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Sakineh and Neda

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"If you prick us do we not bleed?"
The Merchant of Venice

Last summer the image of a 23-year-old Iranian girl, named Neda, dominated the media and internet as the world witnessed on the television and internet screens her being shot and killed while participating in a protest against Iran's rigged presidential elections. Over a year later, as we celebrated Neda's life and mourned her death, another very different image caught the world's attention: that of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother of two. In 2006 Sakineh had been convicted of having "illicit relationships" with two men and sentenced to 99 lashes. During the flogging, and while suffering from intolerable pain, she had confessed to the "crime" which she later retracted, stating that she had confessed under duress. At a subsequent trial of a woman accused of murdering her husband, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani was charged with "adultery while being married," for which she was sentenced to death by stoning.

Although she had to die in order to prove to the world that she and millions of women and girls like her existed, Neda's image subverted the claims made by the Islamic regime and its apologists about Iranian women and youth almost overnight. Neda belonged to the generation that was called the children of the revolution, those whom the regime had hoped would carry the banner of the Islamic Republic, rebelling against their parents' and their aspirations. Yet like so many young people of her age, the way she looked and acted, her interests in music, dance and philosophy, her aspirations and hopes for her future and the future of her country, even her favorite authors -- Marques, Silone, Bronte, Hesse -- were in themselves subversive and offensive to the Islamic regime, reminders of its failure to impose its rule over this generation of youth who rather than becoming its ardent supporters had turned out to be the regime's most persistent critics.

Like millions of others who participated in the protests, Neda's form of disobedience was not just political but existential -- she went into the streets to join the protests despite her parents' anxieties and fears and her mother's pleas, because she felt an injustice had been committed against the will and choice of the electorate and such injustice should not be tolerated. In all her acts of rebellion, Neda, like other young women in Iran looked for a model not just to the West but to the past of her own country, to that of her mother, grandmother and great grandmother, to women who had fought for their rights and for an open and democratic Iran since the mid-19th century, women who had helped usher in the Constitutional Revolution at the start of the 20th century, the first of its kind in Asia.

The protests in the summer of 2009 and Neda's tragic death suddenly brought to the world's attention the real voices of Iran, those that for over thirty years had been mainly silenced and forced underground. For over three decades the Islamic Republic had imposed the most repressive laws upon its citizens; murder, torture and arbitrary arrests had been part and parcel of its rule, men and women had been stoned and hanged for sexual offences. Despite the fact that during all those years and from the outset Iranians had resisted the oppressive rules and laws -- a resistance for which many paid with their lives -- the main voices and images dominating the discourse on Iran in the rest of the world were those of the regime and its apologists. Iran's name in the news was mainly identified with its rulers and lately in relation to Mr. Ahamdinejad's homilies on the Holocaust, the nonexistence of gays in Iran, and the issue of nuclear proliferation. The same men who had denied the rights of Iranian citizen to free expression in their homeland had also managed to deny those rights abroad.

But suddenly last year, in the summer of 2009 this situation was reversed. Those millions that poured out onto the streets of Tehran belied the stereotypical definitions of what Iranian society constituted. Most obviously it was the images of Iranian women, at the forefront of these protests that attracted attention. These women came from such diverse backgrounds, young and old, traditional and modern, secular and religious; yet they all presented a united front in the face of a tyrannical regime. It became clear that the laws governing the rights of women were in the interests of neither an orthodox religious woman, nor a secular modern one, that they had more in common in defending their rights than they had with the regime who implemented those laws. Women had once more become the canaries in the mine, the standard by which degrees of freedom in society could be measured.

Hundreds of thousands across the world were heartbroken as they saw Neda die and die again and again on their screens. Suddenly this girl and others like her were not aliens, were not "them" but "us", separate entities from the regime that ruled over them. The shock was not how different "they" were from "us", but how alike, because difference cannot be genuinely celebrated and appreciated unless it is accompanied by what is shared, what is universal, our common humanity, rooted in the understanding that no matter where we come from, from what social, political and cultural background, religion, ethnicity, race or gender, we all do indeed bleed in the same manner. From that moment on, it was not politicians that chose the rules of the game but the people.

Now, just over a year after Neda's tragic death, the image of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani has taken over the hearts and minds of many individuals from different parts of the world. Sakineh is very different from Neda, she is from an older generation, and a more traditional background, she is neither a rebel nor a political activist, and the reason why she is condemned to death is entirely unconnected to the circumstances in which Neda was murdered. By all accounts her life and aspirations are very different from Neda's, but they share a lot in common as victims of the same oppressive and regressive laws against women in the Islamic Republic.

