A Woman's Challenge to Sharia Law and Stonning
Mrs. Amini: "Sir, are you O.K.?
The young man replied: "Who are you?"
"I’m a journalist." Mrs. Amini replied.
"You came too late ... We lost her." The young man replied! "She was executed a few days ago ...she was only sixteen!"
For 37 years Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) systematically discriminated women against their basic rights by providing them with limited legal and civil rights! Women are often subject to mistreatment or neglect at the hands of this putative government and instead of being protected by the law, the law is actually used to harass them!
Asieh Amini is one of Iran's most famous women's rights activists who for about a decade has been fighting the country's judicial system. She left her home country four months after Ahmadinejad was re-elected, going into exile in Norway. Although she is not very hopeful about the country's politicians, she does believe the people will bring about change. In the meantime, the tireless activist continues to write articles, blogs and books to improve women's rights! Although she has not been able to bring about any social change in a lawful manner, she successfully establishing legislative safeguards against discrimination and have a life time commitment to raise awareness on women’s rights issues!
This story is published by The New Yorker
Jan 4, 2016
War of Words
BY LAURA SECOR
In the Mazandaran province of northern Iran, where the Elburz Mountains careen toward the Caspian Sea, Asieh Amini grew up on a farm surrounded by kiwi and tangerine orchards. Born in 1974, Amini was the third of four sisters. When she was very young, her family, which came from the gentry of feudal times, owned animals and employed gardeners and housekeepers. Amini understood that her great-grandmother was an important person because everyone, including Amini’s father, had to sit up straight when she entered a room. In the north of Iran, women could own property, wield social power, and work on farms with their sleeves and their pants rolled up. But it was still common for men to have multiple wives, and because of this Amini’s extended family sprawled. Amini’s father was a teacher. Though he was a religious man, he wore his faith lightly.
Amini was five in 1979, when revolution came. The monarchy fell; an Islamic Republic replaced it, with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as its leader, and for a decade Iran convulsed with violence and privation. First came internal conflict over the revolution’s spoils, and then an enormously costly war with Iraq. The Aminis, no longer able to afford the animals or the gardeners or the farmworkers in straitened times, became middle-class.
Amini and her sisters spun themselves a cocoon of nature and literature. When they weren’t playing outdoors, they read, wrote stories, and painted. Amini and the second-oldest sister spent Thursday afternoons at a poetry circle that met at a nearby public library. It was Amini’s first taste of literary life, and she loved it. She imagined that she would one day be a painter and a writer.
Amini was largely shielded from the tribulations of her country, but there were some things that she would always remember. She was not allowed to wear white shoes or short socks at school. She thought the required dark hijab ugly, and she cried when she had to put it on, but her mother gently explained that this was a rule no one could disobey. Young men returned from the Iraqi front without limbs; many did not return at all. Within Amini’s extended family, some supported the new regime and some opposed it. There were young relatives in prison, and older relatives who thought that they belonged there. And then there were the three sons of Amini’s maternal aunt.
The brothers lived in Tehran and had been briefly imprisoned for taking part in revolutionary activities under the Shah. Just before the monarchy fell, they came to stay near Amini’s family, among relatives who were not engaged in political fights. The oldest of those brothers came to the Aminis’ house, which streamed with visitors eager to hear the news from Tehran. He died in a car accident not long before the revolution.
The boys’ father, Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Gilani, became the Islamic Republic’s chief justice. He presided over the courts during a period when they ordered the execution of thousands of opposition members. Gilani held that Iran’s body politic needed to be cleansed of toxins. As it happened, his remaining two sons were members of the Mujahideen-e Khalq, a leftist Islamic militant group that had been part of the revolutionary movement but which came to oppose clerical rule. By 1981, the group had been declared illegal. Gilani was a man of terrible integrity. He insisted that, before the law, he could not hold his two sons to a different standard from that applied to other people. He was alleged to have signed an order for their execution. If the boys straightened out ideologically, Gilani reportedly said, he could guarantee their safety. But they didn’t. They went into hiding and died, Amini heard, trying to evade capture.
The judge’s decision, which was reported in the official press, became notorious. To many Iranians, the name of Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Gilani was synonymous with an era when the Islamic Republic executed its own children. But within Amini’s family no one dared to speak of the matter. Not even the boys’ mother mourned them. Before Amini became a teen-ager, she had glimpsed a void at the core of the Iranian justice system.
