My own emotions overwhelmed me today. First my three girls filled my heart with joy; and then the memory of two other courageous daughters made me yearn with pain and pride for every brave, hopeful girl in the world.
My youngest daughter “graduated” from elementary school this morning, just on the heels of her big sister graduating from high school; and the eldest came home from a successful year in college. When I opened my computer, expecting to see photos of happy 10 year-olds from the morning ceremony dotting my Facebook newsfeed, instead two significant anniversaries taking place today bowled me over:
- The 30-year anniversary of Sally Ride’s Space Shuttle Challenger flight, where she became the first American woman in space; and
- The 30-year anniversary of the hanging of ten young women in Shiraz, Iran. The key charge — “misleading children and youth” for teaching children who had been expelled from school for being members of the Baha’i Faith.
On the very same day — June 18, 1983 — one nation sent its first young female scientist into space, while another government sent young women with high aspirations to the gallows. This stark contradiction seems especially appalling when I think of Mona Mahmoudnizhad, age sixteen, who the Iranian government hung just as Sally Ride blasted off.
I had not personally known Mona, but our birthdays were just one month apart on the same year, our families knew each other, and immediately after her execution, people would often mistake my name “Homa” for “Mona.” Had my parents stayed in Iran, and not come to the United States to pursue their education, my fate could have been similar to hers. I’m still often called “Mona,” and each time I am, a little surge of her memory zaps my heart. Mona’s execution, a result of her standing up for her beliefs, formed a key turning point for me in my teen years, even though I grew up ensconced in suburban USA. A lovely, exuberant young woman, she inspired so many, including this song, which reached the Top 40 charts in Canada; this touching musical tribute; another, from Ireland; and this story; among many more.
Now Iran has elected a new president, a purportedly moderate cleric, one of the candidates hand-picked by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. I’m remembering Mona’s courage under unimaginable trials, and how little has changed in thirty years since the Iranian Revolution. Young Baha’i mothers and their new-born babies have recently been imprisoned there, and the seven-member Board assisting Iran’s largest religious minority have just marked five harsh years of their 20-year prison sentence, the longest sentence of any prisoners of conscience in a nation whose prisons are crowded with them.
While the regime in Iran bans Baha’is from higher education, my own daughters get to pursue their education of choice, far from their country of heritage. And in the spirit of Sally Ride, NASA just announced its new astronaut candidate class will be 50% female for the first time.
The timing of these diametrically opposed developments in Iran and the U.S., both thirty years ago and today, may be coincidental. But they serve as a powerful reminder of the potential of the human spirit to rise up to unimaginable heights or descend into absolute barbarism. As human beings, each of us chooses a course of courage and compassion – or its opposite. I hope and pray that Mr. Rouhani, Iran’s new president, will choose courage and compassion, justice and tolerance, and raise Iran from its shameful position among the nations of the world.
Please, President Rouhani: Liberate Iran’s innocent prisoners of conscience. Allow women and men to educate and be educated. Do not fear free speech and thought. These simple steps will free Iran to look back thirty years from now and mark an anniversary of innovation and construction, not oppression and destruction.
Do it for Mona, and Sally, and all of our daughters.