War of Words

Jan 13, 2016

A woman’s battle to end stoning and juvenile execution in Iran.

by Laura Secor

In the Mazandaran province of northern Iran, where the Elburz Mountains careen toward the Caspian Sea, Asieh Amini grew up on a farm surrounded by kiwi and tangerine orchards. Born in 1974, Amini was the third of four sisters. When she was very young, her family, which came from the gentry of feudal times, owned animals and employed gardeners and housekeepers. Amini understood that her great-grandmother was an important person because everyone, including Amini’s father, had to sit up straight when she entered a room. In the north of Iran, women could own property, wield social power, and work on farms with their sleeves and their pants rolled up. But it was still common for men to have multiple wives, and because of this Amini’s extended family sprawled. Amini’s father was a teacher. Though he was a religious man, he wore his faith lightly.

Amini was five in 1979, when revolution came. The monarchy fell; an Islamic Republic replaced it, with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as its leader, and for a decade Iran convulsed with violence and privation. First came internal conflict over the revolution’s spoils, and then an enormously costly war with Iraq. The Aminis, no longer able to afford the animals or the gardeners or the farmworkers in straitened times, became middle-class.

Amini and her sisters spun themselves a cocoon of nature and literature. When they weren’t playing outdoors, they read, wrote stories, and painted. Amini and the second-oldest sister spent Thursday afternoons at a poetry circle that met at a nearby public library. It was Amini’s first taste of literary life, and she loved it. She imagined that she would one day be a painter and a writer.

Amini was largely shielded from the tribulations of her country, but there were some things that she would always remember. She was not allowed to wear white shoes or short socks at school. She thought the required dark hijab ugly, and she cried when she had to put it on, but her mother gently explained that this was a rule no one could disobey. Young men returned from the Iraqi front without limbs; many did not return at all. Within Amini’s extended family, some supported the new regime and some opposed it. There were young relatives in prison, and older relatives who thought that they belonged there. And then there were the three sons of Amini’s maternal aunt.

The brothers lived in Tehran and had been briefly imprisoned for taking part in revolutionary activities under the Shah. Just before the monarchy fell, they came to stay near Amini’s family, among relatives who were not engaged in political fights. The oldest of those brothers came to the Aminis’ house, which streamed with visitors eager to hear the news from Tehran. He died in a car accident not long before the revolution.

The boys’ father, Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Gilani, became the Islamic Republic’s chief justice. He presided over the courts during a period when they ordered the execution of thousands of opposition members. Gilani held that Iran’s body politic needed to be cleansed of toxins. As it happened, his remaining two sons were members of the Mujahideen-e Khalq, a leftist Islamic militant group that had been part of the revolutionary movement but which came to oppose clerical rule. By 1981, the group had been declared illegal. Gilani was a man of terrible integrity. He insisted that, before the law, he could not hold his two sons to a different standard from that applied to other people. He was alleged to have signed an order for their execution. If the boys straightened out ideologically, Gilani reportedly said, he could guarantee their safety. But they didn’t. They went into hiding and died, Amini heard, trying to evade capture.

The judge’s decision, which was reported in the official press, became notorious. To many Iranians, the name of Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Gilani was synonymous with an era when the Islamic Republic executed its own children. But within Amini’s family no one dared to speak of the matter. Not even the boys’ mother mourned them. Before Amini became a teen-ager, she had glimpsed a void at the core of the Iranian justice system.

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