In 1993, Amini went to Allameh Tabataba’i University, in Tehran, to study journalism. She brought with her a restless enthusiasm and an indefatigable drive. She was only a freshman when she started writing for state-controlled newspapers. Her first assignments were for a supplement to the hard-line daily Kayhan. Those assignments led to a job at a larger paper, Iran, which was less strident. Amini felt lucky to be there. She did not much like the strict women’s dress code, but she was there to excel, not to wage futile battles. When a colleague was assigned to interview a poet Amini admired, he took her along. The poet invited Amini to join a writers’ circle. Already, she was living the life that she’d dreamed of as a child.
Iran started a youth supplement, and Amini’s boss made her its cultural editor. Because men dominated Iranian newspapers, this was a bold appointment. Amini was responsible for twenty-eight pages. She supervised men who were older than she was, and they resented reporting to her. The paper’s editor-in-chief scrutinized her every move. She put her head down and worked harder. Her days were often fourteen hours long.
One day, Amini recalls, a young male colleague pulled her aside. He looked miserable, and he implored her to leave her job.
“Why?” she demanded.
The young man seemed to be fighting back tears. Every day, he told her, their colleagues spoke ill of her. They didn’t like for a young, single girl to be an editor.
“That may be true,” Amini replied. “But it’s their problem, not mine.”
Amini thought of politics as the pursuit of power, and so she often said that politics did not interest her at all. But, as a poet and a journalist in a closed society, she would find politics always just beneath her fingertips, like a bannister that ran alongside the steep staircase she climbed. When she’d moved to Tehran, there was not yet a term in common parlance for the space she occupied, but she came to understand it as “civil society.”
In 1997, Mohammad Khatami won Iran’s Presidency on the promise to expand that space. To that end, he presided over an unprecedented relaxation of censorship. Daring new publications emerged, and more young women entered journalism.
Amini was no longer working at Iran, and a former colleague persuaded her to take a job at a paper called Zan, which covered women’s affairs. Amini saw no utility in segregating news by gender; she rather opposed the idea. But she needed the work, and the paper hired her to cover the managerial side of sports.
It was at Zan that she met a photojournalist named Javad Montazeri. Like Amini, he came from Mazandaran province. He had taken photographs of such sensitive subjects as the funerals of secular writers who had been assassinated by security agents. For eight months, Amini and Montazeri saw each other every day as friends. Then they decided to get married.
The hard-line clerics opposed Khatami’s embrace of the press, and they shut down newspapers as swiftly as they opened. Zan was banned on Montazeri and Amini’s wedding day. But Amini wasn’t out of work for long. She took freelance assignments covering demonstrations in Kurdistan and an earthquake in Shiraz. After security forces raided a Tehran University dormitory, one summer night in 1999, she and Montazeri were among the first reporters to enter the campus. Montazeri photographed a dorm room that lay in cinders; only the radiator and the metal bed frames remained intact. A student in a ruined corridor showed the camera his back, which was hatched with red welts.
The dormitory attack, which had followed a student protest against press censorship, touched off several more days of demonstrations. When the newspaper Khordad ran Montazeri’s pictures on its front page and featured two pages of photographs inside, the demonstrating students held copies of the issue aloft like protest placards.
Five days after the dormitory attack, hard-liners held a counterdemonstration. Amini and Montazeri stopped at a phone booth so that she could call her editor. While she was talking, several large men in white shirts and kaffiyehs approached Montazeri and began leading him away. When she demanded to know where the men were taking him, they grabbed her, too.
The men took the couple to the back of a dress shop. One of them pointed a gun at Amini and began interrogating Montazeri about the publisher of Khordad, who was a close associate of Khatami’s. Amini explained that she and Montazeri were journalists. “We don’t make decisions about the system,” she said. “Your problem is with the system.”
In that case, the man said, Amini could as easily work for the hard-line press as for the reformists. Would she come over to the other side? Amini, trying to sound natural, promised to think about it.
For days afterward, phone calls came. “We know everything about you,” the caller said. “Just think about how you can work with us.”
Amini was frightened. She wrote a letter to Khatami, asking for his help, and she gave it to the publisher of Khordad. The calls stopped, but Montazeri began waking in the middle of the night, crying and shaking. They started to talk about leaving Tehran.
ini was six months into a new newspaper job when she learned that she was pregnant. Her life was already overfull. When she wasn’t working at the paper, she painted, wrote poetry, or played the tanbur, a traditional long-necked lute. She wasn’t ready to be a mother. Only after deep thought and searching talks with Montazeri did she resolve to see the pregnancy through.
But pregnancy outraged her. To begin with, it wasn’t fair: Montazeri went about his life and his work just as before, while Amini’s body grew cumbersome and volatile. But she would not slow down. She would prove to herself and her colleagues that she could accomplish as much as before. One day, she was out in the street for sixteen hours, covering a police roundup of homeless people. About a week later, she started leaking amniotic fluid. Her doctor ordered bed rest for the final months of her pregnancy.
