An inmate peers from behind a wall as a guard walks by in the infamous Evin jail. Photo: Getty
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For the Bahá'ís imprisoned in Iran, freedom and human rights seem remote

Seven Bahá'ís – members of Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, persecuted by the government for decades – have now spent six years in prison for practising their religion.

It has been a month of contrasts, frankly of extremes.

May 2014 marked six years since seven adults were taken from their homes and thrown into the notorious Evin prison in Iran. One is the mother of a dear friend whose gifts are treasured in my home. 

Who are these prisoners? The charges against the seven included espionage and propaganda against the Islamic order. They are mothers and fathers, one is a school principal, another an agricultural engineer, a businessman, a psychologist. What matters though is that they are Bahá'ís, members of the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority and persecuted by the government for decades. The fabricated charges against them, the illegal closed trial that led to a twenty-year jail sentence – the longest given to any prisoners of conscience in the country – were all set up to punish them for their role in coordinating the affairs of the Bahá'ís in Iran, affairs which are numerous in a religious community that operates through such networks of elected and appointed lay people.

The most moving protest on this anniversary was the large group of prominent Iranians within Iran that risked life and limb to stand up against the unjust imprisonment of the seven by visiting their family members. This group included human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh – joint winner of the 2012 Sakharov Prize honoring those who have dedicated their lives to the defence of human rights and freedom of thought – and Ayatollah Masumi Tehrani, a senior Muslim cleric who recently gifted a piece of art to the Bahá'ís as an expression of hope for a future Iran committed to respect for the human rights of all.

There remains, however, a very sharp contrast between this cohesion amongst Iranian defenders of human rights and the actions of the Iranian authorities. When a European Parliament delegation visited Tehran last December for the first time in six years, Iran angrily criticised them for “secretly” meeting with so-called seditionists including Sotoudeh. When the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton visited Iran in March, she too was harshly criticised for meeting with a group of leading Iranian women activists, including Sotoudeh. A European Parliament resolution on 3 April 2014 condemning Iran’s “continued, systematic violation of fundamental rights” led to Iran’s Parliament cancelling a planned visit with EU parliamentarians.

As calls for respect of human rights were being heard from Iran, Iran’s revolutionary guards proceeded with their latest attempt at oppression by excavating a historically important Bahá'í cemetery in Shiraz, the southern Iranian city of my birth. Some 950 graves of Bahá'ís that include those of 10 women – the youngest just 17 – executed for refusing to forcibly deny their religious belief, now risk being destroyed forever. Many thousands from around the world will forever be denied the possibility of remembering the 10 Bahá'í women at their resting place. Thousands of family members will be denied the basic dignity of saying prayers for their dead and my daughters will never be able to see the graves of their great-grandparents.

Which of these shall I share with my 8 and 11 year old? The profound joy of principled camaraderie amongst Iranian upholders of justice, or the attack on their dead ancestors? I’ve shared both, trusting that they will gain an insight into the choice we all ultimately face of sacrificing for the greater good or sinking to the depths of hatred. All this, with patient optimism that the former is conquering the latter and the future of Iran is bright.

Dr Nazila Ghanea is Assistant Professor of International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford and serves as a member of the OSCE advisory panel on freedom of religion or belief. She writes this piece in her personal capacity

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We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.