The account of the martyrdom of Perpetua in Christianity in 203 C.E. and that of the women of the Bahá'í faith in revolutionary Iran in the early 1980's portray a striking similarity of experience despite their separation by hundreds of years and distinct cultures. Enduring strains on their sex roles as mothers and daughters, these women persevered in their spirituality despite tremendous pressures placed on them by their families (often inadvertently) and their oppressors. These martyrs in different faiths and times each bear witness to the universal nature of the experience of martyrdom for women, and to one and the same Spirit who relieved their suffering with the promise of victory and pain with the assurance of reward.
Thought to be the earliest writing from a Christian woman, the account of Perpetua's struggle is the first written account by a martyr of martyrdom, allowing the physical, spiritual and emotional aspects of such an ordeal to be seen for the first time. A new mother and recent convert, Perpetua was 22 years old when she was arrested for refusing to pay tribute to the Roman Emperor, Septimus Servius or accepting his gods. Arrested with her servant who was eight months pregnant, Felicity, and three catechumens, she kept a diary while in prison in order that others might later find meaning in her experiences to help them interpret their own faith. The account traces Perpetua's steps from her arrest to her trial and, finally, her execution on the Emperor's birthday.
Upon her arrest, Perpetua first acknowledged the impact her grief-stricken father had on her: "He alone of all my kin would be unhappy to see me suffer"(Chadwick, 113). Perpetua's father was tormented by her refusal to renounce her faith in order to live and frequently came to visit her in prison, begging her not to hurt her family (as it was considered disgraceful to die or protest in a non-violent fashion). Perpetua frequently stated how she was sorry for his old age and felt helpless as she was unwilling to renounce her faith and was joyful at the prospects of dying for it, regardless of how much pain it brought her or her father. Another aspect of Perpetua's emotional distress was caused by her maternal need for her new-born child. She became very ill in prison with fear of the darkness of her cell and worry for her child's welfare and was only appeased when the child was brought to stay with her in the jail so that it may nurse. Her father constantly pleaded with her to have mercy on her child in attempt to persuade her to recant her faith. When her father finally refused to bring Perpetua her child to nurse, her account states that "the baby had no further desire for the breast, nor did I suffer any inflammation; and so I was relieved of any anxiety for my child and of any discomfort in my breasts" (Chadwick 115). Relieved of this pain and recognizing that she is unable to ease her father's suffering, Perpetua joyfully anticipated the opportunity to suffer and die for her faith.
Throughout her trials, Perpetua stated cause for joy in suffering and vividly described the spiritual nature of her experience as seen in her visions and the agape on the eve of her execution. While in prison, Perpetua received four visions that confirmed her fate. The first vision involved Perpetua climbing a ladder into the sky. The ladder itself was strung with swords, knives and hooks and guarded by a giant dragon. In her vision, Perpetua is able to overcome these obstacles and is greeted at the top of the ladder by an old man in white surrounded by hundreds of others also robed in white. The old man welcomed her and gave her a mouthful of sweet milk he had just milked from a lamb. As she drank the milk the crowd around the man said "Amen" and Perpetua awoke from her dream state- sweetness still in her mouth. This vision confirmed for her the fact that she would have to go through many trials, but, with Jesus' help, would achieve ultimate victory. The second vision she had regarded the torment of the soul of her dead brother and persuaded her to begin to pray diligently for his rest. Once moved from the prison to the dungeon beneath the arena on which she was to be executed, Perpetua received another vision that, because of her prayers, the torment of her dead brother was relieved, also confirming her martyrdom. The final vision Perpetua received in a dream only three days before her execution. In this vision she was brought into the arena in order to do battle with a ferocious Eqyptian. Perpetua, upon being disrobed in order to be rubbed down with oils for the battle, saw that her body had been transformed into that of a man. She then did battle against the Eqyptian, literally rising above him and crushing his head between her hands. This assured Perpetua of her death and final victory over her oppression. The night before the execution, Perpetua and her friends to be martyred took part in their last meal before death. Surrounded by a gaping crowd, the prisoners made the meal into an agape, speaking of God's judgment and astonishing the onlookers by their intense faith, conviction, and courage.
