By Rafia Zakaria
August 30, 2017
ASIEH Amini was only a small child when the Iranian Revolution transformed Iran, ushering out the old order and bringing in the new, purportedly religious, one. It was a welcome change for her family who were rural and religious. When the violence was over, her maternal uncle, Ayatollah Gilani, became the chief justice under the new judiciary.
Amini’s life did not change much, although the family lost some of their landholdings and became middle class. She grew up and went to study journalism in Tehran. Not long after, she began working at a hard-line publication that was controlled by the state. Before long, she made progress and was promoted as the head of a section supervising many older male journalists. They tried to get her to quit but she refused. Even so, she never considered herself a feminist.
It was at another newspaper that she met her husband. In 1997, the more reformist-minded president Khatami had been elected and he had allowed many new publications to open up. By the time the pair got married, however, hard-line clerics who opposed the freedoms Khatami had granted to the press exerted their clout. The publication was banned and the newlyweds were left without work.
It was motherhood that seemed to really open Asieh’s eyes as to how unfairly the burdens of having a family are distributed between men and women. As she weathered the tribulations of pregnancy and motherhood, her husband kept working just as before. Eventually, she too managed to get another job and returned to work.
In the summer of 2004, she travelled to the interior of Iran to investigate the case of a young girl named Sahaleh who had been put to death. A discrepancy in reporting had got her attention; the official reports said that Sahaleh had been 22 years old but everyone she spoke with said that she had only been 16. When she met and spoke with the girl’s family members she found out the truth.
The young girl’s mother had died and her father was a drug addict. She had been sent to live with grandparents who were too poor and too old to take care of her. She was only nine years old. It was there that a neighbour raped her and then paid her to keep quiet; she used the money to buy food to eat. When she was 13 years old she was arrested by Iran’s morality police and a judge sentenced her to 100 lashes. A few more arrests followed and then one day an execution.
International law forbids the execution of a juvenile and Sahaleh’s age was falsified. Asieh Amini saw the girl’s actual birth certificate and identified the cover up. The paper she worked for refused to publish the girl’s story; it was only published, in edited form, by a different women’s publication.
Asieh Amini had changed forever; she had awoken to the reality of what poor women in Iran faced even at the hands of a supposedly Islamic judicial system. In the days and months that followed, she devoted herself to uncovering similar travesties of her country’s justice system.
There were girls raped by family members who were turned in as being prostitutes, ages and documents were changed, and stoning, a punishment that was outlawed in Iran even under the Islamic Republic, was carried out in villages regardless of the decree. In one case, Amini herself travelled to a village where an alleged stoning had taken place. A villager showed her stones still stained with blood. The woman had begged and screamed but the crowd had no mercy.
This last fact led Amini start her own organisation Stop Stoning Forever. The group tried to mobilise civil society against the enactment of stoning punishments, opening cases and investigating them. Their office was swamped with cases and calls.
Difficult times followed. In 2007, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president and he did not care much for either the press or NGO-based agitators for women’s rights and judicial reform. Amini was tried on trumped-up charges and then became seriously ill from stress and exhaustion. As pressure increased, there was more dissension within the campaign, and then in 2009 Ahmadinejad won a second term. Not long after, a woman who had just been released from prison came to Amini’s door and told her she should leave the country. She did.
Asieh Amini represents a generation of Iranians that only really know their country as the Islamic Republic of Iran. She was raised and educated entirely in Iran and her uncle was a high-ranking cleric. She did not have any of the influences that men in the Muslim world hold responsible for instilling noxious ‘Western’ ideas; she did not even accept or concern herself with the label ‘feminist’. What Amini did do was invest her efforts in changing a system that was inflicting cruelty and injustice on women who were helpless and hapless even while it pretended to be truly Islamic.
That fact — the idea that she wished for change and that she thought that women deserved more, that abused young girls could not just be killed and forgotten — ultimately forced her into exile, into life in a foreign country where she can only watch her own from afar. This is the condition of many women who choose to raise their voices in the Muslim world. As soon as they make their dissent public and raise their voice, to expose what lies behind pious exteriors they are immediately labelled as tainted by Western influences and the immoral feminist ideas they bring with them.
The slander heaped on them, then, is its own metaphorical death, a kind of destruction just as tragic as the actual robbing of life. Pakistani society is a champion at this practice; there are many Asieh Aminis here, silenced, sometimes killed, all for the crime of raising a voice, demanding a more equal life.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.