Before watching The Stoning of Soraya M., I had already formed an opinion of it as “objectifying” and “misrepresenting” Muslim women, as a reaction to a recent spate of “save the Muslim damsel in distress” media like that which surrounds the European burqa ban debacle. The movie, however, turned out to be powerful in its message; incredibly moving and certainly not a damsel in distress tale. Instead, it is about extraordinary womanhood and moral courage in the face of injustice.
The film is based on a best-selling book written by French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam, adapted by Cyrus Nowrasteh. The story revolves around the extremely controversial issue of the (highly questionable) punishment in Islamic law of death by stoning for adultery. While this is not a platform to debate or discuss Islamic law and theology, it should be pointed out that stoning is, at best, a contentious issue within Islamic discourse and a practice that has largely survived through cultural heritage.
Through Soraya’s aunt Zahra, we see a Muslim woman using her mind, conscience, and voice for long-term good. Zahra is a fiercely devout Muslim woman who realizes her faith by facing up to so-called “men of religion.” Her constant reference to God, prayer, and ultimate justice symbolize “true Islam,” as opposed to the version followed by the men in the movie, who use religion for their own selfish gains. Zahra is portrayed as fearless, and strong both physically (when she slaps the mayor) and spiritually (when she declares that “God is great” after helping the journalist escape with her story).
Zahra’s passionate and articulate voice counters the stereotype of the voiceless Muslim women. Zahra is independent, educated, and world-wise. She is not afraid of authority or of speaking up. She exposes the tragic story of Soraya to the world, not in a move against Islam, but against men who misinterpret the religion to institutionalize cultural patriarchy and misogyny.Soraya, the innocent woman who is stoned to death because her husband merely suspected her of adultery as a cover up for his own motives, is also strong-willed and courageous, though not as assertive as her aunt. In the last scene, before she is stoned, she reprimands the entire village for doing this to her, instead of pleading innocence, which she knows will be futile in the face of a mob. She is not a docile woman controlled by men, and ironically, in the end her murder exposes their hypocrisy to the world.
The film shows a sense of shared womanhood – with the women gathering to support Soraya, to speak out against the stoning and to bury her remains in the dead of the night.
The important issue of patriarchy and moral hypocrisy is brought to the fore through the character of the village mullah. He is a complete fraud, and his religious vigor is offset by references to his past and how easily he is blackmailed into going along with the plan by Soraya’s husband.
The women, on the other hand, are portrayed with moral integrity. This radical opposition between the men and women is problematic in that it is too polarizing, and possibly alienating, suggesting that men and women are opponents and never on the same side. Nowrasteh tries to balance this with a few women characters that support the men’s decision, and the village mayor, who is trapped between his role as a leader and his sense of moral righteousness.
The Stoning of Soraya M. is a strong indictment against the hypocrisy and double-standards displayed by some Muslim communities with regard to men and women, but the movie itself is not Islamophobic and, though overly-melodramatic at times, does not objectify Muslim women as meek and helpless creatures.