In 2003 I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, the lyrically written and powerful story of how one literature professor, Azar Nafisi, found a way to continue to share the great works of literature with a few of her students after that activity became a severely punishable offence by the Iranian regime of Ayatollah Khomeini. Nafisi eventually left Iran and now lives in Washington, D.C. where she continues to search for ways to push against the repressive reality in her native country.
In 2006 I read Iran Awakening, the moving and inspiring autobiography of Shirin Ebadi, lawyer, human rights activist, and Nobel Laureate. In her book, Ebadi shares in vivid detail how women's rights in Iran, including her own, have been systematically and brutally removed. She has devoted her life to helping women attempt to get the most modest levels of legal justice -- but with great difficulty and often at the risk to her life. Recently Ebadi was forced to flee the country. She now lives in England where she continues to work tirelessly on behalf of the women of Iran.
Finally, in 2008, I read Prisoner of Tehran -- for me the most moving of all. At 16, Marina Nemat was arrested and thrown into Evin prison in Tehran for nothing more than asking why math was no longer being taught at her school. Over more than two years, she was tortured and raped, and only narrowly escaped being tied to a stake and shot. By some bizarre stroke of luck, she was eventually released and immigrated to Canada where, after 17 years, she broke her silence about what had happened to her.
With each story, I felt this incredible sense of rage that in the 21st century, a governing regime could actually get away with treating women so brutally, essentially as chattel; an all-powerful, repressive regime, which among other things supports stoning women to death as a legitimate form of punishment.
But then my day-to-day life would take over and my rage would dissipate.
Last week, like so many in the world, I was again horrified when I read that a 43-year old woman in Iran had been sentenced to be stoned to death for an alleged act of adultery. This time there was coincidental timing for me. I had just attended an evening with human rights teacher to the world, Elie Wiesel. His words still echoed in my mind... "The opposite of love" says Wiesel "is not hate...it is indifference."
I knew I could not just go to bed.
So began an initiative which, due to the power of our digital society, now has traction around the world. Along with a handful of very special women, including the three mentioned above, we launched www.Freesakineh.org, a global web based petition directly addressed to the leaders of Iran. We reached out to friends, who reached out to others, who in turn kept expanding our network. Within a few days over 50,000 high profile and every day people have signed the petition. And the list is just beginning to take off.
To be clear, this initiative is just one of many efforts under way, including the major work of Amnesty International. All are designed to bring pressure on the Iranian government to free a woman who has already paid a heavy price for what must have been, at worst, a private offense. (At the time of her arrest 5 years ago, Ashtiani was forced to endure 100 lashes. She has been in prison since -- parted from her children who have courageously spoken up to beg the world to help their mother. )
These last few days have provided a direct and personal experience with the empowering nature of the internet. How it enables all of us who feel so often that we want to make a difference, but often hold back because the problems we are trying to fix seem insurmountable. Where to start. What to do.
Natan Sharansky, the Russian dissident who spent years tortured and in isolation in the Gulag before eventually being freed in a prisoner swap, writes eloquently about how he survived his extreme detention because he knew there were people in the "sane" world working day and night for his freedom. Those unfairly imprisoned, he repeats over and over, need to know they are not forgotten. Today, all those women in Iran without human rights need to know that they are not and will not be forgotten.
As I write this, it is not yet clear what will happen to Sakineh Astiani. Iranian officials have said her case is being reviewed but who knows what this means. She remains convicted and sentenced to die.
But even if collectively we succeed in gaining Ashtiani's freedom, it is only the beginning. (For adultery alone, 14 other women today await execution by stoning or other means.)
The time has come for those of us who can speak without fear of reprisal to use our individual and collective voices to support the women of Iran who are truly under siege. Lets heed the call of Shirin Ebadi who, as we began this work, implored us all to "get as noisy as you can".
We have a voice. We have the power. Let's be noisy.