For the past 35 years, Manda Zand-Ervin has been crusading on behalf of 77 million Iranians – an entire society – “held hostage” by a fanatical mullah regime that has denied the Iranian people their basic freedoms.
As documented by human rights groups, widespread arrests, tortures and executions have been carried out against journalists and dissidents who speak out in the name of civil rights, women’s rights, and even religious rights. Iran hangs more people per capita than any other country in the world; the majority have no access to a lawyer or jury. Under the allegedly “moderate” President Rouhani, 687 Iranians were executed in 2013, with the rate rapidly rising. “The Iranian people have been terrorized into submission,” says Manda.
She speaks from experience.
In 1979, when the Islamic Revolution brought the Ayatollah Khomeini into power – along with his violent, fanatical brand of Islam – the regime began “eliminating” all existing political and educational leadership. At the time, Manda – with an MBA from NYU – was overseeing Iran’s imports and exports as Managing Director of the Customs Administration.
“My father told me: ‘They are coming after you. You have to leave,’” Manda told Aish.com. “But I said, ‘I haven’t done anything wrong – why would they kill me?’”
Manda started feeling the heat when her uncle, a general in the Iranian Army, returned from Japan on government business and was promptly arrested and executed - though he likewise said, “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“The Ayatollah required no reason to eliminate people.”
“The Ayatollah required no reason to eliminate people,” Manda says. “The official accusation was ‘betraying the Islamic regime and warring against God.’”
As arrests and executions continued apace, Manda finally got the message. A high-ranking government official called her to his office and warned: “Now is a good time to take a long vacation.”
Manda grabbed the first flight out of Iran for herself and teenage daughter, Banafsheh. Flying to Frankfort, they got out just in time. Less than 24 hours later, the Ayatollah’s paramilitary force went to Manda’s parents’ home to arrest her.
A few months later, Manda and Banafsheh came to United States as political refugees and became U.S. citizens.
Meanwhile, Manda’s friends back in Iran wrote tearful letters of having not seen the truth in time.
Fight for Women’s Rights
For a Western world that cares so deeply about human rights, Manda is at a loss to explain the general silence about the fate of Iran’s 77 million citizens. “Iranians do not want the regime in power,” she says. “They are suffering and are desperate for moral support from the West.”
Manda’s primary focus these days is women’s rights in Iran. Since 1979, women have been forced to wear veils, and discrimination against women is woven into the fabric of Iranian society through a set of draconian laws:
- The value of a woman’s life is half that of a man.
- Women cannot work, go to school, or even leave the house without her husband’s permission.
- Women do not receive custody of their children: Not only in the event of divorce, but also widowed mothers lose custody to the family of the deceased husband.
- The age of criminal responsibility is 15 for boys and 9 for girls.
“The 1979 revolution was supposed to bring more democracy and political freedom to Iran,” says Manda. “But the Ayatollah hijacked our Western-friendly and progressive nation, turning it into a theocracy with zero political freedom. In one fell swoop, my homeland left the 20th century and turned backward to 7th century Arabia.”
What makes this especially painful, Manda says, is Iran’s long tradition of human rights. Going back 2,500 years, Cyrus the Great operated the world’s largest empire, based on a declaration of human rights that predates the Magna Carta by 1,700 years and was adopted by Jefferson and Franklin as a foundation of the U.S. Constitution.
“The situation in Iran gets worse every day,” Manda says. “Women and girls are treated like pieces of property, forced into marriage at extremely young ages. (The law sanctions marriage of girls under 13.) In other Muslim countries, girls suffer from female genital mutilation. Not to mention the honor killings.”
Iranian prisoners – women included - are often tortured and hanged, as depicted in the gruesome 2009 film, “The Stoning of Soraya M.” “This film needs to be seen by everyone turning a blind eye to the barbarism of the Iranian regime,” Manda says.
Today Manda lives in suburban Washington DC where, as founder and president of the Alliance of Iranian Women, she works at the UN and on Capitol Hill fighting for human rights in Iran. In one instance she almost single-handedly garnered support to pass a U.S. Senate Resolution on women’s rights in Iran.
“In this globalized world, how can powerful women remain so indifferent toward Iranian women trying to take back their place among the respected people in the world?” Manda exclaims. “With great hypocrisy, they utter not one word of support.”
Manda recently completed writing, “The Ladies Secret Society,” a book named for the 20th century group that fought for women’s rights in Iran. She hopes the book will inform the Western public – in particular the intellectuals – whom she says “have no idea who the Iranian people are.”
Manda’s fight has never been easy. In April 2014, in an act of gross hypocrisy, Iran won a seat on the United Nations Women’s Rights Commission, the principle global body dedicated to protecting women’s rights. It is a travesty that one commentator compared to “naming the arsonists as firefighters.”
Manda’s 1979 escape partner, daughter Banafsheh, has taken up a parallel track to promoting Iranian human rights. "By example, my mom inspired me to be thoughtful and true-blue, independent, creative and focused,” she says.
Twenty-plus years ago, Banafsheh was an aspiring filmmaker, working at HBO's documentary department and doing independent projects. She was working on a documentary on the “Iranian Serial Murders” of writers, intellectuals and political activists who had criticized the Islamic Republic – then were assassinated following the issuing of fatwas against them.
