Long before I embarked on this nutty journey, a friend sent me an email at work marked urgent.

The words that met my eyes were unmistakable.

 “STOP THE EXECUTION OF HAJIEH ESMAILWAND.”

Her name tasted like a chili, stinging and alien.  I didn’t even know the person was a “she” until I read further.

Hajieh had been in prison five years by the time I saw this petition.  She was sentenced with committing adultery in Jolfa, Iran, forced to serve a prison term and then come to a climax with death – by stoning.  Since the revolution, the Iranian women rights movement had to go underground, but little triumphs have bloomed, particularly the campaign to Stop Stoning Forever.

I admit to not remembering if I signed the petition, knowing me, a booming yes.  What was more interesting is how removed I felt from it.

I nursed empathy, one thing I’m adept at is picturing how it might be to live in her skin for one day.  It couldn’t have been posies and trotting through a golden field of wheat.

Yet, her association to me was a dimly lit bulb.  We North Americans love to bring it back to how anything affects us.  Truth be told, her predicament, while horrifying and unjust, was not part of my reality.  I could easily get on with my life.

It’s not until you leave the comforts of your homeland do you understand.

In India, I was constantly faced with unfairness, double-standard behavior and shock.  A co-volunteer confirmed that village girls in Bihar are forced to marry as young as 14.  Why does my skin break out in goosebumps, the downy hair on the rear of my neck rise with electric fear to this piece of knowledge?

Some days I was uncomfortably victim to these cultural laws.   I squirmed, held my tongue, and eventually burst out in mini-tantrums, sometimes on the most innocent person.  I’m sorry, ricksahw driver.  Maybe not so sorry to the jerk who had the misfortune of cutting in front my femaleness at the railway station.

I tried to ignore the fact that my male volunteer host, Prakash, could go out freely at night, to explore his surroundings. While Kavita, his wife, was left to tend to the children.  It was only during daylight when she was allowed to venture out alone, usually to the doctor.

Feigning ignorance was difficult for me.   It was tempting to exert my inner feminist.  And sometimes I did to great success.

Then I learned those cultural laws also exist for a reason.  The guidebooks for Turkey all recommended that solo women do not sit at the back of a bus, for long haul trips.  I scoffed.  What?  Nobody is gonna tell me where to sit.  Didn’t that scatter with the sexual revolution?  The equivalent to, nobody is gonna dictate who I bed.

I found out quickly.  Near the end of a 13-hour bus ride from Cappadocia to Istanbul the seemingly harmless bus conductor who hours earlier handed me a towel, proceeded to the back where I stubbornly made my “stand” and to my dismay he slid his hand across my thigh.  Expectation hung in the air, his flint, black eyes emitting an unfriendly sexual demand.

I froze.  A voice sliced through, a distinctly male one, suddenly engaging the conductor in Turkish.  His hungry grip on me loosened immediately and he slithered away, towards the front of the bus.  I looked up to see a smiling fella, holding out his hand in greeting.

I was saved by a man.

Flex your power when you can.  Yet, letting go of it is equally powerful.  See, we have that choice.  Not every woman in the world does.

If you aren’t familiar with Hajieh’s case, her lawyer successfully stayed the execution, was awarded a new trial and acquitted of adultery.  You can read an interview with her lawyer, Bahareh Davalloo, here.

Photo of Iranian woman in hijab: pooyan