06/20/2013 12:23 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2013

An Anniversary of Celestial Proportions: Sally Ride and Mona Mahmoudnizhad

I've been feeling very sentimental. My youngest daughter "graduated" from elementary school this week, just on the heels of her big sister graduating from high school; and the eldest is home briefly from a successful year in college. When I opened my computer expecting to see photos of 10-year-olds from the morning ceremony dotting my Facebook Newsfeed, I was instead bowled over by two significant anniversaries taking place today:

  • The 30-year anniversary of Sally Ride's Space Shuttle Challenger flight, where she became the first American woman in space, and remains the youngest American astronaut to be launched into space; and
  • The 30-year anniversary of the hanging of ten young women in Shiraz, Iran. The key charge for their hanging was "misleading children and youth" for teaching children who had been expelled from school for being members of the Baha'i Faith.

On the very same day, June 18, 1983, one nation sent its first young female scientist into space, while another government sent young women with high aspirations to the gallows. This contradiction seems especially appalling when I think of Mona Mahmoudnizhad, age 16, who was hanged just as Sally Ride took off.

I had not personally known Mona, but our birthdays were just one month apart on the same year, and immediately after her execution, people would often mistake my name "Homa" for "Mona." I'm still often called "Mona," and each time I am, a little surge of Mona's memory zaps my heart, before I make the pronunciation correction. Her execution, a result of her standing up for her beliefs, formed a key turning point in my teen years, even though I grew up ensconced in suburbia, USA. A lovely, exuberant young woman, she inspired so many, including this song, which reached the Top 40 Charts in Canada, this touching musical tribute, another, from Ireland, and this story, among many more.

With the election in Iran just passed, and a purportedly moderate cleric winning among the candidates hand-picked by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, I'm remembering Mona's courage under unimaginable trials, and how little has changed in thirty years since the Iranian Revolution. Young Baha'i mothers and their new-born babies have recently been imprisoned, and the seven-member Board assisting Iran's largest religious minority have just marked five harsh years of their 20-year prison sentence, the longest sentence of any prisoners of conscience in a nation whose prisons are crowded with them.

While the regime in Iran bans Baha'is from higher education, my own daughters get to pursue their education of choice, far from their country of heritage; and in the spirit of Sally Ride, NASA just announced its new astronaut candidate class will be 50% female for the first time.

The timing of these developments in Iran and the U.S., both 30 years ago and today, may be coincidental. But they serve as a powerful reminder of the potential of the human spirit to rise above to unimaginable heights or descend into barbarism. It's up to each of us to choose a course of courage and compassion -- or its opposite. My prayer is that Mr. Rouhani, Iran's new President, will choose courage and compassion, justice and tolerance, and raise Iran from its shameful position among the nations of the world: Liberate innocent prisoners of conscience. Allow women and men to educate and be educated. Do not fear free speech and thought. These simple steps will free Iran to look back thirty years from now and mark an anniversary of innovation and construction, not oppression and destruction.

Do it for Mona, and Sally, and all our daughters to follow.

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