1923: Florence Lassandro, unwilling feminist

Add comment May 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1923, the only woman ever executed in Alberta’s history was hanged at Fort Saskatchewan.

Alberta had introduced alcohol prohibition in 1916. Florence Lassandro and her husband Carlo, Italian immigrants, were in the profitable contraband business that resulted, employed by the “Emperor Pic” — a rum-running godfather named Emilio Picariello.

Emperor Pic and Florence were together in a vehicle crossing from the British Columbia border in September, 1922, when an attempt to serve a warrant resulted in a chase in which Picariello’s son (fleeing in another vehicle) was shot through the hand. Shortly thereafter, Picariello and Lassandro sought out the shooter, police constable Steve Lawson, and in the resulting confrontation Lawson himself was shot dead.

The circumstances of this fatal encounter are murky and disputed; Lassandro initially claimed to have pulled the trigger, and this helped to get both she and Picariello condemned to death for the crime. As her execution neared — under circumstances we’ll get into momentarily — she amended that statement.

“We agreed that it would be best for me to take the responsibility and say that I did it, as women don’t hang in Canada and he would get off,” she said in a telegram to the Justice Minister (according to Jana Pruden‘s Edmonton Journal story of Oct. 9, 2011). “I never shot a gun in my life — was always afraid of them.”

But in the public debate over her prospective hanging, the question wasn’t so much about Lassandro not being a triggerman but about her not being a man.

The discomfiture still usual in our own day over putting a woman to death was certainly present in early 20th century Canada. No woman had hanged anywhere in Canada since Hilda Blake 24 years years prior.

But Florence Lassandro found an unexpected hand cutting away this lifeline: the women’s movement.

Canadian women had won suffrage in most provinces during the war years, and only in 1921 had the first woman been seated in Parliament. The next movement milestone on the horizon (it would be achieved in 1929) was winning juridical recognition of women as legal “persons”.

So the women’s movement in 1920s Canada was deeply sensitive to any appearance of special pleading which appeared to place adult women on any footing lesser to adult men. A Prohibition gangster who shot a cop would surely be hanged if a man; indeed, Emilio Picariello, slated to die on the same morning as Florence Lassandro, had no real hope of clemency. So wasn’t Florence Lassandro’s claim on mercy nothing but the old sentimental paternalism that women were trying to escape?*

“I also desire to protest against the pernicious doctrine that because a person who commits a murder is a woman that person should escape from capital punishment,” wrote Emily Murphy, Canada’s (and the British Empire’s) first female magistrate. “As women we claim the privileges of citizenship for our sex, and we accordingly are prepared to take upon ourselves the weight of the penalties as well.”

An Alberta provincial barrister agreed, if a bit condescendingly: if “women will occupy themselves with all those things (law, Bench, franchise, etc.), taking the places side by side with men as their equal in all things, including even part in the framing and administration of our own laws, surely women should be equally subject to those laws in the event of their offending against them.” (Both quotes from Westward Bound: Sex, Violence, the Law, and the Making of a Settler Society.)

So Florence Lassandro was subject to those laws indeed.**

Early on the morning of May 2, Emilio Picariello (about whom, just to prove the point, we’ve barely spoken) went first to the gallows, scornfully refusing the hood. Minutes after he swung, Lassandro — visibly stricken with fright — followed.

“Why do you hang me when I didn’t do anything?” she implored of the official witnesses. “Is there not anyone who has any pity?”

No one answered.

“I forgive everyone.”

And then she hanged.

Twelve months later, Prohibition was repealed in Alberta.

* This is by no means a latter-day insight. Olympe de Gouges‘s French Revolution-era Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen turned the equation around and argued, “Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum.”

As a somewhat digressive aside, Paul Friedland has made the case that men experiencing a very gender-specific shock at seeing women attending executions was instrumental in the gradual removal of once-public executions behind prison walls.

** Lassandro’s fellow-Italians had her back where her fellow-women did not, and they argued — not unreasonably — that Canada already had a de facto practice of never executing women and it was awfully convenient that everyone was now so high-minded about scrapping taboo once there was a poor Italian immigrant in the dock.

