Islamic Republic poised to execute woman for domestic ‘crime’

Hangings from cranes in Iran

“On the execution of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani: a woman at the centre of the national and international policies of the anti-woman Islamic Republic of Iran”

Following are edited excerpts of an article by Azar Drakhshan, an activist with the 8 March Organisation of women from Iran and Afghanistan. The unabridged article in Farsi is available at

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani was sentenced to Qesas (revenge punishment) in connection with the killing of her husband. But she was forgiven by her husband’s family [and therefore considered innocent under Islamic law]. She also was sentenced to 99 lashes and 10 years jail for “illicit relationships” with two men after her husband’s death. One of the men was sentenced to 20 lashes and the other 40.

However a few months later, the justice department pulled together another dossier accusing her of committing “adultery” when her husband was alive and sentenced her to death by stoning. No man was named as an adulterer in this case. After broad international protest, the legal authorities withdrew the sentence of stoning and replaced it with execution [by hanging]. From the time Sakineh′s lawyers first got out the news about her sentence, her fate has been tied up with international politics.

Many heads and high officials of Western states,  including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have protested against this stoning sentence and declared it an indication of the abuse of human rights in Iran. The Iranian regime’s response makes it clear that for them the essential question is no longer what happens to Sakineh, but that she has become a symbol in the larger conflict between Iran and the West. At the same time, the Islamic regime is also holding Sakineh hostage in order to take revenge against all those women and girls who have been in the forefront of  the recent struggles and dared question the old and rotten values of the anti-women Islamic Republic system.

On 11 August, Islamic Republic television showed what they claimed was a recording of Sakineh’s confession. This really amounted to a confession by the Islamic regime that it wanted to turn the life and fate of Sakineh into a means to reassert its authority inside the country and also to conduct its political contention with the Western powers.  In order to understand the goals of this broadcast and more basically of the filing of a case against an oppressed and powerless woman such as Sakineh, we should reveal what is actually going on behind the curtains.

One of the most important pillars of the prevailing relations in class society is the power relationship between men and women. Ever since the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official declaration that women are inferior and objects of contempt, and the denial of their rights along with an increase in men’s rights over women, the status of women has had a major impact on other social relations in the country. The decree making the wearing of Hejab (head covering) compulsory, the passing and implementation of medieval laws establishing the payment of Dieh (blood money), Qesas (revenge punishment) and death by stoning all have the purpose of imposing and enforcing this inferiority and making it a part of the overall social order.

While it is true that compulsory Hejab concerns the majority of women and stoning and Qesas effect a much smaller number, this is not the main point. All these measures are part of an ensemble. They are mutually complementary as manifestations in the legal, cultural, economic and ideological spheres of the inferior status of women and the denial of their rights. The weakening of any of the links in this chain would weaken the whole. This is why despite widespread international protests for more than three decades the Islamic regime officials are not prepared to abolish these medieval rules.

On the other hand the suppression of women has to do with more than the consolidation of the existing power relations and the protection of the Islamic system in Iran. From the beginning, the regime made no secret of its ambition to form an Islam Omats (Islamic People) and export the Islamic revolution. The influence of the Islamic Republic on other fundamentalist movements in the Middle East has not only political, financial and military significance, but ideological significance as well. For these movements Iran is a model of Islamic rule. Its very banner is that of women’s Hejab.

So the suppression of women is not just for internal consumption. It also plays an important role in the Islamic Republic’s  relations with other Islamic fundamentalists in the region. The support of these groups is an important advantage for the Islamic regime in their negotiations with the Western powers whose aggression and intervention is currently focused in the Middle East. As we can see, from the beginning women’s bodies have been at the centre of the clergy’s battle to establish and consolidate power in Iran, and also a means through which the fundamentalists can adjust their relations with the dominant global capitalist-imperialist system.

The crisis in the relationship between the Islamic regime and the Western powers is intensifying once again now that Iran refused to stop its uranium enrichment. The Western powers have decided to step up economic and political sanctions, and have tended to side with the Green opposition movement in Iran. The Iranian regime has made hostages of three U.S. citizens [the young “hikers” who crossed into Iran]. All this has made the crisis even more complicated. The Western powers, from the U.S. to the European countries, seek a regime in Iran that would be acceptable to them, because their aggression and intervention (and the concrete plans they are pursuing) in the region are not possible without the full cooperation of  Iran. It seems that these states have now decided to replace radical Islam, as they call it, with a “moderate” Islam in the Middle-East.

For its part, the reactionary Islamic Republic knows full well that the Western powers’ real concern is not Sakineh’s life but other issues. Only a few months ago, the Iranian regime executed five well-known political prisoners and Western officials remained silent.

The emancipation of women is a criteria by which the freedom of a society can be judged, and of course the sincerity of those who claim to be freedom fighters is revealed by the way they approach the forms of women’s oppression and denial of their rights. The sentencing of Sakineh to death by stoning provoked protests by conscious people, freedom lovers, progressives, left and communists forces and also women activists and organisations. All of them are working hard not only to prevent the stoning of Sakineh but also to free her from the women’s prison in Tabriz (Northwest Iran) as soon as possible. The media, whether dependent on one of the big powers or pursuing their own political objectives, regularly report on Sakineh’s situation.

The views of the religious intellectuals and “Green reformists” on stoning

A week before Sakineh’s so-called confession was shown on television, the Green movement held a conference of the “Green women’s movement convergence” where Zahra Rahnavard [Green leader and ex-Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi’s wife] figured prominently. They expressed their concern for the men political prisoners on hunger strike and sent them a solidarity message. But not a word was said about Sakineh and her stoning. Zahra Rahnavard likes to talk about a “democratic interpretation of Islamic laws”, but she has not yet talked about the practice of subjecting women to criminal charges of adultery and sentencing them to death by stoning, two of the most widely discussed questions in the country and burning issues internationally.

