Her world is strange to me, but it intrigues me. She was hardly more than a toddler when, in 1979, her parents’ generation turned her country over to the enemy—a decision for which her generation holds the previous one in contempt. They fell for lies about better things to come, about increased liberties and greater freedoms. Her parents’ generation was foolish, and now she pays the price.
She studied law at a university in Tehran. Her most honorable intent was to become a legal defender of the protesters who’d fallen afoul of the Islamic regime. Even then, however, she was outspoken in her beliefs, and the administration expelled her. Unlike Western students who have everything they need and protest against the corporate power structure, she and her paisanos protest against a religious-based tyranny. In her country, men, women, and adolescents are rounded up and publicly hanged by the neck from cranes for behavior that is perfectly legal in the West. Women in particular live in fear of the authorities. The sentence for adultery in Iran for a female is death by stoning. Incredibly, being the victim of rape is considered adultery under Islamic Sharia law. The police and prison guards rape and beat women as a matter of course, often after seeking and receiving sanction from their religious leaders to do so.
It is called Moharebeh (محاربة)—“waging war against God”—and it is used as a legal catch-all in Iran. Based on a verse in the Quran (Quran 5: 33), the Mohareb, or the one who has committed Moharebeh, is worthy of any punishment the authorities feel driven to inflict.
In none of her photos will you see her in an hijab or with the scarf over her hair that is required of women in Iran, which speaks volumes about her as a person. She is educated and cultivated. She has a well-honed taste for the finer things, for the works of the classical musicians, of the master poets and authors. She speaks adoringly of Rumi, of Tchaikovsky, of Nabokov. And even of Pink Floyd. She can communicate in a number of tongues. A person could be forgiven for thinking some talented fashion-professional picks out her clothes for her every morning and evening, but her dress reflects her own immaculate sense of style and proportion. Still, she has a heart like rare earth. Her words express more concern for me and my trifling problems than her own, and she has given up everything for her beliefs. That is who she is.
Tehran’s Evin prison is notorious for the treatment of its inmates, and it goes without saying what a beautiful woman—a Mohareb—can expect when sentenced to do time there. She has already been there once, and her father turned his house over in lieu of a $200,000 bond to get her released until her trial. Her lawyer told her to expect a minimum of seven years. No one could blame her for taking flight, which she has, but now her heart breaks as the regime has confiscated her father’s house. They harass and threaten him and the family members with whom he reluctantly resides. She is alone in a foreign country now, without friends, without a job, without money, without diversions of any kind. She tells me her brown hair—which was gorgeous—has turned white, and that her skin has darkened with rapid age. She says that I would not recognize her, and I hope she exaggerates.
I ask myself if I could do for my beliefs what she has done for hers. All she and her confederates want is a modern and equitable form of government rather than the medieval tyranny that has been thrust upon them. When they protest, they risk their lives. Westerners commonly perceive them to be backwater Arabs, but the Iranians are overwhelmingly Persian and as connected to the modern world as you or I. Probably more so. It is just that backwater Arabs are in charge and have become the face of Iran to the outside world.
A European country has agreed to give her asylum, for which I am thankful. How much help she can expect beyond that, I’m not sure. I wish her the best there. I am grateful to her for keeping me from taking my freedoms for granted; and for providing me with a model of perseverance and fortitude. I’ve needed it lately, and I’ll need it again. If Neda Soltan has become the face of the protest movement in Iran, then she–my friend–has become the spirit. She has something to teach us all, and I, for one, hope never to forget the lesson.