Sakineh and Soraya: Truth is Scarier Than Fiction

Irshad Manji summarizes the “case” against Sakineh:

Stoning cases themselves tend to be built on a pile of indignities. Consider the allegation against Ms. Ashtiani: adultery. The charge is manifestly trumped up and the investigation has been stacked from the get-go — so much so that a loophole had to be invoked to convict her. That loophole lets judges claim special “knowledge” for which there’s no evidence. How convenient.

MSNBC offers more information:

In May 2006, a criminal court in East Azerbaijan province found Ashtiani guilty of having had an “illicit relationship” with two men following the death of her husband.

But that September, during the trial of a man accused of murdering her husband, another court reopened an adultery case based on events that allegedly took place before her husband died, the BBC reported.

Mohammed Mostafaei, an Iranian lawyer who volunteered to represent Ashtiani when her sentence was announced a few months ago, called the planned stoning “an absolutely illegal sentence.”

“Two of five judges who investigated Sakineh’s case in Tabriz prison concluded that there’s no forensic evidence of adultery,” Mostafaei told the Guardian. “According to the law, death sentence and especially stoning needs explicit evidences and witnesses while in her case, surprisingly, the judge’s knowledge was considered as enough,” he said.

While I was watching The Stoning of Soraya M., something that left me especially gobsmacked about the story was that the definition of “adultery” was so broad that Soraya didn’t even have to be accused of having extramarital sex. The accusations basically amounted to her flirting with another man.

Furthermore, I found it overly precious when the movie showed that local official telling Soraya, in so many words, that the burden of proof in a criminal case is fundamentally different for a woman: a man is innocent until proven guilty, whereas a woman is guilty until proven innocent. Therefore, once a woman is accused of wrongdoing—and it doesn’t even have to be anything worse than looking at a man the wrong way—she is expected to prove a negative. I don’t accuse the moviemakers of making shit up, I just thought it was overly heavy-handed storytelling to have that man say it straight out, in case the audience wouldn’t otherwise catch the obvious double standard.

The message, however, came across without having to be shoved down my throat: a legal and cultural environment that treats women as fundamentally untrustworthy at all times doesn’t just treat women unfairly, relative to men. It makes women extremely vulnerable. Those women who had initially condemned Soraya turned away from the stoning in tears because they knew what was done to her could just as easily happen to them.

Looking at the case of Sakineh Ashtiani, it seems that the people who put Soraya on screen weren’t even exaggerating.

Initially, she was charged and convicted of an adulterous affair following the death of her husband. How exactly does one commit adultery when her husband is already dead? Only later did another court accuse of her doing something inappropriate (I guess she may have smiled at some dude) before her husband died.

Not that the court needs any actual, you know, evidence, to accuse a widow of having cheated on her husband. The judges acknowledged they had no evidence against Ms. Ashtiani…but they still “knew” she did it. Because she is unable to prove a negative, she is still subject to execution.

She’s already been incarcerated for the last five years and subjected to 99 lashes, when according to everything except the judges’ “knowledge” she did nothing wrong.

So now what I really want to know is: what exactly did this woman do to get these judges so pissed off at her? Her husband was already dead before she was accused, so it wasn’t like he wanted her out of the way. Her son is sticking his neck out to save her. Just whom did she offend, to land in hot water like this? Did she decline to be some powerful man’s concubine after her husband died? Or did she need to be punished for having the gall to get on with her life?

Perhaps I’m taking the wrong approach to the case in even asking the question. No matter how Sakineh Ashtiani ended up in the hot seat, the message to all the province’s women is clear enough: you are always presumed guilty. Anything you do could make you a criminal. Don’t even bother trying to defend yourself. Keep your head down at all times and maybe you won’t get in trouble. If we want to get rid of you, we will do so.

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