By now, the image of a young woman lying in a Tehran street, her life ebbing from her body, is indelibly etched in the collective conscience of the world. Twenty-six-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan has become a symbolic martyr for the millions of Iranians confronting an oppressive government. It’s fitting that an innocent young woman’s death should be the rallying figure for the movement against a government whose laws treat women as second-class citizens. It is the fairer sex that has historically suffered the most under unjust, repressive regimes and although Agha-Soltan’s murder has attracted worldwide publicity, her death is just the latest cruelty inflicted upon the women of Iran.
Over twenty years ago, another innocent young woman lay dying in a remote Iranian village, another victim of violent injustice. This week, her death will also give voice to the women of Iran when her story is told through the remarkable film, The Stoning of Soraya M. Set in a small Iranian village, the film recounts the true story of Soraya’s death at the hands of her fellow villagers after being falsely accused of adultery.
Under Iranian law, convicted adulterers are put to death by stoning, with the law even specifying that the stones must be large enough to inflict pain, but not so large as to kill the victim within the first few blows. While the free world may focus on Iran’s dangerous nuclear ambitions, attention must also be brought to the truly oppressive nature of Iran’s government toward its people. Like so many of the despotic governments throughout history, Iran’s theocracy instituted laws that blatantly discriminate against women and prescribe harsh, sometimes deadly, penalties for even the most mundane crimes.
As the Stop Stoning Forever Campaign notes, “Women constitute nearly all those condemned to death by stoning. Why? Because discriminatory laws and customs almost always assign more guilt to women than to men,” especially in crimes of moral turpitude. According to Amnesty International, stoning is still a common practice throughout parts of the world, including Iran: “Despite official claims that stonings have been halted—including a moratorium issued by the Head of the Judiciary in 2002—several have taken place.”
American politicians may squabble over whether waterboarding is torture, but surely anyone can agree that the hours-long process of hurling stones at a human being, inflicting as much pain as possible prior to death, constitutes definite torture. In The Stoning of Soraya M., the whole graphic, torturous process is laid bare in unflinching detail.
The overarching theme of this true story is that the world must know of the injustices occurring in Iran, and everywhere men and women are wrongly convicted of crimes and callously put to death. It is Soraya’s courageous aunt who defies their village’s villainous leadership and pleads with a reporter to “take my voice” through a tape recording so that the world will hear her niece’s story.
Last weekend I was honored to attend the premiere of The Stoning of Soraya M. at the Los Angeles Film Festival. In speaking with the Iranian-American cast of the film, it was clear each recognized the historic significance of this film’s release during such a momentous time for Iran. Less than a mile away from the theatre where the film was shown, hundreds of Iranian-Americans had gathered to peacefully display solidarity with their brethren fighting for freedom thousands of miles away. Several of the cast members explained that they have been glued to their televisions, computers and cell phones, riveted, with the rest of the world, by the images pouring out of Iran. Each actor expressed optimism that horrific events such as the one they portrayed in their film would soon come to an end when Iran enters a new era of freedom and democracy.
This Friday, The Stoning of Soraya M. will open in several major cities across the nation. Its premiere this week could not be more timely. To show their support for the Iranians risking their lives for freedom, Americans should attend a screening of this important movie. It may seem a simple thing to do, but by bearing witness to Soraya’s story, her death will serve the purpose of focusing attention on the cruel violation of women’s rights in Iran and around the world.
As destiny would have it, Neda’s name means “voice;” Soraya’s aunt asked a reporter to “take my voice” and share her niece’s tragic story. This week, Neda and Soraya give voice to the millions of Iranian women who have been silenced for too long.