By Abigail R. Fradkin
Abigail R. Fradkin ’09 attends Harvard College and is a Classics and Government concentrator living in Lowell House.
Shahla Ka’bi. Age: 34. Nasrin Ka’bi. Age: 27. Date of Execution: August 27, 1980. Location: Sanandaj, Iran. Mode of Execution: Shooting. Charges: “Corruption on earth”; Providing medical care to counter-revolutionaries; Unspecified counterrevolutionary offense.
Remember: Shahla and Nasrin Ka’bi, two nurses arrested and executed by the Iranian Islamic revolutionary government during a military crackdown in the province of Kurdistan. After being arrested and exiled, brought back, then rearrested, the sisters spent three months in prison. During that time they were denied access to legal counsel, forbidden contact with relatives, and interrogated by the Revolutionary Guard. The Jomhuri Eslami daily from August 31, 1980 reported that the sisters had been charged with “participation in recent clashes” and “collaboration with the insurgents.” But authorities told the family that the sisters were arrested for providing care to opponents of the revolution. On the evening of August 26, 1980, Sadeq Khalkhali, an itinerant religious judge at the Sanandaj prison, sentenced the nurses to death at dawn. A fellow prisoner survived to tell the tale to the family. He described the execution as follows:
The guard takes Shahla and her sister, Nasrin, out of the prison ward without saying a word. The sisters stand next to each other with their backs to the wall, their hands tied behind their backs. A Revolutionary Guard brings two pieces of black fabric to blindfold them. Nasrin refuses to be blindfolded, but Shahla accepts. The Guard scorns: ‘You are afraid, huh?!’ Shahla says: ‘Of course not! I just don’t want to see my sister die.’ At this point, Nasrin asks to be blindfolded as well.
With deep emotion, Ladan Boroumand, an Iranian exile now living in Washington, D.C., tells me the story of the Ka’bi sisters in a recent interview.[i] It is only one of the thousands of stories documented by the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation for the Promotion of Human Rights and Democracy in Iran (ABF) in their Omid (“hope” in Farsi) memorial, an electronic database of human rights violations in Iran. Founded in April 2001 by Ladan and Roya Boroumand in memory of their father, the foundation went public in January 2006. The memorial is part of a larger project to generate public awareness of Iran’s human rights crimes. Such an awareness, ABF argues, is necessary to restore dignity to the victims of those crimes, in order to recapture the past, and to expose the true character of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in a look to the future. In a just society, Boroumand asserts, “state sovereignty should be limited by human rights.” She sees a fundamental tension between the single truth of politicized religion and the idea of human rights, which conceives of truth as “something you seek individually.” The “dignity of man,” Boroumand emphatically declares, should be the only public truth.
But let us go back to 1978 when Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi ruled Iran as a monarch. At that time, Boroumand was a university student in Paris and her father, Abdorrahman Boroumand, was a high-ranking member of the National Front, a democratic opposition party in Iran. Politically-minded and eager for change, Boroumand worked with a number of other Iranian students, led by the future first president of the Islamic Republic, Abolhassan Bani Sadr, translating Western press for the Ayatollah Khomeini, at that time a prominent religious leader spearheading the opposition to the Shah. Khomeini had arrived in Paris after being extradited from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq upon the Shah’s request. Boroumand describes the atmosphere at the time as “optimistic.” Few people were worried then, she remembers.
Of the many articles she translated, the one that struck her most was a piece by Maxime Rodinson criticizing the idea of an Islamic Republic. It was especially striking because of the contrast it presented with another piece she read—Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Hokumat-e Islami: Valiyat-e faqih (Government: Guardianship of the Jurist) — which argued for political control of Islamic jurists, those knowledgeable in the tenets of shari’ah law. When questioned about the book, Bani Sadr claimed that Khomeini had “evolved” since its publication in 1970. Boroumand, however, was skeptical. In her naïveté, as she says, she presented thirteen handwritten questions to Khomeini asking him how he intended to structure an Iranian government. At Khomeini’s Paris house, the questions were accepted by his son-in-law (it was all “very tribal,” Boroumand laughs) and taken in to the Ayatollah. The son-in-law soon returned to tell Boroumand that Khomeini would not answer the questions. She pressed him further, but got the same hostile response. It was then that Boroumand decided Khomeini was not a democrat and began to distance herself from his group of student followers. Looking back, she wishes she had not taken no for an answer. She describes her failure to press the group to define its true intentions as one of the greatest regrets of her life.
