We met Asieh Amini in a liberal neighborhood of northern Tehran, home to many of the city's intellectual and business elite. Taking a break from reporting, a local journalist had invited us to a social gathering at his home. We were shocked to walk inside and see women in a relaxed setting, wearing their hair loose and baring skin. It was a far cry from the streets of Tehran, where women are well-shrouded and often scolded if they are not suitably covered.
Amini was a guest of the host who described her as "probably the most courageous woman in the country."
Her journey to save Iranian women from wrongful death sentences began in 2003, after she read a small item in a government-run newspaper. It told the story of a 22-year-old woman who was hanged in a public square for working as a prostitute, Amini was haunted by the details of the young woman's death and decided to travel to her home in Neka, a port town five hours north of her home city of Tehran.
As a journalist and poet, Amini wasn't sure what she could do, but she knew the dangers she would face as a lone woman taking on the Iranian government on human rights.
Asieh Amini and and Hadi Ghaemi.
In Neka, it didn't take her long to discover the real story of Atefeh Sahaleh. She recovered the woman's birth certificate and found she wasn't 22 but 16. (In 1994, the Iranian government passed a law stating that no one under 18 could be executed. Despite this, Amini says, the government continues to sentence underage children to death, sometimes waiting until their 18th birthday to execute them.)
She also spoke to Sahaleh's family and learned that her mother had died while she was a child and that her father had become as drug addict after losing his wife. With little adult supervision, Sahaleh looked to an extended family for support. A distant relative took advantage of her trust and began sexually abusing her, eventually pushing her into prostitution.
During President Ahmadinejad's last two and a half years in power, Iran has led the world in juvenile executions with at least 22 according to Amnesty International. These young women and men are publicly hanged or, worse, brutally stoned to death. According to Amnesty International and other human rights groups, there are more than 130 juveniles currently held on Iran's death row. Amini says many of their stories are similar to Sahaleh's.
The Iranian government often refuses to investigate properly the circumstances of prostitution cases, Amini says, and the notion of the right to claim self-defense is a foreign concept to the Iranian justice system. To bring more attention to Sahaleh's death, Amini decided to publish her story in a popular Iranian women's magazine called Zanan. She was sure Sahaleh's case was not the only one in which the government had willfully ignored the age of the defendant and their circumstances before condemning them to death.
During President Ahmadinejad's last two and a half years in power, Iran has led the world in juvenile executions with at least 22, according to Amnesty International.
When the story was translated into English, it drew international attention, and eventually became the subject of a BBC documentary. Amini worked with the BBC on the film, but while the identities of some of the women were concealed, Amini refused to cover her face. It was her mission, she says, to show the Iranian government that she was not afraid to fight openly for juvenile justice.
After the documentary aired, Zaman published more articles exposing the plight of women, and the Iranian government shut it down.
Amini too, has been targeted. A blog she regularly contributes to called Varesh and focusing on human rights, has been shut down from time to time and, she says, people are now afraid to hire her for fear of government reprisals. She says her phone is often bugged and that she's frequently followed and harassed. Meetings she has organized in private homes have also been broken up.
Two years ago, she wrote an article about the secret stoning executions of two Iranian women accused of adultery, and helped launch the "Stop Stoning Forever" campaign. She did this in the face of Iranian government claims to the rest of the world that stoning was no longer used as a form of punishment. Joining with other human rights advocates over the years, Amini has helped prevent scores of women from being stoned to death and hanged.
Now an established and formidable human rights campaigner in Iran, she has taken her campaign global. I learned this a couple months ago when I met her again by chance at a small dinner party in Brooklyn, New York.
She had come to America for the first time, quietly securing a visa in Dubai.
She was in New York to take part in the U.N.'s 53rd Commission on the Status of Women. When I asked her if the government knew she was in the U.S. and attending the conference, she raised her eyebrows slowly and shrugged:
"I am trying not to think about what will happen when I go back. I've been doing things my way for a while now. It's important that I think this way. If not, I would be doing nothing. I would simply be another housewife in Iran."