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Over the last few weeks, the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the woman sentenced to death by stoning for allegedly having illicit relationships, turned the international community’s attention once again to the gross human rights violations in Iran. The facts of the case, that of a 43-year-old woman who already served five years in prison and received 99 lashes, now sentenced to stoning solely based on the judges’ intuition and no evidence, dragged this hard-line regime back into the spotlight; not for its dismissal of international sanctions, its harsh rhetoric against the West or Israel, or its elusive way of continuing with its nuclear weapons agenda, but for its brutal treatment against its own people.
Sakineh’s case is just a narrow glimpse into Iran’s Islamic government practices and use of Sharia, or Islamic law. Its harsh and intolerant stipulations leave little room for lenience, particularly when it comes to transgressions concerning marriage and sexuality. Many of the laws are extremely primitive and disproportionate, yet 70 million Iranians living in the 21st century are at the mercy of this legal system. Women and non-Muslims suffer the worst consequences under these laws.
Based on Sharia law, the worth of a woman is half that of a man; that is only in punitive damages, or blood money. In court, the worth of a woman is nothing. She cannot testify. She cannot serve as a witness. A young girl can be married off at the age of 9, although in marriage, a woman, in most cases, cannot initiate a divorce. Even when her husband files, she can never have custody of her children; nor will she receive any alimony. Likewise, when a father leaves his children inheritance, Islamic law demands that the share of a son be double that of a daughter. Even when a father insists on dividing his assets equally, an Islamic court will rule in favor of the son after his father’s death.
Sharia law is based on both the Koran, the sacred book of the Islamic faith, and on Sunna, the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad. Sharia law delineates life for a Muslim, including laws about marriage, sexuality, divorce, inheritance and criminal law. There are five crimes for which punishment is specifically outlined: unlawful sexual intercourse, meaning sexual relations outside of marriage, false accusation of unlawful sexual intercourse, wine drinking, usually including all alcohol consumption, theft, and highway robbery. The punishments for these crimes are listed as flogging, stoning, amputation, exile, or execution. Judges can choose from a wide array of consequences from less severe to the extremely violent, depending on the specifics of the case.
Sakineh’s case began in 2006 when she was convicted and sentenced to prison for having an affair with two men. She was pressured into confessing to the illicit relationships and received 99 lashes. A year later, her case was reopened and out of a panel of five judges, three sentenced her to death by stoning. In morality cases, Sharia law allows judges to make a decision based on “Judge’s Knowledge,” meaning a judge can go along with what he believes is right in absence of any evidence. And just like that, Sakineh was sentenced to death by stoning after already serving a grueling sentence, receiving lashes and spending all those years away from her two children.
What may be more tragic than the case of Sakineh is that there are so many other just like her who don’t get an international campaign to champion their causes, a Facebook page to create awareness about her case, or numerous online petitions signed by celebrities and others demanding that she be freed. In most cases involving alleged adultery, children are turned against their mothers. In this respect, Sakineh was fortunate to have children who are open-minded and determined to save their mother. Likewise, she was fortunate to have a renowned human rights attorney volunteer to take on her case. Most women on death row do not have representation nor do they become international icons of the human rights abuses in Iran. They are silently and brutally killed; without evidence and without a voice. Last year alone, 388 Iranians were killed, making Iran second in the world, only to China, in the highest death penalty rate.
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