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Sakineh’s saga began in 2005 when she was arrested near her home in Tabriz, a large city in northwestern Iran. She received 99 lashes for allegedly committing adultery with two men against her then-living husband. After the lashes, she was forced into confessing. Speaking only Azerbaijani Turkish, the native dialect of her province, Sakineh’s situation was complicated at its onset by a language barrier. She was forced to communicate solely through interpreters. Later, her request to retract her confession was denied. The case has since been closed and reopened, with charges alleging she helped murder her husband. Those charges were quickly dropped, and her case then played quietly in the background of the Islamic Republic’s jarring clamor about nuclear capability threats; until recently.
A loophole in Islamic law helped the government reopen Sakineh’s case and sentence her to death by stoning. The law states that if there is inadequate evidence, judges can convict based on the “judge’s knowledge,” in other words, on a hunch.
Sharia law varies greatly depending on the country, state, region, and imam. Thus, it allows those who apply it the flexibility to interpret or exploit as they may. Concerning adultery, the law states that four “just” Muslim men must witness the crime. Since non-Muslims—in Iran that refers to Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian and Baha’i minorities—are not seen as “just,” they cannot serve as witnesses. Islamic law is doubtful as to whether women are “just” or not, and accordingly, two female witnesses or testimonies equal that of one male. Another interpretation of the law requires a rope to be passed through the bodies of two unwed individuals caught engaging in intercourse to detect penetration.
Even after receiving lashes, serving time, and being away from her children, three out of five judges assumed her guilty of adultery and sentenced her to death by the most gruesome, violent means possible. Stoning, with stones large enough to cause excruciating pain but not large enough to kill immediately, is meant to be sadistic and reserved primarily for women who commit sexual transgressions.
Had Sakineh been found guilty of murder, theft or drug trafficking, her punishment would have been less severe. As intolerant as Islamic, or Sharia law is, it is even more so when punishing sins transgressing marriage and laws of sexuality. Yet with Iran’s polygamy laws, men possess certain immunities. Legally permitted to have up to four wives and 99 contracted wives, Iranian males have ample opportunity to digress in marriage. Wandering women, however, are punished by stoning.
The practice of stoning in Iran involves burying the individual up to his or her shoulders and then pelting stones of a specific size, intending to hurt yet not kill immediately. The point is to torture the individual for as long as possible. Similar to hanging, the Islamic Republic stones its victims in public settings with immediate family members in attendance. The judges or witnesses in the case are often given the ‘honor’ of throwing the first stone.
Until 1983, the practice of stoning did not exist in Iran. At that time, the newly self-appointed Islamic government ratified the penal code making stringent amendments.
Following fierce international objection over the practice, a moratorium was placed on stoning in 2002, although the punishment remained a part of Iranian law. After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first became president, stoning in capital punishment cases became en vogue yet again. According to Amnesty International, three people were stoned to death in 2006 to 2007, and since the beginning of 2008, nine women and two men have been stoned.
On the books, stoning can be applied equally to men and women, yet the statistics and nature of the law convince us otherwise. Stoning cases are not the only time we see this gender discrepancy in Islamic law. A nine-year-old Iranian girl can legally be married off, yet a woman, in most cases, cannot initiate a divorce against her husband. In court, the testimony of a woman is only equal to half of that of a man; that is, if they are both Muslim. There are no laws against domestic violence, making abuse against women quite common. Similarly, in punitive damages, a Muslim woman’s life is only worth half of that of her male counterpart. In the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the horrific injustice and deep-seated iniquity of Iran’s Sharia-law state is on full display.
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