The Stoning of Soraya M.: A Review

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.

  • Nabeel

    “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.”

    Yes because authentic narrations that Prophet Mohammed (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam) stoned adulterers don’t exist.

    [Editor's note: This comment has been edited substantially. Nabeel, when we say that this isn't the place to debate or discuss Islamic law and theology, we mean it. The point of the post is to discuss the movie.]

  • http://www.wluml.org Rochelle

    I know we don’t want to discuss stoning per se, but I just wanted to take note with this statement, that stoning is “a practice that has largely survived through cultural heritage”. In fact, stoning was not practiced in Iran before the Revolution.

    But I’m glad that you gave this movie a fair review. I really felt that the accusations of Islamophobia were misguided. We can portray injustice occurring in the Muslim community — as it occurs in all communities — without implying that Islam is an inherently violent religion or Muslims are more prone to barbaric practices. In fact, ignoring the abuses that occur in Muslim communities are not giving these communities a fair treatment. By ignoring such practices, we hold Muslim communities to a different, inferior standard of justice.

  • Person

    Hmmm, this kinda makes me change my view on seeing the movie. I don’t know if I’d go through the process of receiving it in the mail, but if Netflix offers it on instant computer streaming I may watch it. I was initially deterred by reviews that said it played into the “save the womenz from the brown men” mentality, as well as engaged in “tourture/murder porn” with an unnecessarily long stoning scene.
    I think this is something that often comes up for me. The idea of not playing into oppressive ideas but at the same time not shaming people for telling their stories/ideas/experiances or being themselves for fear of reinforcing stereotypes. No way do I expect women not to discuss double standards and oppression, or paint a rosy portrait of life just to try and combat negative images. My initial reservations had to do with how the movie supposedly plays on “exotic and secretative” and Islam as sexist-oppressive stereotypes. I also thought it might just be bad in general.
    The high match rating it gets (based on other movies I like) and this review makes me kinda want to see it now.

  • Nabeel

    [Editor's note: This comment has been edited substantially. Nabeel, when we say that this isn't the place to debate or discuss Islamic law and theology, we mean it. The point of the post is to discuss the movie.]

    Funny how immediately after saying that “this isn’t the place to debate or discuss”, you state your opinion that stoning is contentious. This opinion inaccurate at best and deviant at worst.

    I don’t really care about the movie, but if you’re gonna be objective, be objective.

    Nice censoring btw.

  • Ahmed

    The film was about Islamic law.

    The whole purpose of its production was to highlight the alleged barbarity of the Islamic jurisprudential tradition. I don’t see how one can possibly have a meaningful discussion about the Stoning of Soraya M. without have a discussion about the substantive and procedural aspects of Islamic criminal law.

  • Fatemeh

    @ Nabeel: No one said this was a free-speech zone. We have strict comment guidelines to ensure that we don’t get bogged down into unproductive comments about Islamic law that never go anywhere. If you don’t want to talk about the movie, don’t comment.

  • http://www.safiyyahsblog.blogspot.com Safiyyah

    @ person – in fact the stoning scene is quite long and drawn out – but not does affect the way Muslim women are portrayed in the movie, and hence outside the scope of this review – but it was one of the flaws of the movie for me personally.

    @rochelle – yes, what i meant by cultural heritage – is that cultures that are inherently patriarchal will easily take to concepts like stoning.

    @Ahmed – I do agree with you, but we’re looking at how the women are portrayed in this discussion.

  • http://none Maria

    I found this film shocking.. I have read many books on Islam and Islamic law and more importantly the struggles these poor women have to go through. I find it sickening to think that these things go on everyday in this world without all those women fortunate enough to speak their mind here not knowing about it. I certainly appreciate my voice in my country and my right to work and be in a position both at home and on the work place were my voice has strength. I condemn all people and countries that so much as live a fragment of this sort of life and believe that whatever god whoever he is will reach all those sins left un paid.

    A.Maria

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org Rachael

    Love, honesty, respect, values, commitment – these are the pillars of our community and foundation of religion. This movie reminds me of the basics no matter who you are!