“I was horrified by the viciousness of these murders,” Banafsheh says of the car crashes, stabbings, shootings and lethal injections. Many of the victims were friends of her father, the renowned journalist Siamak Pourzand, whose lofty media perch made him the top promoter of modernization in Iran.
“When the extremists seized power in 1979, my father took it upon himself to stay behind as a guardian of the Iranian identity and as a modernist,” says Banafsheh. “He was anathema to the autocratic mullahs: a progressive and worldly individualist who believed in the spirit of free inquiry. Yet here he was, bravely living in a conformist state theocracy, telling the truth to all who would hear.”
Pourzand was arrested several times and served long months in prison. Then, after using a primitive cell-phone to live broadcast the slaughter of two Iranian intellectuals in their own home, Pourzand was kidnapped in Tehran.
“It was the fourth time in 22 years that the regime had actively harassed him,” Banafsheh told Aish.com. “I remember the moment so clearly. I was living in New York and got a call from my uncle who broke the news. Right after I hung up, I started calling journalists and Capitol Hill contacts hoping to influence his plight.”
The unfortunate end of the story is that in 2011, Pourzand – under house arrest at his modest apartment in Tehran – was mysteriously thrown from a sixth floor balcony.
“In a way, it was a final stand against an Iranian regime that did everything to break his spirit,” Banafsheh says.
Profoundly, this further ignited Banafsheh’s activist spirit. The torch was passed and she dedicated herself to daring to speak the truth – narrating the 2012 Internet video, “Set the Red Line,” which presented a realistic, nonviolent plan for stopping Iran’s nuclear program.
Banafsheh bemoans the many social ills in Iran, where per capita income is one-quarter of what it was before the revolution. Iran’s middle class is practically destroyed, with people suffering huge social problems that never get reported in the media.
“The condition of the Iranian proletariat is so painful,” Banafsheh says. “Regular housewives turn to prostitution just to feed their families; other parents sell their kidneys. Iran suffers from an HIV-AIDS epidemic, and has the highest number of drug addicts per capita in the world – thanks in large part to lucrative drug-trafficking promulgated by the regime itself.”
Iran, Israel & the Jews
Current diplomatic positions between Israel and Iran are at polar opposites, with the Iranian regime having vowed to “wipe Israel from the map.”
It wasn’t always the case. Banafsheh's childhood memories are of a healthy Jewish community in Iran prior to the revolution. “I have Iranian Jewish friends whom I’ve known since childhood,” she says, recalling as well growing up with the daughter of the Israeli ambassador to Iran. “We would go to their house on Jewish holidays and celebrate together.”
Iranians are angry that resources are used not to build, but to destroy.
Do the majority of Iranians really harbor no animosity toward Israel?
“Young Iranians don’t want anything to do with the fanatics and their nuclear bombs,” Manda says. “Iranians want to live modern lives as part of the international community, and are angry that the country’s resources are being used not to build, but to destroy.”
World leaders have promised to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Yet given that the use of military force is a last resort, what possible option is available to stop Iran’s march toward nuclearization?
Banafsheh points to the economic sanctions which forced Iran to the negotiating table. "Though the sanctions impose hardship on the Iranian people, they are willing to endure it for the sake of disempowering the regime and bringing Iran back into the community of nations,” she says, adding that should the current 6-month negotiating period fail to produce a final result, harsher sanctions should be immediately applied.
“Whether through diplomatic pressure or regime change, one way or another the Iranian people want this reign of terror to end,” she says.
The Iranian activist spirit awakened in 1999 with the Tehran University student uprising. This seminal event convinced many Iranians – and other human rights’ activists around the world – that the Iranian people could successfully organize and overthrow the Ayatollah’s regime.
“Common sense tells us that the best weapon against the Iranian regime is the Iranian people,” says Banafsheh. “If you want a country to bring freedom to a fascist regime, you must do everything to help see the success of its self-determinant movement.”
In subsequent years, groups of workers, women and journalists have engaged in protests inside Iran. “Unfortunately the international press does not cover these protests,” says Banafsheh.
In the wake of the 2009 “election” of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the various factions united in their common desire to have the Mullahs replaced. Protests crowds estimated at 3 million took to the streets in support of the “Green Movement.” They were met with lethal force; dozens of protesters and bystanders were gunned down.
“The people of Iran gave their blood to shout to the world their demand to be freed from this regime,” Banafsheh explains. “They need to know that the free world is standing behind them. Unfortunately most world leaders have failed to supply proper moral support.”
Banafsheh is at a loss to explain why so many Americans fail to recognize the threat Iran poses as well to the West. In 1979, Iranian supporters of the Ayatollah stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. In 1983, the Iranians (through their proxy Hezbollah) killed 231 U.S. Marines in Beirut. In recent years the worst global terror attacks are linked to Iran.
“The Ayatollah associates the values of human rights and liberty with the United States, which he has nicknamed the ‘Great Satan’ to be destroyed. ‘Death to America’ is a common cry at government-supported rallies,” she says.
The issues of human rights and Iran’s nuclear program are closely linked, Banafsheh says, raising her voice in appeal. “Where are the so-called human rights organizations, protesting the brutal oppression of millions of non-radical Muslims in Iran? Don’t they understand that by Iran treating their own people this way, we see how the regime will act toward others – its Mideast neighbors, Europe and the U.S. – only this time with nuclear weapons to back them up?”
Banafsheh’s voice quakes as she implores: “We need to wake up before it’s too late.”