“I am a sinner,” a woman wrapped in a black chador told TV-watchers in Iran in a public broadcast on Nov. 15. She said so in her native Azeri language, spoken in the country’s northwest region, but subtitles in Farsi, Iran’s language, made it clear to everyone: she was a sinner.
It was the second TV “confession” for Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother of two who faces death by stoning for adultery and by hanging for complicity in her husband’s murder. Tragic as they may be, Ashtiani’s circumstances are not unique in Iran. According to press reports, since 2001 at least 27 female convicts have died the horrific death Iran’s sharia law prescribes to punish women’s infidelity, and another 12 await the same fate in prison. But it was the image of Ashtiani’s iconic pale face framed by the black chador that galvanized human rights activists across the world, from Laureen Harper to topless Ukrainian feminists. And it was the publicity around her case that caused Iran to lose its bid for a seat in the United Nations’ women’s rights body last month, while Saudi Arabia got in.
Ashtiani’s case has also reopened the factional divisions that had split the Islamic Republic’s political establishment after Iran’s controversial presidential elections in 2009. On the one side, keen Iran-watchers note, are the pragmatists, concerned about restoring Iran’s image abroad and ready to drop or commute Ashtiani’s sentences; on the other are the ideological conservatives in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s camp, convinced that the alleged adulteress must be made an example of, and that caving to foreign pressure would be an unforgivable sign of weakness.
Internationally, playing up the pragmatists’ hand to save Ashtiani will take some smart diplomacy, experts say. Blurring her case with the issue of Iran’s nuclear aspirations would feed the regime’s paranoia, and assuming she’s innocent of the murder charge amounts to an attack on Iranian courts, which could offend the public. All the international community should be asking of Iran, former British ambassador to Tehran Richard Dalton wrote in the London Times, is a “fair trial, transparent review in accordance with law and a proportionate sentence if any.” We don’t know whether Ashtiani is a criminal, and whether or not she’s a sinner should be nobody’s business.