Today's date:
Fall 2010

Empathy for Iran’s Women

Azar Nafisi, an Iranian-born novelist, is the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Washington—Last summer the image of a 23-year-old Iranian girl, Neda Agha Soltan, dominated the media and Internet as the world witnessed on television and computer 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, a very different image caught the world’s attention: that of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother of two. In 2006, Sakineh was convicted of having “illicit relationships” with two men and sentenced to 99 lashes. During the flogging, and while suffering from intolerable pain, she confessed to the “crime.” She later retracted, stating that she had confessed under duress. At her subsequent trial for murdering her husband—she was acquitted on that charge—Sakineh was charged with “adultery while being married,” for which she was sentenced to death by stoning.

Although Neda had to die in order to prove to the world that she and millions of women and girls like her existed, her 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.

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, Sakineh’s 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.

Just as Neda entered the homes and hearts of millions around the world a year ago, 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.

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 Sakineh 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 Sakineh’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 Azerbaijan 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, 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 “any issue which hints of religious law is always opposed by them.”

This is perhaps a good time to ask Larijani and the apologists for the Islamic regime in Iran: Who is more against Islam—those who abhor such laws, or those who define Islam in terms of polygamy, marriage of underage females, stoning to death and 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 and 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 Larijani 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 of them is more Christian than the other? Who has ordained that Neda or Sakineh is 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?

Neda Agha Soltan and Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani offer alternative answers to these questions from those given by Larijani and other Iranian officials. In defending their rights, we are also defending the rights of Iranian women, Muslim as well as non-Muslim, traditional as well as modern.

What Larijani seems not to understand about the overwhelming international support for cases such as Sakineh’s is a universal and yet very simple concept: empathy. At that special 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 hearts break 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 had been awarded the Nobel 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 Sakineh Mohammadi 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.