The Gypsy of Neka: Atefah Sahaaleh (1988-2004)
In the first few years of the new century, in the benighted Islamic Republic of Iran, a teenaged girl wandered the streets of a small town of Neka, a small coastal town on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. The town, a minor railway junction little noted by the outside world, is at the outer fringes of the Iranian republic. Nevertheless, the power of the Mullahs and the Islamist judges who rule Iran with an iron fist have reach in this little town as they do throughout the country. And their destruction of a teenaged girl in this small town brought Neka to the attention of the world.
Atefah Sahaaleh was a child of tragedy. When she was very small, her younger brother drowned; shortly thereafter, her mother died in an automobile accident. Her father was as a result incapacitated by a drug addiction, and the girl was left essentially an orphan; she did not go to school, and she spent her time caring for her aged grandparents. She wandered the streets, and was known throughout town as a bright girl with no regard for the social rules controlling women of her city. She was known as "The Gypsy of Neka" for her bright and ungovernable ways: a living, true-life Carmen who, like the heroine of the opera, paid for her nature with her life.
She was, in the time and place of her people, considered to be sexually out of control; she was arrested on three occasions and convicted, each time, of having sex with an unmarried man. Each offense carried with it the penalty of 100 lashes.
At one point, she came within reach of a fifty one year old taxi driver, who used her as a sex slave. Let his name be remembered: Ali Darabi, a married man with children. Over the course of three years he used her at will, brutally, sometimes leaving her unable even to walk.
In 2004 she was arrested by the "Morality Police" on charges of sexual immorality after she complained of her treatment by Darabi. They tortured her, obtaining a confession to "crimes against chastity".
Then she was brought before Haji Rezai.
Haji Rezai was the very picture of the hanging judge. Appointed as one of the 95 Revolutionary Judges after the Iranian revolution, he had made a career of destroying those whom the Islamists designated as 'enemies of God.' The blood of countless victims was on his hands.
The judge, in investigating the case, raped her himself. He tortured her. Acting both as judge and jury, he found her "guilty." He decreed the death sentence, and to guarantee that she would be executed immediately, declared that she had to be "22" years old based solely on her physique.
At this moment, Atefah did something that was utterly shocking, in that time and place: she removed her head scarf, her hijab, and declared that she was the victim, not the criminal in the case.
And then–-the grossest possible insult–-she removed her shoes and cast them at the judge.
Defiance of a judge is always dangerous, but in this case, the outcome was foregone. When a girl is being judged for sexual immorality by her own rapist, what other outcome is possible but death?
He claimed that the sentence of death was for defiance and "her sharp tongue." It was, in reality, for 'speaking truth to power.'
One week later, on August 15, 2004, she was brought to a city square. Haji Rezai, torturer, rapist, judge, jury, legal appellant–-for it was he, himself, who went to Tehran to secure permission for immediate execution–-at last placed the rope around her neck with his own hands.
"This will teach you to disobey," he said.
The rope was raised and the girl died, hanging from a construction crane.
The body remained hanging there for an hour. After it was buried, it was almost immediately removed from the grave and it has not since been found.
We really know very little about The Gypsy of Neka except that she dared to shine with feminine beauty in a world where sexuality is viewed as a deadly enemy, and that, when faced with a judicial monster, she had the spittle to stand up to it and resist with the only weapons she had, her hair, her beauty, and her defiance.
But her death is remembered.
Now, how can a teenaged girl, who was, at best, a 'wild child,' be viewed as a member of the Tattered Remnant?
In a society such as Iran's, where women are to be submissive slaves,
nothing but receptacles for men's desire, with no independent authority, even as adults, to live their own lives unless attached to father, brother, husband, son.... such a girl as Atefah is a beacon of light, a beacon which, alas, attracted uncontrolled male desire, but which showed the other women in her community that they need not live like slaves. She was an example of what girls can be if they are not involuntarily hidden beneath the black cloak of sexual obliteration.
And it should be noted too: the full veil, even with face exposed, is evil if it is imposed involuntarily. (An adult woman can freely choose to dress that way if she wishes--after all, nuns do precisely that--but universal imposition is unacceptable and a fundamental violation of human rights.)
Perhaps she was 'sexually immoral.' But even so: so what? Her 'immorality' in that time and place was and is far more moral than the sexual fascism that declares that women are nothing but bedbugs.
Under these circumstances, it is no wonder the monsters killed her.
The execution of a sixteen year old girl, particularly for "crimes" committed by her own judge and executioner, resonates. The day will come when her death, and her courageous resistance, with the only weapon she had – her own beauty – will be celebrated, mourned wondered at by future generations of Iranians.
Iran will not forever be held in the hands of the Mullahs. And Atefah Sahaaleh's sacrifice–in this case, on a perverted altar – will be recalled, lamented, and commemorated for generations to come.