UN: Who should care about stoning?

Open Democracy

Today sees the launch of a new Global Campaign to Stop Stoning. Rochelle Terman examines the history of this gendered practice of violence against women. With stoning, as with all forms of culturally-justified violence against women, it is very difficult to see where culture ends and politics begin.

In 2013, men and women are still being stoned to death. Stoning is a heinous form of torture, condemned by the international community and rejected by peace and justice-loving people around the world. And yet when Women Living Under Muslim Laws first began to campaign against stoning on an international level, many people questioned the relevance of this campaign in their own context. As deplorable as stoning is, what justifies the time, resources, and energy spent towards an entire campaign to eradicate it? Why not focus those same energies on issues that affect more people, such as poverty, militarism, food inequality or war? Why should we care about stoning?

It is important to see how stoning is more than a “sensationalist” concern. In reality, it represents a microcosm of the multitude of issues that surround violence against women in the name of “culture,” “religion,” and “tradition”. It goes beyond the mainstream media’s obsession with graphic horror at the expense of coverage of more insidious forms of injustice.

Stoning is something we should all be concerned with, because it represents what happens when women’s human rights are sacrificed at the altar of a politically-charged and patriarchal interpretation of “culture,” “religion,” and “tradition.” Stoning is therefore salient to every community that struggles against discrimination, violence, and control of women’s bodies and sexuality.

It’s crucial to note that gender is deeply implicated in the practice of stoning.  Although stoning is practiced differently in the 14 countries where it occurs, it is often shaped by a similar interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence. Iran can serve as a representative case study here. The law that prescribes stoning in the Islamic Penal Code of Iran is technically “unbiased” with regards to gender, meaning it prescribes stoning to people found guilty of adultery regardless of whether the individual is male or female. But in reality, women are at greater risk of stoning in Iran because they are at far greater risk of being found guilty of adultery. This is due to systematic and institutionally codified gender discrimination in almost every sphere of life.

The Iranian Civil Code, particularly concerning Family Law, privileges men with regards to age of consent, divorce, polygamy, temporary marriages, child custody, and sexual rights. The bottom line is this: if a man is sexually unsatisfied or in an unhappy relationship, he has many legal avenues open to him to dissolve the marriage or satisfy his sexual needs in a different relationship. At the same time, a woman has far fewer legal options open to her, and may engage in extra-marital sexual conduct because of these discriminatory laws limiting her sexual rights and status. In fact, when Iranian activists first began campaigning against the stoning law, they found that stoning provided the window into a larger conversation about gender discrimination and sexual rights.

Further, so-called cultural practices are often not cultural at all but political, and very strong arguments can be made to combat these practices from within the justifying culture or religion itself. Adultery is a political crime in Iran, as in most countries that practice stoning. As an illustration, consider this: the punishment for adultery is often more severe than the punishment for murder. Even if one’s spouse has forgiven the transgressor, the adulterous act is considered a crime against the State. This is because the Iranian regime, like many religious fundamentalist groups, carves its identity on women’s bodies. Its hegemonic interpretation of Islam – in which the populace is denied the opportunity to participate -- defines its ideological boundaries via the family and through control of women’s sexuality.

The Iranian government likes to talk about cultural authenticity and how stoning is justified under their laws and their culture. Do not be fooled. Stoning was never practiced in Iran before the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the government has, until very recently, actually denied the existence of stoning because they were knew that the Iranian public did not support it. Stoning has never been up for popular vote in Iran and there exists a policy of strict censorship around the issue in various media channels.

When we hear that violence against women must be accepted because we ought to respect people’s culture, we must ask ourselves: how “culturally embedded” is a practice really when the government silences all discussion around that practice? When it throws journalists in jail for reporting on the practice? When it censures religious authorities who question the validity of the practice? With stoning as with all forms of culturally-justified violence against women, it is very difficult to see where culture ends and politics begin.

More often than not, there exist very strong arguments from within that culture and religion to combat these practices. Stoning is justified in the name of Islam but in reality, stoning (rajm) is never mentioned in the Qur’an, and many religious scholars have publically stated that stoning is Islamically unjustifiablein today’s world.  When stoning apologists claim ownership over an ‘authentic’ interpretation of culture, tradition and/or religion, women are not only told to accept violence, they are denied the fulfillment of their potential as equal and active contributors to the development and production of culture.

In fact, we never need to wholly reject our own culture or cherished religion just because that culture or religion is mis-interpreted to promote violence. As human beings with human rights, we have the power and the agency to shape and participate in our own culture and religious interpretation.

Finally, we must always remember that even under repressive circumstances, women can and do combat these practices successfully. These issues are very sensitive, and many say that it is impossible to fight against these practices at all because of the stigma that surrounds women’s sexuality, and religion. But the Stop Stoning Forever Campaign, a local Iranian campaign that is working tirelessly to repeal the stoning law, demonstrates very well how women can and are fighting successfully against culturally justified violence against women in highly repressive situations. When we dismiss violence against women as “culturally-justified” we not only ignore these brave women; we are denying them the right to participate in their own culture by saying that their work and their voices don’t matter.

So why should we care about stoning? Because stoning cannot be understood without understanding gender discrimination. It cannot be understood without understanding power relations. It cannot be understood without understanding how women’s bodies and sexuality are controlled by political actors. People everywhere should care about stoning because this overarching problem – violence against women in the name of culture and religion – exists everywhere. It exists when self-appointed “modesty squads” use social and economic coercion to control women’s dress in Brooklyn, New York. It exists when a woman must die because she was not allowed to have an abortion at an Irish hospital. It exists when perpetrators of domestic violence get off with almost total impunity across the globe. Stoning may exist predominately in Muslim countries, but violence against women is justified in the name of culture and religions everywhere -- in every culture, in every religion.

Who should care about stoning? Everyone. 

The campaign will be launched today at the CSW in New York at an event:Why Stoning is Violence against Women