Overall, the Green movement is trying to put the stoning issue in the framework of what they call new interpretations of  God′s decrees and Iranian traditions. For instance, the Islamic scholar Jila Shariat Panahi has sought to use citations of verses from the Koran to prove that the proper Islamic punishment for adultery (Zena) is not stoning but at most a hundred lashes with a whip.

The viewpoint of these Islamic reformists is that they have no problem with making adultery a crime, they simply have differences on the kind of punishment it deserves. Most seem to think that a hundred lashes is a pretty good replacement for stoning given the present situation.

Some of the Grand Ayatollahs whose fatwa ]religious pronouncements] are looked to for legitimacy by some women’s movement activists (such as “the campaign for a million signatures” and today’s  “Green convergence”) oppose stoning women for their own reasons. Ayatollahs Montazeri, Saneai and others consider adultery immoral, shameful and a disgrace that deserves punishment. But because of  the conflict between Islamic law and the country’s tradition [Zena is an Islamic but not a traditional Iranian concept], they believe that the carrying out of stoning executions should be temporarily suspended until [a messianic event called] “the emergence of the 12th Imam”, or until it is possible to convince people on this issue, or until an appropriate and more up to date punishment is found.

It seems that Islamic women intellectuals and their religious authorities are prisoners of  religious fundamentalism. The so-called “radical Islam” they first began proclaiming in the 1980s cannot abandon even this single Islamic principle. But the whole concept of adultery or judging any relationship to be wrong because it is against religious rules is a backward and outmoded idea that has no place in today’s world. There is no way to “update” or “reread” or otherwise seek to make Zena fashionable because the whole concept of adultery should be thrown into the garbage heap of history.

We cannot agree that there is any progress in replacing stoning with a hundred lashes, as claimed by these women who in the 1980s were sisters in the Hezbullah [in Iran, the “Party of God”, the Islamic regime’s militia] and then in the ’90s sought to prove that Islam is a liberating religion for women. Their highest understanding of gender equality was to demand equality in stoning (when men are stoned, their feet are stuck in a pit dug into the ground so that they cannot escape, while women are buried up to their shoulders so they can not even move their hands). This should be a lesson to academic women in Western universities who were so shamefully enthusiastic about what they called “Islamic feminism” in their keenness to find local (native) solutions for women’s rights and equality (according to their local “culture”).

Iranians inside and outside the country and much of world public opinion opposes stoning Sakineh. Of course it is right to oppose such a brutal act, but this is not the end of the question. There is a difference between opposing stoning and opposing the whole backward and outmoded concept of considering that women should even be accused of adultery.

Sakineh lawyers are appropriately trying to have lifted the specific accusation of Zena mohsene [“unlawful” sex while married, in contrast to the subcategory of Zena as “unlawful” sex before or after marriage] and to emphasize that this accusation cannot be proven in her case. However there is a difference between lawyers’ activities within the framework of a country’s laws and the general protests against this accusation and punishment.

We must continue our effort to save Sakineh’s life and launch broad campaigns against the Islamic regime’s “justice” system and the stoning sentence. But the struggles against any kind of particular manifestation of women’s oppression can and must be a ground for struggling to abolish these laws and the system these laws reflect and enforce. They can and must be a ground to heighten the consciousness of women and the whole population. They can and must be an opportunity to challenge backward values and beliefs that are common among the people who often share the Islamic Republic’s values and ideology.

Our struggles against the denial of rights and injustice can pave the way for the realisation of a society that the majority of oppressed women would look forward to. The struggle and sacrifice of every single woman should contribute towards building a society where no woman is forced into an unwanted marriage, and no woman is forced to put up with the hell of an unsuccessful marriage with no right to divorce or to the custody of her children after divorce. A society where weddings are not an agreement in which a women sells her body and soul, where no woman is punished for annulling such agreement. Women must have the kind of economic, political, cultural and social security that allows them to chose their life partner voluntarily, and so that in case of an unsuccessful marriage they can freely, equally and without any difficulty annul it.

While we are struggling for the life of Sakineh, we should think of millions of Sakinehs all over the world. One is Ayesha  (a young Afghani woman whose ears and nose were cut off because she left her abusive husband and returned to her parents). Another is Atefa (a teenage girl in northern Iran who was abused by an adult man who was an ex-Pasdar [the regime’s ” Revolutionary Guards] – after she was arrested for this, supposedly for having a relationship before marriage, the judge and his team gangraped her and then forged a false birth certificate to show she was over 18 so that they could quickly hang her). And there are so many others… We should cry out: No more, that’s enough! The world can not allow such barbarity any longer.

That future can be created because the people have experienced such relations during the socialist revolutions of the 20th century. For more than three decades when the Soviet Union was a socialist state, women there experienced laws far more advanced than most Western countries at that time. In China, where before the socialist revolution many women were literally slaves, their feet bound in early childhood and often permanently crippled so that their bodies would move in a way that men would find graceful and attractive, they dared to break the chains of oppression and in a short time lawfully achieved equal rights. For the nearly three decades until 1976 when the revolution was defeated, they experienced advanced social relations that remain an example of real emancipation and equality between women and men.  In these cases there was still a long way to go before the complete liberation of women, and as the first experiences with a socialist state they of course suffered weaknesses and shortcomings, but the path to women’s liberation can be paved only by relying on the lessons of those experiences.

We women can and must be vanguards in building socialism, a society defined not only by the abolition of gender oppression but even more, a society moving to overthrow all class and social distinctions and the ideas and traditions that go with them, and that have been the basis of thousands of years of oppression and exploitation all over the world.

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