EXCLUSIVE: How an Iranian beauty queen became a political refugee in the Philippines

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Former Miss Iran Intercontinental Bahareh Z. Bahari talks about her experience being stuck in airport limbo and her continuing human rights activism. Photo by FRANCIS LUMAHAN

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Bahareh Zare Bahari can remember the scent of apples.

Growing up as a young girl in the city of Mashhad in Iran, apples were almost always on her family’s dining table. Bahari used to play in the orchards of her father, a fruit merchant who owned 35 hectares of land. In the spring, the apple trees would flower, the blooms going from white to magenta to lilac until the fields became a sight to behold.

As a young girl, Bahari ran among those trees, the scent of wood and soil powerful in her memory. There was the sickly saccharine odor of apples that had fallen from the branches, their pulp open and rotting on the ground.

“Sometimes I think about my childhood and I remember the apples, the orchards, and the smell of the trees. Sometimes I didn’t want to go to the farm but I am glad my father took us. It was really like such a sweet dream now that I cannot believe that was my childhood,” she recalls.

In 2013, Bahari’s father died and the Iranian government seized their land. Her father was critical of the Islamic Republic president, Hassan Rouhani, and its Supreme Leader, the cleric Ali Khamenei. Bahari said this kind of property appropriation was common, way too common for those who ran afoul of the powers that be.

“That’s awful, but that’s what they do. And that was when I decided to study dentistry here [in the Philippines],” she explains.

A year after she lost her father, Bahari joined hundreds of Iranian nationals who enrolled in dentistry, pharmacy, and medicine programs in the Philippines. She was accepted in a school in Pangasinan and planned to graduate early before migrating to Canada or somewhere in the West.

While earning her degree in as a doctor of dental medicine, Bahari joined three beauty pageants, did some modelling and TV work. On October 17, 2019, she was returning to Manila from a vacation in Dubai when Bahari found herself stuck at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), about to be deported back to Tehran.

An Interpol Red Notice had flagged her and she was going to be sent to the Iranian capital to face charges that were not entirely revealed. The Red Notice only said the charges were related to an unspecified crime in Tehran sometime in early 2018.

But Bahari said she had not gone back to Iran since she left in 2014. A National Bureau of Investigation document dated December 2019 also stated that she had no criminal record in the Philippines.

Bahari said all this pressure stemmed from her activism as a women’s rights advocate when she was still living in Iran. She made headlines on January 27, 2018 at the Miss Intercontinental beauty pageant at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City where she represented her country.

During the national costume segment, Bahari came out waving a poster of Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s former crown prince and prominent critic of the current leadership in her country who now lives in exile. Her skirt was emblazoned with the former Iranian flag that bore the Lion and Sun, symbols of the pro-democracy government in the 1970s.

Bahari said she was receiving threatening messages on her phone and social media from anonymous people. An official of the Iranian embassy in Manila also told her she had to come in for questioning.

In November, Bahari was finally granted the status of a political refugee under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. With that, the 21-year-old Iranian will not be able to go home again. Photo by FRANCIS LUMAHAN

It is well-known that women’s rights are severely restricted in modern-day Iran, one of the most powerful countries in the Middle East. The human rights situation in that country is spotty at best, especially for women. Studies show that many Iranian women, although they live under a conservative Islamist clerical state (where there there is forced veiling of women, sex segregation, and extreme forms of legal and practical discrimination) are highly-educated.

Iranian women had been arrested for publicly speaking out in favor of equal rights. Bahari was one of these free speech advocates, coming out on YouTube and social media against these suppressive practices in her country where a controversial Facebook post could land her in jail.

On October 17, the long reach of the regime almost had Bahari in its grasp as she was barred from entering the Philippines. But the beauty queen fought back, flailing and making a scene to save herself as Immigration officers tried to force her to board an airline flight to Tehran. It worked. She was eventually placed in a holding area with a mattress where her 21-day ordeal began, under constant fear of being forced back to Iran to face jail time of up to 20 years.

She rallied her supporters, sought out cause-oriented groups for legal help, and leveraged media attention as she applied for asylum. These included a #SaveBahari movement on Twitter, and messages of encouragement from detained Senator Leila De Lima and even Iranian-American Hollywood actor Nazanin Boniadi.

In a statement, Nicholas Bequelin of Amnesty International East and Southeast Asia, urged Philippine authorities not to deport Bahari.

“If the Philippines authorities send her to Iran she risks arrest, torture and other ill-treatment, and unfair trial and imprisonment,” he pleaded.