  • http://www.markzonder.com/ Amy

    @ person – in fact the stoning scene is quite long and drawn out – but not does affect the way Muslim women are portrayed in the movie, and hence outside the scope of this review – but it was one of the flaws of the movie for me personally.

    @rochelle – yes, what i meant by cultural heritage – is that cultures that are inherently patriarchal will easily take to concepts like stoning.

    @Ahmed – I do agree with you, but we’re looking at how the women are portrayed in this discussion.

  • http://innerreflectionstranscribed.wordpress.com Sumera

    I watched the movie a few days ago and I personally don’t think it was remotely about the application of Islamic law with regards to stoning, since she didn’t commit adultery (the act of intercourse as its defined on a technical level, so she wasn’t meant to be stoned), she was accused of seducing Hashem which is a different ballgame altogether). It wasn’t done to critique how barbaric stoning is.

    It was about the abuse of power (the mullah), the selfish motives of the husband and the lack of autonomy, power and influence the women had. I found Zahra to be a strong character and Soraya to be resilient. I did wonder why no-one pointed out Soraya’s husbands adulterous streak since it was well known to all he had a hankering for prostitutes?

    On the flip side, as my husband mentioned, the movie could be construed as American propoganda against Iran (we all know how they feel about one another) using the human rights/lack of women’s voices slant as the base.

    Nonetheless the movie raised some good issues, and I found it to be interesting (I couldnt watch the stoning scene, it was too disturbing)

  • Pingback: The Stoning of Soraya M. « Inner Reflections Transcribed

  • SakuraPassion

    I just wanted to comment because I just watched this movie recently. And while I don’t really feel it was Islamophobic, I wonder if it could be interpreted in that way. Especially since the issue of stoning is a theme.
    I also took it as being more about the corruption and abuse of power. I think it did show that Muslim women are capable of being strong and having voices. So I enjoyed the and I really liked Zarah. ^_^

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/2010/05/the-stoning-of-soraya-m-a-review/ Susan R.

    The means may have been by stoning; but if the facts relayed as to how the incident came to fruition then it was a murder of an innocent. I found the reaction of the female town gossip at the time of the stoning to be ironic….the same mouth which spewed forth unfounded accusations ends up spewing up vomit at the time of the stoning. Whether or not such a person was really there and lost her lunch over what she witnessed and helped perpetuate is really not important….movie embellishment aside; it describes vividly in visual terms an image of how disgusting the slaughter of an innocent for the gain of another is…..and it all started in the blackened heart of a man who coveted another woman with his eyes. Who really committed the sin here. Will this husband ever get his due…..not on this earth…however he must answer to Allah….

  • Iany

    I still don’t know whether I can watch this film, simply because I know that it ends in a woman’s death and her death is a grave injustice.

    I firmly hoped that the purpose of the film was to highlight social injustice in a specific place at a specific time (modern Iran, after the revolution). Your review reinforces my belief that this is the case. Violence against women is so prevalent throughout the world, it is brilliant that someone is giving a voice to powerful women who are not victims in spite the horrible crimes they are made to endure. I’ll try to see this movie and thank you for your review.

  • Iany

    I’d like to clarify what I said about modern Iran, I did not mean to implicate an entire country, rather that the injustice occured in a place within Iran. I understand the film was based on a true story and the event occured somewhere within Iran. Social injustice can happen anywhere and while it should always be commented upon, that does not implicate all members of a civilisation. Just the fact that the perpetrators exist.

  • Dina

    I have one question for you:
    I read the interesting article one of the contributors of this site wrote regarding the media would allegedly not propagate a chador clad woman’s killing as fervently as “modern Neda’s”.

    I want you to ask yourselves after reading this article:
    Would you like the movie or story (if it were a true story) the same, and would you suggest people go see it if the woman were NOT devoutly religious, and were NOT saying “God is greatest”, but were an atheist or communist? if she were denouncing religion, and not acting upon it?

    It would be another woman of strength to confront her mainstream and men in power; but I have a feeling your solidarity would be somewhat less because you may not share her views.