Meanwhile, Ms. Boroumand recalls, her father was back in Iran, an active member of the pro-democracy movement that advocated the reinstitution of the 1906 constitution. In January 1979, in an effort to establish a civilian government in place of the existing military one and to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy, one National Front leader, Dr. Shapur Bakhtiar, accepted the post of Prime Minister. Dr. Boroumand was sent by the National Front to Paris to speak to Khomeini about his plans for the future; all Khomeini would say was that they would know in time. Upon his return to Iran, Boroumand urged the National Front not to work with Khomeini, but the faction of the party that favored using the Ayatollah to mobilize support prevailed. Bakhtiar was expelled from the party and Boroumand resigned in protest, leaving for Paris.
On February 1, 1979, Khomeini flew to Tehran. A week later, Boroumand herself left for Iran. Ten days later, Bakhtiar’s government was overthrown. The revolution had officially begun. Upon her arrival, Boroumand observed that Iranian society was still quite peaceful, but that Khomeini was fomenting social tension by framing the revolution as a class conflict. It was in the context of his calls for the “downtrodden” to rise up against the “arrogant” that the first public execution took place, a week after the beginning of the revolution. At that moment, Boroumand says, she became a counterrevolutionary. When she expressed horror at the executions in conversation with Bani Sadr, he replied: “The people would have killed them.” “The people,” Boroumand echoes with contempt. The people. An abstract notion behind which totalitarianism can hide. The dehumanization of the individual in the name of the Islamic Republic.
A witness to that rapid dehumanization, Boroumand traveled the country for the next three months, interviewing middle-class students, lower-class workers, pro-democracy activists, Marxist-Leninists, the religious, and the non-religious about their initial experiences under the new regime. She speaks particularly movingly about the fate of Iranian women. Shortly after the revolution, hundreds of women protested the mandatory wearing of veils in a mass demonstration and were attacked by government troops wielding knives and clubs. In the following years, and to enforce the wearing of the veil, the police routinely threw acid in women’s faces on the streets and seized prostitutes from brothels, coercing them into becoming vigilantes who attacked and bit other women. More generally, the imprisonments and executions now documented by Omid had begun in earnest.
On May 1, 1979, Boroumand left Iran, certain that it would be a long time before she could go back. She has not returned since. In the early 1980s, Paris was the center of the Iranian opposition movement, and as all but a small group of Khomeini supporters were persecuted in Iran, multiple waves of exiles arrived there in the first few years. At the peak of the terror, in 1981 and 1982, several hundred people were executed a night. In 1982, working for the youth division of Bakhtiar’s pro-democracy National Movement of the Iranian Resistance, Boroumand helped write a paper entitled “Iran: In Defense of Human Rights.” The paper listed every known victim of the regime, without regard to background or party affiliation—a unique defense of universal human rights in an atmosphere of intense partisanship and deep distrust. It was that piece that formed the nucleus of what later became Omid.
On April 18, 1991, Abdorrahman Boroumand was stabbed to death by Iranian governmental agents in the lobby of his Paris apartment building. What had been a moral duty for Boroumand and her sister Roya, now became a personal duty. “Everything changed…in terms of suffering, everything,” Boroumand states with emotion. Three months later, on August 6, 1991, Iranian agents killed Bakhtiar as well.
