Why Do Baha’i Babies Go to Prison in Iran?

Why Do Baha’i Babies Go to Prison in Iran?

The persecution of young and innocent children whose parents are unjustly imprisoned due to their religious beliefs is a brutal expression of the violation of human rights.

May 19, 2013.  Barmaan was only one month old when his mother began serving a 23 month term, in July 2012, in the overcrowded and oppressive women’s prison of Semnan, a city in northern Iran.  The crime of this young mother and her husband was belief in the Baha’i Faith, a religion which seeks nothing but peace and unity for humankind. His deplorable plight began earlier when his mother was about seven months pregnant with him.  After a harsh raid by guards on his family’s home, his mother was so emotionally affected by the disturbing situation that she gave birth to Barmaan two months prematurely.  His father had also been previously imprisoned in another section of the prison for men so the baby had to be taken into prison with his mother.  It was as if a cruel and unjust world had no room for him except in the confines of a terrible prison.[i]  One may wonder why a young mother was forced to endure prison with a nursing baby in her arms?  When she is released Barmaan will be two years old.

Science and psychology consider the first two years of the life of a child to be vital in its development.  Being deprived of proper care and nutrition as well as a safe environment are but a few of the hazards imposed by prison life for a child of this age.  Babies who are born in prison or brought into this kind of detention centre after birth may face dire consequences from malnutrition, infectious diseases, emotional problems as well as developmental challenges.  Jailed mothers are often subjected to psychological and physical insults and brutality.  But how long can mothers and infants survive in such an oppressive environment?

Entrance to the Citadel of Semnan

In recent years, in Europe and the United States, facilities have been developed for women prisoners.  However in Semnan and other cities in Iran it has been reported that there is hardly any space for women, let alone Baha’i women with babies.  In the case of Barmaan he had to face all the negative impact of such an environment as well as being born prematurely which certainly made him more vulnerable than babies born at term.

However, Barmaan is not the only baby whose mother has been imprisoned and who has had no choice but to take her baby with her. Two other Baha’i infants are suffering the same fate.  At one point during 2012 there were seven babies under two years of age including four of Muslim mothers who were incarcerated with 70 women, some of whom are violent.  Because of limited space for so many women, some of the Baha’is sleep on the floor, which, for those with babies, is unsafe and intolerable.[ii]  And what is happening to the Baha’i and other women prisoners is not unique to Semnan. It also occurs in other Iranian cities.

The persecution of young and innocent children whose parents are unjustly imprisoned due to their religious beliefs is a brutal expression of the violation of human rights.  According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency of Iran (HRANA)  a 12 month-old Baha’i infant, Rassam who lived with his mother in prison developed a serious respiratory infection which required treatment in hospital.  Earlier, his mother had requested several times that he be sent for medical treatment outside of prison but the authorities ignored her pleas for help.  She too was imprisoned due to false accusations that she had been “teaching against government” and had been practicing her religion which included the education of children.  She was sentenced to 20 months in prison.  HRANA also reported other instances of prison atrocities which have had physical and emotional impact on women prisoners in Semnan.  In April 2013 many of them found pieces of broken glass in the meals served to them and therefore refused to eat that food.  Consequently, many nights they went to bed hungry as they were not allowed to buy food from the prison store.  Imagine what effect this would have on a nursing baby?  Furthermore, it was recently reported that a foundation that supports women and children decided to donate, on the occasion of Child’s Day (Rooz-e-Koodak) some money for each child in prison.  However, children of Baha’is were barred from receiving such aid because of their religion.  Although this deprivation was not materially significant, it was psychologically demeaning and discriminatory. [iii]

Imprisonment of women with babies, regardless of religious or political affiliation has been on the rise in the world.  As discussed above, it creates a cruel and hazardous situation for the babies.  However, leaving babies or young children with caregivers is also fraught with many difficulties.  When children are separated from their mothers at a young age, they may be scarred for life by emotional isolation, depression, insomnia and suffer developmental consequences unless that are properly cared for and looked after.  The mother and child bonding and relationship takes place during the first two critical years of life when infants form a strong attachment to their mother.  Through this bond, a sense of security and trust develops and children learn about their need to love and be loved.  A forced separation of mothers and babies is a form of violence not only against women but is an abuse of the rights of children for safe and proper care, education and upbringing in a family environment.