    To me, it’s a matter of respect for the individual and their religious choices. That includes NOT following religion. That includes criticizing religion if one is opposed to what it propagates (even “true Islam” as you say). I somehow have a feeling you would not celebrate the movie if it it were a movie about a woman who’d be making intellectual and spiritual choices you do not approve of. This is a matter that is dear to my heart – people who dare think differently, particularly women, are in this time and age frequently demonized as “collaborators” of the West, traitors to Islam etc. I find this restriction of respect to mentalities one shares quite sad – I am speaking of Arabic and Muslim communities since it’s the ones I know of.

    • Fatemeh

      @ Dina: This site is about Muslim women’s representation in the media, so we review media relevant to this topic. If there was a movie about an atheist woman, it would fall outside of the scope of this website–the question is irrelevant to our website. Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s a fair assessment to say that we, as a website with several different writers from different backgrounds, would all not support this hypothetical atheist woman just because she was an atheist.

  • Mona

    All I have to say is that it felt as if I was there – watching as Zahra did when she heard Ali, and Mullah trying to “sell” their story to Ebrahim. It was very surreal in my opinion, and I’m not one to show any emotion. I came across this movie on filmhill.com, and thought I’d watch. I’m very glad I did!

    I haven’t watched anything Bollywood, for about six years now, but I wanted to give this different genre a chance. On my mother’s side of the family their Caribbean Hindu, and Muslim, among others … So watching this gave me an insight into another types of movies that are out there, and this was a great movie. Before, and after I googled what I could find on the movie, and related etc … Glad I found this website.

    I did tear up a lot, and I admit I have a sort of headache. What bothered me even more was when Leila (the gossiper) spoke ill of Soraya when she knew nothing! Women as well can be just as bad, and I noticed that she threw her hands up when they threw the stones at her

    ;/

    I didn’t have to share that with you all, but I just thought I would.

  • mia robbins

    Yes, this does show how religion is sometimes used by humanity for their own evil purposes. It also portrays the evil of gossip, of greed, of lust, of not standing up for what is right. Hashem personifies all those who stand by and keep silent when their religion is used and defiled by murderers. Zahra represents the righteous. The clowns were a bit much. The viewer already knows this is a folly, a sad charade;however, the long stoning scene needs to be shown. This is needed to remind us of how depraved humanity can be.

  • http://www.mykeru.com Mykeru

    Watching this film I was reminded of a recent conversation I had with my father about the latest media frenzy over dastardly bombing and beheading Muslims. Although I’m an atheist, I tend to respect other people’s religions — in theory — more than religious people tend to do to other religions. I was raised in a fairly middle-of-the-road Italian-American family and fed just enough Roman Catholicism to keep my grandmother’s head from exploding.

    I reminded my father that the problem with the supposed outrages of (fundamentalist) Islam isn’t a problem with Islam, but a problem with fundamentalism whether it be Muslim, Christian, Judaic, or what have you. Even Marxist-Leninists, who were ostensibly not religious at all, suffered from abuses of power caused by their own brand of fundamentalism. Would a theocracy in the U.S. be much better? Think Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

    He thought about it and agreed, particularly as history of the Catholic church is just brimming with pogroms, inquisitions, witch hunts and holy wholesale slaughter. No faith, dogma or persuasion is immune from it. Even Buddhists within Tibet benefited from a hierarchical cast system and weren’t exactly nice the peasants.

    For people slow on the uptake, or rendered fuzzy by their own bias, The Stoning of Soroya M has a character who could have been right out of central casting: “Mullah” Hassan, the Potemkin cleric. Freidoune Sahebjan’s book makes it even clearer what a dangerous fraud this man was. He is of a type with Elmer Gantry, Ted Haggard, all the way back to Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

    The Stoning of Soraya M is a story that could be told in many times, many places, about many faiths. It’s only about Islam to the extent that it took place in Iran. But it could and has happened many places where there have been lynching and witch hunts. It exposes the all-too-human tendency towards hypocrisy, false piety, dogma of convenience, the malice and stupidity of people in groups and wrapping fascism in faith and flag.

    People who think this film is anti-Islam, or want it to be, should take Zahra warning to Soraya to heart: “You never learned to listen between the words”.

  • Angie

    The movie is about Islam’s punishment with regard to adultery. The crowd said that it is the law of God.