As time passed, Boroumand became increasingly disenchanted with the opposition in Paris, sensing that it was out of touch with the Iranian people, with what was actually happening in the country. She began to rethink her role as a political exile, and the growth of the internet made possible her new mission. It was not, however, until she came to the United States in 1996 that she began to believe she could really do something. Her knowledge and passion were recognized by American journalists and scholars who encouraged her to work to protect human rights in Iran in a way she had never done before. That work culminated in the creation of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation.
Since ABF went public a little over a year ago, its website has had over two million hits. Founded on the belief that education and the dissemination of accurate information are of central importance to resistance and change, the Foundation declares on its website: “Historical truth and collective memory are the first victims of totalitarian regimes. With no memory, people grow morally and intellectually dependent on their rulers.” Boroumand believes that the Shah’s dictatorial regime cultivated a narrow mindset among Iranians, making them easy prey for totalitarian ideology, both pro-Soviet and, later, pro-Islamist. People who were students then, Boroumand asserts, “still cannot think for themselves.” But she has observed a greater openness in the younger generation, the generation to which she and ABF direct their message.
Omid serves as a personal memorial and as a collective search for truth, both about the past and about the present. It allows the victims’ families a chance to tell their stories, to feel less isolated. It also seeks to shame the Islamic Republic in the eyes of the world. The regime can deny ABF’s findings but, Boroumand repeatedly emphasizes, its standing is still damaged by such a “moral indictment.” The fact that most basic information about names and dates comes from official Iranian documents and newspapers, gives ABF immediate credibility. A full entry in Omid tells a victim’s story from multiple angles: the official account, the political party line, the international human rights report, and the personal testimony. Moreover, alongside each entry is a comprehensive list of the human rights violated in the particular case, with specific legal references. The website also features an anonymous form for the submission of individual stories or the correction of existing entries. It has received over four hundred unsolicited forms. According to Boroumand, however, convincing intimidated and bereaved individuals to provide information about their deceased relatives is a daunting task. Hence, the database remains a work in progress and the lack of information for many entries can be frustrating.
While the memorial seeks to wrest control of the truth from the hands of the Islamic Republic, the accompanying library offers tools with which to promote concrete change. The scope of the database, in both English and Farsi, is astounding and continues to be expanded. The library has collected all internationally adopted declarations and protocols regarding the natural rights of an individual, many of which are now available in Farsi for the first time. Another section discusses “The Idea of Democracy” and offers a compilation of theoretical and historical texts. Finally, the library presents collections particular to Iran, including human rights reports, individual testimonies and memoirs regarding human rights abuses, a history of democracy and pro-democracy movements in Iran, and documents on the current state of Iran’s pro-democracy movement.
A student of history and political sociology, Boroumand sees a weakness in Iranian political culture, which she believes is largely the result of many years of totalitarianism. She and her sister hope that their website will be a place for students around the world to do research on human rights, justice, Islam, the Iranian revolution and the Islamic Republic. But their work does not stop there. They have recently begun an ambitious project to translate the texts of classical liberal thinkers, such as John Locke, and more recent theorists, such as Vaclav Havel, into Farsi. They hope that their work will arm the Iranian opposition with words and ideas with which to better advance their cause.
Indeed, despite the profound sorrow and horror of what is an overwhelmingly difficult task, Boroumand has reason to hope. She knows that opponents of the Iranian regime are in fact using the website’s human rights instruments in their daily struggle for justice and equality.
One of the translated documents is the March 8, 1998 UN General Assembly Resolution 53/144 entitled “Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups, and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.” It speaks of the promotion and protection of human rights not only as a right but as a duty. By carefully documenting all the victims of the Islamic Republic of Iran, by uncovering the individuals behind the grim official statistics, by working tirelessly to educate an Iranian opposition, Boroumand and her sister Roya are fulfilling their duty to fight for human rights and freedom in their country. Their courageous struggle illustrates that despite the tremendous obstacles to the establishment of human rights in Iran, there remains an undiminished hope that reform can be achieved.
[i] This article is based on an interview conducted on 22 Mar. 2007 with Ladan Boroumand, co-founder of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation. The work of the foundation can be accessed at http://www.abfiran.org.