Sacrificing Sakineh: Western Intervention and Iranian Politics

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is now a high-profile human rights case around the world. The chronology of Ashtiani’s case has been reported by a number of sources, but here’s the basic story: in 2006, Ashtiani was accused of having an illicit relationship with two men after the death of her husband. However, the confession presented by the Iranian authorities as evidence has been reported to have been obtained under torture. Ashtiani was sentenced to 99 lashes, but no details about the men were provided. By the end of 2006, she was accused of adultery while still married and manslaughter of her own husband. She was eventually sentenced to death by stoning.

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani. Image via Associated Press.

Ashtani’s situation was unknown to most people until this year, due to her children’s efforts to publicize her plight. The news became public around the summer, despite the fact that the Iranian government banned the media from reporting on the issue. On July 8, 2010, Amnesty International asked the Iranian government not to execute Ashtani by any method.  The Iranian government declared that she would not be stoned but it was feared that she would be hanged instead. After this, a number of human rights activists and sites have reported on news regarding Ashtiani, including The International Committee Against Execution, Free Sakineh and Stop Honour Killings.

In August 2010, it was reported that Ashtiani had been subjected to a mock execution, which contributed to further psychological pressure.  But despite all this, few sources have focused on the irregularities that surrounded Ashtiani’s case and the gender discourse being outlined by the Iranian approach to her case. Monster’s Ink blog points to the fact that Ashtiani was being treated differently due to her gender. Though she was accused of being an accomplice in her husband’s murder, no males were accused along with her, and numerous irregularities indicate that she had been treated differently than males in her situation. In addition, little attention was paid to claims of torture, which are, arguably, unacceptable in both Western and Islamic legal systems.

The whole story that surrounds Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani has put a number of Muslims at odds, not only with the Islamic regime in Iran, but also with the West and the politicization and “celebritization” of a serious case where not only Western law but also Shari’ah principles have been violated.

Iran’s decision has been labelled as “barbaric” by many, and discussions on Sakineh’s case in terms of Shari’ah law are vast. Her case became quickly politicized not only in the media but also at the state level. In spite Ashtiani’s release and all the support received by various important figures, the process was a diplomatic challenge for many countries. The West was unable to resist promoting the “othering” of Iran and Islam in general, and Iran has used Sakineh’s case to denounce the West.

What is more important, Sakineh’s case has left Muslims in the middle of a political discussion between the East vs. West and Islam vs. Secularism. The problem arises when we look at the way in which Sakineh’s case was dealt with. On one hand, the Iranian government prohibited any media coverage on the case. Nonetheless, Sakineh’s confession was later broadcasted by a government owned media outlet in order to justify their decision to stone her. Ashtiani is then presented as an evil woman who conspired against her husband and the video aims to expose the ‘facts’ about her case. On the other, Western media portrays Sakineh as a powerless victim of an Islamic regime. Many media outlets posted the picture of a young and beautiful Sakineh to endorse the idea of injustice that they aimed to convey.

For many Muslims it is difficult to criticize the West, since one could argue that without international pressure, Sakineh would be dead. Nonetheless, it seems hypocritical to condemn Iran for the stoning of one woman, when there are a number of Muslim women expecting similar punishments not only in Iran, but in many other countries. For some others, the West is once more intervening in a country’s affairs by appealing to its moral superiority and righteousness.

Furthermore, the “celebritization” of the case has been taken to TV. Arguably this raises awareness about the unjust activities of the Iranian “Islamic” regime. Yet, this raises some questions about the true nature of the claims on “barbarism” and “othering.” Although civilians’ concern over the situation of women in various Islamic countries is genuine, the politicization of Ashtiani’s case highlights a number of clashes between powerful Western nations and Iran. Thus, how concerned are Western governments over adultery, hanging and stoning? It is difficult to say. Cases like Ashtiani’s are often used as an excuse to criticize Islamic countries based on other political issues. Western concerns about Iranian policies conveniently ignore issues like death penalty in the West and human rights violations in places like Guantanamo Bay. What is more, Muslim women are again used as an excuse to delegitimize Islamic governments like in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ashtiani’s case is not being studied within the context of Iran’s system and the history of its Islamic Revolution. Instead, it is being judged under Western eyes. Whether this is positive or negative is difficult to answer. The issue is that there are a number of human rights violations against women in Iran, and little action to prevent them or stop them. Many women are still awaiting death penalty by stoning for similar charges and it would be expected that the Western governments would support their cause, as well.

For a number of Muslims it is a relief to know that Ashtiani was released, regardless of the reasons to free her. Some argue that without Western intervention, Iran would have stoned Ashtiani. Yet, others question whether or not Muslim women can rely on Western countries to advance their causes. Even when many countries in the West have adequate human rights records, Muslim women in the West are still stigmatized through the banning of hijabs and niqabs, they suffer hate crimes such as Marwa El Sherbini, and they are used as a political tool to justify occupations, religious intolerance, etc.

While it is clear that in Ashtiani’s case, and many other cases, Iran committed human rights violations, governments’ concerns over her life seemed to respond to different political issues between Iran and other powerful countries. Does that mean that human rights will only be protected when threatened by Western countries’ enemies? In the mean time some Muslim women’s lives remain threatened by regimes who justify their actions through Islam, and their individual guarantees are violated in the West under the banner of liberation from Islam.

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