Today, Iran, a country that racked up 388 executions last year nearly leading the world as state executioner - second only to China – suddenly announced that it would commute the impending stoning to death of a 43 year old woman accused of adultery.
Sakineh Mohamad Ashtiani has already served 5 years in prison and endured 99 lashes of a whip for her “crime”, which was proven in a court comprised of Shiite Muslim male judges who based their decision on “judges knowledge” versus established fact.
Ashtiani is not alone. There are at least a dozen other women in Iran who are under a legal death threat by stoning, according to Mina Ahadi, a human rights activist in Germany who helped Ashtiani’s children launch an international campaign opposing their mother’s stoning. It was that campaign and the pressure it leveled against the Iranian government and its image around the world, that many believe stopped the imminent inhumane punishment.
I have always urged in this blog that as civilized people in lawful communities, we practice the collaborative howl and cry that rages against injustice around the world. Today, as I contemplated arguing that it is our duty as civilized people to demand that stoning be banned worldwide, not as policy interventionism but as part and parcel of human rights, I tuned into the BBC which was having a discussion on Ashtiani’s stoning. To my surprise, there was a guest, an Iranian woman named Leila, who was arguing that adultery is a crime worthy of punishment. Hu?? She must have been the speech writer who inspired Ahmadinejad’s declaration at Columbia University in 2007 that “there are no homosexuals in Iran”.
In the meantime, it remains an open question whether Ashtiani actually committed adultery. According to aid groups, she was forced into prostitution by a husband who could not provide for the family. Her children: son Sajad, 22, and daughter Farideh, 17, have said that their mother had been unjustly accused and punished for something she did not do. Ashtiani herself recently recanted a confession she had made at the time of her charging, claiming it was made under the duress of Iranian style interrogation.
Adultery, may we open our eyes, exists. It’s not particularly Western or Eastern. It knows no race, religion or nationality. It is an act combined with emotion attributable to the human condition, and although it can not be said that all people do it, it can be surmised that many across this globe do. If it were to be punishable by death, we would likely be looking at a globe with a 50% population reduction. Clearly, I jest but you get the idea.
All this comes against a backdrop of France debating a law that would fine veiled women and subject their, presumably Muslim, husbands to incarceration for forcing their wives to wear the veil. The issue points to the ownership control wielded by men over women in traditional Muslim societies. In Ashtiani’s case she was forced into prostitution. In many other cases male control encompasses a wide range of directives on life style and conduct that is dictated from the top down.
Male control is hinged on the “patriarchal gender system” that prevails in wide swaths of the Muslim world from East Asia to North Africa. The system, regardless of religion, features kin-based extended families, male domination, early marriage (and consequent high fertility), restrictive codes of female behavior, the linkage of family honor with female virtue, and occasionally, polygamous family structure, according to a Library of Congress study entitled: Women in Muslim Societies. http://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/pdf-files/Women_Islamic_Societies.pdf .
The linkage of “family honor” with female virtue is the sticking point. That is the kernel that breeds the rest of the inequitable, often non-sensical and abusive control wielded by uneducated and uninspired men over their women. The veil and the segregation of the genders in every aspect of public life form part of that “gender system”.
Amnesty International defines “Honor” or “women killings” as killings that are carried out by men based on the deeply rooted belief that women are objects and commodities, not human beings endowed with dignity and rights equal to those of men. “Women are considered the property of male relatives and are seen to embody the honor of the men to whom they ‘belong’.”
Women’s bodies are considered the repositories of family honor. “Honor” killings occur because women are viewed as harboring the responsibility of upholding a family’s honor. If a woman or girl is accused of, or more commonly suspected of, engaging in behavior that could taint male and/or family status, she may face brutal retaliation from her relatives that often results in violent death. Even though such accusations are not based on factual or tangible evidence, any allegation of dishonor against a woman often suffices for family members to take matters into their own hands. http://www.amnestyusa.org .
Tragically, women in these restrictive societies can die for conduct that hardly rises to the level of criminal. Among the offenses women have been murdered for in the name of “honor” are: talking with an unrelated male, consensual sexual relations outside marriage, being a victim of rape, seeking a divorce, or refusing to marry the man chosen by one’s family.
Last year the LA times ran a series of stories on life in Iraq. Honor killings remain one of the most thorny issues for post-invasion Iraq’s women. Women have been documented to have been knifed, hanged or shot to death in front of their young children, for alleged conduct that was supposed to have compromised the honor of the men in the family. In the case of Sakineh Ashtiani, the Iranian who’s plight has made it into the main-stream western media, it was her grown children who ultimately succeeded in making her case appealing to the world’s conscience. Thousands of other women are murdered violently in front of their children, who traumatized, turn their untreated grief into psychosis and continue to perpetuate cruelty for yet more generations ahead.
In an increasingly public globe, threaded together by the world-wide web and an insatiable media, public pressure and a global outcry against state murder, crouched behind honor can make a difference. It did in Iran today. And in India New Delhi announced on this very same day that it would take “a tough stance against the increasing number of honor killings in the country”. It has established a Group of Ministers to seek advice from the state governments regarding changes that could be made to the Indian penal code and other central provisions to end honor killings. “The main aim of the law would be to bring such killings under the ambit of law of land,” according to one minister.
Pakistan (http://www.gendercide.org/case_honour.html) and turkey (http://www.jihadwatch.org/2010/02/girl-buried-alive-in-honor-killing-in-turkey.html) seem to endure the largest number of honor killings. While stoning may not be the method of choice, the killing of women for their “actual or perceived immoral behavior” (Yasmeen Hassan, “The Fate of Pakistani Women,” International Herald Tribune, May 25, 1999) is unconscionable and should be flatly and unequivocally rejected by the people who share this earth.
It’s not tradition, or culture, it’s just wrong. Say it. Believe it. Demand it.