Amini cried every day. And she was not much better after she gave birth to a daughter, Ava. During her final trimester, the judiciary had shut down both Montazeri’s newspaper and hers. Montazeri found work again, but Amini was tied down, sleep deprived, and uninterested in the things she used to do. She cared for Ava and felt that the rest of her life was finished.
Ava was a year old when Montazeri came home from work one day and asked his wife, “Do we have a cup of tea?”
“No,” Amini said.
“Is there anything to eat?”
“No,” Amini said.
“What did you do today?”
“Nothing,” Amini said. “I just took care of the baby.”
“I thought I married a person who was a poet and a journalist,” Montazeri said. “I didn’t know I married a housewife like you.”
The next morning, she started looking for a babysitter and a job.
Soon Amini had not one job but two. From eight-thirty until four, when it was time to pick up Ava at school, she worked as the social editor of a daily newspaper called Etemaad. At night, when Ava slept, she managed a Web site called Women in Iran. She resumed travelling for her reporting, leaving Ava with family members. In Bam, in southern Iran, she covered an earthquake, and she went to Iraqi Kurdistan, in early 2003, to cover the buildup to the American-led invasion of Iraq.
When she returned to Tehran, she learned that she was pregnant again. She could not imagine carrying another baby to term. But abortion was illegal in Iran, unless the mother’s life was in danger. She had two options. One was to find a doctor who was willing to perform the surgery in secret. The other was to take medicine that would damage the fetus and cause extensive bleeding. At that point, an emergency-room doctor would be obliged to perform a dilation and curettage.
With Montazeri’s support, Amini chose the second option. There was no way to proceed but blindly. The medicine, which she bought on the black market, came as an injection. She would never know what the syringe contained.
She passed the night in terrible pain, but there was no blood. Nobody at a hospital would evacuate her uterus if she wasn’t bleeding. So she injected herself a second time. Again the pain overwhelmed her. A friend told her to walk or run to bring on contractions. Amini did, continuously. But still the blood didn’t come. She suspected that she’d harmed the fetus irreparably. She had no choice now but the illegal surgery, whatever its price.
The abortion doctor was very old, and Amini believed that he was a drug addict. His office was filthy. He told Amini that, in addition to the steep fee she would owe him, she would have to pay an anesthesiologist and a nurse, whom he would hire. She agreed. On the day of her procedure, the anesthesiologist showed up with a vividly yellow face—from drink, Amini imagined. The nurse wore towering heels and heavy makeup. Montazeri asked Amini repeatedly if she was sure that she wanted to proceed. She didn’t see that she had any other choice.
In the days that followed, she bled and bled, and her body shook. She could not seek medical care or advice, and she could not tell anyone other than her husband what she had done. She called in sick and took a few days off. Then she returned to life as she had known it.
In the summer of 2004, a news item from the town of Neka, in Mazandaran, brought Amini up short. A sixteen-year-old girl named Atefeh Sahaaleh had been executed for “acts incompatible with chastity.” Official government sources gave Sahaaleh’s age as twenty-two. Amini was struck by the discrepancy, and disturbed that a young girl had been hanged at all. She went to Neka to find out more.
On the streets, men told Amini that Sahaaleh was not a good girl. She had sold her body, one man explained; a lady like Amini shouldn’t pursue such a story. Amini wheeled on him. Could he really speak of killing a girl in the name of respecting her body? And who was he to tell Amini what she should do? Another man told Amini that Sahaaleh had a psychological disorder.
Amini wandered until she found a small wooden gate that stood open. Over it hung black banners and placards of mourning. She thought that it might belong to Sahaaleh’s family. The house was a new construction, but it was unfinished. A young man lay, motionless, in the courtyard, his eyes half-lidded and rolled back, drool collecting on his chin, flies swarming his face.
“Sir?” Amini called out. “Are you O.K.?”
Just then, a muscle-bound young man approached her from behind. Who was she? he demanded.
“I’m a journalist,” she replied.
“You came too late,” the young man, who turned out to be Sahaaleh’s cousin, said. “We lost her.”
In the weeks that followed, Amini located more of the girl’s relatives and pieced together her story. Sahaaleh was five when her mother left her father for another man, then died in a car accident. The father, heartbroken, resorted to drugs and neglected his children. One of Sahaaleh’s brothers drowned in a river. Another became a drug addict. At the age of eight, Sahaaleh went to live with her grandparents, who were too old and poor to care for her.