As a year ago Neda entered the homes and hearts of millions around the world, now Sakineh's fate has become a matter of urgent concern to tens of thousands who only a month before had no idea of her existence. On one website alone -- the one I work with (FreeSakineh.org) -- over a hundred and fourteen thousand have signed the statement condemning her death, demanding her freedom. Looking over the list of signatories what is both amazing, as well as encouraging, is not just the names of so many well-known and prominent individuals, from presidents and politicians to writers, journalists and celebrities, but the fact that these names appear alongside of others mostly unknown and some anonymous, coming from so many diverse countries and backgrounds. They all have gathered in one space, regardless of their ideologies or political tendencies, to give voice to their outrage. They are united because in the kind of world they wish to live in, such acts of violence and extreme cruelty should not happen, because these acts, no matter where they occur or under what guise, are an assault on their sense of human dignity and decency. Silence in such a situation becomes a voice implicating the witnesses as well as the perpetrators.

In the face of global campaigns and protests the Iranian regime has somewhat retreated, claiming that it will not carry out the sentence to death by stoning against Sakineh, but it has not ruled out killing her by other means. The question is, would it make anyone happier if Ms. Ashtiani were hanged instead of being stoned to death? The regime's retreat is good news and should encourage us to persevere in our demand for Ahstiani's immediate release. There is, however, the danger of charges being concocted against her in order to justify her sentence and to present her defense as a plot by the West against Iran and Islam.

Already the chief of Iran's judiciary in East Azarbiajan has claimed that "Western media propaganda" will not deter him from carrying out Sakineh's execution. Mohammad Javad Larijani, the head of Iran's High Council for Human Rights, while attacking the international campaign in defense of Sakineh Mohammedi Ashtiani, has defended stoning as part of Islamic Republic's constitution, condemning what he calls West's "fixation" on "death by stoning, the hejab, and Islamic inheritance laws." He has claimed that in fact "any issue which hints of religious law is always opposed by them."

This is perhaps a good time to ask Mr. Larijani and the apologists for the Islamic regime in Iran, who is more against Islam, those that abhor such laws or those that define Islam in terms of polygamy, marriage of underage females, stoning to death, flogging women for 'illicit relationships' and disobeying the laws on the mandatory veil? Does condemning a woman to 99 lashes for what is claimed to be "illicit relationship" or flogging women up to 86 lashes for not wearing the proper mandatory veil represent what is Iranian and Islamic or suitably reflect the country's ancient history and culture, its ethnic and religious diversity, its centuries of poetry, philosophy and the century old struggle of its progressive clerics, intellectuals, women, and other strata of Iranian society for a democratic and open society? When he and other officials of the regime call human rights a Western entity, do they think that the Iranian people are less desirous of choice and diversity, of freedom of expression than say the Americans or Europeans? America is a Christian majority country and Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin all claim to be Christians, but do we ask which is more Christian than the other? Who has ordained that Neda or Sakineh are less Muslim than the guardians of the Islamic Republic? And finally, is it not in fact a backhanded compliment to the very West they claim to revile and an insult against the Islam they claim to represent, to say that the right to choice, freedom of expression and religion, and equality of women, in short the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, is in fact a western phenomenon, determined by geography and so-called culture? Neda Agha Soltan and Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani offer alternative answers to these questions from those given by Mr. Larijani and other Iranian officials. In defending their rights we are also defending the rights of Iranian women, Muslim as well as none Muslim, traditional as well as modern.

What Mr. Larijani seems not to understand about the overwhelming international support of for cases such as Sakineh's is a universal and yet very simple concept: empathy. At that especial moment of universal epiphany when the images and voices of the Iranian people entered the homes of others around the world, it became intolerable for many to accept and justify the arbitrary laws imposed on Iranian citizens. This reaction arises out of a sense of deepest empathy, the realization that no matter how different we are, we as human beings share the best and the worst, that when we imagine Sakineh's condition or hear the pleas of her courageous children, our heart breaks because at that moment we are not thinking of our political, national, religious or ethnic differences, we are becoming that other person and finding it intolerable to exist under the conditions that they are forced to tolerate.

The question for those of us who object to such laws is not just political but also existential, as in the case of Darfur, South Africa, Bosnia and many other places in our recent history. To tolerate such brutal acts is to be diminished as human beings. In defending the rights of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani and countless others in Iranian jails we are also defending our own rights and security. A few years ago when, in response to the announcement that she was awarded the Noble Peace Prize, Shirin Ebadi stated that she was a Muslim and a believer in human rights, I wrote that to support human rights is not a philanthropic act but essentially a pragmatic one: to defend the rights of others to freedom and choice means to guarantee our own rights. I would like to reiterate that point now and ask: do not the courageous women in Iran today reaffirm the universal struggle of women over centuries for their rights?

It is out of this sense of empathy, this desire to connect to others that today we defend Skaineh Ashtiani. And because of this sense of empathy, because now her cause is also ours, even if and when she is freed we must remember that as long as the repressive and regressive laws remain such brutality will continue. Already in Iran today 12 women and three men await death by stoning. There are many who have been tortured and executed and others are in danger of being executed on political grounds. The campaign will not be over until the repressive laws are repealed; for as long such laws exist there is always the possibility that they will be implemented against other victims.