Inciting hatred and oppressive persecution against the Baha’is of Iran has taken a new turn during recent years.  The Baha’is of Iran presently constitute the largest non-Muslim minority of Iran whose rights have been violated. Baha’is have been subjected to systematic and widespread attacks individually and collectively.  In some parts of the country their homes have been raided, their property confiscated or vandalized, their stores set on fire and hundreds of them have been arrested and imprisoned with physical and psychological torture and terror.

Although none of this is new in the 170 – year history of the Baha’i Faith in Iran, it seems that targeting individuals for persecution is no longer confined to the adult population.  School children are discriminated against and ridiculed because of their beliefs.  The doors of universities are shut in the faces of  students for the same reason.  But as if this persecution was not enough, the authorities are now targeting the most vulnerable members of the community, those who are unable to defend themselves – babies.  This constitutes perhaps one of the most despicable forms of oppression to date.

Since 2008 the Baha’is of Semnan have been targeted with relentless persecution including raids, arrests and imprisonment.  “Their cemeteries have been vandalized, their beliefs have been attacked in the media and from the pulpit of mosques.  Perhaps most ominously their children have been denounced in the city’s schools.” [iv]  In brief, this is a community under fire where, since last year, young mothers with newborn infants have been convicted and sentenced to prison, thus subjecting the latter to hardship and mistreatment, a few examples of which have been presented in this article.

[i] Iran Press News, July 24, 2012

[ii] http://news.gooya.com/politics/archives/2013,4,158328.php

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Baha’i International Community:  Inciting Hatred – The Baha’is of Semnan, Special Report October 2012, p.2

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23 thoughts on “Why Do Baha’i Babies Go to Prison in Iran?

  1. Such inhuman pratice against innocent Mother and children in Prisons by the Authorities and Government of Iran. Which the World community of Nation should address to protect Mothers and their Children.

  2. It breaks my heart to read such cruelty towards people just because of their faith. The most inhumane treatment is imprisonment of the little babies, just because of their parents religious beliefs. Being a new mother I cannot understand how these infants can survive or even be healthy in an environment which is unfit even for adults. Both the babies & their mothers require proper diet, rest, relaxation & healthcare in those early years of the baby’s life. Even with all the care those fragile beings can have a difficult times with their tender health, I can only imagine how it would be in prison where there is neither proper food or rest for both. I hope that the world will turn their attention to the plight of the Baha’is in Iran especially in the cases where the children are at stake.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments and your views. As a mother of an infant your empathy for these suffering mothers with their infants in prison is well taken. Let’s hope that your voice will be heard.

  3. I wonder if Amnesty International could be approached to write letters. They would need names and location of the prisons.I know there is a team in the Unitarian Church who write letters. I think there may be some success with polite letters and prayers. Unfortunately, our world does not serve individuals or groups only rich corporations and journalist that expose injustices are targeted. Some of the leaders in the various churches should be approached to open dialogue with the Mulahs on what they have in common. ….Do unto others as you would like them to do to you.
    I am overwhelmed by so much cruelty in the name of religion and in the name of God.

    1. Hi Aldyth, Just wanted to mention that Amnesty International has been long campaigning for freedom of religion and belief in Iran as well as the fate of Baha’is. The issue has been mentioned in several public reports and letters and there have been actions around it as well. One of the ongoing campaign is for “Seven imprisoned leaders of Iran’s Baha’i community” for which there are both advocacy and solidarity actions:

      1. Thank you. Appreciated your thoughtful clarification about the question raised in a previous comment. Yes indeed. Much efforts have been made for religious freedom but the world is still waiting.

    2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insightful comments. As you said, “Do unto others as you would like them to do to you.” Let’s hope that justice will prevail.

  4. Thank you for exposing this tragic and inhuman treatment of mothers and infants. Aware that there are efforts by the United Nations, by many governments, by NGOs, and by religious leaders from many faiths who have all condemned the unspeakable mistreatment of these precious and vulnerable people and against the Baha’is in Iran in particular over many decades, such efforts must continue unabated.

    1. Thank you for your insightful points of view. It sad to see these most vulnerable children were not spared from this cruelty.