In November, Bahari was finally granted the status of a political refugee under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. With that, the 21-year-old Iranian will not be able to go home again.

CNN Philippines Life recently caught up with Bahari to reflect on her experience at the airport, her continuing activism for the rights of her people, and her thoughts on modern Iranian culture. Her answers have only been edited for clarity and grammar, since she is not a fluent English speaker.

You made headlines when you held up the old Iranian flag and the picture of Reza Pahlavi’s face at the Miss Intercontinental pageant. Why did you decide to do that?

With the picture of Pahlavi, I tried to send an Iranian message to the world. I’m glad I did that. With that little bit, I was able to make loud what has been happening in my country. But I did that because Reza Pahlavi was instrumental in my stepping out of the frame and being able to see the whole picture.

Looking back on your weeks stuck at the NAIA Terminal 3, do you feel it was a necessary cost of your activism?

My friends ask me, what is the price of your being an activist? Why do it? Because I am a free woman that cannot be controlled. I am an unbreakable woman. With my experience at the airport I proved to myself that I was stronger than what happened. I always motivate myself when faced with difficulties. I just close my eyes and think about what comes after. Not even bad airline food can keep me down, which is what I ate during my weeks in there.

"The women back home always tell me I am their idol and they admire me for being in pageants and still being an activist. No, I admire them. They are staying there, but I am out. I can see the whole picture now."

What would have happened to you had you been extradited?

If I had gone back, first thing they would do is arrest me and put me in jail. The punishment for speaking out in Iran is arrest and detention. They’ll call your family and ask them to pay to get you out. If they have money to pay, they will release you. If not, you spend time in jail. If you repeat an offense, they take something from you, like the opportunity to study or work.

If I had been deported, men will fall in line at the jail. One by one, they will rape me. This is normal in an Iranian prison. Everybody in Iran knows that. Another normal thing is to remove my nails. First, they rape you over and over, then they torture you, and then they kill you. I am not worried about the torture or the death, but I don’t want to be raped. I cannot accept it.

It must not have been easy growing up as a girl in Iran. How did your decision to go into activism start?

Growing up in Iran as a girl is very hard. For me especially since I have five brothers. When I was a kid they were very nice but when I grew up, they wanted me to cover my body. Cover it, cover it. Don’t be pretty. Don’t be sexy. Don’t try to be attractive or get the attention of the guys on the street.

School in Iran is unimaginable for non-Muslim foreigners. You start studying at seven years old and everything is connected to Islam. When you go to school, you need to wear a hijab and the long dress called manteau (also called a chador), and only until you get home are you free to wear what you want.

Towards the end of my time at the university, something happened. I was watching international TV that was forbidden on the internet, with Rezha Pahlavi speaking. This man on the video was talking about Islam and I paid attention. He said: “Women, you are not slaves!” And so I thought, “Am I a slave? What did he mean? Is the government using me as a slave?” A light bulb turned on in my brain.

Those foreign materials are not allowed in Iran, right. How did you continue your search for more forbidden information?

Thank God for VPN. I read and watched and studied many things. After watching state-sponsored local TV, I started to search the internet through VPN and read a lot of forbidden books in Iran.

I found and read Salman Rushdie. I started with his book "The Satanic Verses." It was a great book, because in Iran they said all of Rushdie’s books were forbidden and everyone who reads it will be executed and go to hell.

By then. I had started modelling but it was all in secret. None of my brothers knew. Only my mom knew. I also did not use my name, I just used another name: Zarah. My hair was really wavy and curly and I was blonde.

"What gives me strength is thinking that freedom is close, thinking that maybe tomorrow Iran is going to be free," says Bahari. "Then I can go home, I can go back to my country." Photo by FRANCIS LUMAHAN

You also put up a school for young women, a secular school?

Yes, because after I graduated with a Bachelors and then a Masters in Persian Literature, I very soon also became president of a school where I started to teach.

I found that the students really loved me. It’s the best feeling when you can influence young people for the good. So I thought I wanted to do it on my own. Eventually I set up a private school named Yegena, which in Persian means “One.” I would have more freedom to teach what I wanted.

It was hard to open my own school because I was very young. but I did it with the help of my father. My father owned 35 hectares of an apple farm. He was rich. But I started to work at 17 because I wanted to be independent. It was only because of my father’s support that I was able to open a school. Everybody asked me why I was working when my father was rich. I didn’t want to be useless and do nothing.

How was your school different from the usual religious madrasa?

I did not teach the Quran since all the schools are teaching that. I started teaching English, which is forbidden. But I had English instructors come and teach the girls.

