04 Jun

Haleh Sahabi: Our Antigone in Tehran


 Leah: Must remember these heros…

Haleh Sahabi defied human law to defend moral, divine law; her life writing a heroic legend of the future.Hamid Dabashi Last Modified: 03 Jun 2011 09:50

Haleh Sahabi [right] was released from prison to attend the burial of her father – she died of a heart attack at the funeral after being attacked by police [EPA]


Haleh Sahabi, 54, was a distinguished Quranic hermeneutician, a religious comparatist, a women’s rights scholar, and a committed activist to the cause of her people’s civil liberties. Haleh Sahabi was sentenced to a two-year prison term after she had joined a rally in front of the Iranian parliament in the aftermath of the contested presidential election of 2009. 

While serving her term in jail, Haleh Sahabi was informed of her father’s impending death. He was the prominent Iranian dissident Ezzatollah Sahabi (1930-2011), a revered democracy activist, known and admired for his mild manner, open-minded generosity of spirit, a liberal demeanor, and a commitment to non-violent activism on a religious-nationalist platform for over half a century.

Haleh Sahabi was briefly allowed out of prison to be present for the final days of her father’s life. Ezzatollah died, at the age of 81 on May 31, 2011. Millions of Iranians in and out of their homeland were saddened by his death, deeply grateful for his moderate and caring positions, even those who did not agree with him. 

His funeral began on the following day, June 1, under tight security control, and – according to a number of reliable eyewitness accounts-  including those of Ahmad Montazeri, the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, and Ahmad Sadr Haj Seyyed Javadi, an aging opposition politician – a band of organised plainclothes security forces began to disrupt the funeral, ridiculing and humiliating the attendants, and moved to snatch the body of the deceased from those who were carrying it for a proper burial. 

Haleh Sahabi, leading the funeral, tried to prevent the disruption, while holding on to a picture of her father. The picture was violently taken away from her by a security agent and she was hit on her side. She fell to the ground in the scuffle and soon after died of a cardiac arrest.

The International campaign for Human Rights in Iran holds the plainclothes security forces responsible for Haleh Sahabi’s death, and has called for an official investigation. “The shameful actions of government thugs in this incident reveal a deep contempt for traditions that belong to all Iranians, and they have resulted in a tragedy,” said Hadi Ghaemi, spokesperson for the campaign. Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel Peace laureate, has declared Haleh Sahabi’s death,“intentional murder”. 

In Sophocles’ Antigone (circa 442BC), we learn of two brothers who died fighting each other opposing sides of Thebes’ civil war. The new king, Creon, decrees that one of the two brothers, Eteocles, will be honoured, while the other, Polyneices, will suffer the public shame of not being given a proper burial.

Antigone, one of the two sisters of the dead brothers defies the royal decree and decides to give her damned brother Polyneices a dignified burial. She considers it her duty, even at the cost of defying the law of the land. 

Over the centuries, Antigone’s courageous and principled stance, made against the royal decree, has been the source of the most cherished reflections in the entire tradition of Greek inspired humanities. For more than 2500 years, Sophocles’ tragedy has been the source and inspiration of the most enduring and insightful reflections on the nature of citizenship, political dissent, civil disobedience, moral obligation to one’s family, duty to one’s God, and the rule of law. So much so that is it impossible to imagine the Greek foundation of any claim to humanity and civilisation without Antigone and other tragedies of Sophocles. 

We – Arabs, Iranians, Afghans, Africans, Asians, etc – are in an inaugural moment of our renewed claims to our history, humanity and dignity. 

Today in the streets of Tehran, Kabul, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Tunis, Tripoli, Sanaa, Manama, and scores of other major and minor cities from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, our people are busy writing the allegorical parables of our future claims on who and how and what we are. Our people are writing new legends, crafting new metaphors, coining neologism for our emerging poetries. 

Modern day heroes

Remember today the names of Hamza al-Khateeb, the 13-year-old Syrian boy who was brutally tortured and mutilated by Bashar Assad’s agents in Syria; or Mohammed Bouazizi, the young peddler who set himself on fire out of economic desperation in Ben Ali’s Tunisia; and Neda Agha Soltan, the young Iranian pro-democracy protester who was cold-bloodedly murdered by the security agents of Ayatollah Khamenei. They join the names of Abeer Qassim Hamza al Janabi, the 14-year-old Iraqi girl gang-raped and murdered by US troops and Muhammad al-Durra, the 12-year-old Palestinian boy murdered by Israeli sharpshooters as the iconic parables of a dramatic unfolding of a renewed accord of a people with their destiny.

They are the dramatis personae of the living legends that our posterity will read in their history books, literary genres, moving poetries. The brutish regimes that rule over our lands will in one way or another come to an end and will leave behind nothing for their leaders than ignominy and infamy.

In Antigone, we are faced with the law of the land contravening the rule of traditions. But here and now, facing a vicious and wicked regime that is over-anxious about its own lack of legitimacy, Haleh Sahabi wrote in her living memory a different drama. 

The Islamic Republic is so terrified of any public gathering, especially over dead bodies of its dissidents, precisely because this is the manner in which it took over from the previous regime and that it abused to outmanoeuvre its ideological rivals in order to stay in power. 

The Islamic Republic is a republic of death and dying, a republic of fear of the living and thriving. Haleh Sahabi did not break any law to honour her father’s right to a dignified burial. She exposed the banality of the evil that rules over some seventy-odd million human beings, a banality that has not even the decency of allowing a dignified burial of an 81-year-old father, without causing the death of her mourning daughter too.     

Ezzatollah Sahabi lived a long and fulfilling life. Haleh Sahabi was cut down halfway through her dignified extension of her father’s causes into unchartered territories. Antigone defied a human law to observe a divine mandate, a moral commandment. Haleh Sahabi defied the ghoulish last shrieks of a dying theocracy to lay the foundation of a new ennobling legend for her people: The legend of Haleh Sahabi – the daughter who did not allow the body of her noble father stolen by ignoble fiends. 

How many brute and cruel tyrants have come and gone? But we only remember the glorious, the defiant, the courageous Antigone. 

The Ben Alis, the Mubaraks, the Gaddafis, and the Khameneis of our history too in one way or another will eventually become a boring footnote in some future history book – the titles, themes, and empowering dramas of which will blossom around the names of Antigone and Haleh Sahabi. 

Tonight Haleh Sahabi, a daughter who came out of prison to bury her father and honour his passing to eternity, sleeps prematurely but peacefully in the vicinity of that father.

Among her other courageous endeavours, Haleh Sahabi was a member of the “Mothers of Peace”, a group mostly consisting of mothers whose children had perished at the hands of thugs employed by the garrison state to preserve it a little longer, each woman committed to reduce the intensity of violence in their homeland.

Somewhere between defiant daughters and mothers of peace, the future of Haleh Sahabi’s homeland is in very caring and capable hands – the hands of the living and the life-givers. Like Antigone, Haleh Sahabi is now the budding seed of an ennobling tragedy that will sustain her people’s renewed struggle to demand and exact their inalienable rights to freedom and liberty, for the dignity of daughters and sons being allowed to bury their fathers and mothers in peace. 

Rest in peace, gallant sister, our own mighty Antigone: Haleh Khanom Sahabi.  

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.  He is the author, most recently, of Iran, the Green Movement, and the US: The Fox and the Paradox (Zed, 2010). 

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