  5. While the imprisonment of these women solely for their religious beliefs is inhuman, I cannot fully agree that their babies being imprisoned with them is totally inhumane. Unless a wet nurse is readily available, not keeping the baby with it’s mom imposes upon the baby the sentence of an inferior nutritional, neurological, psychological etc. start in life. Receiving its own mother’s milk develops the infant’s immune system to be resistant to whatever it and its mother are exposed to. Recent studies regarding brain wiring show the importance of early and nearly constant close contact with mother (referred to as kangaroo care). In fact it surprises me that the iranian governement doesn’t take the babies away as further punishment to the family and to further decimate the Baha’i community which is their intent in the first place!

    1. Thank you for the extra details on this situation. I hadn’t realized that Barmaan was born at 32 weeks (so at 1 month of age, he’s still 4 weeks away from term). It’s a blessing that he was born and went home without incident (at least, no incidents reported). In many years of women’s health care practice, I saw US obstetrical healthcare go from 32 weeks being kind of iffy to tertiary care centers being able to save children born as early as 24 weeks routinely. I’m guessing this little guy needed *some* support when he was born, and in this sort of environment, I can see a medical center refusing to provide it for a family of Baha’is.

      I had read recently that at least Rassam and his mother had been released. And Winnie’s point is well taken, although maternal nutrition is a factor to be considered. Poorly nourished women can stop lactating even if the child nurses 24 hours a day. I guess the bottom line is that there is no good course of action in an environment where only members of the dominant culture (and not all of them) are *not* having more and more rights stripped away on the basis of them *not* being part of the dominant culture. The Sentinel Project, which is tracking the abuses, has an article on the impact of a genocidal environment (and I think with the Baha’is, this is exactly what the government is attempting) on the psychological make-up of children. Nursing aside, the little ones are better off with their moms physically and developmentally. But Islam itself has precedent for deferring some things (like fasting) till a mom has given birth and gotten the child weaned. With virtually the whole world watching, I wonder that the judges didn’t opt for something like this. A society that can penalize the very young and the very old (they’ve done this, too) has abandoned righteousness to the point of stripping itself of its own humanity, Muhammad preached a faith of inclusion, not exclusivity.

    2. Thank you for sharing your views. As you know, I pointed out in the article that attachment of babies to their mothers in the early stage of life, especially during the first two years, is very important. But unfortunately, the whole environment of that particular prison with tension, agitation, noise and space limitation affects the health and security of the babies. Hope that there will be some improvement.

  6. Winnie, I agree with you nutritionally, in a normal environment. But the terror inflicted by these sentences could not be any stronger than it already is. Imagine trying to protect your child from danger in a crowded dungeon. Imagine the terror of knowing that both you and your child are subject to the whims of your jailers, the other prisoners, and all the other conditions of imprisonment in a dungeon-like atmosphere. The Holy Quran, whose first chapter extolls mercy, begs the mercy of the All-Merciful, is perverted by such sentences as are inflicted on the Baha’is.

  7. On mulling over the actual title of the article, I’m wondering if the best answer is that the attitude in Iran has become the same one Custer supposedly voiced when one of his men questioned killing Native American children: yes, to kill even the young ones because “nits turn into lice.” That attitude makes it *so* much easier to perpetrate genocide.

  8. The UN must reform itself to have more bite against such ruthless systems that imprison innocent people and babies whose only crime is commitment to their conscience and belief. Until then we should continue piling up pressures though such activities as these media and networks with the hope that somehow somebody’s conscience wil be pricked.

    1. Thank you, Dr. Akwasi, for your thoughtful views about this suffering of mothers and their babies in that prison. I hope that your comments and voice will mitigate this hardship.

  9. When people actually start living and believing in Truth, wars will end and babies will need not to be breast-fed in a prison.
    What is democracy if there is no freedom of beliefs? What does a baby know about culture and religion?
    How can anyone understand the purpose of ransoming the well-being of a child regardless of life’s contradictions.
    We are supposed to be more intelligent as time goes on.
    But have we lost all compassion?
    It is not about the UN but people who don’t care. Something is wrong with our universal conscience. Out of order.
    Media doesn’t always help. Takes sides. But crimes against Humanity must stop. What is the Hague doing?
    Conventions only on paper? Time to get together people and start praying whatever your faith.
    Worse than believing in a Religion with only lip service to God, time to start living it. Taking care of the generations of the future. If you destroy the young, what will the future become?

  10. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!” MLK. Baha’is live in virtually any country around the world. Their conducts, teachings, and principals are based in peace and good-will. I am hoping the prayers, thoughts, and the positive energies that great articles like this produces, would lessen the burden on the helpless Baha’i mothers and their babies in Iran!

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