When she was nine, a neighbor raped her. He paid her for her silence. Then he came back. He also brought other men to her. She was repeatedly raped, and given money to tell no one. She survived on that money. When she was thirteen, Iran’s morality police arrested her. A local judge sentenced her to a hundred lashes—the official punishment for sex outside marriage. Under the Iranian penal code, a woman could be sentenced to a hundred lashes three times. On the fourth arrest, she would be executed.
Amini had not known about these laws. She lived in a world where they were never applied. Among middle-class urbanites, it was normal to have sex outside marriage. Why should anyone be hanged for something so common? Why, especially, a sixteen-year-old girl whose childhood had been lost to the neglect, depravity, and violence of others? Sahaaleh had definitely been sixteen: Amini saw the girl’s birth certificate. International law forbade the execution of anyone younger than eighteen, regardless of the fact that the Iranian penal code made the age of criminal responsibility nine for girls and fifteen for boys. Moreover, so far as Amini could ascertain, Sahaaleh had been arrested only twice, not three times, before being sentenced to death.
No story had ever seized Amini like this one. Sahaaleh was an alter ego, a daughter Amini might have had if she had not grown up in a world of relative privilege and safety. Even years later, Amini spoke of Sahaaleh by her first name, as if they had been intimate friends. Sahaaleh changed her life.
Back in Tehran, Amini went over the notes and the documents that she’d gathered: interviews with the father and aunts; report cards from the brief time Sahaaleh spent in school. But Amini couldn’t write and she couldn’t sleep. Every time she tried to get the story down, she cried until morning. When at last she pulled the report together, her newspaper wouldn’t publish it.
“Why not?” Amini asked. “I have all the documents.”
As Amini recalls it, her editor-in-chief told her that she was fighting with Sharia law and with the judiciary. The newspaper couldn’t do that.
Amini sent the report to another newspaper, which also declined it. Finally, a women’s publication agreed to publish an edited version.
A few weeks after the story about Sahaaleh was published, Amini heard of another girl who was to be hanged. The execution was to take place in Arak, a city southwest of Tehran, and the girl was Leyla, a nineteen-year-old with a mental age of eight. She, too, had been sentenced to death on account of offenses against chastity. And she, too, was a victim of child rape. Amini rushed to Arak, and was relieved to discover that Leyla was still alive and in prison.
Leyla had been a child—some sources said eight, others five—when her mother first prostituted her, to a sixty-year-old man. From then on, her mother prostituted her every day, living off the money. Leyla gave birth for the first time at the age of nine, and received her first hundred lashes. She had twins, and received another hundred lashes, at fourteen. By the time she was sentenced to death—for incest, among other things, because her brothers were among the many townsmen who had raped her—she could hardly talk or care for herself.
Amini went to the courthouse and found the judge who had sentenced Leyla to death. He sent everyone away so that he could speak privately with the journalist from Tehran. The law, he told Amini, was the law. It was his job simply to apply it. And the law looked darkly on Leyla, because her sexual availability was destructive to family life. Amini recalls the judge explaining that if society were an apple Leyla would be a worm.
Amini had arrived with a retainer form from the law office of a friend, a human-rights attorney named Shadi Sadr. More than anything, Amini wanted to visit Leyla in prison and get her signature on the form. Then Leyla would have a lawyer, and a fighting chance. Amini spent about an hour with the judge, interviewing him and arguing with him. She said that he should let her take Leyla away and remake her life. Then he could judge whether or not Leyla was good for society.
The judge scoffed, and told her to go see what she wanted to see. He wrote a note to the prison ordering the wardens to admit Amini as a visitor.
The wardens brought before Amini a tall, beautiful young woman who had the affect of a child, and looked on Amini in confusion.
Amini put her arms around Leyla and spoke quietly in her ear. “I am your sister,” she said. “I want to help you. Your situation is not good. You have to trust me. And I promise you that I will help you.”
She took out Sadr’s retainer: “I just need you to sign this.”
Leyla could not sign her name. And so, Amini recalls, she painted Leyla’s finger with ink and stamped it on the signature line.
When a guard realized that Amini was not Leyla’s lawyer, she exploded in anger and confiscated the retainer form. Amini was told to leave at once.
Sadr went to the prison and helped Leyla complete the form. Amini, meanwhile, published an account of Leyla’s case in the magazine Zanan, and her e-mail in-box lit up with messages from people wondering what they could do to help. Push for the girl’s retrial and release, Amini replied.
