Our Story is One: Reflections on Freedom of Religion, Expression, Thought, Belief and Opinion

Iren Kolterman

Iren Koltermann is Managing Director of the eCaliberGroup, A Transformative Organizational Development Consultancy. 

Happy to be thriving in Canada’s culture committed to advancing Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Anti-Racism, Iren Koltermann invites us all on a journey of empathy. Reflect, remember and learn from the story of Ten Women of Shiraz who wanted nothing more in life than to practice freely their Bahá’í faith….

News of the massacre of Ten Women of Shiraz in 1983 hit me and my brother Farshid, like a ton of bricks.  Here we were, in Canada with our mother, struggling to find our footing as newcomers, when our father, still in Iran, told us about the tragedy. The women were from his hometown – Shiraz—a city known for its roses, poetry and fun-loving people.  The women— Bahá’ís, like us—were either related to us or acquainted with our family. One of them, Mona, was only 17 years old. She had written an essay about her freedom which was widely circulated. I realized that it could have happened to any of us: it could have happened to me. The massacre made one other thing perfectly clear: we could never return to the country of our birth. As siblings, we had planned to come to Canada short-term for our university education. Now the family’s focus had suddenly changed: we embarked on a quiet, clandestine mission to reunite with our father and settle in Canada. We had the privilege of being free, but there were choices to make: I could feel victimized and wallow in self-pity as a foreigner in an unfamiliar world or I could see myself as a champion of justice working for the betterment of mankind. . . .

This year marks the 44th year anniversary of my arrival, with my mother and brother, in Canada. Farshid and I were lucky to have secured student visas to continue our education.  My mom also considered herself fortunate to have gotten a temporary visitor’s visa to help us settle. Little did we know that this trip was the end of our close connection to Iran and the beginning of the journey to calling Canada home.

Soon after our arrival, the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis between the United States and Iran began. The Islamic Revolution that precipitated the crisis had resulted in regime change: the monarchical government of the Pahlavi dynasty was replaced by the theocracy of Ruhollah Khomeni. And the intensity and severity of persecution of Bahá’ís increased as the new government solidified its control.

I look back on those days with awe and admiration for my parents’ ability to adapt to new realities. They persevered against all the challenges of involuntary relocation, leaving behind all they knew, lack of extended family support, adjusting to a new language, a new country, lack of understanding of the very systems that were in place to support them, economic uncertainty, leaving behind all they had built. 

By equipping my brother and me with such values and principles as a firm belief in the oneness of humanity, love and understanding for everyone who crossed our path, they helped us turn our daily hardships into valuable life lessons. This helped us to develop a two-fold sense of our life’s purpose:

to grow spiritually and intellectually as individuals and to contribute to the transformation of our society.

I believe we all have to make this choice at times in our lives. Every one of us has something to contribute.

The artistic event organized by the Bahá’í communities of Hamilton, Oakville and Burlington on Sunday July 30 2023 to mark the 40th anniversary of the execution of the 10 Bahá’í Women of Shiraz by the Islamic Republic of Iran is our heartfelt effort to preserve the memory of these women and raise awareness of the value of freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, belief and opinion that we cherish as Canadians in our constitution. Awareness of people’s struggles around the world or in our neighbourhoods and communities gives us the opportunity to take small steps that can greatly enrich the lives of those around us. Awareness can help us gain a deeper level of understanding and empathy towards other people’s suffering. Once you scratch the surface you realize that even though some aspects of our realities may be different, truly Our Story is One.

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