Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Stoning of Soraya M.

It has only been released in twenty-seven theatres (the artsy, independent kind) and so far has made less box office money than “Transformers” did in its first hour of release, but “The Stoning of Soraya M.” reminds us of the kind of moral good the movie industry can do. Angela and I saw it last weekend and it is the type of film from which you exit the theatre and drive away in silence. It is good, but hard.

Based on the book by French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam, the film tells the true story of a young wife and mother of four who is stoned to death by villagers after her husband concocts a flimsy and false charge of adultery against her so he can marry a younger woman. Islamic Sharia law either calls for or permits (the movie was not clear) this cruel and drawn-out form of execution which is still practiced in Iran, the movie’s setting, as well as in countries throughout the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa that follow Sharia law.

There was a certain irony to watching this movie in the immediate aftermath of the rigged Iranian elections, which kept the present tyrannical government in power only after it brutally suppressed the protests of modernists and reformers who yearn for more freedom in their country. To be fair, though, there are concerted efforts to stop the practice of stoning in Iran. The Head of the Iranian Judiciary announced a moratorium on stoning in 2002 and reiterated it in 2008. Many Iranians are eagerly working with human rights organizations like Amnesty nternational to completely eradicate the practice.

The Old Testament recounts several instances in which Israelites stoned transgressors, and apparently stoning was not uncommon in the first century: Stephen was stoned to death (Acts 7:58) and Paul was stoned and left for dead in Lystra (Acts 14:19). Both the Jewish historian Josephus and Eusebius the Church historian record that shortly before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Jewish leaders hurled James the Lord’s brother from a pinnacle of the Temple and dropped heavy stones on him. The fact is that throughout history man has fashioned a shockingly brutal array of execution methods. In a stoning, usually the victim is buried up to his waist or neck and pelted with rocks large enough to harm but not so large that they make the death too quick. The community often participates en masse. It is a horrible and humiliating way to die.

I was left with two strong impressions from the movie. The first was how primitive the treatment of women still is in many areas of the world. Under Sharia law, a man accused of adultery must be proven guilty, but a woman has to prove her innocence. I am always stunned by the overt misogyny which pervades in so many fundamentalist religious cultures. From where does this fear and loathing come?

The second strong impression was how important even one person can be in raising a voice of protest. In the story there is a key figure in the village, a (relatively) good man, whose authorization is needed for the stoning but who has a gut feeling the charges are false. He earnestly prays for a sign from God, but upon receiving two signs, does not have the courage to reverse his decision. I was reminded of the old saying, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” Feelings and values may be noble, but they do nothing against evil unless they are acted upon.


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