In Iran, a Covert Mission to Bring Women to Jesus
When Michele heard Naseem speak at a luncheon about her work in Iran, she knew immediately that this was a woman we needed to meet. Naseem had the stories we longed to hear. Naseem was gracious to us, but from the beginning she had a difficult time with our interview. She confessed as much: "You must not speak against anyone's religion. It is not that I don't want to tell you the stories. But how can I be certain you will not put anyone at risk?"
Naseem has good reason to fear. A quick Internet survey on Iran finds extremism and conditions that raise concerns for women and girls—actually, for everyone who lives there. Police sweep through Tehran, looking for anyone who appears "too Western." Women must wear dark layers of loose-fitting clothes, and their hair must be entirely covered. Those who question or resist are arrested on the spot.
A peaceful gathering of women on International Women's Day was met with the brutal arrests of 30 women in a park. After 17 years in operation, Zanan, a popular women's magazine, was closed down because it was "corrupting the culture." And just a month before this writing, a 22-year-old woman was sentenced to five years in prison for participating in an event called "One Million Signatures," which supports greater rights for women. A female student who complained of sexual harassment by a senior male lecturer was also charged, despite the fact that YouTube postings show the woman's fellow students with an audio recording of the lecturer sexually propositioning her. "Publicizing certain crimes is worse than the crimes themselves," the local prosecutor claimed.
This is hard to understand from a Western viewpoint. But Iran is a theocratic republic, 98 percent Muslim, with a strict legal system based on sharia law. Sharia brings together elements from the Qur'an and the Hadith, a collection of the deeds and words of Muhammad, plus judges' rulings from Islam's first centuries. It also establishes such things as the inferior status of women. What Westerners are most familiar with is its penal code: the prescribed punishments for sexual offenses that include stoning; for theft that include amputation; for apostasy against Islam, for which the punishment is death.
It would seem that the sexual abuse and exploitation of girls is a huge contradiction in a culture that stones and hangs people for any hint of sexual impurity. "Not really," Naseem said. "Girls are considered second-class citizens. Exploitation and repression actually fit right together."
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