The Stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani

Throughout history, women have been considered inferior to men, oppressed and dependent. They have been discriminated against, objectified and subjected to degrading behaviours that undermine their dignity and their human person. Today, the social, economic, political and cultural situation of women has undergone several significant changes. It has become increasingly favourable.  However, these changes are not sufficient, as most countries have not yet achieved gender parity and equality, nor have they fully addressed violence against women.

Before the 1970s, there were general texts to recognise and protect gender equality. However, it has proved crucial, if not indispensable, to take additional measures afterwards to combat discrimination and to develop policies to address this situation of inequality in these countries. Indeed, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted on 18th December 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly. It entered into force on the 3rd September 1981. This Convention contains a set of measures whose main objective is to combat discrimination against women. It also provides measures to combat and abolish social prejudices unfavourable to women which affect their human dignity.

It should also be stressed that violence against women affects all sectors of the national society. It is often sexual, physical or psychological violence. Aware that violence against women is considered to be the most significant violation of rights. However, it is still trivialised.  For this reason, it seems essential to address one of the most critical violations of human rights and especially of women’s rights. One of the most barbaric practices, both psychological and physical torture, is stoning. 

It is necessary to give a global definition to this concept and then deal with a practical case of stoning in Iran. According to the dictionary, stoning is the act of making a person die under a rain of stones thrown by one or several people. In some ancient societies or some religions, stoning may be a form of death sentence after a trial. In other words, stoning is a punishment for adultery, which is considered a capital crime. On the other hand, stoning is generally used in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran.

Our case study will focus on the stoning of a woman in Iran. Indeed, in Iran, women accused of adultery can be stoned to death. The penalty of stoning is included in the Iranian Criminal Code. The penal code also gives judges full power to impose the death penalty by stoning even if adultery has not yet been formally proven. As stoning is enshrined in the Sharia “Islamic law”, it has not been abolished, and the term remains in the law, but the way in which it is applied in practice has been left to the judge’s discretion.

According to the Iranian Penal Code, a woman who has committed an act of adultery will be buried up to her chest, more profound than a man would be, and the stones thrown at her will be big enough to hurt her but not big enough to kill her immediately. “The majority of those sentenced to death by stoning are women, who suffer disproportionately from these punishments,” the human rights organisation said in a 2008 report. Human rights activists have lobbied the Islamic government to abolish stoning, arguing that women are not treated equally. A woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man. Article 74 of the Iranian penal code requires at least four witnesses, four men or three men and two women for adultery leading to a stoning sentence. Nevertheless, there were no witnesses in Ashtiani’s case. Often it is the husbands who accuse their wives in order to get rid of them.

Sekinah is a 43-year-old Iranian woman. This widowed mother of 2 children was tried in 2006 in Tabriz. First, she was sentenced to 99 lashes for “illicit relations” and then she was imprisoned between 2006 and 2014 for adultery and complicity in a murder against her husband. Her accomplice, a lover, was sentenced to the same punishment. Sakineh is from the Azeri minority in Iran, many of whom face discrimination. Of Azerbaijani origin, the mother does not speak Persian, so she was unable to defend herself in front of the authorities without an interpreter. Her conviction was not based on evidence, but the decision of three of the five judges. She asked for a pardon from the court, but the judges refused clemency. Ashtiani also did not have a lawyer before the end of the appeal proceedings. Her lawyer says he does not understand how such a barbaric death penalty can exist in 2010, or how an innocent woman can be separated from her son and daughter, who wrote to the court pleading for their mother’s life.

She was charged and convicted under Article 612 of the Criminal Code for her alleged participation in the murder and sentenced to ten years imprisonment, the maximum penalty. According to a court document available to Amnesty International, this conviction was initially upheld by the Supreme Court. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death by stoning and ten years’ imprisonment for “complicity in the murder of her husband”. Her sentences were confirmed in May 2007. Even though we know that iniquitous laws and practices still apply in many parts of the world, it is as if horror in its purest form, were hitting us with a sledgehammer every time. Whatever the reasons that have led to the indictment of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the punishment she has already suffered “99 lashes”, her stay in prison and the sentence she is facing, can only raise our hearts with horror, fear and indignation.

The case is all too tragic. More than ever, we must call for the immediate release of Sakineh, who is also a symbol for all the women and men whose lives remain, even today, in the hands of barbarity and arbitrariness. Her dramatic situation has led thousands of people around the world to intervene on her behalf. Their actions have been followed by statements by the Iranian authorities, which have created confusion about its status under the law.

The fate of this Iranian woman has aroused a wave of emotion in Western countries. In the United Kingdom, Germany and throughout the European Union, voices were raised against the stoning sentence, but also against Sakineh’s death sentence. In the face of these considerable reactions, Iran has reiterated that it has suspended the application of the death penalty by stoning pending a final judicial decision.

In the face of international outcry and a petition signed by many world figures, the Iranian embassy in London declared on 8th July 2010 that “Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani will not be executed by stoning”. Two days later, while explaining that Iranian criminal law allows execution by stoning, the High Council for Human Rights said that her case would be reviewed. The decision put Iran before its international obligations as a country that has committed itself to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which entirely prohibits the death penalty for crimes of adultery, condemns all forms of torture, including in its most barbaric forms such as stoning, and rejects any convictions of alleged perpetrators based on confessions obtained under torture. However, the Iranian judiciary has finally bowed to international mobilisation.

In June 2010, Sakineh’s execution was imminent. Thanks to the efforts of her two children, supported by international mobilisation, significant demonstrations in France, Italy, United Kingdom and the United States, human rights organisations, and renowned personalities and intellectuals, the medieval execution is suspended pending the review of the trial. Certain judicial authorities have left some doubt as to whether stoning could be transformed into hanging. Faced with the worldwide mobilisation in favour of Sakineh, the sentence was finally transformed, in 2010, into a ten-year prison sentence.

In conclusion, the case of the Iranian woman Sekinah has become an international scandal. However, this international mobilisation does not react in the same way to violations of women’s rights in other Muslim countries that also apply stoning, such as Saudi Arabia, for example. 

About the author:

Moroccan political science student at Mohamed 6 polytechnic university. Rim Affathe is highly interested in gender studies, postcolonial feminism, and diplomacy. She aspires to be a women’s rights advocate.  

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