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Huffington Post: Sakineh and Neda

"If you prick us do we not bleed?"
The Merchant of Venice

May 25, 2010- Last summer the image of a 23-year-old Iranian girl, named Neda, dominated the media and internet as the world witnessed on the television and internet 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, another very different image caught the world's attention: that of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother of two. In 2006 Sakineh had been convicted of having "illicit relationships" with two men and sentenced to 99 lashes. During the flogging, and while suffering from intolerable pain, she had confessed to the "crime" which she later retracted, stating that she had confessed under duress. At a subsequent trial of a woman accused of murdering her husband, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani was charged with "adultery while being married," for which she was sentenced to death by stoning.

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

Like millions of others who participated in the protests, Neda's form of disobedience was not just political but existential -- she went into the streets to join the protests despite her parents' anxieties and fears and her mother's pleas, because she felt an injustice had been committed against the will and choice of the electorate and such injustice should not be tolerated. In all her acts of rebellion, Neda, like other young women in Iran looked for a model not just to the West but to the past of her own country, to that of her mother, grandmother and great grandmother, to women who had fought for their rights and for an open and democratic Iran since the mid-19th century, women who had helped usher in the Constitutional Revolution at the start of the 20th century, the first of its kind in Asia.

The protests in the summer of 2009 and Neda's tragic death suddenly brought to the world's attention the real voices of Iran, those that for over thirty years had been mainly silenced and forced underground. For over three decades the Islamic Republic had imposed the most repressive laws upon its citizens; murder, torture and arbitrary arrests had been part and parcel of its rule, men and women had been stoned and hanged for sexual offences. Despite the fact that during all those years and from the outset Iranians had resisted the oppressive rules and laws -- a resistance for which many paid with their lives -- the main voices and images dominating the discourse on Iran in the rest of the world were those of the regime and its apologists. Iran's name in the news was mainly identified with its rulers and lately in relation to Mr. Ahamdinejad's homilies on the Holocaust, the nonexistence of gays in Iran, and the issue of nuclear proliferation. The same men who had denied the rights of Iranian citizen to free expression in their homeland had also managed to deny those rights abroad.

But suddenly last year, in the summer of 2009 this situation was reversed. Those millions that poured out onto the streets of Tehran belied the stereotypical definitions of what Iranian society constituted. Most obviously it was the images of Iranian women, at the forefront of these protests that attracted attention. These women came from such diverse backgrounds, young and old, traditional and modern, secular and religious; yet they all presented a united front in the face of a tyrannical regime. It became clear that the laws governing the rights of women were in the interests of neither an orthodox religious woman, nor a secular modern one, that they had more in common in defending their rights than they had with the regime who implemented those laws. Women had once more become the canaries in the mine, the standard by which degrees of freedom in society could be measured.