Perpetua's account is unique in that it is the first account of a Christian woman's protest against her society but also in that it contains both first and third person testimony to its elements. Perpetua is able to record her journey through the eve of her execution while an outside observer records the event of her execution, testifying to the legitimacy of Perpetua's joy in suffering and the intense spiritual nature of the martyrdom itself. "The day of their victory (the execution) dawned, and they marched from the prison to the amphitheater joyfully as through they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather then fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step...putting down everyone's stare by her own intense gaze...Perpetua then began to sing a psalm: she was already treading on the head of the Egyptian" (Chadwick 127). The prisoners were first gouged by gladiators and then attacked by wild animals. Perpetua and Felicity were both thrown to a wild heifer, an unusual animal for such an event, but one chosen that their sex might be matched with that of the beast. First Perpetua was hit by the heifer and tossed on her back. Seemingly oblivious to the hit, she covered her thighs which had been exposed and asked for a hair pin to fix her hair in order to not appear as though she were in mourning on her day of triumph. Perpetua was then called back after being gouged by the animal and, much to the amazement of everyone asked "When are we going to be thrown to that heifer or whatever it is?" (Chadwick, 129) When told that this had already happened, she refused to believe it until she was shown the marks of the experience on her body and clothes. The prisoners who still remained were then to be put to death by the sword. The account states that "(Perpetua) took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat. It was as though so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing" (Chadwick, 131). Not once during her account does Perpetua curse her situation or articulate anything other then privilege and joy for being chosen to die for her faith. Up to the very last, she was given strength of spirit when most necessary and anticipated the time when she would be able to intercede directly with God on behalf of those who were still being persecuted on Earth.
Facing many of the same issues as Perpetua had over seventeen hundred years earlier, were the women of the Bahá'í community in Iran during the preliminary years of the reign of Ayatu'llah Khomeini. As reported the account of the persecution of Bahá'ís in revolutionary Iran, Olya's Story, Olya Roohizadegan shares the experiences of women who were imprisoned and martyred for being members of the Bahá'í faith.
Arrested for their participation in a "misleading sect", these women were torn from their families, thrown into prison, subjected to manipulation, interrogation, and often torture by their captors in attempt to persuade them to expose their free Bahá'í friends and renounce their faith. As in Perpetua's account, Mrs. Roohizadegan's role as spectator and participant allows her reader to view the events surrounding her through her (the author's) eyes and through the perspective of others as well. This method of authorship, invoked in the account of Perpetua and that of the Bahá'í women, adequately testifies to the many harsh injustices and spiritual triumphs dealt to these women along their journeys of persecution for their faith. Told they would be set free with one "simple" denial of their faith, these women persevered under intense physical strain and emotional turmoil as they faced the option of recanting their faith and living with their loved ones or dying at the hands of injustice. The accounts of the trials of Perpetua and the Bahá'í women illustrate the universal nature of the physical and emotional experiences of martyrs and, specifically, those of women martyrs.
Preying on the women's' sex roles, the captors of the Bahá'í women threatened the torture of husbands and the heartache of children to pressure the women to comply and renounce their faith. Ms. Roohizadegan articulates her emotions after her three year old son is allowed to see her for a moment in prison and then taken away: "As I began to walk away he screamed and tried to wriggle free of their grasp. 'Mama, Mama, don't leave me!' he sobbed...he screamed even louder, desperately trying to make me come back. I turned and tried to smile to reassure him, but my heart was breaking. I had no choice but to walk away, the sound of his screams ringing in my ears, gradually receding into the distance as he was taken further and further away from me" (92). Upon another visit from her son, Payam, Olya's investigator takes advantage of her maternal nature in attempt to get her to renounce her faith: "' Right now', he began coldly, 'we will take you to be hanged. This is your last chance. If you truly love your child and want to go back to your home and your family, just write two words on this paper, "Bahá'í nistam- I am not a Bahá'í"..." (183). Similarly, once in prison, Perpetua is struck with longing and fear for her young child while her father uses the same appeal to her maternal nature to persuade her to renounce her faith: "Think of your brothers, think of your mother and your aunt, think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone. Give up your pride! You will destroy all of us!" (Chadwick, 113) At the same time, as her father uses her child to persuade Perpetua, he himself is used by the guards at her trial to torment her. After coming to her at her trial, carrying her child and begging her to renounce her faith, Perpetua's father is thrown onto the ground and beaten with a rod. "I felt sorry for father, just as if I myself had been beaten. I felt sorry for his pathetic old age" (Chadwick, 115) she states, yet, as Olya and many others did, she refused to recant her faith on account of things of this world, even loved ones.
