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Two cheers, sisters, for these Zahras

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Kathleen Parker
June 17, 2009
— There’s a “new” old name suddenly in circulation that is both filled with ancient history and ripe with a revolutionary spirit for today’s game-changing events.

Zahra.


Well-known to Muslims, Fatima az-Zahra was one of four daughters of the Prophet Muhammad. Today, Zahra is also the name of two important, outspoken women of Iran.


One is Zahra Rahnavard, the courageous and charismatic wife of the allegedly defeated Iranian presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi. The other is Zahra Khanum, the equally courageous and charismatic woman portrayed in a new movie, “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” about the death of an Iranian woman on trumped-up charges of adultery.


Begging forgiveness for this confederacy of cliches, but we seem to have a perfect storm of tipping points.


Beneath the surface of news blasts covering Iran’s tainted elections, riots, protester deaths and government crackdowns, a subtext of women’s rights is emerging. It is a subtext only to the extent that women’s oppression isn’t often acknowledged directly—not even by the leader of the free world. But human rights are at the core of what is occurring now.


A government that oppresses its people can only sustain itself with violence, as the world is witnessing yet again as thousands take to Iran’s streets. And, in Iran as elsewhere in the Muslim world, violence against women—as well as against homosexuals and others considered inferior according to the mullahs’ masculinist standards—isn’t only permitted but justified with religious doctrine.


Mousavi challenged these notions—and the government, apparently, saw fit that he lose. Even in the midst of so much heat, Mousavi’s wife Zahra on Monday urged students at a Tehran University protest to hold fast in their resistance. Climb to the rooftops, she said, and shout, “God is great!”


Zahra R., who holds a Ph.D. in political science and was an adviser to former President Mohammad Khatami, also has been vocal in urging reforms that would eliminate “morality police,” as well as end discrimination against women.


Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that monument to self-confident masculinity, reportedly was so undone by Zahra’s power on the campaign trail that he questioned whether her doctorate is legitimate.


Americans will begin getting a glimpse of the other Zahra soon as “The Stoning” opens in select cities. Based on a true story, the movie is adapted from French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam’s 1994 novel of the same name.


In the film, produced by Stephen McEveety (“Braveheart” and “The Passion of the Christ”), the journalist-author is stranded in a small village when his car breaks down. Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo) dodges the threatening stares of her fellow villagers and persuades the reporter to come to her house and record her story. Evil has visited her village, she tells him, and she wants the world to know.


Briefly, Zahra’s niece Soraya, mother of four, had been accused of adultery by her abusive, unfaithful husband. The truth was he wanted a divorce so he could marry another. When Soraya refused, he and the village mullah conspired to accuse her of adultery.


As the title suggests, Soraya was convicted and condemned to death by stoning.


I saw a rough cut of this film several months ago. Since that time, I’ve been unable to shake the story or images that I suspect will haunt me forever. Be forewarned: It is brutal. McEveety and director Cyrus Nowrasteh felt that the stoning scene needed to be accurately portrayed or the film would be an insult to Soraya’s suffering.


It will be hard for many to get through to the end, but staying with the movie brings a reward. Despite the brutality, the film is also beautiful and true. It reminds us that a woman in some parts of the world can be destroyed at a man’s whim without consequence. The beauty is that truth will come out.


“The Stoning,” which will be in most theaters June 26, was intentionally timed for release after Iran’s elections. Dennis Rice, charged with promoting the movie, figured the election would help create interest, but he didn’t anticipate the serendipitous intersection of the two Zahras.


“Irony?” he asks. “I think not.”


In Arabic, Zahra means “The Shining One.” In English, we’d call that a beacon.


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kparker@kparker.com.

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