Leyla’s story became known internationally. Press accounts from Iranian journalists and Iranian bloggers living abroad ricocheted through human-rights organizations and the foreign media. When Norway’s Prime Minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik, heard about Leyla’s case, he wrote a letter to President Khatami, expressing concern.
Eventually, Leyla had a second trial, with a younger judge. Amini paced outside the courtroom door while the new judge deliberated. He emerged into the corridor and told her to relax: Leyla would receive ninety-nine lashes and then be freed. But Amini told him that she was worried. If Leyla were released into the custody of her family, she would likely be forced back into the sex trade, and then there would be nothing that Amini or anyone else could do for her.
The judge offered to have Leyla sent to Tehran as her punishment. How would Amini assist her then?
“Just do it,” Amini said. And he did.
Amini and Sadr approached an organization for indigent young women, which took Leyla into its care and provided her with a psychologist and a private tutor. Leyla learned to read and write, and to pass the equivalent of fifth grade. Amini brought Leyla to her home as often as she could, so that she could play with Ava and experience family life. The psychologist told Amini that spending time with Montazeri was especially important for Leyla, as she had so little experience of normal interaction with men.
“You’re like a mother to me,” Leyla told Amini.
Amini sometimes filmed Leyla. She planned to edit clips together and send the footage to Leyla’s first judge with a question: Was Leyla good for society now?
Amini was changing. She was still a newspaper editor, now supervising as many as sixteen pages of Etemaad daily, and she was still a poet. But she had become possessed by the stories of underage prisoners on death row and of impoverished young women convicted of crimes against chastity. Colleagues reproved her. These were death-penalty cases—lost causes not worth her reportorial time. Amini knew only that she had work to do. If she, as a journalist, had not known about these laws or their enforcement, what might she owe to the better education of her seventy million countrymen?
Amini had never considered herself a feminist. She saw her activist work mainly within the frame of children’s rights. But, as her work on death-penalty cases became better known, women’s-rights activists pulled her increasingly into their orbit. When Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human-rights lawyer known for defending dissidents, women, children, and refugees, won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2003, women’s-rights activists included Amini in a gathering to discuss what should be done to mark Ebadi’s return from Stockholm with her prize.
The meeting impressed Amini with its breadth of representation. Some of the women were strict Muslims and Islamists; others were secular. The activists turned out an enormous crowd at the airport when Ebadi’s flight touched down. They sang songs to celebrate her, but their gesture was also protective: Ebadi was unlikely to be harmed under such a glaring light. The group met regularly for the following year and a half. Its members came to a consensus that the overarching issue facing Iranian women was the discriminatory nature of the law.
Toward the end of Khatami’s Presidency, in the summer of 2005, the women’s-rights activists organized a peaceful sit-in. Hundreds of demonstrators massed in front of Tehran University. Montazeri took photographs; Amini covered the story for a newspaper. It had been twenty years since a major demonstration for women’s rights had taken place in Iran. The previous one had been to protest Ayatollah Khomeini’s decree forcing women to wear the hijab.
To her surprise, Amini found that she cared very much who won the Presidential election in 2005. She wasn’t expecting a miracle. She just wanted a government that left a few threads loose for her to tug. But to her dismay the hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad succeeded Khatami as President.
A chill descended almost immediately on the remaining reformist press. Ahmadinejad’s intelligence minister announced that “civil society” was nothing short of a strategic tool of the enemy, by which he meant the United States. Amini cried when she heard the speech. Activists like her knew that this was how the security forces laid the groundwork for a sweep.
Unable to abide the heavy censorship of newspapers, Amini had gone to work for a Web site supporting civil society. A group of about a dozen activists, including Amini, formed a secret network. They were the remnants of the once vital civil-society scene cultivated and marooned in Khatami’s time. They would need to defend one another if and when they faced arrest. The activists met regularly for about a year, until it was no longer safe to do so.
In May, 2006, Amini received a tip that a man and a woman in the eastern city of Mashhad had recently been stoned to death. Stoning was an antiquated Islamic punishment, usually for adultery, that involved burying a married woman and her lover in pits, with their hands tied behind their backs, and pelting their heads and torsos with rocks until they died. In 2002, Amini knew, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, Iran’s chief justice at the time, had ordered a moratorium on stoning. Some judges had continued to issue the sentence, but, so far as Amini knew, it was an empty threat, impossible to carry out.
mini’s source in Mashhad insisted that a judge there had imposed a stoning sentence in violation of Shahroudi’s order. Friends and colleagues warned Amini to let this one drop. If there had been a stoning, it was done in secret, and whoever had ordered it would go to great lengths to keep it hidden. Amini went to Mashhad anyway, and found a witness. He worked for the feared intelligence service of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. As she and a colleague drove with the man to the cemetery where he said the stoning had taken place, his radio crackled, and Amini felt the hair on her arms stand up.