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1867: Bridget Durgan, “hardly human”

4 comments August 30th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1867, Irish immigrant maid Bridget Durgan (or Durgin, or Dergan) was hanged in New Brunswick, New Jersey for murdering the mistress of the house.

In this instantly sensational case, Durgan at first represented herself the party raising the hue and cry with the neighbors as her mistress was slaughtered by two unknown visitors. (Since it was a doctor’s house, the “unknown visitors” part wasn’t an unusual circumstance.)

Unfortunately our maidservant conducted this office without recognizing that her own dress was bloodstained and would implicate her in the crime — as would the suspicious circumstance that the homicide took place on the very eve of Durgan’s involuntary termination date, the victim having judged her contribution to the household inadequate.

If Durgan’s published confession is to be believed — and many didn’t believe it, since the condemned woman’s stories varied wildly before settling on the rather pat version that none of the other suspected participants were involved — she had come down in the world from a less abject birth in Ireland, transferred upon her victim a hatred conceived for a previous mistress in a previous household, and done the deed in some confused attempt to supplant Mrs. Coriell.

(This confession offers a florid narration — and illustration (pdf) — of the dying woman staying Bridget’s coup de grace long enough to give her infant child one last kiss.)

So, from the standpoint of criminal heinousness and public outrage over same, this was definitely the sort of thing to hang a body.

Difficult questions of weighing the proper level of culpability for offenses committed by those with a seemingly diminished mental capacity were at this time becoming a hot topic in criminology; in a few years, a madman who assassinated a president would make them national news.

Poet and women’s rights activist Elizabeth Oakes Smith, then entering her seventh decade, went to see Bridget Durgan. It was, she said, a habit of hers to “visit the prisons … that I may the better understand my own sex in every aspect.”*

Smith published a study (pdf; the same analysis was also printed in the New York Times) of our unhappy subject for the edification of the popular press. It’s quite an interesting read for a window on the social outlook in the post-Civil War North, doubly so when recalling as one reads that Smith is attempting to argue a case for clemency for her subject, and against the death penalty in general.

In the scale of human intelligence I find Bridget Durgin on the very lowest level. She has cunning and ability to conceal her real actions; and so have the fox, the panther, and many inferior animals, whose instincts are not more clearly defined than those of Bridget Durgin …

Ain’t nothin’ but mammals: left, Bridget Durgan, as illustrated in her confessions (pdf); center, a panther ((cc) image from Iain Purdie); right, a cunning fox ((cc) image from Jakob Newman).

her hair combed close to her head … give the observer an opportunity to notice her strong animal organization. She is large in the base of the brain, and swells out over the ears, where destructiveness and secretiveness are located by phrenologists, while the whole region of intellect, ideality and moral sentiment is small …

Her texture, temperature, all are coarse; hair coarse and scanty, forehead naturally corrugated and low, nose concave and square at the nostrils, leaving a very long upper lip … her eyes wavering constantly. They open across, not below, the ball, and the pupil is uncommonly small; I should say she would be naturally dim-sighted. It is purely the eye of a reptile in shape and expression. The jaws are large and heavy, but the mouth is small … narrow gums, catlike in shape, with pointed teeth.


(cc) image from Jarrod Carruthers.

There is not one character of beauty, even in the lowest degree, about the girl — not one ray of sentiment, nothing genuine, hardly human …

I looked upon Bridget Durgin without prejudice, and I describe her without exageration. She was born without moral responsibility, just as much as the tiger or the wolf is so born;

Tiger ((cc) image from Chris Ruggles); wolf ((cc) image from C. Young Photography).

and the question naturally arises, what is the duty of a wise, humane and just legislator in her case … whether it is right to take an irresponsible, morally idiotic creature, and she a woman, whose sex has had no voice in making the laws under which she will suffer, and hang her by the neck till she is dead, is a question for our advanced civilization to consider.

Durgan, who bore all the public opprobrium of a Casey Anthony — plus points for being unattractive,** and for class-based moral panic, and for actually being convicted — had little chance to avoid her sentence, as Smith herself admitted.

