“With a hanging rope in front of my eyes, that I am not afraid of, I write to tell the tale that I lived, leaving nothing unspoken.” – Reyhaneh Jabbari
Today is a cold anniversary marred by the reminder of an unjust death. On this day one year ago, Reyhaneh Jabbari was executed by hanging in Iran. She was only 26 years old at the time of her death. Despite the fact she was taken from this earth, she left us many important things before her departure. She willed us words that are eternally poetic, whether she intended them that way or not, whether she knew they would reach us or not.
The death of Reyhaneh Jabbari is more than just an unfortunate event. She is more than the horror that led up to her untimely demise. She was a young woman full of things we needed to hear and it’s a shame that the world was only allowed to read about her in the terrible outcome of her “trial” and the international disgust thereafter. It’s important for us all to realize that her execution, the injustice around it and the chauvinism hurled at her are not just Iranian problems.
Reyhaneh was convicted of killing a man she said attempted to rape her. She was arrested in 2007 after being accused of the murder of Morteza Abdolali Sarbandi, a former Iranian intelligence ministry worker. She wrote from prison about how she was forced to confess to premeditated murder:
Once they took me somewhere for interrogation where I saw a 14 or 15 year old girl hanging from the ceiling from her wrists. The girl was pale, her lips were cracked. She was whimpering.
[In another room,] the interrogator sat across from me and said that today or tomorrow they would go get my little sister … He referred to her by name: Badook. “It is her turn,” he said. “She is frail, thin … How long do you think she will last hanging like that one?” He began telling me in detail what he was going to do in front of me to my little sister … I started crying and begged him not to do such a thing. He said he had no alternative. I asked him what I could do to stop him from hurting my sister. He said: “It is very simple. Just confess that you bought the knife before the murder.” … So I wrote that I had bought the knife beforehand, signed the paper and breathed a sigh of relief.
She would spend years in prison awaiting her execution. I imbibed whatever words I could find from her after reading about her story and came to see her extremely moving heart in the expressions rendered from the captivity of imprisonment. The late Jabbari was a woman who like many other women became prey for the deviant intentions of men.
In Mexico, a case with some parallels took place with Yakiri Rubi Rubio. According to Yakiri, on December 9, 2013, she was abducted by two brothers who took her back to a hotel at knifepoint where they sexually abused her. She was ultimately able to use the weapon against her assailants and escape. Although she was not executed for defending herself, it was 18 months later after she’d spent time in prison that courts would concede she was defending herself.
Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia, sentenced a woman to six months in prison and 200 lashes for her gang rape around the same time Reyhaneh was arrested. Her punishment increased when she spoke to the media about what happened to her. She would ultimately be pardoned though she too faced prison time for her rape.
The state and its executioners often back up and reinforce the men who victimize rather than the women who have been victimized.
Women’s punishment and death for rape and sexual abuse are not new phenomena. Europe and the United States both have rich histories in this regard. From the kidnapping and rape of enslaved African and Native women to the witch trials that took place throughout, criminalizing women at any expense was normalized as foundational early on in the formation of the nation-states we recognize today.
An early example lies in the case of a 19-year-old enslaved woman named Celia. After years of being raped by her “owner,” Robert Newsom, she eventually became unwilling to take any more of his abuse. One night after Newsom informed Celia he would be paying her a visit she clubbed him to death upon arrival to her cabin. She faced trial over his murder and was hung at the gallows, like Reyhaneh, for killing the man who regularly violated her. Death makes permanent the solution then and now for many women who dare to challenge the desire of their male attackers.
The state and its executioners often back up and reinforce the men who victimize rather than the women who have been victimized. Reyhaneh’s case is one more example of the futility of the death penalty.
I can never hope to completely understand the struggle or the women who have been taken away by the endless vortex of sexist accusation and punishment. For centuries, dating back to the most ancient of times, this spectacle has been repeated. Another young star was destroyed before she could actualize her hopes and her dreams. Reyhaneh told us as much when she wrote:
Anytime I think of my hopes and dreams, I start to cry. When I fall asleep thinking of the hopes I had for my future, I dream of myself on my wedding day wearing a white dress. Then slowly the dress turns from white to black, my eye makeup looks like I have been crying, my face is covered with black tulle and I see myself holding a bouquet of dried up dead flowers. I have never told a soul about this until now. No one knows how I was forced to give up the love of my life. I had to. When I was nineteen I had no idea that my life would go up in smoke in that house and that a few years later, the courts would decide to make me into ashes.
These institutions that snatched Reyhaneh are grossly repetitive: misogyny, execution and government. The way they worked in harmony to stifle her voice is an evil harmony in a sad song that plays on repeat the world over. Be it where I live in the United States or in Iran, each of these systems has the complete and full capability of committing more trauma on top of what already preexists. There is no reconciliation in the needles that inject poison, the ropes that squeeze necks or any of the methods governments use to kill those they have deemed unfit to live.
The irony lies in the fact that the ones who choose to take life see themselves as holy and in situations like Reyhaneh’s, governments spite their adversaries by condemning them for killing women and men like her. Meanwhile, they all do the same to their own citizens. Reyhaneh was not a tool for jingoists to label Iran as primitive. She was a person who had her own life, her own desires and her own words. She was special and unique in the softness of her existence.
The reality that permanently stripped her of her physical consciousness was like a bullet piercing a cloud. Despite the fact she is gone and I’ll never see her face, or read new words from her, she is still here. She will come and reform again and again like water that evaporates and falls from the sky and separates to go off distances. She is living because she chose to live through her final experience and surpass the boundaries of physical death.
In her final words to her mother, she said:
My kind mother, dear Sholeh, the one more dear to me than my life, I don’t want to rot under the soil. I don’t want my eye or my young heart to turn into dust … Beg so that it is arranged that as soon as I am hanged my heart, kidney, eye, bones and anything that can be transplanted be taken away from my body and given to someone who needs them as a gift. I don’t want the recipient to know my name, buy me a bouquet, or even pray for me. I am telling you from the bottom of my heart that I don’t want to have a grave for you to come and mourn there and suffer. I don’t want you to wear black clothing for me. Do your best to forget my difficult days. Give me to the wind to take away.
Reyhaneh has certainly given us her heart and spilled its beauty for us to carry it with us wherever we should go. In her words, she gave us bones to make us strong and kidneys to cleanse us of the toxins of this world. And lastly she gave us eyes to see if we will only look through them.