Ashtiani’s Stoning: Now Iran Gets the Hollywood Treatment
by Farzana Versey
State of Nature
Shahla Jahed was hanged to death on December 1, 2010. Her lover's son pulled the chair from beneath her feet. No Hollywood stars had petitioned to save her; no international pressure. Her crime was similar to that of Sakineh Mohammedi Ashtiani. The reason for this transposition is important because the latter has ceased to be ‘real’; she is imbued with the fascistic fabulism of sympathy.
This is Hollywood’s forte: to capitalise on a tragedy, sometimes cinematically and occasionally through its prominent faces, making causes into rock star concerts. In one, guilt transforms into supremacy by the mere expedient of its ‘true’ portrayal, a ‘look, I am the mirror’ memorabilia. In the other, the Cartier carousel comes out in faux fur for their PETA projects. Pamela Anderson, a plastic miracle, talks about saving animals and becomes a cruel testimony of the animal in the cage herself. Recently, the insolvent Lindsay Lohan was offered money for her drug rehab but only if she turned vegan as an advertisement for the cause brand. And then there is the unfortunate remark by Sharon Stone where she had attributed the earthquake in China to “bad karma”.
Ashtiani too would be seen as part of this fatalistic prototype, where instead of enquiry there is condemnation. A highly misogynistic industry has decided to take up for the rights of a woman from a country that has not played along with western interests. How many of them took up cudgels against their own peers accused of rape, incest, wife battering, not to speak of the ‘lesser evil’ of treating women like objects and not giving them equal pay for equal work?
I can sniff a movie moment, but that is not the issue.
It is about reducing a case into a scene. Therefore Shahla, the mistress - a ‘temporary wife’ really, which is in extremely hypocritical fashion acceptable in Iran - of former soccer player Nasser Mohammad Khani stabbed his wife Lalah Saharkhizan in 2002 and spent eight years in jail. Her punishment was based on the Islamic law. Ashtiani’s is, too.
However, there is room for clemency. And should be. There is evidence and no country should be impervious to debate the obsolescence of its own laws, within the confines of its borders.
Having said this and one is aware that linear thinking will not permit tangential queries, the question I will still ask is: Why has the Ashtiani case become prominent? It isn’t any feministic concern. There is the humanitarian element, which was there in the other cases as well because of agencies like Amnesty International, but here it is the stoning to death that has got dramatic potential. Cruel as it may sound, the ‘global ire’ has much to do with this.
The prison authorities had already decided to hang her, but at the last minute they refrained. Her son, Sajad Ghaderzade, had said, “Pressure from the international community has so far stopped them from carrying out the sentence but they're killing her every day by any means possible.”
In 2006, she was acquitted of the charge of murdering her husband, but was flogged 99 times for adultery and sentenced to death by stoning. Documents have disappeared because her lawyer says the authorities did not have any names of people to indict her with. If this is a judicial process, regressive and reprehensible as it is, then why has the government come into the picture? Surely for a nation that is an Islamic Republic and has made no bones about the way in which it wishes to function, this ought to have been another instance among the many it deals with. In fact, in Shahla's case it was Lalah Saharkhizan's family that refused to spare her life although they had the choice.
One of the initial reasons for the international community getting into the act is that when Carla Bruni, wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, had condemned the sentence a newspaper referred to her as a ‘prostitute’. This was at least partly the impetus for further action, not against the newspaper, but against Iranian laws. According to a report, Mina Ahadi of the Iran Committee against Stoning (ICAS) said: "Look how easily they are accusing and insulting Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and you would realise how bad they are treating Sakineh and women in general in Iran and how they can build up dossier against people out of nothing and sentence them to death by stoning."
This example does not come close to adequately expressing the punishment of stoning. In fact, the last instance of such a punishment was in 2007. What has been Ms. Ahadi’s success in preventing the cases prior to that?
Ahadi has said, "They are not just attacking me, they are attacking our committee and everybody who successfully brought her case to the world's attention and, at least for now, managed to stop Iran form stoning her. If it wasn't for the world's attention, Sakineh would have been executed by now, that is what's making them angry."
Human rights organisations have fought for years to prevent such inhuman sentences from being carried out. Sometimes, they have succeeded. There isn’t always a public outcry and whipping up of the frenzy of fame.
In an open letter in the Times, the bigwigs from Hollywood, the media and others, wrote:
“Forced by international pressure to suspend her execution by stoning for alleged adultery, the Iranian government is now attempting to resurrect the charge that she murdered her husband — a charge for which she has already been tried. She has already spent five years in prison, and suffered 99 lashes, while the man who was convicted of her husband’s murder, and with whom she allegedly had an affair, is now free, having been pardoned by Ms Ashtiani’s children. We, the undersigned, call on the government of Iran to release immediately Ms Ashtiani, her son Sajad Ghaderzade, and her lawyer, Javid Houtan Kian, from incarceration.”
There is a thin line that divides interference and concern. The verdict was pronounced in 2007 and there was no immediate reaction from the celebrity sympathy caucus. During this period Ashtiani has been denied meetings with her children and later when she was forced to come out it was to confess to adultery and being a “sinner” on national television, not once but thrice. This is Iran’s way of getting back at the Western propaganda using the means employed by the mainstream western entertainment industry. It is to tell the world that they do not care. Sakineh Ashtiani may have been hanged to death, not stoned, but now they just might do it – to spite the international pressure. Or they will keep her alive and titillate the voyeuristic spectators.
Therefore, how valid is such international pressure and what does it achieve? The manner in which Ashtiani was being mentally tortured made her son change his earlier position, where he had lauded the role of such a movement, to later remark, “They are furious with the international outcry over my mother's case so they are taking revenge on her. The more the pressure comes from outside Iran, the more they mistreat her."
It is pathetic that political machinations are putting on line the life of a woman. This is nothing new. Islamic societies are notorious for it and blatant about it. This is our law, they say. There are other societies that hand over such sentences in different ways – parading tribal women naked in the streets, beating them, killing them. These courts function outside of the boundaries of any law. If Hollywood chooses its conscience according to the larger-than-life nature of the cause, then the Iranian regime is culpable of flaunting a woman as a showcase example, flouting its own rule of keeping women covered up.
Iran must change its laws, not because of international pressure, but because it owes it to its citizens and its own once liberal civilisation.