The couple’s names were Mahboubeh M. and Abbas H., the witness recalled. The judge who had convicted them had sent letters to the Revolutionary Guard’s intelligence office, to the governorate, to the volunteer militia known as the Basij, and to the local bus depot, asking for volunteers to participate in a ceremony at the cemetery. Many people registered. They were not told what sort of ceremony it would be.
Abbas H. and Mahboubeh M. were brought to the spot alive, wrapped in white cloth for burial. They were lowered into pits, but the one that had been dug for the woman was not deep enough; it was important that her breasts be concealed by earth. So she was removed and the hole was made deeper.
A judge exhorted the crowd. Each stone they cast at this couple, he informed them, was a stone to build their own homes in paradise. He cast the first stone himself.
“What about the writers? Nobody ever blames the writers!”
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Abbas H. was silent, the witness recalled. But the woman cried, and she spoke. “Please cut off my hands,” she said. “Cut off my feet. But don’t do this to me.”
Amini and the others arrived at the cemetery. Amini’s colleague stumbled from the car and vomited. The guardsman continued his story: he had not wanted to participate, but the judge called to him and told him to cast a stone. The guardsman protested that his job was to protect the crowd—he could not abandon his post. But what he really felt was something else. This judge, this cleric, was talking about God and the Prophet. And the guardsman, who was a deeply religious man, did not know what to do with such a God or such a Prophet.
Amini went to see the judge. Was it true, she asked him, that he had sentenced the couple to be stoned? He didn’t make the law, he told her, but he was bound to impose it. Amini reminded him that the head of the judiciary had ordered an end to stoning. The judge was unmoved. He was answerable not to any official in Tehran, he explained, but to Sharia law. He would make his own decisions, independent of treaties or legislation or the policies of Shahroudi.
Amini understood something that she hadn’t grasped before. She and her friends in the women’s-rights community had made discriminatory law the focus of their protest. But, even if they got the government to accept their demand for equality, they faced a deeper problem: Iran’s most hard-line judges believed that they answered to an authority higher than the law of the land.
In October, 2006, Amini and Sadr started a campaign called Stop Stoning Forever. They joined forces with a well-known older feminist who had roots in the revolutionary movement, and with two women living abroad who could broadcast their findings without censorship. Amini’s role was to collect evidence that stonings were continuing to take place.
Amini later remembered the campaign’s early days as among the most meaningful of her life. Her once solitary work now had company and a larger purpose. At night, she and her fellow-organizers expended their anxiety and energy in giddy parties where they danced and sang. Once, the three women rented a van and took their children to Kelardasht, a lush valley in Mazandaran, for a working vacation.
The Iranian women’s-rights movement was never so visible, or so embattled, as it was during the early Ahmadinejad period. Women staged sit-ins and protests for the right to attend soccer matches and for equality under the law. The security services replied with arrests and street violence. In August, 2006, women’s-rights activists launched what they called the One Million Signatures campaign. They printed pamphlets detailing laws that discriminated against women, and distributed the pamphlets behind closed doors, collecting signatures for the repeal of those laws.
Stoning was not technically a women’s issue: the sentence was levied at least as often on men. But adultery was, in the end, a women’s issue. Men could legally have up to four wives and many lovers. Women didn’t have equal rights in initiating divorce, and they automatically lost custody of children over the age of seven if they did manage to leave their husbands. Amini and her partners in the campaign hoped to hold a system of discriminatory family law to the light by exposing the persistence of stoning.
Amini had a breakthrough when one of the campaign’s members who lived abroad published an interview with her about the Mashhad stoning case. A source came forward and put Amini in touch with one of the victims’ families, which gave Amini two documents. One was from the court, confirming the sentence. The other was a forensics report confirming the cause of death.
Amini published what she knew on her blog and in Zanan. It was a story that no newspaper dared to touch. The minister of justice gave a press conference and called the stoning story a lie. The state media spread rumors that the campaign took money from foreign countries and propagated fictions that served Western prejudices about Islamic law.
ini canvassed the country from city to city, prison to prison. She spent only two weekends with her family in the summer of 2006. She and her fellow-organizers located fourteen people sentenced to be stoned, and they tracked down their families and their lawyers. Sadr set up a network to help defendants who had no lawyers. When the activists couldn’t publish news of the cases inside the country, they got word to foreign groups like Amnesty International, and the information boomeranged back into Iran.