First year, I just had 12 students and I had already spent a lot of money for electricity and infrastructure. Then in my second year, it became 300 students. Turned out those 12 students were happy with me. They brought their sisters and their cousins and their friends.

My system at school was if you come to class you must remove your hijab. You must be as comfortable here as you are at home. No manteau long dress either. They loved that and they were very happy. I tried to find their talents and encourage those. Eventually some of my students became top pupils in Iran. It was a great time. I felt I was successful.

The closure of your school must have been hard.

It started to come down when somebody reported us to the government and they called me in. It was something like the equivalent of CHED here. They said: “We have found out you aren’t using a photo of the Khomeini in your school.” I lied and said well, I didn’t know that was required.

But then they asked “Why aren’t you teaching the Koran?” I didn’t know how they knew that. Obviously, somebody told on us. And the final one was “Why aren’t you making the girls wear hijab inside your school and why aren’t you or your teachers wearing one in there?” Those I had no answer to and so in 2014 they closed down my school.

I was in love with teaching and in love with the kids. It was very hard for me to accept, especially since in 2013, my father had just died.

So they closed my school after two years of operation. It was a very dark time for me. The education officials also told me too that I would not be able to work in any other job because of what I had done. Which means I didn’t have a future there.

After that, I came to the Philippines. I just decided to leave Iran.

You came here to study dentistry but you also were able to work as a model and join beauty pageants. How did you find living in the Philippines?

The Philippines was like my second home for six years now. I came here with a tourist visa. It was really good when I started studying since I wanted to make a new start. Because I was in the Philippines I thought they could not do anything to me here. Even when they told me about getting deported after Miss Intercontinental, I never thought they would do it.

I started working here as a model with appearances on ABS-CBN and GMA shows. The beauty competitions were hard to get into because in Iran there is no national director, unlike here. But when I got to a local Miss Persian pageant in Iran and won, I talked to the Tajikistan national director of the pageant who was Persian. She said let’s get you into Miss Globe. So I went to China for that and then after, it was Miss Intercontinental. After Miss Globe, I learned how to contact the people of these different pageants how to join and qualify.

By then I thought to myself, here is a way to put a spotlight on my people and our problems. I really didn’t like the pageant process but it was a way to better represent Iran to the world.

"Growing up in Iran as a girl is very hard. For me especially since I have five brothers. When I was a kid they were very nice but when I grew up, they wanted me to cover my body. Cover it, cover it. Don’t be pretty. Don’t be sexy. Don’t try to be attractive or get the attention of the guys on the street."

You saw beauty pageant competitions as another platform for your activism?

I have always worked with my heart and I work for Iranian women. I try to be the voice of those mothers who lost their children to this regime. See, I was also supposed to be in Miss Universe in Georgia, but I was stuck at the airport.

The women back home always tell me I am their idol and they admire me for being in pageants and still being an activist. No, I admire them. They are staying there, but I am out. I can see the whole picture now, everything. But I needed to step out to see it. While they are still inside, they are braver than I am.

There are many women in Iran whose basic civil rights are not secure, but this is also obviously a very personal advocacy for you.

One of the worst cases I can tell you about was when I was 13. My friend’s name was Zaharah, I had known her for four years, and we would sit beside each other. Zaharah had a boyfriend. It was our secret, nobody else knew. It wasn’t a real relationship, just through letters. It was puppy love. She came to me one day, crying.

Her father found out that she had a boyfriend and her father had raped her. She was crying a lot. After two days she didn’t come to school and after three days our teacher said that she had died. She had finished herself. Suicide. She had jumped. Zaharah’s father had said that if she had just wanted sex, then he would be the one to give it to her. We have a lot of cases like that.

Now that you have been granted asylum as a political refugee and Iran was recently prominent in the headlines as well, do you feel it is safe here enough for you to make a life for yourself?

Many haters attack me until now. They say to me “you’re awful, you’re like garbage, you are very bad, you’re not a woman.” I don’t think it is safe for me since Iran’s regime has links to terror groups here, but I plan to graduate with a dentistry degree first. Afterwards, I can go somewhere else that is safe. If I could safely work here, I would like to stay. It would be easier to make a life here as an immigrant rather than start somewhere else again from zero.

The way you’ve handled what you’ve experienced is surely inspiring not only to Iranian women but other girls who need to draw strength for their own struggles for basic civil rights.

What gives me strength is thinking that freedom is close, thinking that maybe tomorrow Iran is going to be free. Then I can go home, I can go back to my country. I can see my family. That would be special, especially for those who have been outside for 40 years and cannot go back. That is our dream.