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She was vivacious. She was joyous. She was focused. She dreamed of becoming a doctor. She was a 17-year old high school student. They hanged her.
She was Iranian, but she was first and foremost a Baha’i. She was devoted to God and to her Faith. She loved children; she taught Baha’i children’s classes. She was bold and audacious. She was named Mona—Mona Mahmudnizhad. Her name will never be forgotten.
It may seem odd, but when I think of Mona, the lyrics of a Beatles’ tune runs through my head:
Well, she was just 17. You know what I mean. And the way she looked was way beyond compare. – The Beatles, I Saw Her Standing There
It’s just a love song about a boy and a girl, or a man and a woman, you might think. Instead, though, it can be about an inspiration—and those she inspires.
On the 23rd of October 1982, when the Revolutionary Guards came to her home to arrest her, “Well, she was just 17.” She was a young woman whose crime had been to teach children’s classes to young Baha’is who were not then allowed to attend school. It seems unfathomable. “You know what I mean.”
The green-eyed brunette had a wide and seemingly constant smile. When you look at photos of Mona, you’ll smile, too. Her effervescence seems to bubble up off the page. “And the way she looked was way beyond compare.”
Combining the humility and dignity of a mature Baha’i and the innocence and purity of a sweet child, Mona was popular with her peers. She understood the importance of education; she herself planned to study medicine. Since Baha’i children were banned from attending school, Mona taught classes for them. This was the “crime” that sent her to the gallows.
In 1982, during a time when persecutions of the Baha’is, Iran’s largest religious minority, were escalating at an alarming rate, Mona boldly wrote an essay that infuriated school officials. In it she dared demand:
Why in my country are those who are members of my religion abducted from their homes at night and taken to mosques in their nightgowns, and subjected to whipping? As we have recently witnessed in our own city, Shiraz, their homes are looted and set on fire. Hundreds of people leave their homes in fear. Why? Because of the gift of liberty that Islam has brought? Why am I not free to express my ideas in this society? Why do I not have freedom of speech so that I can write in the newspapers, and express my ideas on the radio and television?
A few days after that came an ominous knock on the door of her family’s home.
Her mother, understandably upset by her husband’s arrest, became distraught when she realized that her younger daughter was also being taken. “I can understand that you would want to take my husband with you, but why do you want to take Mona?” She pleaded with them “She is only a child.”
It has been reported that one of them insisted, “Do not call her a child. You should call her a little Baha’i teacher. Look at this poem. It is not the work of a child. It could set the world on fire. Someday she will be a great Baha’i teacher.”
That was a very prescient statement. In death, Mona has indeed become a great teacher—because her story continues to alarm, fascinate and intrigue people. Curiosity about what made this vibrant teenage girl accept, nay welcome, her fate, compels people want to investigate the Baha’i Faith when they might not have otherwise.
Mona admonished her mother:
Why do you beg these people? What offense have I committed? Have I been a bad girl? Do we have smuggled goods in the house? They arrest me just because I believe in Baha’u’llah. Mother, this is not going to prison, it is going to Heaven. This is not falling into a pit, it is rising to the moon.
Four times that beautiful girl who would never reach womanhood was subjected to lengthy interrogations and tortures: physical, mental, and emotional. During each session Mona was told that if she would just renounce her belief in the Baha’i Faith, she could go home, return to school, and all would be well with her once again. She refused each time:
Ask a Baha’i to deny any of the great Prophets, to deny his faith or to deny Moses, Muhammad or Christ, and he will say: I would rather die … A Baha’i denies no religion; he accepts the Truth in all, and would die to uphold it. – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 56.
The website www.iranrights.org reports that:
She was taken to the Sepah Detention Centre, where she was held incommunicado for a month. Her mother was finally given permission to take part in weekly family visits starting on 20 November. Because of her religious beliefs, the prison authorities considered her to be an unbeliever, and thus ‘unclean’ and she was subjected to humiliating treatment similar to that of atheist political prisoners. Prison wardens refused to have any physical contact with the prisoner even when, for example, they were guiding the blindfolded prisoner to the interrogation room. In such case guards would give her the end of a folded newspaper and hold the other end, avoiding contact. The Baha’i World reports that during her detention, she was ‘lashed on the soles of her feet with a cable, and forced to walk on her bleeding feet.’
Challenged by her interrogator, “Young girl, what do you know about religion?” Mona replied: “Is there a better proof of my faith than the fact that I was taken out of school to be brought here and undergo long hours of trials? Can’t you see that it is my belief that has given me the confidence to stand in your presence and answer your questions?”
Mona asked to be the final victim executed so that she could pray for the strength of each one hanged before her. The attorney and human rights defender Payam Akhavan said:
I was a contemporary of Mona, and her extraordinary courage left a deep and lasting impression on my generation. Reports emerged from sympathetic prison guards that, after severe torture, when she was being insulted and spat upon by those that were about to hang her, she put the noose around her own neck and smiled in a final act of defiance. Her torturers had not managed to break her. Hers was a triumph of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable cruelty. – Iranian regime still fears girl hanged 30 years ago, thestar.com, May 12, 2014.