Amini learned that a decade earlier in the city of Takestan, in Qazvin province, a man named Jafar Kiani and his alleged lover had been sentenced to stoning for adultery. The court was preparing only now to carry out the sentence. The campaign sprang into action, publicizing the case. Shahroudi intervened, Amini was told, and stayed the sentence; several days later, however, she heard that Kiani had been taken in secret to a mountain outside town, where he was stoned.
Amini went to the mountain, and a villager showed her the bloodied stones. She gathered them to bring to Tehran as evidence. She took photographs and videos and interviewed villagers. Then she stopped in the city of Qazvin to see an activist who had summoned her. That activist had an important document. Someone had surreptitiously taken a paper from the desk of the judge in Kiani’s case and scanned it. The scan was on a CD. Amini was asked to read the document and then destroy the disk.
The document was a letter from the presiding judge to Shahroudi, explicitly defying the moratorium on stoning. No decree of Shahroudi’s would stop him from issuing the sentence, he said. Islamic law was on his side. And he cited the text of a law that Amini had never seen before. The law granted judges discretion over stoning and the hundred-lashes punishment for crimes against chastity. Any judge who deemed these punishments justified could impose them independently of the system. Ayatollah Shahroudi might be the head of the judiciary, the Takestan judge concluded, but there was nothing that he could do in the case of Jafar Kiani.
Amini broke the CD, as she had been told, but she committed its contents to memory. She understood now that a profound battle was raging inside the judiciary. Although one article of Iran’s constitution demanded that courts make decisions only in accordance with the laws of the state, another article stipulated that, if the state provided no relevant law, the judge should refer to “Islamic sources and credible fatwas.” A growing number of fundamentalist judges did not accept Shahroudi’s authority. And Shahroudi had maintained a public silence, which, Amini felt, only aided his enemies.
March, 2007, five women’s-rights activists who had been arrested at a demonstration the previous year were scheduled to go on trial. Amini and other activists converged on the courthouse, for a silent sit-in, and they were immediately arrested. Along with thirty-two other women, Amini was taken to Vozara, the detention center in Tehran normally used by the morality police. The police holding them were women, and the activists saw an opportunity.
“We’re here because of you, because of your daughters, your nieces,” one of the activists told the policewomen. “You should support us.”
Amini recalls that the police and the detainees erupted in discussion. Some of the policewomen confided that they supported the women’s activism and regretted detaining them; others told the sympathizers to shut up. The conversation came to an end, however, when the detainees were transferred to prison.
Guards led Amini, blindfolded, into an interrogation room. By looking sharply downward, she could see that her interrogator had a thick file in his hands. She thought that she saw printouts from her blog. From his tone, and from the line of his questioning, she suspected that she wasn’t supposed to be in prison just yet. The security forces had meant to keep her and other women’s-rights activists under surveillance—to track their network and their activities and spring a trap later. But the sit-in outside the courtroom had provoked a swifter response, and now here she was.
Amini and most of the other prisoners were released five days after their arrest. Only two women remained behind bars: Amini’s partners in the Stop Stoning Forever campaign. They were released later, on bail, and organizations that they ran were shut down. But the Stop Stoning Forever campaign continued, even though its members understood that they were being closely monitored.
Amini knew that her phones were tapped and her comings and goings watched. One day, a stranger dropped in on one of her neighbors. He said that he was researching an accident report for insurance purposes. He asked the neighbor about all the families in the building and their cars. He left, but some minutes later he rang the neighbor’s bell again. Through the intercom, he said, “I forgot to ask you about Mrs. Amini’s car. Which one is hers?”
The neighbor had never given Amini’s name. And everyone in the building knew her as Mrs. Montazeri.
Amini’s e‑mail in-box regularly overflowed with terrible stories from remote Iranian towns, from relatives and lawyers of the condemned who had heard of her work. Three men in Semnan province, she was told, were to be executed. She referred the case to another activist group. But one morning at five o’clock their lawyer called Amini to say that the men had been hanged. Suddenly, she could not move her hand. About once a week now, she felt her body quake, as though feverish, in the night. She figured that it was a virus. She took pills, but the shivering returned.
There was trouble within the Stop Stoning Forever campaign—divisions and disagreements among colleagues—even as its caseload grew. Amini was on the phone one afternoon, in a tense discussion with one of her colleagues, when she fell down. The phone dropped. She wasn’t asleep—she could hear the room around her—but she couldn’t move. For an hour or two, she lay there.
