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Opinions of Friday, 16 July 2010

Columnist: Twum-Baah, N. Amma

Sticks and Stones May Not Break My Bones, but ...

...they are Breaking the Skulls of Other Women

The practice of stoning a person to death as punishment for any crime is one that dates back centuries. For Christians, we are not ignorant to the fact that stoning was used to mete out punishments in biblical times. A woman was once spared by the intervention of Jesus when He said to those gathered ready to stone her to death for adultery, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Over the years, it has become the general assumption that human nature has, over the centuries, become less prone to such cruel methods of dishing out its idea of justice. It is for this reason that I hope the news circulating on major media channels turns out to be some kind of media ploy merely designed to arouse the sensitivities of soft-hearted people like me – in which case I would say they’ve been successful because I have not been able to think of much else since I first came across the news of Sakineh Ashtiani, an Iranian woman sentenced to die by stoning for adultery. I have become obsessed with researching and finding out all that I can about this cruel, barbaric, callous, and what seems to be unfortunately “usual,” treatment of women in the name of culture and religion.

The first time I heard of stoning outside of the Bible, was in college. I read something about it in passing about a woman – Soraya M – whose stoning was written into a novel by Iranian-born French author Freidoune Sahebjam and which was later adapted into a film; I read parts of it like a fictional horror novel even though the images it painted were disturbing enough to stay imprinted in my mind for a very long time. Those images were awakened earlier this week when again, I saw in passing, a flash on the TV screen. I was absentmindedly flipping through channels when I saw it on the news. This time, I paid attention and I went about trying to find everything about it that I possibly could.

Sakineh Ashtiani is just one of several women in recent years to be sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, in accordance with cultural laws and religion. She is a mother of two, and was convicted of adultery in 2006. For that conviction, according to the CNN report and a later article “Let’s Get Noisy,” written by Heather Reisman on Huffington Post, Sakineh confessed under duress after receiving 99 lashes in 2006. She appealed her sentence to Iran’s Supreme Court, but her conviction was upheld in 2007 allowing the stoning to proceed as initially decreed. Iranian authorities have since declared a reprieve of the punishment, but that is not to say that she will not die for her offense. The sentence Sakineh Ashtiani received for committing adultery is just a scratch on the surface of a larger issue – violence against women, violation of women’s rights, and discrimination against women. Women are stoned to death in larger numbers than men because cultural norms in the societies in which they live make them easier targets for stoning. Their options for seeking ways out of adultery are limited, if not merely impossible!

Most of the societies that practice stoning have strict moral codes for women that leave them no choice out of an unfulfilling, loveless or even abusive marriage. Women are subjected to such extremes of submission that lack of sexual satisfaction in a marriage is considered a non-issue. Men on the other hand are free to satisfy their marital dissatisfactions in several ways – marry more wives, file for divorce, or seek sexual satisfaction in a temporary marital arrangement that requires no official marriage registration, and no legal responsibility for any children that may ensue from such an arrangement. These make it very difficult for a man to be accused of committing adultery under the law. Women have none of these choices. The unfortunate and most glaring of these is the fact that even a divorced woman who sleeps with another man after her marriage is over may still be accused of committing adultery. A husband dissatisfied with his wife and wishes to be rid of her can also falsely accuse her of adultery, as was the case with Saroya M.

Even the method used in carrying out the sentence is discriminatory in its very nature. Some countries that allow stoning cite, according to various penal codes, that, if a person is able to free themselves in the process of being stoned, then they will be set free because it is said to be a sign of divine intervention. However, men are buried up to their waist making it easy for them to wiggle their way out, and women are buried up to their chest, and sometimes necks, making it more unlikely that a woman will be able to escape painful death.

Stoning is usually carried out in a public square with a gathering of people on hand to perpetuate the sentence. The judge is usually said to be the one to cast the first stone. After that, the others are allowed to join in. The woman is pelted with stones not too small, and not too large (to cause immediate death), but sizeable enough to cause pain and a long drawn out path to death. A woman buried up to her chest or neck leaves no part of her body bearable. As such, the main target is deemed to be her head. Yes, all this for seeking sexual pleasure outside of a “trapped” marriage. Knowing the depth and seriousness of the punishment involved, it is safe to assume that women who do commit adultery do not do so for the simple thrill of a one-night stand knowing the grave consequences involved.

Violence, injustices and discrimination against women is rife in every human society. They are usually justified through laws, culture, religion, all three, or any one on its own. It is a sad state of affairs that breaks my heart as a woman. Many wonder why I care. I live in a society where I am free to live out my choices and freedoms as a woman – and I am eternally grateful for that. I will not give it up for anything in this world. But, that does not mean that I have lost the capacity to be concerned and to care. After all, yes, there isn’t anything I can do about it but sit here and allow tears to roll down my cheeks as I cry for an unknown woman whose picture I’m not even sure is real. But, knowledge is powerful! Many crimes in society go unnoticed and justified because others pretend not to see or are ignorant to its very existence. It leaves the door wide open for the perpetrators of injustice to continue to do what they do best.

The one thing I can do is to spread the word. The more people know and condemn such barbaric practices, the less it will go unnoticed and justified. And, I care simply because I am a woman. I am a human being, and I have the capacity to feel for others and to detest injustice. I have never taken the complacent approach that says “that’s their culture, that’s their business, that’s how it’s done. If the women there don’t like it, why don’t they just leave!”

And, yes, the fact still remains that even in civil societies, rape, domestic abuse and gender discrimination exists – maybe not in such glaring terms, but it exists nonetheless. Women in African countries are culturally subjected to lives of submission, subjugation and passive attitudes. Some are raped and silenced; others are legally beaten by husbands who are allowed to do so under the guise of law and culture. Wives are “legally” raped according to cultural practices and religions that say a man possesses a woman’s body as a result of marriage. Others are labeled witches and confined to a life of solitude and neglect. Every culture has its own societal ills against its women. It makes me wonder “why?” “Why?!” has always been the big question I am often left with every time I find myself pondering the demise of women. But, I never seem to find the answers I seek. What is it that is so despicable about our existence as women that makes us easy prey for attempts at our degradation, extinction and near non-existence? Just what is it?!