By Maryam Dehkordi
September 24, 2020
The Mandaeans are one of the least-known ethnoreligious groups in Iran, although their culture and belief system dates back almost 2,000 years. They are not recognized under the laws of the Islamic Republic, cannot register for services under their Mandaean names, and cannot work or attend university if they openly state they are Mandaean. Tired of the pressure and an enforced dual identity, many Mandaean Iranians have left their ancestral home and emigrated. This is one of their stories.
“It was a stressful decision, to go. In those days, a, voice in my head would ask me a hundred times a day: ‘Why did you decide to give up everything?’
“The answer was not clear to me. It came about because of a series of events, from the age of about 10 until the day I decided to emigrate at the age of 30. The most important reason, though, was that I’d grown tired of hiding my real self.”
Twelve years ago, the narrator of these words was a colleague of mine. A tall, capable and eloquent woman, she was the designer of ICT Olympiad questions in Iran, repeatedly selected as one of the best computer software instructors in Khuzestan province, and a brilliant postgraduate trainer. She loved her profession so much that I never noticed the shadow of tiredness on her face during those long, busy hours of teaching.
But suddenly, she disappeared. She lost contact with all her former colleagues and it was some years before I tracked her down on social media. She had left Iran for good and emigrated to the United States.
For her discussion with IranWire, this woman has asked to go by the pseudonym Shirin. She has a Mandaean name, forbidden in her homeland, that she was never able to use. Inevitably from birth, one of the “authorized” names in the Iranian civil registry was chosen for her instead.
“Let me start,” Shirin tells IranWire, “with this naming. Naming is the starting point for discrimination against Mandaeans and perhaps, many other religious minorities.
“Most of us have two names: the name that is registered and written on our identity card, which our parents have been forced to select, and the name that is written for us in the religious books and family genealogies: a strange name that no one but acquaintances will ever called us by, outside the secure walls of the house.”
The Mandaeans are followers of one of the oldest religions in the world: one dating back to the early centuries CE. Their gnostic religion, perhaps the last that survives from antiquity, reveres the Biblical figures of Adam, Abel, Noah and John the Baptist and was probably the first in history to practice baptism. Mandaeans are thought to have originated in southern Mesopotamia and thousands live today in southwestern Iran, specifically in Khuzestan and along the Karun River.
“The Mandaean religion is mentioned in the Quran as Sabe’ein,” says Shirin, “in verse 17 of Surah Al-Haj and verse 69 of Surah Al-Ma’idah. Nevertheless, the Mandaean religion has never been recognized in the Islamic Republic, although we are known as the People of the Book.
“In Iran, my husband and I both had to declare our religion as Twelver Shia Muslim on leaving high school, in order to go to university. I knew the Qur’an better than my Muslim friends because I was so afraid during my years of study that I could be deprived of education [without it].”
Followers of Mandaeism – or the Sabe’eins – have never once had a representative in the Iranian parliament because, unlike Christianity and Judaism, theirs is not a constitutionally-recognized minority religion. Abuse of their rights is widely ignored in Iran. When in 2002 the US State Department granted Iranian Mandaeans protective refugee status, many decided to emigrate there.
“My husband is a doctor but could never have practised in Iran,” says Shirin. “I have a degree in computer science, but in all the years I worked as a teacher and in all those years of study, both I and my peers kept our religion a secret.”
Mandaean Children are Deprived of a Childhood
Shirin has bitter memories of the years in which she had to hide her religious beliefs in her homeland, which started when she was small. “I remember when I was in third grade,” she says, “my parents went to the provinces to attend the funeral of an acquaintance, and my grandfather was supposed to pick me up from school. The whole of that day in school, I was trying to plan how I could get myself over to him without anyone seeing us, because way my grandfather dressed was in keeping with Mandaean style and tradition. He had a long beard, and wore a turban and a long white robe, and his appearance would attract attention.”
That night, Shirin was so worried that she developed a fever. “I cried a lot and explained to my mother what had happened,” she says. “My mother hugged me and explained my grandfather’s clothing was called thawb, and is also worn by Arabs. But even though I was only a child, I’d also noticed the differences between Mandaeans and Arab men. The beard and hair style, and the shape of their turbans, were different, and my mother later told me that one that day, one more concern was added to her list of concerns. She did not expect this level of precision and sensitivity from a nine-year-old girl. She said to me, ‘That day, I understood that you were not having a childhood’.”
Many of Iran’s Mandaeans live in a specific neighborhood lose to the Karun River. Shirin’s husband came from a prominent Mandaean family in Ahvaz, and his father had grown up with Shirin’s. She married her husband in 2005 and, she says, “This was where our new story began.”
“I Wanted to be Myself”
On applying to teach at a technical college, Shirin was first asked by the principal to obtain an official coaching card. “We could only apply for employment if we introduced ourselves as Shiites. I did not want to do this after graduation; I wanted to be myself.
“It was clear to me that I would lose some advantages by doing this. The coaching test had a practical element that included presenting the curriculum materials, and the way I did it was so popular with the technical and professional authorities at the time that they asked me to join the organization.”
When Shirin told the authorities that she was Mandaean, they immediately backtracked on the offer of formal employment. Instead, she worked with them for almost four years on a freelance basis. “I was full of passion and energy,” she said. “They didn’t treat me badly at all, but everything was temporary; there was no insurance, no benefits, no bonuses. I was paid only for the number of hours I taught, while my co-workers would receive training courses to improve their skills and annual New Year bonuses, and nobody bothered them.”
During this period, Shirin says, she was called to the organization’s security office on several occasions. “I wore simple clothes. But the guards, realizing that I was from a minority group, summoned me every few months on a pretext. Their attitude was always respectful; they encouraged me to convert to Islam. I even remember once they gave me a collection of [Shia cleric] Motahhari’s works and an exquisite Qur’an, which I gave as a wedding gift to a good Muslim friend of mine.”
Dreams of Returning to a Freer Iran
By 2007, Shirin’s husband had finished his studies in general medicine and wanted to specialize in paediatrics. To do so, he had to take another exam. “One day,” Shirin says, “as we were talking, I said, ‘I’m tired of the double standard. Let’s leave Iran so we are no longer bound by this; let’s leave before we get caught pretending to be other people’. My husband’s uncle had emigrated to the United States through the US lottery program in 2002, along with his family. We decided to consult with them.
“He said we could apply for asylum. At that time, religious minorities such as Baha’is and Mandaeans could be relocated in Europe or the United States through the United Nations. But my husband and I, because of our families, decided to take a different path out of the country so that it might be possible to return if we wanted to visit them.”
Twelve months later, Shirin was accepted by the University of San Antonio in Texas to pursue a master’s degree in computer science. Her husband also received a scholarship to study genetics at another university in the same state.
“One grey winter day in late January 2009,” Shirin says, ”we left our hometown for an indefinite period of time. Since then, my husband has gone back to Iran once, to visit his parents and attend the funeral of his elder uncle. But I never wanted to go back. I have seen my family several times outside of Iran and the United States, but returning to Iran will only be possible when I can be myself.”