Crime (Sex) and Punishment (Stoning)
By ROBERT F. WORTH
Published: August 21, 2010
It may be the oldest form of execution in the world, and it is certainly among the most barbaric. In the West, death by stoning is so remote from experience that it is best known through Monty Python skits and lurid fiction like Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.”
Yet two recent real world cases have struck a nerve: a young couple were stoned to death last week in northern Afghanistan for trying to elope, in a grim sign of the Taliban’s resurgence. And last month, an international campaign rose up in defense of an Iranian woman, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who had been sentenced to death by stoning on adultery charges.
Much of the outrage those cases generated — apart from the sheer anachronism of stoning in the 21st century — seems to stem from the gulf between sexual attitudes in the West and parts of the Islamic world, where some radical movements have turned to draconian punishments, and a vision of restoring a long-lost past, in their search for religious authenticity.
The stoning of adulterers was once aimed at preventing illegitimate births that might muddy the male tribal bloodlines of medieval Arabia. But it is now taking place in a world where more and more women demand reproductive freedoms, equal pay and equal status with men — in parts of the Islamic world as well as throughout the West.
Those clashing perspectives became apparent last month when Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, offered to grant asylum to Ms. Ashtiani, the Iranian woman convicted of adultery. His comments made clear that he viewed her as a victim — Brazil is not exactly known for its severe attitudes toward out-of-wedlock sex — and an online petition for her release drew hundreds of thousands of signatures. The case became an embarrassment to the Iranian government, which values its warm diplomatic ties with Brazil. The Iranian authorities quickly redefined her crime as murder, in an apparent effort to legitimize their case against her.
The Taliban, by contrast, are not vulnerable to shaming. They defined themselves in the 1990s largely through the imposition of an incredibly harsh and widely disputed version of Islamic law, under which stonings for adultery became common. Last week’s stoning, by hundreds of villagers in Kunduz Province, was a dire indicator of where Afghanistan may be headed.
“There is no way to say how many stonings took place, but it was widespread” when the Taliban ruled, said Nader Nadery, a senior commissioner on the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. “Often the man escaped, and the woman only was punished, especially if he had connections or was a member of the Taliban.” Other sexual crimes were accorded similarly grotesque penalties: homosexuals, for instance, had a brick wall collapsed onto them.Stoning is not practiced only among Muslims, nor did it begin with Islam. Human rights groups say a young girl was stoned to death in 2007 in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Yazidi community, which practices an ancient Kurdish religion. The Old Testament includes an episode in which Moses arranges for a man who violated the Sabbath to be stoned, and stoning probably took place among Jewish communities in the ancient Near East. Rabbinic law, which was composed starting in the first century A.D., specifies stoning as the penalty for a variety of crimes, with elaborate instructions for how it should be carried out. But it is not clear to what extent it was used, if ever, said Barry Wimpfheimer, an assistant professor of religion at Northwestern University and an expert on Jewish law.Some Muslims complain that stoning — along with other traditional penalties like whipping and the amputation of hands — is too often sensationalized in the West to smear the reputation of Islam generally. Most of these severe punishments are carried out by the Taliban and other radicals who, many Islamic scholars say, have little real knowledge of Islamic law. Stoning is a legal punishment in only a handful of Muslim countries — in addition to Iran, they include Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan and Nigeria, but it is very rarely put to use.
Stoning is not prescribed by the Koran. The punishment is rooted in Islamic legal traditions, known as hadiths, that designate it as the penalty for adultery. While the penalty may seem savage to Western eyes, scholars say it is consistent with the values of Arabian society at the time of Muhammad, Islam’s founding prophet.
Adultery “was considered to offend some of the fundamental purposes of Islamic law: to protect lineage, family, honor and property,” said Kristen Stilt, an associate professor at Northwestern University who has written about Islamic law. “It was a tribal society, and knowing who children belonged to was very important.”
That may help explain the link between sexual crimes and stoning, as opposed to another form of execution. A crime that seemed to violate the community’s identity called for a communal response. Certainly the special horror of stoning is rooted in the prospect of being pelted to death by one’s own friends, neighbors and relatives.
But Islamic law requires very strict conditions for a stoning sentence: four male eyewitnesses must attest to having seen the sexual act and their accounts must match in all details, or else they can be subject to criminal penalties, said Aron Zysow, a specialist on Islamic law at Princeton University. Some scholars even argue that the stoning penalty is meant more as a symbolic warning against misbehavior than as a punishment to be taken literally.
In any case, societies evolve. The move to implement severe penalties like stoning — known collectively as “hud” after the Arabic word for limits — is ultimately a matter of policy, not religious orthodoxy. Even under the Ottoman empire, when secular and religious authority were combined, stoning and other penalties were viewed at times as crude remnants of the past.
In Iran, the empowerment of political Islam after the 1979 revolution brought a new criminal code that included stoning. It prescribes a detailed ritual: men are to be buried in a standing position up to their waists, women to above the breasts. The stones used must not be large enough to kill a person with one or two throws, nor so small as to be considered pebbles. If the adultery was proved by confession, the judge must cast the first stone; if it is proved by witnesses, then one of the witnesses goes first.
Anyone who survives a stoning is set free without further punishment. But that is unlikely, given that victims are usually bound in cloth and have their hands tied before they are buried.
Iranian leaders are clearly uneasy about stoning, which has helped to darken their country’s reputation. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently said that “very few” people were sentenced to stoning, and that the judiciary did not release any information about stoning cases. Iranian lawyers who have been involved in such cases say that as many as 100 stonings have been carried out since the revolution, but that the practice was becoming less common.
Between 2006 and 2008 at least six stonings took place, all of them in secret, said Hadi Ghaemi, the director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Currently at least 10 people are in Iranian jails under stoning sentences, seven women and three men, he added.
There is a vigorous domestic campaign against stoning in Iran, largely led by women. The former head of Iran’s judiciary made several recommendations to judges not to impose or implement stoning sentences, but all have been ignored. A parliamentary committee recommended last year that stoning be deleted from the penal code, but the measure has not been taken to a vote.
In Afghanistan, by contrast, stoning seems to be on the rise, despite its unpopularity.
“You do see an increase in these so-called applications of justice by the Taliban in morality cases,” Mr. Nadery said. “Over the last seven months, 200 people have been killed for showing disapproval or criticizing actions by the Taliban.”http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/weekinreview/22worth.html?pagewanted=all