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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

It's a crime to be a woman in Iran Add to ...

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian mother who was convicted of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning, is still alive, for now - saved by an international outcry of revulsion against state barbarism. But the story isn't over. She's still on death row. Once the heat dies down, the regime may simply choose to hang her, instead.

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"This regime has taken so many lives," says Maryam Namazie, an Iranian human-rights campaigner who now lives in London. "There's got to be a time when it stops."

The Tabriz prison where Sakineh is locked up contains 200 other death-row cases, according to Ms. Namazie. Thirty-five are women who face death by stoning. One is Maryam Baagherzaade, 25, who has been in jail for the past four years. Her execution has been postponed because she got pregnant while on a short leave from prison. The regime usually waits to kill pregnant women until after they've had their babies.

Then there's Azar Bagheri, 19. She was 14 when she was forced into an unwanted marriage. Her husband later pressed charges against her, claiming that she didn't love him and that she had had a relationship with another man. She was arrested, convicted of having sex out of wedlock, and sentenced to death by stoning when she was only 15. She has been subjected to mock stoning on two occasions - buried up to her chest and threatened with death unless she co-operated. The death-row inmates include children, adolescents and 18 people who've been sentenced to hang for homosexuality. Last week, a 16-year-old girl killed herself in her cell to escape hanging.

Even a suntan constitutes a crime against Islam. "The public expects us to act firmly and swiftly if we see any social misbehaviour by women, and men, who defy our Islamic values," Tehran's police chief, Hossein Sajedinia, announced in April. "In some areas of north Tehran, we can see many suntanned women and young girls who look like walking mannequins. We are not going to tolerate this situation and will first warn those found in this manner and then arrest and imprison them."

As Ms. Namazie puts it: "It's a crime to be a woman in Iran."

You might think the regime's habit of murdering women for imaginary crimes would earn it universal condemnation - especially from places such as the United Nations. You would be wrong. In April, Iran was given a seat on the UN Commission on the Status of Women, whose goal is "gender equality and the advancement of women." No one explained how stoning women to death advances gender equality. This is a moral inversion so twisted that it defies satire. If you still harbour any illusion that the UN is truly interested in the rights of women, please abandon it now.

Iran's ludicrous appointment was a consolation prize for its failure, despite fierce lobbying, to gain a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. That would not have been as bizarre as it sounds, given that its members include the rights-conscious nation of Saudi Arabia. The Human Rights Council is dominated by a bloc of Islamic and African states that refuse to condemn Iran for anything. Instead, the council spends most of its time denouncing Israel and the United States. "It's tragic," says Ms. Namazie, who fled Iran in 1980. "It's like asking apartheid South Africa to sit on the commission for racial equality."

Some Western feminist groups have been conspicuously silent on stoning and other quaint Iranian customs. They're so fearful of being tainted by Americans and neo-cons that they'd rather say nothing. The same is true of "moderate" Muslim groups in the West.

For years, the fight for Iranian women's rights has been led by a tireless group of advocates such as Ms. Namazie and Mina Ahadi, who now lives in Germany. Ms. Ahadi narrowly escaped death for campaigning against forced Islamic dress codes. (Her husband was executed.) "When we organize events worldwide, when we protest worldwide, and, in particular, when we contact European governments, and these governments put pressure on the Islamic regime in Iran, sometimes we have a chance," she told CNN.

The conviction of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani was based on false evidence, her lawyer and her two children insist. She already received 99 lashes. When their efforts to plead for her life proved fruitless, her son appealed to Western-based activists for help - a high-risk move that brought a summons to visit the police. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch took up the case. Women from Norway to Canada, including Indigo Books CEO Heather Reisman, launched Internet petitions. Ms. Reisman's petition, which she started 11 days ago, has already gathered more than 100,000 signatures. (You can find it at www.freesakineh.org.)

The Iranian regime strenuously depicts Western protests as an assault on Iran and Islamic values. So how much good do these petitions really do? Those who follow Iranian affairs say they do have an impact. Stoning is hugely unpopular inside Iran, and Iranians do not like their country to be portrayed as medievally barbaric. Support from outside also energizes those inside Iran who are struggling with the regime.

"The commotion that the Western media has started in connection with this case will not affect our judges' views," insisted one Iranian official. "The execution of Islamic religious laws on [such things as]death by stoning, hijab and inheritance has always faced their audacious animosity and, basically, any issue which hints of religious law is always opposed by them."

But thanks to the tireless efforts of women such as Maryam Namazie, Mina Ahadi, Shirin Ebadi and others, Sakineh is still alive. So long as it's a crime to be a woman in Iran, they're not going to stop. Neither should the rest of us.

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