When the time came, she met her fate steadily (in some quarters, this was also held against her insofar as it could support the “dumb animal” narrative) and yanked aloft on an upward-jerking gallows, ushered to the afterlife by a couple thousand people who crowded adjoining buildings for a view into the jailhouse yard. (A spectators’ platform collapsed.) This bit of technological wizardry was poorly engineered and, rather than efficiently snapping Durgan’s neck as was its intent, strangled the murderess to death instead.

“More abominable curiosity, more mawkish sentimentality, more religious affectation, has been expended on this bloodthirsty animal than we remember in the case of almost any other modern criminal,” complained The New York Times.

* Smith had another reason for familiarity with prisons: her son Appleton Oaksmith, late a filibuster in William Walker‘s party, did time during the Civil War for pro-Confederate gun-running and slave trading. His mother helped secure him a pardon.

** The New York Times (May 21, 1867) had simply called our hated Irishwoman “ordinary-looking.” We’ve seen with, for instance, Charlotte Corday that observers are wont to shape perceived feminine beauty according to perceived criminal monstrousness, and vice versa.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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1907: Qiu Jin, Chinese feminist and revolutionary

4 comments July 15th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1907, Chinese poet, intellectual and activist Qiu Jin (Ch’iu Chin) was beheaded for plotting an anti-Qing rising.

The daughter of a well-to-do gentry family, Qiu was shunted into the arranged marriage that would have been usual for her milieu.

It did not suit her.

Hers had been an active mind from youth, and after several years of domestic misery, resolved to make her own way in the world, separated herself from her husband, and headed for Japan.

She prepared herself for this journey by an act taxing symbolism as heavily as physique: painfully un-binding her feet. “Unbinding my own feet to undo the poisoned years / Arousing the souls of a hundred flowers to passionate movement,” she wrote in verse while en route to Japan.*

She would later issue a plea for women to emancipate themselves by doing likewise.

[W]e women, who have had our feet bound from early childhood, have suffered untold pain and misery, for which our parents showed no pity. Under this treatment our faces grew pinched and thin, and our muscles and bones were cramped and distorted. The consequence is that our bodies are weak and incapable of vigorous activity, and in everything we do we are obliged to lean on others.

Being thus necessarily dependent on external aid, we find ourselves, after marriage, subjected to the domination of men, just as though we were their household slaves. All our energies are confined to the home, where we are occupied in cutting out clothes, cooking and preparing food, making tea and boiling rice, sprinkling and sweeping, waiting on our husbands, and handing them basin and towel.

In any important business we are prevented from taking the least part. Should a guest arrive, we are obliged to make ourselves scarce and hide in our private apartments. We are not allowed to inquire deeply into any subject, and should we venture to speak at any length in reply to some argument, we are told that our sex is volatile and shallow.

My sisters, do you know where the fault lies that has brought us to this pass? It is all due to women’s lack of energy and spirit. We ourselves drew back in the first instance, and by-and-by that came to be regarded as an immutable rule of conduct.

Sisters, let us today investigate the causes which have led to this want of spirit and energy among women. May it not be because we insist on binding up our girls’ feet at an early age, speaking of their “three-inch golden lilies” and their “captivating little steps”? May it not be, I say, that this process of foot-binding is what has sapped and destroyed all our energy and spirit?

Today my blood is up, and I want to stir your blood as well, my sisters, and rouse you to a sense of your degradation. All women should, in the first place, refuse to adorn themselves with paint and powder, or trick themselves out in seductive guise, realizing that every human being has his own natural countenance given to him by God … In bringing forward this question of unbound feet, my sisters, I want you to realize that the result of having feet of the natural size will be to abolish the evils attendant on injured bones and muscles and an enfeebled constitution — surely a cause for unbounded rejoicing. …

If one day we succeed in wiping out this horrible blot on our civilization, our bodies will begin to grow stronger, and the steps we take in walking will become a pleasure instead of a pain. Having thus regained their natural energy, the whole sex will progress without difficulty, and an endless store of happiness will be built up for thousands of generations of women yet unborn.