In the days that followed, she had pulverizing headaches that responded to no pill, no therapy. Finally, she went to see a neurologist. She’d had some kind of nervous shock, he surmised, from extreme stress. There was nothing to do but rest. One day, she couldn’t move her eyes, her shoulders, her neck. She went to the hospital. Every test came back normal, and the hospital discharged her. But the pain in her head and, now, her eyes was unendurable. She felt as though her eyes would leave her skull. One morning, she woke up blind, with red swellings that blocked her vision.
While Amini convalesced, her colleagues dissolved the Stop Stoning Forever campaign into an umbrella organization based abroad. Like that, everything Amini had built disappeared. She would never learn the reason. Intelligence agents, meanwhile, had broken into her office and searched her files. They called in Amini and interrogated her about her activities. The interrogator also asked about her health—specifically, her eyes, as if to let her know that even her body was under surveillance. He seemed most curious about the network of civil-society activists that she had helped forge.
By March, 2009, Amini was physically well again. But when she thought of the families of the condemned who had placed dim and fragile hopes in her, and of how she could not explain to them the collapse of the campaign, she became depressed. In one of her poems, she addressed her interrogator: “How many times have I asked you / ‘Don’t come to my dreams with a gun.’ ”
On her blog, she observed that she had become deeply enmeshed with the subjects of her research. Leyla, Sahaaleh, and others peopled her dreams. She had sat alongside mothers at the scaffolds of their sons. She had no models, no mentors, no handbook to follow that might have cautioned her to keep her distance or flagged the signs of her collapse.
“The truth is that we work on a remote island,” she wrote. “We are alone. I realized this while I was staring at the ceiling for two months with painful eyes.”
at June, a Presidential election returned Ahmadinejad to office for a second term, provoking a storm of protest. The demonstrations were the largest and most sustained that Iran had known since its 1979 revolution. Amini was there, elated. When security forces cracked down, Amini was there, too, beaten with batons and nursing her concussion in the first courtyard that she could find off the street. She spent the chaotic days of unrest searching for the mothers of demonstrators who’d been killed, in an effort to record their stories. She reported for a Web site, Roozonline, using four pseudonyms.
People she knew were disappearing. Often, they were arrested in the middle of the night, spirited off to prison for unknown terms. Amini had visions of her own midnight arrest, before the terrified eyes of nine-year-old Ava. Sometimes she felt that she was waiting for this. A friend cautioned her that it was obvious which online pseudonyms were hers. An intelligence operative who knew her style of writing could figure it out.
Reformist journalists and politicians appeared on television, in prison garb, confessing that they’d taken part in a seditious conspiracy. When Amini saw them, she cried. These well-known people were hardly recognizable. If they had broken in prison, what would happen to her?
Early one Friday morning, a woman rang Amini’s doorbell. It was an acquaintance of Montazeri’s. Two days earlier, she had been released from prison after being arrested at a small demonstration in Valiasr Square. Thirty-six women had been held in her cell, she said, and half of them had been questioned about Asieh Amini. The woman told Amini that she should leave her house.
Before the election, Amini had been invited to a poetry festival in Sweden. She wrote to the Swedish Ambassador. She would go to the festival, she told him, but she needed to bring her daughter. At the airport, she left her cell phone open, connected on a call to Montazeri, so that he could listen and know if she and Ava were stopped. But they got through.
Every day, Montazeri and Amini talked on Skype. He told her that things were getting worse at home. The defendant in one of her cases, Behnoud Shojaie, who had been seventeen when he killed a man in a fight, was executed. Amini’s friends in prison had been swallowed into the system; there was nothing anyone could do for them.
Everything Amini was, and everything she did, was tied to her country—its complexities, its language, its terrors, and its splendors. She was not an engineer, with skills that could be transferred anywhere in the world. She would carry, always, a weight of work unfinished, a sense of being needed in a place where she couldn’t live. On a cell wall in the women’s section of Tehran’s Evin Prison, she was told, an inmate had etched one of her poems: “Eve was not tall enough / I’ll pick all the apples.”
Through a program for writers at risk, she landed in Trondheim, Norway, as the poet-in-residence at the public library. Montazeri joined her and Ava there. She published two books of poetry and started work on a memoir, studied Norwegian, and regarded her new compatriots with a warm and gentle quizzicality. The landscape, in its jagged immensity and its brilliant blues and greens, its rock-faced coast and glassy fjord, reminded her and Montazeri of Mazandaran. In Trondheim, there were days in summer when the sun never set, and days in winter when it never rose. The light had a broad, flat quality, and life an element of unreality. Even the highway to the airport cut through spectacular, unspoiled scenes of undulating land and saturated color. Not far from Amini’s apartment building was a recreational sight of singular frivolity: beach-volleyball courts. As though the world were such a place, and Amini such a person as to live in it.
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