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February 2007
A Rain of Stones
The Satya Interview with Soheila Vahdati Bana



Soheila Vahdati Bana
Imagine your hands are tied. Your body is wrapped in preparation for burial and placed into a hole up to your shoulders. You can’t move. But you can see clearly as the members of your community form a large circle around you. You watch as they pick up small stones. You wait in fear for the first one to hit your head. Soon a rain of stones is falling on you. It hurts. It stings. And it takes a long time to die…

Stoning is a punishment for adultery, decreed by the Islamic penal code of Iran. In some areas, the stigma against the family of an adulterous woman is considered so offensive that traditional punishments are vigilantly followed to restore honor. In some cases, families of the accused women might even take matters into their own hands and try to clear the shame by killing the guilty before the government.

In response, a group of attorneys with the Network of Volunteer Lawyers coordinated efforts with feminist activists and academics inside Iran and in the diaspora to form the Stop Stoning Forever Campaign. Officially launched on October 1, 2006, the campaign works through collecting signatures to support the abolition of stoning. They are asking the Judiciary Chief and the Parliament’s Speaker to abolish the practice of stoning in Iran forever. Kymberlie Adams Matthewshad a chance to talk with Soheila Vahdati Bana, Stop Stoning Forever’s international public relations and advocacy campaign manager, about the reality of stoning.

What exactly is stoning? Who are its victims and what are their alleged crimes?
Under the Islamic penal code of Iran, stoning is punishment for adultery. Most victims are women because the discriminating family law of Iran deprives them of the right to divorce or gain custody of a child. This makes it very difficult for a woman to get out of an unhappy marriage. I should add that girls the age of 13 are considered mature enough for marriage, which are often arranged.

That said, a man is defined as the head of household, and therefore not only has the right to a divorce and to child custody, but also can legally practice polygamy and short-term sexual relations (sigheh). Islamic law allows a man to have up to four permanent wives and any number of temporary wives (a temporary marriage contract can be for hours, months or years), so he can legally cover up acts of adultery. Moreover, a man who subjects his wife to honor killing will not be prosecuted. In fact, the state will arrange for a collective honor killing by stoning.

Currently [in Iran], there are at least seven women sentenced to stoning. The alleged crime in all cases is adultery, which is very hard to prove in a court considering the private nature of the offense. Article 105 of the Islamic penal code gives the judges the absolute right to condemn the accused to death by stoning solely based on their interpretation of the case, despite the lack of evidence. It should be noted that all judges are male, and there is no jury.

Can you describe the typical stoning ritual?
Initially, the victim is treated like a corpse being prepared for burial, i.e., she will be washed in accordance with the Islamic tradition and wrapped in a white shroud (kafan). Then she will be buried in a ditch, up to her shoulders, and become the target of stoning by the surrounding crowd. The stones are provided by the officials and can neither be too large to kill immediately, nor too small as to be ineffective, but of the size to guarantee an extremely painful and humiliating death. The crowd throws the stones until the victim’s brain is smashed and its pieces fall out of the skull. As you can imagine, the ritual ends only when there is absolutely no motion left by the victim.

Is it true the throwers are often members of the victim’s own family?
In private honor killing, it is often the husband, sometimes the brother or father, who kills the woman. However, the collective honor killing by stoning is administered by the state. The victim’s family participation is not mandated by the law.

Stoning has been in practice since ancient times. Can you talk about its history?
Stoning is perhaps the most primitive method of public execution, as it needs no special apparatus. Since ancient times, it has been the punishment for grave sins. In Iran, as the rule of law replaced religious, moral norms of behavior and corporal punishment was deemed barbaric, the practice of stoning was prohibited. But the Islamic Republic of Iran, an extremely religious government, has revived this ancient method of execution for the sexual offense of adultery. Stoning is now a sanctioned part of the Islamic penal code of Iran and is being carried out without any legal obstacles. The most important thing to note is that this most torturous and barbaric punishment is being administered for moral offenses, not actual crimes.

In Iran, stoning had not been practiced for centuries until the Islamic penal code and the rise of fundamentalism prepared the grounds for such extreme methods of enforcing moral codes and restraining female sexuality. Unfortunately, U.S. foreign policy and especially its military presence in the region has greatly contributed to the rise of fundamentalism and violence.

