Independent Women’s Forum | 9/5/08 5:05 PM

Those who want to know the truth about Iranian justice must see Cyrus Nowrasteh’s gripping new feature film “The Stoning of Soraya M.”

The film – based on the book written by Friedounce Sahebjam and debuting today at the Toronto International Film Festival – depicts the true life story of Soraya M, an Iranian woman falsely accused of adultery.

She was then sentenced to death by stoning so that her husband would be free to marry a 14-year old. Partially buried in the ground, she was savagely stoned to death by a mob of men that included her own father, husband, and two of her sons.

Her story continues to haunt all of us who have already seen the film. Anyone who questions the danger that is Iran must see this film and witness the barbaric nature of radical, fundamentalist Islamic “justice.”

Islamists target those who question their extreme agenda and they close their societies to dissent. Freedom House, a nonprofit group dedicated to advancing liberty worldwide, reports that since 2000, the Iranian judiciary “closed more than 100 reformist newspapers and jailed hundreds of liberal journalists and activists, while security forces cracked down on the ensuing student protests.”

The so-called Council of Guardians blocked any attempts at liberalization. Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who won the presidency in 2005, may be best known to Americans for his incendiary rhetoric and threats against Israel, but Iranians know him for appointing as top ministers “hard-liners who have been implicated directly in the extrajudicial killings of dissidents and other egregious human rights abuses,” adds Freedom House.

Unfortunately, according to the U.S. Department of State, last year “The government’s poor human rights record worsened, and it continued to commit numerous, serious abuses. The government severely limited citizens’ right to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections.

There were reports of unjust executions after unfair trials. Security forces committed acts of politically motivated abductions; torture and severe officially sanctioned punishments, including death by stoning; amputation; flogging; and excessive use of force against and imprisonment of demonstrators.”

There is no religious freedom in Iran. The State Department reports that “Government rhetoric and actions created a threatening atmosphere for nearly all non-Shi’a religious groups, most notably for Baha’is, as well as Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians, and members of the Jewish community.”

Although more widely educated than men, women’s professional opportunities are limited: They are barred from serving as judges, discouraged from seeking elected office, and face rampant discrimination.

Under Shariah, or Islamic, law, which Ahmadinejad’s has more strictly enforced, women are segregated and forced to conform to a strict dress code. They also do not have equal rights in the laws pertaining to divorce, inheritance and child custody.

A presidential adviser on women’s issues, Zahra Shojaie, once said the stoning of adulterers was permissible “to defend the inviolability of the family.” This chilling policy is displayed in the movie “The Stoning of Soraya M.” Thankfully, Iran’s judiciary recently suspended several stoning sentences and submitted legislation to parliament to end stoning.

Just as women fought for the vote in America, women are fighting for their rights as citizens and human beings in Iran. But they take far greater risks and face far greater punishments. “Dozens of women’s rights advocates were arrested in 2007 for endangering national security and sentenced to prison terms,” according to Freedom House.

Obviously, the U.S. government’s influence over Iran is limited. Washington’s overriding concern at present is ending Tehran’s nuclear program. But U.S. officials can help expose Iran’s flagrant violations of human rights.

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated at an Independent Women’s Forum event in 2006, “When we talk about respect for women, we are referring to a moral truth. Women are free by nature, equal in dignity and entitled to the same rights, the same protections and the same opportunities as men.” And that includes in Iran.

But promoting freedom is not just the responsibility of our government. It is our responsibility too. Films like “The Stoning of Sorya M” play a critical role in educating and enraging people about women’s human rights. We have to turn that knowledge and anger into action.

A year ago, IWF held a conference with pro-democracy Iranian women living in Iran to assist them with their self-described goal of supporting democratic governance and reform in Iran, particularly women’s human rights.

All of the participants in the IWF conference were part of a grassroots movement called the “One Million Signatures” campaign gathering signatures of one million Iranians demanding the end of legal discrimination against women.

The government has harassed and jailed many of the activists involved, but they continue to press for their basic rights as human beings. They ask for America’s support in publicizing their efforts, posting their articles on the Web, writing Iranian officials to request fair and equal treatment for women – especially arrested activists – and sharing the experiences of women’s movements in other nations.

Scripture tells us that to whom much is given, much is expected. Certainly that is true when it comes to liberty. America has given us much. Let us do whatever we can to share the same bountiful freedoms and opportunities with others.

As Secretary Rice observed at IWF’s Woman of Valor Award dinner two years ago: “You don’t have to impose democracy; you have to impose tyranny. Democracy lives and breathes, liberty lives and breathes, in the heart of every human being.”

Michelle D. Bernard is the president and chief executive officer of the Independent Women’s Forum and an MSNBC policy analyst