But if you shrink from this reform, and wish to retain the pretty sight of small feet beneath your petticoats, you will remain imprisoned to the end of the chapter in the seclusion of your inner apartments, quite devoid of any strength of character, and it will be impossible to manifest the native brilliancy of the female sex. … Let there be thorough enlightenment on the subject of foot-binding, and progress in the matter of equal rights for men and women will surely follow.

That’s being on the right side of history.

In these last days of the decrepit Qing, prophets and revolutionaries with visions of a better tomorrow grew thick on the ground.

Qiu distinguished herself by her eloquence among Tokyo’s Chinese expatriates. Her powerful vision of women reborn as equals, and China reborn as independent and strong, must have had a bit of that personal-is-political vibe.

We sisters must learn to put aside everything we have preoccupied ourselves with before and focus on what we must do for our future — as if our former selves are dead and we have returned to this world in other forms of humanity.

-Qiu Jin in Tokyo, 1904 (Source)

Returning to her homeland, she found wage work as a teacher and her life’s work as her era’s most famous female activist: she artfully combined vocation and avocation by using her school as a cover to train revolutionary fighters.

And if contemporaries had been shocked by her foot un-binding and marriage un-doing, they hadn’t seen anything when it came to gender transgression. Qiu dressed in men’s clothes, rode horseback astride, trained in swordplay, and put out China’s first women’s journal. Her intimate friend — and possibly her lesbian lover — Wu Zhiying, whose biographical essays helped cement Qiu’s posthumous fame, remembered her friend as

forthright. When she happened to meet benighted ones, she would confront them head-on, leaving little room for compromise. People often held this against her. Some even compared her to Sophia [Perekovskaya] and Madame Roland. She would answer [to such appellations] without much thought.

(Quoted in Hu Ying, “Writing Qiu Jin’s Life: Wu Zhiying and Her Family Learning,” Late Imperial China, December 2004)

How it would have crowned the character arc for this once-hobbled housewife had the insurrectionary plot she masterminded with her cousin Xu Xilin succeeded! Maybe it was a little too operatic even for the fates to swallow.

In the event, the hour of the Manchus’ destruction would not arrive for another four years, although it would come at the hands of another secret-society plot.

But Qiu Jin’s got sniffed out by the authorities and busted pre-emptively; our day’s hero made a brave but only symbolic last stand at her school, then was taken into custody and tortured. She yielded a line of poetry, but would not implicate comrades.

“Autumn wind, autumn rain — they make one die of sorrow.”

Qiu Jin was publicly beheaded at Shaoxing. Within five years (and the realization of that revolution she had lost her life pursuing), memorial sites and statues were going up to her memory around China.


Shaoxing statue of Qiu Jin. (cc) image from jensimon7.

* She wrote poetry throughout her life; there are some selections of Qiu Jin poetry translated to English here.

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1963: Nora Parham, the only woman hanged in Belize

6 comments June 5th, 2011 Headsman

Belize, B. Honduras, June 5. — Nora Parham, aged 36, the East Indian mother of eight sons, was hanged today for the murder of the man with whom she had been living.

So ran a minute, page-10 wire story in the London Times* from the British Central American possession soon to become self-governing as the country of Belize.

The unfortunate subject of the story was the first, and remains to date the only, woman put to death in Belize.

But she’s very much more than a bit of trivia.

A domestic violence victim hanged for murdering her batterer — who just happened to be a cop — Parham remains a lively source of controversy down to the present day.

Nora’s position as the victim in an abusive marriage, combined with serious doubt about whether she truly killed her husband at all, have given her enduring appeal. There’s a going campaign to issue her a posthumous pardon. In fact, there was a going campaign before she died to issue her a humous pardon, opposed by a governing party paper on the grounds that “sympathy” ought not “change court rulings.”

And it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Nora Parham and the years of beatings she’s reported to have endured in her relationship with Ketchell Trapp. One doubts even the harshest magistrate would condemn a person in her situation to hang today.