What has the impact of U.S. policy been?
The U.S. administration’s policy towards Iran and plans of military attack and regime change have been disrespectful to Iranian national sovereignty. Hence, Iranian intellectuals and activists fear that raising issues such as stoning could further jeopardize their national sovereignty and provide an alibi for hostile U.S. foreign policy to take over the region.

While inhumane, degrading and cruel punishments for sexual offenses have long been in place in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the U.S. has turned a blind eye to this reality because they are the closest U.S. allies in the region. At the same time, any violation of human rights in Iran is portrayed by the U.S. as a sufficient political reason to topple the regime and initiate a revolution. Iranian activists have doubts about propaganda in the U.S. [and] are afraid issues might be used in a political way against their country.

So you and other activists do not want the U.S. to intervene?
No, not politically. The activists that campaign against stoning stand firm against any U.S. attack on Iran or any regime change policy towards Iran. We find it very difficult to keep the campaign against stoning a non-political matter of human rights. But we do our best to advocate that we need the support and solidarity of the people in the U.S., not the military actions of their government.

Why do you think there isn’t an uproar here in the West about stoning?
Due to the strict censorship of the Iranian press and media, the news about stoning has been kept secret. They know the act of punishing people by stoning them to death in today’s world is an unacceptable act of brutality that even members of our government are ashamed of. As a matter of fact, in mid-November the European parliament issued a resolution on human rights violations in Iran demanding abolishment of stoning. However, Mr. Jamal Karimi-Rad, the Iranian Minister of Justice and spokesman for the judiciary, denied that stoning is practiced here. Our campaign tries to inform the public about the practice of stoning and [we] are confident that once the people of the world learn that stoning is sanctioned by the law and carried out by the state, there will be an uproar.

Charges of adultery are routinely made against women/girls who have been raped. Can you talk about this?
In a traditional culture where sexuality is taboo, talking about rape brings shame to the victim. That is why many rape victims prefer to remain silent about it. Although, if it is discovered later on, the victim may be accused of adultery. Meanwhile, if a woman, in her attempt of self-defense kills the rapist, she may be sentenced to death as retribution-in-kind (qesas).

What impact does witnessing a stoning have on the community? Can you comment on how this affects their views of punishment?
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, execution by hanging is carried out in public and even witnessed by youth. Stoning is practiced more in secret, so it is hard to know who is present. As far as I know, there has been no study in Iran on the impact on audiences of viewing such gross violence. But in my opinion, the hidden message in these pubic executions is to legitimize the most brutal violence by killing the victim in cold blood. This encourages the use of violence and physical annihilation of people as the only ways to achieve justice, rather than trying to solve the underlying social issues of poverty, ignorance, discrimination and violence that brews crime.

What has the campaign achieved so far? What other plans do you have besides the petition to the authorities?
The campaign has been relatively successful and two women and a man have been saved from stoning after being represented by our volunteer lawyers. The two women who have both been released, Parisa and Hajieh, are both mothers of young children.

Since the Stop Stoning Forever campaign drew some attention to the issue in the world, the Iranian judiciary officially denied that stoning is practiced. Now the campaign activists are trying to form a fact-finding commission that will investigate the details of the issued stoning sentences and the places they were carried out. A ban on stoning ordered by the head of judiciary in 2002 has not been able to prevent it. The law itself needs to be changed. We insist on revising the law and abolishment of stoning.

Moreover, it seems that the courts are resorting to hanging instead of stoning as a punishment for adulterous women. This year, two women have been hanged for adultery in public. Therefore, we hope this campaign succeeds to not only abolish the law of stoning, but also put a legal ban on any kind of death sentence for sexual offenses.

What is the most important thing we can do to help?
This campaign will be successful if and only if it has strong international support. We are asking people of the world to write to Iranian officials and representatives in their countries and express that they are appalled by the law and practice of stoning and demand its abolishment. This is the time we put an end to corporal punishments for sexual offenses. Female sexuality should not be the subject of penal code. We are optimistic that with the strong support of conscientious people in the West, we can put an end to this. Fortunately, activism can be as global as militarism and fundamentalism. It is also important to keep in mind that the issue at hand is falling in love. They are judged and murdered for moral reasons, not criminal. They have fallen in love with somebody else without the ability to obtain a divorce.

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