09/25/2014 01:56 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2014

Remembering Atefah

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I don't really remember what I was doing on Sunday, August 15, 2004. It was summer and I was a fun-seeking eight-year-old; the possibilities are endless. I might've been at a friend's house, facing off in an epic Nerf gun battle. I might've been at the beach, catching waves with my body board on a sunny day. Or maybe, I was at the local park, playing soccer with my dad and then chasing the neighborhood ice cream truck down like there wasn't a tomorrow. I don't know. All I do know was that I was being a child.

But to another youth, on the other side of the globe, in the country my parents were born and raised, that Sunday, August 15, 2004, was the day. It was the day that the small town of Neka, Iran gathered like an audience at a circus to see, record and relish in a girl's misery. It was the day that sexist values triumphed over the "gypsy of Neka's" unrestrained free spirit. It was the day that shocked the world, made parents everywhere want to hold onto their kids tightly and remind them how much they love them. It was the day that 16-year-old Atefah Rajabi Shalaaleh was hung for being raped by a married man, a "crime against chastity."

Her mother, killed in a car accident when Atefah was five, and her father a drug addict, Atefah lived with her grandparents from a young age and suffered serious psychological illness. She was known to be in the moment, energetic, and sometimes rebellious towards societal norms. She was arrested three times for premarital sex with unmarried men in her adolescence and was eventually arrested by the Iranian Moral Police on the grounds of an unsigned community petition declaring her a bad influence. Tortured repeatedly in prison, she admitted to having sex and being raped by a married 51-year-old man, a serious crime in Iranian law.

In court, the judge took a personal contempt for Atefah, declaring that she was surely 22 (and thus not a minor) because of her appearance, even though her birth certificate clearly stated she was 16. It was later even discovered that the judge raped Atefah during this time. When she realized that she was losing her trial, Atefah removed her hijab and threw her shoes at the judge. It was a practically archetypal moment -- a child's attempt to throw pebbles at a foreign soldier during a time of war, the last time a caged bird tries to sing. There is something profound to a moment like this one -- a moment where the lowest of the low fights against the unyieldingly powerful forces of oppression. There is something that makes me quiver, feel a rush of momentary hope to later be ripped away no matter how bleak the situation.

She was eventually executed by the judge himself, who told her maliciously that it would "teach [her] to [not] disobey" right before she hung from her neck for 45 minutes in front of her own town. Her father wasn't notified of her execution. Her body was stolen from its grave soon after burial. Her verdict was bureaucratically overruled a full three weeks too late after her execution. And now, just a little over 10 years later, I'm scared her story is being forgotten. And we can't afford to forget. Iran can't afford it.

Atefah's case wasn't an isolated incident. According to Amnesty International, Iran has executed more child offenders than any other country since 1990. Even as recent as summer 2014, Iran made plans for the immediate execution of Razieh Ebrahimi, an ex-child bride who murdered her violent husband. Child execution in Iran is more than just an infringement of morals and common decency; as a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on the Rights of the Child, Iran continues to violate international law by executing child offenders.

Learning of this story and these statistics makes me feel extremely lucky. I am so thankful to live in a society where I don't have to worry about basic security in routine, day-to-day life. I am so thankful that I have the freedom to do as I please, without worrying about strict, patriarchal and religious social codes I may be violating. I am so thankful to have a fair justice system in my country where everyone is treated equally, regardless of gender or background. I am most certainly so thankful that I don't remember what I was doing on Sunday, August 15th, 2004.

It's important to not forget how fortunate some of us are. It's equally important to not forget what happened to Atefah and what's happening to a multitude of children in Iran. If we forget, we declare our complacency with the human rights situation in Iran. If we forget, we implicitly let the Iranian judicial system know that the way Atefah was treated is okay. If we forget, we selfishly become insensitive to the plight of innocent victims of prejudice around the world who do not choose to live under the rule of their regimes. We can't forget.

The image of Atefah tearing off her hijab in front of the judge will forever stay in my thoughts. It will drive me to do something in my future to help people like her -- the most vulnerable to societal oppression. I know how privileged I am to live in the United States, and I cant even fathom being in her shoes. Her story is a reminder to all of us who live freely to remember those who don't and to do something to help them.