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.
So the question begs, why Sakineh? What was so special about her case that allowed her to become this recognized icon when so many Iranians, particularly women, are so badly abused and neglected on a daily basis in Iran? There are currently 35 Iranians on death row awaiting death by stoning, yet Sakineh became the fighting symbol for women’s rights and against the barbaric practice of stoning.
Paradoxically, when the regime sought to make an example of Sakineh to Iranians, warning them that they too would be punished severely by Sharia law if they transgress Islamic law, they did not expect this case to become an example, albeit for different reasons, in the international community as well. Once her case erupted all over the world and Internet, Iran’s government regretted letting the case go public. They began to lash out at her family, and her son in particular, for publicizing his mother’s case and getting help from human rights activists to spread ‘propaganda’ about her story. Most recently, her attorney, Mohammad Mostafaei, has been reported missing after he spent hours interrogated by officials. His wife and brother-in-law were arrested, and the regime has said that they will not be released until Mostafaei is in custody.
The Iranian human rights case has not been on the international agenda since the outbreak of the June elections in 2009. Since then, Iran’s imminent nuclear weapon development hand in hand with the government’s rogue and dismissive stance toward sanctions and IAEA policies has taken the spotlight.
The world has forgotten about the people of Iran. In a country where almost 400 people were executed in one year and a woman can be viciously stoned to death for allegedly cheating on her husband, the regime is rewarded with a seat on the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women. A country where Sharia law dictates that a woman is worth half that of a man, and a non-Muslim is one quarter of a Muslim, the regime is elected to lead an international commission on the status of women, discussing how women should be viewed and treated.
Aside from cases such as Sakineh’s, it seems as though the international community will continue to forget the poor and unacceptable human rights violations in Iran. The big political powers will continue attempting to stop an unstoppable and unreasonable regime from developing nuclear weapons while at the same time abandoning and overlooking our biggest ally, the people of Iran.
It is the year 2010 and Iran allows its men to have four legal wives and up to 99 temporary wives. It continues the practice of stoning, despite a moratorium issued in 2002, because it says stoning causes unbearable pain but not enough to kill the individual right away. It bans pop music, dancing and Western clothing, claiming they are various forms of devil worship.
It is time for the international community to see the human rights emergency in Iran. We cannot afford to sit back and wait for each Sakineh to make her case. Instead of letting the regime play out the clock while simultaneously intensifying the tensions between Iran and the Western allies, we can help the people of Iran against their aggressor and ours, while gaining a friend in the process.