“By refusing to treat the pair as wife and husband, not just cop slayer and cop,” argues this volume on gender politics in colonized Belize, “the government deepened its own highly political silence about domestic and community gender oppression and violence and added a threatening element to its re-call to ‘domestic womanhood.'”

That cop/husband was doused with gasoline and set afire, but admitted as he expired from these ghastly injuries that he had been beating Parham before the fatal fire.

Even so, it sounds like a calculated way to kill a person.

But many believe, as Parham testified at her trial** that it wasn’t homicide at all … that Trapp was incidentally splattered with gasoline during his donnybrook with his wife, then carelessly set himself ablaze lighting a cigarette while off in the outhouse. (While naked, no less. What a way to go.)

“While he came back in the bedroom, I had a gasoline iron [in] my hand with a pan of gasoline.

“He came in the bedroom with a stick in his hand and hit me on my head. When he was going to hit me another hit, I threw the gasoline on him and he grabbed away the pan from me, and I went through the backdoor and he stone me with the said pan.

“After he stoned [me], I ran around the house and he never see where I got to. I went in the house through the front door, then I took the gasoline iron from where I left it and put it in the box.

“While I was inside I heard a noise and I run to see what it was. When I went I saw Ketchell Trapp come out of the latrine under fire. I then run up to help him but I see I could not, then I continued running towards the Hospital back street, running towards the station.

-Nora Parham, at trial

That trial excerpt is drawn from a strongly pro-Nora account with more details about the case here.

Belize still hands down death sentences, but has not carried one out on anybody, man or woman, since 1985.

* June 6, 1963

** All-male jury, which was true of all juries in Belize until 1970.

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1911: Sugako Kanno, radical feminist

Add comment January 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1911, Japanese anarchist writer Sugako (“Suga”) Kanno was executed for the High Treason Incident — the only woman ever hanged for treason in Japan.

Radicalized by suffering rape in her teens, Kanno was known for her discomfiting engagement with Japan’s unsettled “woman question.”

More to the point, she was one of the handful of the treason trial subjects who was directly involved in the actual plot to assassinate the emperor. (Her diaries are full of anguish for those tried with her who were merely guiltly by association.)

Kanno is often subsumed in retrospective accounts by Shusui Kotoku, the more famous male anarchist who was also her lover.

But Kanno was also one of her country’s first female journalists, first notable feminists … a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction, and a radical intellectual in her own right.

Her voluminous diaries in the run-up to her hanging are reprinted in Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Rebel Women in Prewar Japan.

[E]ven among anarchists I was among the more radical thinkers [she told her interrogators]. When I was imprisoned in June 1908 in connection with the Red Flag incident I was outraged at the brutal behavior of the police. I concluded that a peaceful propagation of our principles could not be conducted under these circumstances. It was necessary to arouse the people’s awareness by staging riots or a revolution or by undertaking assassinations … Emperor Mutsuhito, compared with other emperors in history, seems to be popular with the people and is a good individual. Although I feel sorry for him personally, he is, as emperor, the chief person responsible for the exploitation of the people economically. Politically he is at the root of all the crimes being committed, and intellectually he is the fundamental cause of superstitious belief. A person in such a position, I concluded, must be killed.

Succinct. Little wonder she admired Russian assassin Sophia Perovskaya … and that she shared Perovskaya’s fate.

She mounted the scaffold escorted by guards on both sides. Her face was covered quickly by a white cloth … She was then ordered to sit upright on the floor. Two thin cords were placed around her neck. The floor-board was removed. In twelve minutes she was dead.

-newspaper account

Sugako Kanno is profiled more extensively in Treacherous Women of Imperial Japan: Patriarchal Fictions, Patricidal Fantasies.

She was back in the news in 2010 when a long-hidden secret message of hers surfaced, corroborating the orthodox historical take that while Kanno was up to her eyeballs in a real plot to murder the emperor, Shusui Kotoku was not part of it.

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1852: Fatimih Baraghani, Tahirih the pure

Add comment August 31st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1852, the Persian poet Fatimih Baraghani was strangled with her veil in a Tehran garden for her women’s rights advocacy.

She’s best known as* Tahirih, the title meaning “pure one” given her by the Bab.

