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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Stoning: Honour Killing by the State

Urgent: Possible Stoning This Week of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani 1

Future posts will discuss honour killings in more depth, but since there is a woman on death row in Iran facing possible execution tomorrow, I decided that I will focus on a barbaric and medieval form of honour killing sanctioned by the state of Iran: stoning.

There have been several recent newspaper articles involving a woman in Iran who was convicted of having an “illicit relationship” in 2006, convicted of adultery later that year, and then sentenced to be stoned for her “crime” of adultery. Though the sentence created an international uproar, one Iranian government official stressed that their decision would not be swayed by international pressure.

On August 12, 2010, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani appeared on state television in what some women's rights critics dismissed as government propaganda. During the interview, the Iranian mother of two expressed displeasure towards her lawyer for bringing her case to public attention as that had “brought shame on her family.” During the broadcast she said “Why did you publicize my case? Why did you harm my reputation and dignity? Not all of my relatives and family members knew that I am prison. Why did you do this to me?”

However, since Ashtiani had previously denied the charges of adultery, the International Committee Against Stoning, a human rights group dedicated to publicizing her case, called the TV show “toxic propaganda.” In other words, they felt that she had been pressured, coerced, or threatened into making the claims she made on television. Further, her lawyer and children claim that her conviction was based on false evidence.

According to her statements on television, Ashtiani began a relationship with her husband's cousin who subsequently killed her husband. The head of the judiciary of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province asserted that Ashtiani was the one who injected the anaesthetic into her husband before the cousin inserted wires into the victims' neck and killed him with electricity. However, it is interesting to note that it is unclear what punishment, if any, the cousin received. On the other hand, Ashtiani has already received 99 lashes after being convicted of having an “illicit relationship” and committing adultery with two men; a crime (along with murder, rape, armed robbery, apostasy and drug trafficking) that is punishable by death under Sharia law. It is also interesting to note that there is no mention of whether or not the two men that Ashtiani was convicted of having affairs with were ever arrested, convicted, or given lashes for their part in the “illicit relationship.” Further, Ashtiani was not sentenced to death by stoning for her alleged role in her husband's murder; that case was closed. Instead, she has been sentenced to a horrific form of death, along with a recent “mock” execution (which, in my opinion, is terrifying and amounts to psychological torture) for her alleged acts of adultery.

At one point, Mohammad Mostafaei, Ashtiani's lawyer, said that his client would probably avoid the punishment of stoning due to the international pressure and outrage over this sentence. However, a recent article in the Globe and Mail highlighted the fears of Ashtiani's lawyer and son who said that she may be stoned on Thursday or Friday, at the end of Ramadan (according to Islamic law, executions can resume at this point) since “The possibility of stoning still exists, any moment...Her stoning sentence was only delayed; it has not been lifted yet.”

Due to the injustice of this sentence and the fact that women in Iran still face death by stoning for committing adultery (regardless of how flimsy the evidence), Heather Reisman, the CEO of Indigo Books & Music, began a campaign to free Ashtiani through the circulation of an online petition and more recently, a letter “appealing directly to senior clerics in Iran” on the basis that there were “irregularities in her case, including the fact that she has been punished for her alleged crime.” This letter was written in consultation with experts in sharia law “in the hope of persuading clerics to pardon the woman within the Iranian legal system.” Approximately 300,000 people have signed the petition to free this wrongly imprisoned woman. If you would like to add your voice please go to

It is important to note, however, that there are issues surrounding this case that go far beyond the life of Ashtiani (though even if this was “only” about one life, it would still be of urgent importance) presently in prison waiting to be killed at the hands of men who will hurl stones at her. First, there has been a deafening silence from many in the international community surrounding stoning and other customs deemed cultural in Iran and elsewhere. This is unacceptable; custom, culture, religion, and tradition must all take a back seat to the just and humane treatment of women.

Further, according to a recent article by Margaret Wente, there are a number of people who are presently in Tabriz prison where Ashtiani continues to be held, including women, “children, adolescents and 18 people who've been sentenced to hang for homosexuality.” According to Maryam Namazie, an Iranian human rights campaigner who now lives in London, 200 death row cases are in Tabriz prison; 35 are women facing death by stoning. Examples include Maryam Baagherzaade and Azar Bagheri.

Baagherzaade is 25-years-old and has spent the last four years in prison. The only reason she is still alive is because she got pregnant while she was on a short leave from prison: “the regime usually waits to kill pregnant women until after they've had their babies.”

In the case of 19-year-old Bagheri, any illusion of justice disappeared when she was arrested, convicted of having sex outside of marriage, and sentenced to death when she was 15. This is an age when girls in Canada are not yet allowed to get their driver's licences. Further, this sentence was passed after she had been forced into marriage when she was only 14; soon after, her husband “pressed charges against her, claiming that she didn't love him and that she had had a relationship with another man.” Apparently the fact that a 14-year-old child might not love a man that she had been forced to marry and have sex with did not cross the minds of the judges in her case. Further, this young woman has been emotionally terrorized throughout her time in prison: “She has been subjected to mock stoning on two occasions – buried up to her chest and threatened with death unless she co-operated.” This sort of treatment is unacceptable, regardless of religion, country, law, tradition, or custom.

In the words of Namazie, “It is a crime to be a woman in Iran.”

Further, in April 2010, Iran was given a seat on the UN Commission on the Status of Women, whose mission, ironically, is “gender equality and the advancement of women.” This appointment was after Iran failed to gain a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.

Now, I am trying to stick to the facts and not deviate too much into the realm of sarcasm, however, this appointment confounds me. How is it possible that a country known throughout the world for its ill treatment and arrest of women based on subjective crimes of morality (while often ignoring the similar actions of men) and the stoning of women convicted of adultery could possibly earn a seat on the UN Commission on the Status of Women? Basically, instead of condemning Iran for its treatment of women, the United Nations has deemed it prudent to include this country on a commission whose objective is to improve the treatment of and increase the dignity and human rights of women around the world. In the words of Margaret Wente, “No one explained how stoning women to death advances gender equality. This is a moral inversion so twisted that it defies satire.” And in the words of Namazie, “It's like asking apartheid South Africa to sit on the commission for racial equality.”

Finally, while “stoning is hugely unpopular inside Iran, and Iranians do not like their country to be portrayed as medievally barbaric,” it is important to note that Iran “strenuously depicts Western protests as an assault on Iran and Islamic values.” Further, one Iranian official said, The execution of Islamic religious laws on [such things as] death by stoning, hijab and inheritance has always faced their audacious animosity and, basically, any issue which hints of religious law is always opposed by them.” In light of these sentiments, it is therefore important to ask the question, “How is stoning women an Islamic value?”

Now, before you leave this page to go read something a little bit lighter, please consider signing the petition above. If we turn away from this woman now, in her hour of greatest need, how are we any better than the officials who have condemned her? In the words of a woman who was imprisoned in the same jail as Ashtiani in 2008: “Sakineh is the symbol of all the women who are tortured and assaulted in prison in Iran. I hope international support, as well as obtaining Sakineh’s liberation, will open the way to a change in this situation.” For the sake of abused and tortured women and men everywhere, I pray this is the case.


Robin Pomeroy. “Iran Woman Facing Stoning Death Appears on State TV.” Reuters (August 12, 2010). (accessed August 12, 2010).

Margaret Wente.It’s a crime to be a woman in Iran.” The Globe and Mail (August 12, 2010). (accessed August 12, 2010).

Adrian Morrow, “Iranian Woman Could Be Executed This Week, Son Says,” The Globe and Mail (September 6, 2010), (accessed September 6, 2010).

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