Perhaps more remarkable then the similar appeal to women's sex roles by individuals to weaken their resolve, is the similarity of spiritual conviction and the universal spiritual experience shared by these martyrs despite their vast separation. Both Perpetua and Mrs. Roohizadegan's accounts stress the immense joy felt by the prisoners in persecution and at the prospect of martyrdom. Olya states, "...in spite of everything my heart was filled with indescribable joy; the thought that I was being arrested for my Faith brought me a strange sense of fulfillment, unlike any other experience of my life"(63). Similarly, while returning to the prison after being condemned to death for her faith, Perpetua writes "we were condemned to the beasts, and we returned to prison in high spirits" (Chadwick, 115). Another remarkable facet of the universal experience of martyrdom among these women is the occurrence of visions that seemed to foretell the future of their beholders. Perpetua's visions symbolically assured her of her future and of the pain she would have to endure in order to be victorious in her ultimate struggle (martyrdom). Olya's account tells of a vision she received in a dream that foreshadowed the death of one of the Bahá'í spiritual leaders. In another vision, Olya saw a strange light shine on the corner of the cell where the Bahá'ís were and a voice telling her that Baha u llah was there to visit the prisoners. These served, for Olya, as a testimony to the guardianship of a divine spirit and as an affirmation to the power of her convictions. Despite the visions, the persecuted women were also able to remain strong when facing the unknown void of the future by anticipating the strength that would be provided them by God. Felicity, Perpetua's servant went into premature labor and gave birth (after the martyrs prayed that she would do so) while in prison and was taunted by the guard: "'You suffer so much now- what will you do when you are tossed to the beasts? Little did you think of them when you refused to sacrifice'" (Chadwick, 123) to which she responded, "' What I am suffering now I suffer by myself. But then another will be inside me who will suffer for me, just as I shall be suffering for him'" (Chadwick 125). Olya also relied on the promise of God's strength as she recalled the words of her father: "'God always gives a person the power to remain true to the pathway of truth. During difficult times one draws closer to the Creator'"(76). To these women, it was not a question if God would give them endurance in hardship, it was an assurance.
Finally, perhaps something that is inevitably a characteristic similarity between spiritual experiences is the influence Perpetua and the imprisoned Bahá'í women had on those around them. Perpetua's account states that two of their prison guards were so moved by the martyrs' love for each other and love for God that they converted to Christianity. Also, the scene at the prisoners' agape is illustrated by the crowd's astonishment at their joy and love and states that many walked away that night Believers. The same is true for the effect of the Bahá'í women in their surroundings. Mrs. Roohizadegan states that immediately after their arrests, the Bahá'ís gained the respect of all the other prisoners because of their intense love for each other and sense of community. Olya also tells of at least one guard who was converted to Bahá'í while a number were affected by the honesty and faith of the Bahá'í prisoners.
It is interesting to see the parallels that may be drawn between any cases of martyrdom, but those between the martyrdom of Perpetua and that of the Bahá'í women seem to stand out for a number of reasons. Not only do these cases present a similarity in structure and record, they embrace martyrdom from a very feminine perspective. This perspective promotes a particular unity of experience among those women who suffered hundreds of years apart from each other. The accounts are unique among others in that they are some of the few accounts about women, by women. This aspect allows for a far more thorough understanding of the feminine psychology and spirituality of martyrdom and the emotional impact of persecution on women, free from patriarchal assumptions and constraints. Finally, these accounts are particularly of value because of the honesty of their narration in regard to the spiritual state of the authors and those around them. Through the insight of the narrators, the reader is able to identify something that is perhaps only seen in the exposed thoughts of those facing martyrdom. It is almost impossible to deny that a common spirit is working among these women in a way that allows them to persevere under and even rejoice in suffering. This Spirit is so strong, it is evident across religions as it instills the desire to die for its truth and offers comfort in strength and reward after death in the presence of God.
Chadwick, Dr. Henry; The Acts of the Christian Martyrs. c. 1972 Oxford University Press.
Roohizagedgan, Olya; Olya's Story. c. 1993 Olya Roohizadegan, Oneworld Publications
Kastner, Ronald and Patricia; Millin, Ann; Rader, Rosemary; Reedy, Jeremiah; A Lost Tradition: Women Writers of the Early Church. c. 1981 University Press of America, Inc.
The Catholic Encyclopedia--Sts. Felicitas and Perpetua; www.knight.org/advent/cathen/06029a.htm