The Stoning of Soraya M

Imagine being married to a brute of a husband who beats you up, runs around with loose women and now wants to leave you for a thirteen-year-old girl.  I bet most of you women’s reaction would be to kick him to the curb and say “Hasta la vista, Baby.”   Unfortunately for the woman in this story, life was not that simple.

Soraya M. lived in a tiny dusty village in Iran.  Home was four stone walls and a small patch of land in the back.  Meager her possessions may be, it provided food and shelter for her family consisting of her two boys and two girls.  Her husband had never been much of a provider, preferring to squander away his wages on women and fast cars.  He had become increasingly violent towards her, and she, in turn, was too disgusted with his behavior to fulfill her “wifely duties.”  It did not help matters when her husband, who was a small town official, was recently promised with an imprisoned doctor’s 13-year old daughter in exchange for the guy’s freedom.  Yes, thirteen year olds marrying middle-aged men were not uncommon in their society.  Daughters  were just possessions, to be traded away by their fathers as needed.  This recent development made Soraya’s husband increasingly dissatisfied with her.   He wanted to take his sons with him (sons were more valuable than daughters) and move to the city to be with the 13-year old girl.  He made his sons believe that their mother’s refusal to divorce him would be a selfish move on her part, a way of tying the sons down to a drab village life.  This embittered the sons, especially the eldest,  towards their mother. 

Soraya’s husband wanted a divorce but was not man enough to leave her with a settlement that would provide enough for her and her two daughters. His conditions for the divorce would have left her with hardly enough to eke out a living.  In short, she and her daughters would have slowly starved to death.  In a society where women did not have a lot of options, ironically, staying married was Soraya’s only means of survival for herself and her family.  And fight to stay married she did.

Her husband tried everything to get her to divorce him on his own terms.  Physically, he turned her into a human punching bag to break her spirit.  Emotionally, he tried to turn her own sons against her to break her heart.  On a religious level, he blackmailed the mullah, their spiritual leader, to strong-arm her into leaving him, even forcing him to offer her an indecent proposal.  All these could not get Soraya to bend her iron will.

Slowly, it dawned on him that it was cheaper to get rid of her than to divorce her.  But how?  Corrupt as the system was, her outright murder could land him in jail.  What else could he do?  This time, he found something in the Islamic law that he could use in his favor.

Adultery under Islamic law is punishable by lapidation, or stoning someone to death.  Even there, the law is on the man’s side.  If you accuse a man of adultery, the accuser has the burden of proof.  If the woman is the one accused, she has the burden of proving that she is innocent.  Pretty lopsided, don’t you think?  All that was needed to accuse someone of adultery were two witnesses.  Soraya’s husband, of course, was his own witness.  Lying to get what he wanted was the least of his sins.  Now all he needed was one more to corroborate his story.

It was not as easy as he thought.  Living in a small village where everybody knew each others’ business alas meant that everybody knew Soraya to be an honorable and morally upright person.  Who could be persuaded to bear false witness against her?

If there’s a will, there’s a way.  Soraya’s husband’s mind was working overtime.  He came up with this scheme.  There was a man in the village who was recently widowed and was living alone with his mentally handicapped son.  He would contrive to have Soraya help this guy out with the household chores and the care of his son.  He would then spread rumors about them, casting doubt on Soraya’s reputation.  Finally, he would be able to accuse her of adultery, false the accusation may be.  His other witness?  The recently widowed man himself.  All he had to do was threaten harm to his handicapped son and the man will do anything, even lie, to protect his own flesh and blood.

So it came to pass that Soraya was accused and found guilty of adultery, despite the misgivings of the town mayor and the vociferous objections of her aunt.  She was sentenced to death by stoning.

Let me explain the horrific nature of this practice to the uninitiated.  Usually, if the accused is a man, he is buried up to his waist in sand.  In some villages, if the accused is a woman, she is buried up to her neck.  If the accused manages to break free at anytime, it is then considered a sign of his innocence.  Even at the threshold of death, men still have the upper hand.  Imagine how much harder it is to wiggle yourself to freedom buried all the way up to your neck!

The men in the village considered adultery not just a personal affront but also a crime against the community.  Even Soraya’s own father, flimsy as the evidence might be, was quick to denounce and disown her.  The men worked themselves up to a feverish pitch as they gathered enough stones for the stoning.  According to the guidelines under Islamic law, the stones, to quote, ” must not be so large that a person dies after being hit with two of them, nor so small as to be defined as pebbles, but must cause severe injury.”   The men went into a rhythmic chant to drum up some excitement.    It had the air of a festival.  They were all psyched up for the stoning, with Soraya’s father, husband and sons having the “honor” of throwing the first stones.

Cheered on by the crowd, her father threw the first stone.  He was a little unsteady and missed the first time.  Aiming better with the next try, he still missed.  A cry of disappointment went through the mostly male crowd.  One of the women in the crowd cried out, “She must be innocent.  Look.  Two stones and none of them harmed her.”   The crowd fell silent.  Their first moment of doubt.  Their law provided that if somebody escapes the stoning, then his innocence is proven and he is allowed to go free.