  • Sam

    I feel it was necessary for the film to have a long drawn out stoning scene. It touched on the impact the stoning had on various members of the community and her own family. Her young sons cast stones at her in the beginning, but as the stoning goes on and they see the rage and her passing, you see the boys melt into sorrow for the loss of their mother. They had to go through a process because of the cultural expectation they should be against their own mother. The scene also gives you a chance to ‘feel’ her pain and her passing. It was graphic, but it will make an impact of the intensity of this crime and maybe wake up a few westerners to the reality they only see during quick news clips. It pulls the watcher out of complacency and hopefully will spur some to action. The long scene does the job it was suppose to do.

  • Person #2

    @Fatemeh

    I think Dina has a point as it relates to the movie because perhaps by having the main character a faithful and religious person, in addition to being entirely innocent, the filmmaker could get the audience to immediately sympathize with Soraya’s situation and everything she faced. As a result, a viewer will be more open to the film’s message[s]. When Soraya says at the end, “How could you do this do anyone[,]” I think it suggests that this practice is supposed to be questioned in the case of any person – guilty or innocent. By having it coming from someone who there was no reason to have this befall them, in the eyes of religion or basic humanity, it gives her voice more credibility.

  • Johanna

    This Movie was very Powerful. I was angry for the injustice of how a so called holy man could be in a sense brought by power. How a husbands greed and lust could take on such an evil twist and in the end be for naught. How Hashem was bullied into choosing his Son over what was truth. How The Mayor could have been so foolish and even her Father. How unfair that a Woman is considered Guilty until proven innocent but a man innocent until proven guilty. Soraya remained silently determined till the end knowing that if she spoke it would do no use. The Decision had been made and she had been condemned by Lies. The power of her Aunt Zahra through out the movie was amazing. From the warning to read between the lines to begging them to take her in her Niece’s place was emotionally charged. Seeing the power of Soraya’s last statement I am your Neighbor, Your Daughter, your Mother, your Wife, How can you do this to me. How could you do this to anyone. Not just shows what an injustice to the innocent but what brutality to even the guilty. I was angry with her Husband her Sons, the Gossipers and those that Praised god for such brutality. God is a God of love and although those that are guilty should be punished. That judgement is for God to make. I cried and felt her pain as her own sons threw stones at her and felt with her as each stone hit her and she fell over. I begged her to keep her eyes closed and wondered if she had could she have survived. I rejoiced with Her Aunt as she asked the Mayor why are you afraid was justice not served? and she yelled out that the God she loves is great and that the World would know what happened…And the World Does know. Whew This was an emotionally charged Movie!! Kudos to the actors and actresses!! Well Done

  • Amanda

    I have just watched the movie and I must applaude the whole team that came together to make this film. Some incredible casting.

    The stoning scene to me was all necessary and not too long (stonings have been reported to be over one hour). As a western woman I needed the media to show me what would take place, how she would die, how the village would execute this. It is played out realistically but I do not know if it is accurate as a stoning for a woman, she should be buried up to her neck, the waist is for the man. I now know if the portrayal is accurate that there are no stones thrown to the back of the head. This would imply that the smallish stones would have to break her skull and damage the frontal brain and sides. This is a slow,and painful, tortuous death. The rocks were thrown at a good distance so there had to be some very, very strong forces coming from the men to penetrate her skull.
    I needed this scene to understand.

    If Iranian women are portrayed accurately here then even without rights and protection they have tremendous strength of character and courage and live in spite of the culture they are in. I found alot of power in these women who even spoke their minds and spoke the truth regardless that their words would not have any effect. The truth is spoken from them and they act on it because they must.

    Now that this has been brought to the screen I feel I have a more acurate portrayal of what is still happening today to women and no longer exists as a hypothetical understanding.

    I could write an essay but my reason for writing here was to comment on the strength of the women,their ability to accept, their integrity, and tremendous courage. Incredible. Made by Hollywood? Extremely incredible !

  • Johanna

    @ Amanda I could not have said it any better your words convey exactly how I Felt!!!
    It was a very eye opening Movie and the women Who were Portrayed if it was an acurate portrayal were honored as Strong woman with Power Integrity and Amazing courage beyond what is Normal!!
    Again Very well DONE!!


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