Saving Sakineh

This is a tragedy that belongs to modern powerplay and the current moment, and that calls for a much more thoughtful response from outside observers
9 July 2010

In the west, those tragedies occasionally flicker across our front pages or perform a brief morbid dance on our television screens.

But it is difficult to understand how they infuse Iranian culture, politics, and every day life.

The stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43 year old woman sentenced to death for allegedly committing adultery, is just one manifestation of the horror faced by Iranians who’ve fallen foul of the government. Her case is particularly heart rending, and worthy of international attention, because of her son’s desperate plea to the world to save his mother.

In May 2006 Sakineh was accused of having an ‘illicit relationship’ with two men after the death of her husband, who was allegedly murdered. Sakineh received 99 lashes as punishment; but when the trial for her husband’s death opened, the main suspect accused Sakineh of having an affair whilst her husband was still living - a more severe crime. Sakineh confessed to adultery, but later retracted her confession on grounds of duress.

Under article 71 of Iran’s penal code, the punishment for adultery is listed as ‘killing or stoning’. Adultery can be proven by either ‘four just men, or three just men and two just women’. In other words, the testimony of a woman is of less value than - and needs the corroboration of - a man.

It perhaps comes as no surprise then that mercy for this woman was slow in arriving; her appeals for pardon were twice rebuffed. But what more do we know of the country that condemned her to such a fate, and of the laws that Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt has lambasted as ‘medieval’? What lies beyond the media’s telescopic lens?

First, of course, is the reality that many Iranians themselves abhor the penal code that governs their country. The iconic images of Iranians marching against Ahmadinejad’s regime have probably seared this into the minds of many outside observers. Too often, however, the dissent evident in Iran’s more ‘traditional’ spheres - such as the clerical establishment - often slips by unnoticed. In fact, the former head of the judiciary Ayatollah Shahroudi decreed in 2002 that stoning should no longer be used as a method of execution, although it was never officially removed from criminal law.

To see Sakineh as a victim of archaic, misogynist, and unchanging Islamic law thus misses the complexity of Iran, Islam, and how they intersect. Not all Iranians, including politicians and clerics, think that Islamic tenets are atemporal and unyielding. Sakineh is the hostage of a particular government - Ahmadinejad’s - that seeks to revive the crudest interpretation of Sharia laws in the interest of maintaining an arguably waning powerbase. Many Iranians have fought to reconcile those laws with more modern concepts of justice and equality in recognition that the world that they live in - and that their state must seek to govern in - has changed dramatically since the days of Mohammad. Thus, until recently, the Islamic Republic juddered toward reform, slowly cutting back on the dogmatic debris of its early revolutionary days. For example, birth control is now legal and widely available and divorce and custody laws have been amended to provide for greater (though by no means perfect) equality. The issue of stoning in particular has been the subject of criticism in Iran for years, both by clerics and high profile human rights activists like Shirin Ebadi.

Such efforts undoubtedly threaten Ahmadinejad and his cronies, whose hardline attitudes are increasingly out of tune with a well-educated and youthful population. Dramatic and barbaric events like stonings are thus not merely some sort of medieval throwback as depicted in the media. They are responses to the currents of change in contemporary Iranian society, very modern powerplays that seek to assert a particular brand of Islam over interpretations that risk overtaking it.

Sakineh’s fate has received the international outcry it deserves. The fate of countless other prisoners facing execution in Iran has not. While it is not clear whether she will still face the death penalty, Iran’s London embassy now says that Sakineh will not be stoned. Today, however, another young woman - Zeynab Jalalian - is on death row in Iran. Her execution is expected imminently. Accused of waging war against god for her alleged ties to an armed Kurdish group, she does not slip so easily into our oft-repeated platitudes about Iran: a country that despises sexual deviance, a place where women are helpless, naked victims of religious brutality. What of the countless others accused of political dissent, violence, even terrorism? Are their deaths less shocking, more justified?

While Sakineh’s horrific story was instantly recognizable to a Western audience inundated with stories of misogynistic violence in Iran, Zeynab’s doesn’t resonate with us. It requires a deeper understanding of Iran’s long and turbulent relationship with Kurdish activists. It asks us to look carefully at the forms of (often under -reported) resistance directed at the Islamic Republic. It demands tough judgement calls, like whether the use of violence against the state is ever legitimate. It asks us to look carefully at the reasons why men and women like Zeynab might take up arms against the government. In short, it doesn’t make for a headline.

Sakineh’s story should be an invitation to think about the countless in Iran who face retribution for being different, not an opportunity to bang out more crude analysis about a backward, medieval state. An editorial in today’s Guardian called Sakineh’s sentence ‘brutality, pure and simple’. Pure brutality, yes. But simple? Tragedies never are.

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