The moniker denoted the latter’s support of her in the Babi community that would eventually develop into the Baha’i faith. Tahirih was notable even within that outlawed sect for her staunch advocacy of female emancipation; in 1848, she dramatically unveiled in public at a conference to underscore her rejection of Islamic gender law.

Known for her intelligence as well as her militancy, she came under increasing police pressure. She was killed along with about 30 of her faith in the Persian crackdown on Babism after an assassination attempt on the Shah.

Her reported last words were modern-sounding indeed:

You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.

Most readily available material about this inspirational character tends to the devotional, as with this video series; Executed Today does not necessarily endorse the position that at her apparent death she actually only escaped to trans-dimensional hiding.

* Fatimih Baraghani is also known as Qurratu’l-‘Ayn, or Qurrat al-‘Ayn — “consolation of the eyes.”

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1793: Olympe de Gouges, a head of her time

9 comments November 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Olympe de Gouges’ forward thoughts were removed from her shoulders in the Place de la Revolution.

Most recognizable today for her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizen* — a proto-feminist call for equality of the sexes issued in response to the day’s revolutionary but guy-centric Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizende Gouges was much more than a one-issue woman.

Fully engaged with the liberal intellectual currents of the Enlightenment, de Gouges spent the 1770’s and 1780’s in Parisian salon circles cranking out plays (over 40) and petitions, pamphlets and manifestos on animal welfare, poverty, the treatment of orphans, and ending slavery.

The latter issue, and not women’s rights, was the cause her contemporaries would have most associated with her.

But the natural-born gadfly didn’t pick her battles with injustice, and the Terror was a bad period to be indiscriminate. Like some of her Girondist associates, she risked the Paris mob’s wrath by openly opposing Louis XVI‘s execution — right in character, Olympe was down on the whole idea of the death penalty — and she carried principle into foolhardiness by printing broadsides savaging Robespierre.

Show trial time.

There can be no mistaking the perfidious intentions of this criminal woman, and her hidden motives … calumniating and spewing out bile in large doses against the warmest friends of the people, their most intrepid defender.

Misogynist condescension veined the prevailing interpretation of this misbehavior.

Olympe de Gouges, born with an exalted imagination, mistook her delirium for an inspiration of nature. She wanted to be a man of state. She took up the projects of the perfidious people who want to divide France. It seems the law has punished this conspirator for having forgotten the virtues that belong to her sex.

And strange to say, that condescension outlived Robespierre by centuries.

Only recently, as mainstream thought has (sort of) caught up with de Gouges, has the scope of her work (French link) attracted renewed appreciation, and Olympe been acknowledged an Olympian herself.

* Article 10: “Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum.” The work was dedicated to Marie Antoinette.

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2002: Ahmed Sultan and Mohammad Humayun, who murdered Meena

1 comment May 7th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 2002, the killers of one of Afghanistan’s most noted feminists were hanged in Mach Jail outside Quetta, Pakistan.

Afghan feminist Meena Keshwar Kamal had founded in 1977 the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. RAWA works (and has done so against the successive Soviet, Taliban and Karzai regimes) for secularism, democracy and equality — per this poetic manifesto of its founder (Source):

I am a woman who has awoken
I have arisen and become a tempest through the ashes of my burnt children
I have arisen from the rivulets of my brother’s blood
My nation’s wrath has empowered me
My ruined and burnet villages replete me with hatred against the enemy
O compatriot, no longer regard me as weak and incapable
My voice has mingled with thousands of arisen women
My fists are clenched with fists of thousands of compatriots
To break together all these sufferings, all these fetters of slavery
I am the woman who has awoken
I’ve found my path and will never return.

Meena was assassinated in Quetta in 1987 just shy of her 31st birthday; that her killer(s) be brought to justice was long one of RAWA’s key political demands, and the organization supported this day’s hanging.

RAWA itself — which enjoyed a brief turn at the height of worldwide vogue as the United States prepared to invade Afghanistan and found itself suddenly inspired by the plight of women under the mullahs — holds its fallen founder as a martyr and continues to agitate.

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