Alarmed by the crowd’s seeming change of heart, Soraya’s husband quickly threw a stone at her, striking her forehead and drawing blood.  This effectively dispelled whatever doubts that were lingering in the men’s mind.  The sight of blood fueled their appetite for more.  Soraya’s husband gave both his sons stones to throw at their own mother.  This was supposed to be an important rite of passage.  To be able to throw stones at your own mother meant you were man enough to overcome your own personal feelings for the good of the village and in the name of Allah.  Pretty soon, the whole crowd joined in the bloodbath.  The sentence was carried out.  The stoning of Soraya M. was done.  Her husband was now a  free man.  Never mind if most of the people in the village felt she was innocent.  After all, she was merely a woman, insignificant and useless.  Who cared, right?  Just another casualty in the name of love, honor, religion and everything else man invokes to justify his actions.

That’s how it would have stayed, too, if not for the courage of one woman.   Soraya’s aunt.  And one man.  The journalist who had the courage to tell the world about Soraya’s story as told by her aunt.

Freidoune Sahebjam is a French-Iranian journalist and war correspondent who has made a lifetime commitment to report on the crimes of the Iranian government against its people.  He was just passing through Soraya’s little village when Soraya’s aunt approached him and told him the gruesome tale of her niece’s death.  It was a lucky stroke of fate that brought the two together, one brave enough to defy her culture to speak out against it, the other, brave enough to write a book about it.

When published, the book became an international bestseller that drew attention to the horrible practice of stoning in Iran as well as its lack of womens’ rights.  It caused enough global outrage for stoning to be outlawed there, although there are some reports that it is still practiced in some areas.  The book was also made into a movie that was released 2009.  I have not read the book, but I have seen the movie.  It was after I saw the movie that I felt compelled to write about it.  I was horrified that stoning is still being practiced in this day and age, often with little evidence and fueled by mob mentality.  I was also amazed by Soraya’s strength in time of adversity.  She could have allowed herself to be clobbered into submission of her fate, letting her husband to do as he wished with her, yet she stood up to him and the men of the village, and fought for her rights.  Where did she find the inner strength to defy society’s conventions?  An amazingly modern woman in a backward society… 

As for her aunt, her love for her niece gave her independence of mind to defy what her society accepted as normal, and the courage to do something about it.  To us on the outside, it is easy to be outraged at such a practice.  What is amazing is that these two women who grew up in a culture where they traditionally didn’t have a say in anything found the voice and the guts to say, Enough is enough.

The annals of history are full of courageous men and women who challenged prevailing thoughts and sentiments of their times, and in doing so, changed the world for the better.  In our lives, we will be faced with situations that will make us question the status quo and challenge us to think and act.  We can either sit back and not do anything, we might even throw the first stone, or we can stand up and do the right thing.  May we always have the courage and the wisdom to act according to our conscience, and not just jump on the political, emotional and moral bandwagon at that time.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. balot
    May 23, 2010 @ 23:11:48

    Em, i”m glad that i will get to know this story thru your article only because i easily get perturbed and not that i am passive but it lingers with me for quite awhile…it is such a barbaric act and i am just so grateful that we live in a civilized place and we always have a right to defend ourselves..thanks for sharing this article again..told you i will be your number one fan now…


    • emmblu
      May 24, 2010 @ 07:14:59

      Balot, when I saw the movie, gikumot gyud akong kasingkasing. That’s why I had to write about it. It took me awhile to finish this article because I wanted to make sure I did the movie( and the issue involved) justice. Yes, swerte ta to live where such barbaric acts are unheard of. We do have a lot to be thankful for.


  2. Harold Cabahug
    May 29, 2010 @ 10:54:30

    OMG. What a powerful and moving story, Emms. This story evokes a primal emotion to go to such places and beat the living daylights out of the responsible parties. Let them taste their own medicine. What are these people thinking? Is it so ingrained in their tiny little brains that they cannot see that this thing is wrong? I agree, my heart is caught in a vise grip and the setting is on the tight side… Thanks for the article, I think. 🙂

    We do not realize how blessed we are until we see the suffering of people in places like Iran. Your emotional story-telling has inspired me to be a better human being. I will try my best to be more patient and non-judgemental.


    • emmblu
      May 30, 2010 @ 07:46:08

      People do a lot of inhumane acts in the name of love, religion and power Think Spanish Inquisition, Holocaust, the Marcos’ Martial Law legacy and other such episodes in our history. Let us just hope that every time something like this happens, that one voice raised in protest, that one candle in the darkness, will ignite a wildfire of protest that will prevent any such acts from happening again.


  3. fhjpeder43
    Jul 06, 2010 @ 06:14:01

    Stoning is one of the most extreme expression of violence and surpression where women is the target


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