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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  • Maria Rohaly

    Thank you for an interesting discussion on Sakineh Ashtiani. I’d just like to note one thing, and that is that Sakineh has not been released. It seemed that she had been released on December 9, 2010, because photos of her with her son at their home in Oskoo made it appear so. In fact, the regime had just taken them out of prison so that Sakineh could be forced to act out the regime’s version of events leading to her former husband’s death. Sakineh is still imprisoned, while the regime has said that Sajjad, Sakineh’s son, is out on bail; however, it remains unclear as to whether he really is out of prison or not.
    Best regards,

  • heena

    Erin, I can’t understand this article. I find you diplomatic trying to be pleasing to both countries or geographies.

    What does Islam say about punishment for adultery? Is Iran doing that? What does Islam say on providing proofs? Has Iran collected witnesses/proofs in that way? Are those ways achievable in today’s modern context?
    Please write an article on that.

    For west let us assume it has done all media publicity for showing big brother attitude and nothing else. We are never sure why it has done it, there can be genuine people, west is not just white conservative anti Islam people, or there can be political ambitions or Iran’s growing military regime may be a reason. We never know. But let us examine Iran and Islam together and try to decipher how Iran is wrong or how Islam segrregates right and wrong.I know that would be theocratic debate but we need such debates to go to root of issues.

    • Fatemeh

      @Heena: MMW is not a place for theological debates–this is a media criticism website.

  • Rochelle

    A couple corrections to this article:

    1.) As Maria mentioned, Sakineh was not released. She was temporarily released in order to make that abominable ‘documentary’ by Press TV and then promptly returned to prison.

    2) You said “when there are a number of Muslim women expecting similar punishments not only in Iran, but in many other countries”. Its true that several other women are awaiting stoning sentences in Iran, but not in ‘many other countries’. Stoning is only practiced in Iran, and in rogue communities in Kurdistan, Somalia. It is legal in Iran and Nigeria, but never carried out in Nigeria. Thus there is no hypocrisy involved in ‘singling out’ Iran for stoning. It’s the only country on the planet and exercises the punishment in this way.

    3.) You mentioned a few times that ‘little attention’ was paid to other things, like torture and gender dynamics in Sakineh’s case as well as other cases of human rights violations in Iran. I’m totally confused by this, because there HAS BEEN a lot of attention paid to these issues. Activists have been calling our attention to other cases such as that of Shiva NazarAhari and others. I gave a couple interviews to news outlets about the Sakineh case and they all wanted to know about the details of the case, how often stoning happens, the overall context and so forth. I think you’re wrong about this.

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Hello everyone, thank you for your comments. Rochelle, when I say that little attention has paid to claims of torture is because the focus on Sakineh’s case was the stoning part. A number of media outlets criticize the whole situation by criticizing the use of methods such as stonning; however, few media outlets and Shari’ah analysis have questioned the fact that she was tortured. It was only until her confession came out that the media started talkign about torture. Of course there are sources that mentioned that and criticized the use of torture, especially Human Rights organizations, but in the media the phenomenon was quite recent. I question this because, as we know, in some Western countries torture is practiced in different contexts for example Guantanamo Bay. Thus, how much emphasis does the media want to criticize the use of torture is questionable.

    In this piece I don’t aim to qualify people in the West. My intention is not to say that Westerners are all ‘evil.’ I am questionig politics in here. I truly believe that there was a lot of concern for Sakineh’s life everywhere in the Western world. However, her situation was handdled at the political level, and her case was reported by the media under a specific agenda.

    As you mention, it has been reported that Sakineh was release, but we don’t know exactly if it is true or not. For now, it is important to recognize that the efforts to save her life have somehow succeeded. But we should not forget that this doesn’t end with Sakineh’s case. There are still women, and men, affected by this.

    When I say that there are many countries in which women are put through this punishments I don’t mean only at the state level. Iran is one of the few countries that handles this issues through the government, but in a number of countries (Eastern and Western) Honor Killings and feminicides and other punishments remain a problem (even if they are illegal).

  • Dina

    “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.”

    I agree. But I have not seen a single government or diplomat from a Muslim country strongly intervene for Ashtiani. “The West” has kept the case on rather low boil for quite some time, too, since initial media reports – precisely for fear of risking to sacrifice Ms. Ashtiani.
    Also I have not seen a single so-called Islamic government (although I disagree with you entirely that Iraq or Afghanistan currently are run by Islamic governments – Muslim, yes, but not Islamic or Islamist) criticize the doubtful Sharia implications the Iranian verdict (and much of Iranian codified law and clerics’ legal opinions) carry.
    Although here, we would be in the process of “othering”, also, as with temporary marriage critics of the Sunni global majority vis-a-vis Shii minority opinions.

    I wonder why this engagement for Ms. Ashtiani was so largely absent. Not wanting to be on one side with “the West” (also a portrayal of the allegedly diametrically opposed “other”, IMO) is not a good excuse – as I said initially, Western governments became outspoken when there were real risks of Ms. Ashtiani being murdered by the Iranian government. Civil society engagement in Muslim countries as well as by Islamic organizations and representatives the world over were absent in the debate, and for sure not on Ms. Asthiani’s side, much in contrast to engagement against veil or niqab or burqa bans.

    I believe these aspects are missing in your otherwise interesting media mirror.

  • Anonymous

    The regime in Iran only executes those aspects of the sharia that serve to prove its Islamic nature but does not pay the least regard to the heart of Islam. Is Islam only about executions and floggings? Why don’t they address issues like social justice and equity? Why don’t they redress poverty? Why do they use Islam only for political ends? In an ideal Islamic society such despicable crimes would not occur. The prevalence of such crimes in Iran reveals the hypocritical nature of the Islamic regime. Iranians are further from Islam than Abu Lahab and Abu Sufyan were more than 1400 yrs ago.

  • Arys

    There needs to be more equality of meting out legal punishments within Shariah law to perpetrators of such crimes from both genders (and to all members of society, including those affiliated with power). The males who committed adultery, and conspired to manslaughter should be given equal media coverage as well.
    Countries with Shariah law in place must be strong in presenting their position, and if required, counter criticisms of it from the Western world. At the same time they must be just in meting out their punishments, and be meticulous in following the right legal procedures (for example; was the requirement of four witnesses to adultery used in the case?), and not just hand out punishments to create fear in the populace. They must refrain falling into the trap of international sensationalism, and they need to manage their media more efficiently to present the facts of such criminal cases.
    In short, there needs to be a serious reform of the legal systems and media management in the Islamic world.