Sticks and Stones

The Stoning of Soraya M. is a difficult film to watch, but worth taking the time to do so. The film, which opens today, depicts the stoning death of a young Iranian woman falsely accused of adultery. It highlights the outrage that the barbaric practice of stoning continues to occur anywhere, but at times does more than that.

Based on the book of the same title by Iranian-French journalist Freidoune Sahebjam, the film (directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh) focuses on a specific event that illustrates the way in which a repressive, illiberal society can close in on an individual, ultimately taking away his or her very life and personhood. As in this instance, death by stoning is often the result of religious fanaticism, but the dehumanization and ultimate destruction of the victim depicted in the film can also take place in totalitarian systems devoted to some other allegedly higher ideal—the workers’ revolution, the Volk—which rulers place above the sanctity of the individual.

More specifically, the film brings welcome attention to the fact that stoning still goes on in some countries (at the screening I attended, viewers received a Human Rights Watch handout on it), and places the atrocity in the context of the conditions that make it possible. The series of circumstances and events that led to this particular injustice constitute tools of repression upon which tyrannical governments routinely rely—intimidation of witnesses, suborning of false testimony, and dehumanization of the victim. In essence, Soraya is subjected to a show trial—at which she is not even allowed to be present—where she is turned into a legal non-person.

If that sounds Stalinist, it should. As in Stalinist Russia, obedience to some greater ideal becomes a tool for ruthless men to manipulate—and even destroy—others in the process of getting their way. The series of events that lead to Soraya’s death are set in motion by her husband Ali, who has tired of her and wants to marry a younger woman. When she refuses to grant him a divorce on his terms, he decides to get rid of her by a false charge of adultery, based on a series of lies, half-truths, and testimony from a threatened witness, which leads to sentence of death by stoning. Ali gets rid of an inconvenient spouse the same way that tyrants routinely dispatch political opponents.

That the events depicted occurred in Iran make the film unexpectedly timely, given the events there in recent days, especially because many of the marchers against the regime are women, and the murder of one young woman has become a rallying cry for Iranian reformers. From its outset, the film lays out women’s lack of rights in a fundamentalist theocracy at the core of the problem.

The story is told to Sahebjam (played by Jim Caviezel) by Zahra, Soraya’s aunt (Shoreh Aghdashloo). When Sahebjam’s car breaks down in their town of Kupayeh, Zahra notices that he is carrying a cassette recorder. When she learns that he is a journalist, she seeks him out to tell the story of Soraya’s ritual murder. Recognizing how little weight her words would carry where she lives, she tells him, “Then take my voice with you!”

On the streets in Tehran and all over Iran, women as well as men are trying to find their voices against a regime they neither trust nor respect. And yes, those events give The Stoning of Soraya M. special saliency. But it is powerful enough on its own.