or spoke to them in the prison yard in an attempt to “guide” them to repent. Baha’is, like other inmates, were also required to visit the prison library to study Islamic books and treatises.

One of Shirin’s friends recalls how one day, when they were having a meal together, Shirin told them that it was her birthday; the year before, her mother had given her a beautiful new dress as a gift, and this year her gift was to be a prisoner because of her beliefs. Each of her friends took a little morsel of food and placed it in Shirin’s mouth, and thus celebrated her birthday. I’m not sure if this was symbolic or significant because prisoners were severely rationed but either way, it’s a sweet, intimate moment.

Only immediate relatives could visit prisoners; Shirin was thus the only Baha’i inmate who received no visitor for a long time. On visiting days, she was alone in her cell until her cellmates returned from their visits. Shirin’s grandmother continuously brought food and clothing, but she was not allowed to see her granddaughter. Shirin always spoke about her grandmother while in prison, and eagerly awaited the day when she would be allowed to see her. One day, at last, after the other visitors were gone, Shirin was summoned and finally met her grandmother after several months.

As with other Baha’is, Shirin’s trial lasted only a few minutes, was held behind closed doors, and she was not allowed to have a lawyer. Hojatoleslam Ghazaei, the Sharia judge of Shiraz and the head of the Shiraz Revolutionary Court, would announce at the end of each Bahá’í trial: “Islam or death!” The text of Shirin’s indictment was not provided to her family. However, available information indicates that the charges were related to her religious beliefs. She was interrogated and pressured to recant her faith.

Zia Mir-Emadi, Revolutionary Prosecutor of Fars Province, made a final attempt to coerce the Baha’is into recanting their beliefs, by announcing that he would give the Baha’is who had been sentenced to death four chances and, if they did not, they would be hanged. But none of them, including Shirin, renounced their beliefs or converted to Islam. “I accept Islam, but I am a Baha’i,” they wrote, when they were asked for their decisions.

On February 12, 1983, a local newspaper, Khabar-e Jonoub, reported that 22 Baha’is had been sentenced to death.  When news of the death sentences reached inside the prison, nobody imagined that Shirin would be among them. The inmates themselves had made lists of those whom they believed could be put to death. Shirin’s name was on none of these lists.

Shirin was executed by hanging on 18 June 1983 in Chowgan-Square in Shiraz, together with nine other Baha’i women. These 10 Baha’i women were hanged one by one, while the remaining women were forced to watch. Their bodies were not returned to their families; they were possibly buried in the Baha’i cemetery of Shiraz by authorities.

Find my entire #OurStoryisOne project here.  For more information, visit the official #OurStoryisOne website, here, or follow on Instagram.

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