Iran: Stoning for 'adultery' - a women's issue

Currently, in Iran, there are nine women sentenced to death by stoning on charges of adultery, compared to two men for the same offence -- highlighting the fact that this barbaric mode of execution is primarily a women's issue.
Whether these 11 unfortunate people can be saved from the brutality and humiliation involved depends on the success of a campaign, launched two months ago, by a group of lawyers and women's rights activists to have the stoning law abolished altogether from the Islamic Penal Code of this country.
Stoning is more a women's issue because, according to Islamic laws, a man can have four permanent wives and any number of temporary wives.

When caught in adulterous relationships, men can always claim to have been in a temporary marriage contract with the woman involved --provided she is not already married to someone else. Temporary marriage contracts, for hours or months or years, can be easily made between the partners. A married woman cannot escape stoning in the same way.

"The stoning law affects women more than men. So, as feminists, we naturally have to address it as well as other issues, such as polygamy, lack of right of divorce for women, forced marriages, domestic violence and poverty that greatly contribute to situations leading to stoning. We also hope that the campaign to abolish stoning can mobilise the women's movement," Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, a feminist activist and advocacy group member of the ‘Campaign to Stop Stoning Forever', told IPS.

"The nature of the feminist movement in Iran is political because feminists have to target the laws, like (those on) polygamy and stoning, that sustain the patriarchal view of the society. They have to challenge the religious and political establishment that supports those laws," Abbasgholizadeh added.

Most women sentenced to stoning are those found guilty of being accomplices in the murders of their husbands. In a few cases married women have been found guilty of prostitution If not married and found guilty of illicit sex, one is sentenced to lashes the first three times. A fourth occasion can lead to the death penalty as happened to Atefeh Sahaleh, a 16-year-old girl from Neka in Northern Iran who was hanged in August 2004.

Proving adultery is difficult under Islamic laws. For a stoning sentence to be passed, there must be four confessions on four separate occasions by the accused in front of a judge, or testimony by four eye witnesses, or ‘knowledge of the judge'. Confessions can be retracted at any stage by the accused. In most cases the knowledge of the judge serves as the basis for meting out the sentence.

Hajieh, 35, from north-western town of Jolfa, has served five years in prison for aiding the murder of her husband and has two more years to go before facing a stoning sentence. Out on bail now, she claims that the man who killed her husband, had attempted to rape her before the murder took place.

The man was sentenced to retribution-in-kind (qisas) for the killing. When interrogated by the police, he accused Hajieh of being an accomplice to the killing as well as having an affair with him. As an unmarried man, he received a hundred lashes for illicit sex.

Hajieh spoke only the Azeri language and no Farsi at the time of her arrest. She claims she did not understand the technical term used by the judge to refer to adultery so she accepted the charge and discovered the error only after the court ordered her to be stoned.

In 2004, Hajieh's stoning sentence was almost carried out. Invitations to the public to participate were distributed in her small town, but the execution was stopped in time when the executive judge realised the flaws in her case. Chief Justice Ayatollah Shahroudi then stayed the execution of the sentence. Hajieh has been tried once again and hopes to be acquitted of all charges soon.

Iran made a verbal pledge to the European Union to stop stoning more than a decade ago and there was a moratorium by the Chief Justice, in December 2002, on execution by stoning. The Chief Justice has himself on several occasions intervened to stay sentences from being executed.

Judiciary spokesman Mohammad Karimi Rad recently denied execution by stoning and said such sentences were passed by courts but were not carried out. But there are reports by eye witnesses of the secret stoning of Zahra Gholami in Tehran's Evin prison in 1999. News of the stoning of a man, Abbas, and a woman, Mahboubeh, in the north-eastern city of Mashad, in May, have also emerged recently.

According to news reports the Mashad stoning was carried out in a cemetery. The two were first ritually washed as for corpses being prepared for burial and then wrapped in shrouds from head to toe. The woman was buried in the ground up to her chest and the man up to his waist. A secretly congregated crowd pelted them with pebbles until they were dead.

"We are campaigning against stoning because of the brutality of the act. This kind of punishment is against human dignity. We are not against legal punishment for people committing crimes, but no human being in his right mind should take another person's life so ruthlessly," Abbasgholizadeh said.

Officially launched on Oct. 1, the campaign works through collecting signatures to support abolition of stoning. Campaigners say even if the Chief Justice intervenes in every single case, without a complete abolition, it will always be possible to reverse an order and carry out a sentence.

"Stoning is regarded as a highly sensitive issue by the regime and the religious and political establishment. There is so much reaction from the international community and human rights organisations to stoning news. This has made it taboo for journalists and news on the campaign is not given coverage by the press as they have been repeatedly warned to avoid it," a journalist told IPS.

In the face of such censorship, most publicity for the campaign is made through websites and blogs. Women's Field (meydane zanan), the campaign website in the Farsi and English langauges, was recently filtered by authorities. A change of address was the campaigners' response.

"Campaigners have a hard way ahead of them. The response from the society as a whole to the issue of stoning is not so unified. Activists are campaigning to abolish it but there are many, not only religious and political hardliners, who don't mind the law," a social observer who did not want to be named told IPS.

"In some areas, traditions hold very strong and the stigma against the family of an adulterous woman is compelling. There is little opposition to the idea of stoning in these places because people think a law like that may prevent adultery and stabilise family life. In some cases the families of the accused women might even take the matter into their own hands and try to wipe off the shame by killing the guilty even before the law takes up the matter. In men's case, if they are not involved with married women, there is much greater toleration," he said.

"Taking personal action is what the family of Shamameh (Malek) Ghorbani did last year in a village in Western Iran. The man was killed by her brother and husband, but the woman herself survived stab injuries -- only to be sentenced to stoning in spite of her denial of adultery," the observer said.

Inter Press Service -- 4 December 2006