The current uprising in Iran is not merely about a fraudulent election. The simmering masses of Iran are restless for the freedom and prosperity they once enjoyed, before being straitened for decades by the strictures of religious fanaticism. The people have seized upon this election fraud to push for greater openness and such forgotten notions as women’s rights. Nothing better illustrates the awful injustices Iranian women face than a soon-to-be released film, The Stoning of Soraya M.
The film tells the grisly true story of an innocent woman who was stoned to death in Iran on charges of adultery. The events – which are described in flashback by the title character’s aunt, Zahra – take place in 1986, in the rural village of Kupayeh. Zahra recounts how years earlier her niece Soraya entered a marriage that had been arranged by her parents. She was 14 and her husband, Ali, was 20. Together they had four children, two boys and two girls. Ali was emotionally and physically abusive to his obedient wife, physically beating Soraya and openly cavorting with prostitutes.
At the age of 41, Ali fell in love with another 14-year-old girl and wanted to marry her, but couldn’t afford two wives. He requested a divorce, offering to take the two boys with him and to leave Soraya a meager settlement. Knowing the divorce would leave her and her daughters in abject poverty, Soraya declined, which only served to escalate Ali’s abuse.
Soon, three men in the village persuaded Soraya to do chores for a widower named Hashem and his son. Zahra negotiated a reasonable fee on her behalf, so she could save money to leave her husband.
Impatient to obtain his divorce and his 14-year-old bride, Ali lied that he had seen Soraya whispering, smiling, and holding Hashem’s hand – spreading the convenient rumor that she had cheated on him and was a whore. The slander raced through the village, eventually reaching the mayor. Zahra warned Soraya to give up the job, reminding her that things were different after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Shari’a, or Islamic law, was now the law of the land, and flimsy rumors could lead to her death. Soraya fatefully refused to listen.
Ali and a corrupt mullah approached Hashem, threatening to find another “witness” and have him killed as an adulterer if he refused to perjure himself in Soraya’s adultery trial. Under threat of death, Hashem capitulated. Soraya’s “trial” constituted nothing more than two men lying to the mayor with uncorroborated testimony. Because Soroya was unable to prove her innocence, she was sentenced to death by stoning.
Unable to escape, Soraya decided to meet her fate with fortitude, though she prayed for a quick death. As the crowd gathered in the public square, Zahra walked Soraya to the pit that had been dug for her. Zahra removed Soraya’s chador, revealing her niece dressed in virginal white. Authorities tied Soraya’s elbows behind her back, so she would be unable to protect her face, placed her in the pit, and covered her in sand up to her waist.
If the film’s “trial” highlights the injustice of Shari’a law, the stoning underscores the barbarity of the Muslim legal code. Soraya’s father cast the first stone at his daughter’s unprotected face only after declaring she was no longer part of his family. Her husband and sons were next. Islam had destroyed the bonds of blood and kinship integral to every civilized society. Family members were followed by stone-throwing villagers who had known her since birth. Anger mingled with murderous joy rippled through the crowd as they screamed “Allahu akbar” and forced the innocent to endure a slow, agonizing death. When the whole event seemed over, Ali drew close to her and saw her eyelid flutter and screamed, “The bitch is still alive!” The crowd unleashed a gratuitous round of fury that lasted beyond her death.
Here, some semblance of reality took over. Soraya’s children sobbed – but the rest of the village celebrated. A carnival-like atmosphere ensued, as villagers played music and the whole town danced at the scene of the crime. Authorities refused to allow Soraya a proper burial. Zahra left Soroya’s covered body at the shore and returned in the morning to secretly bury the remains the dogs had left behind.
The film ends on twin notes of caution and optimism. Its twist-ending acknowledges the calculated difficulty those who believe in women’s rights face in spreading the truth. However, it also displays the power a damning account such as Soraya’s has to discredit Shari’a law.
If only its subject matter were fiction. After the Islamic revolution in 1979, with the enactment of Shari’a law, stoning became the prescribed penalty for adultery. The law requires that the stones be large enough to cause pain but not large enough to cause instant death. It is predominantly women who are stoned, including those who speak up after being raped. Because they are unable to find sufficient witnesses to the rape, their complaints are construed as confessions of adultery.
Iran executes minors as young as 13. Their families often approve, longing to restore the family’s “honor” for their daughters’ crimes of impurity or failure to remain chaste. Currently, there are nine people sentenced to stoning in Iran, eight of whom are women. Although the Iranian Judiciary issued a moratorium on stoning in 2002, it remains a part of the penal code. In August 2008, Ali Reza Jamshidid, a spokesperson for the Iranian Judiciary, confirmed that execution by stoning still occurs, that the previous directive to halt stonings holds no legal weight, and judges are free to ignore it. Indeed, a man was stoned to death in Iran as recently as this May 5. Other Islamic theocracies also implement stoning executions.
The film, based on the 1994 book by French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam, is directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh (screenwriter for The Path to 9/11 and The Day Reagan Was Shot), and stars Mozhan Marno and Shohreh Aghdashloo (Academy Award nominee for Best Supporting Actress in House of Sand and Fog). The film recently premiered at the Toronto Film festival, where it received critical acclaim.
The timing of this film could scarcely be more prescient. On the streets of Tehran, Iranian men and women are demanding that their government take steps toward recognizing basic freedoms: the right to assemble, the right to free speech, the fight to free and fair elections, and not least the rights of women to live as equals. The Stoning of Soraya M. could not have been released at a more critical time.