At the point of publication, Sakineh Mohammad Ashtani might have already been hanged. At present, the 43-year-old Iranian woman accused of both adultery and of plotting her husband’s assassination is waiting for Iran’s Judiciary Court to have its final say. It is recent news that Sakineh’s son, her attorney and two German reporters have been arrested in Tabriz. Teheran justified the arrest saying the two were fake foreign reporters. Regardless of whether this be the case, Sakineh’s fate has now become a matter of international concern and diplomatic conflict.
Google Sakineh and you will find out what I mean. Freesakineh.org says Sakineh had already received 99 lashes in 2006 after being convicted of having an illicit relationship with two men. The situation deteriorated rapidly, as this July Sakineh was further convicted of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning.
It is at this stage that we, as members of a civil society, come into play. Let us go back to the basics: civil society is the idea that within a community there may be a specific section which, through mass protests, groups, organizations, works to put forward ideas aimed at ameliorating our world.
The pressure exerted on Iran’s Judiciary court by ordinary civilians was incredible. Freesakineh.org registers, at present, over 348.000 signatures. There are countless Facebook groups which ask for her freedom. Western leaders and prominent thinkers contributed to stir up public indignation. After speaking out for Sakineh, Carla Bruni received the “compliments” of pro-Ahmadinejad newspaper Kayhan which called her “a prostitute”. French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy personally interviewed Sakineh’s former attorney. The EU itself, through the European Union Foreign Affairs chief Catherine Ashton expressed its deep concern about Sakineh’s inhuman execution.
And now to the results. What did all our mass-protests come to? Sakineh will not be stoned. Should there be no last-minute change, she will be hanged this week. I am in no position to judge our efforts negatively; I think no one is. I decided to include in this article a broad idea of civil society because I wanted to be sure all of us could understand how much we can do to change the conduct of states. Whatever the outcome may be, Sakineh’s case has further highlighted how much the increase in international media coverage and our improved awareness can do. Even what seems to be the smallest of victories – a change of execution – must be regarded as a great achievement or at the very least, a starting point.
And now for something different. Teresa Lewis was an 41-year-old woman from Pittsylvania County, Virginia. Lewis was executed on September 23rd after being convicted of the murder of her son and husband, both killed to get their $ 250.000 life insurance. You may wonder why I switched from Sakineh’s case to that of an American psychopath. The switch is not mine. The connection between the two came out from the Iranian press. More specifically, out of MP Hossein Naghavi, who, on September 21st, denounced the lack of coherence in the rationale of both Washington and the international community’s condemnation of Sakineh’s execution. Teresa Lewis was proven to be mentally disabled and despite this, sentenced to death. Sakineh has become, in a matter of weeks, a martyr of freedom and universal human rights. All we heard of Teresa Lewis, during the seven years leading up to her death, was silence.
I believe it is impossible to take a side on the issue. What I am doing now is risky: I am comparing two women from radically different backgrounds, united by a death sentence which nonetheless seems, in both cases, unjust. However, I am willing to stir up the hornet’s nest for a reason which is in line with our idea of civil society. Because being a member of a civil society requires us firstly to question society itself. There are many other Sakinehs in the world – Teresa Lewis is just one example.
Perhaps the best point to start reflecting on could be the silence of the American media. Could it not be the case that our anger has been strumentalized for political purposes?
What is certain is that civil society is a growing reality. Mass-protests are effective, independent of what will be the outcome of Sakineh’s case. Perhaps what was originally the basis of our indignation (the barbaric execution of a woman under a theocratic regime) has been slowly contaminated by the impact of the media upon the whole matter. Is this our fault? No, but we surely have the power (and the right) to question what we read. This is at the basis of any putative civil society, and our first duty as its members.