Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Stoning of Soraya M

Every other Friday afternoon there's a movie screening followed by a discussion at my host institution for the PhD students at ICRS (Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies) and the master's degree students at CRCS (Center for Religious and Cross Cultural Studies). The thought-provoking movies selected for discussion tend to focus on injustice, violence, and cross cultural conflict. So far this semester, I've seen Raise the Red Lantern (about the power struggle between the four wives of a wealthy Chinese merchant in 1920s China); Crash (about racial discrimination in modern day Los Angeles); and now The Stoning of Soraya M (about an innocent woman who is wrongly stoned to death for adultery under Islamic Sharia Law in Iran in 1986). Soraya's story is shocking, heartbreaking, and, worst of all, true.

In the opening scene, a woman is shown chasing dogs away from the remains of a body by a river. The woman collects the bones, washes them gently in the river and then buries them. As she is finishing her task, she notices a bus pulling a broken-down car along the main road to the village. It turns out the car belongs to a French/Iranian journalist who wants to get to the border by nightfall and is adamant that the local mechanic fix his car as soon as possible. The woman notices the tape recorder in the journalist's bag as he is speaking to the mechanic and attempts through a series of rushed whispered conversations to convince him that she has an important story to tell if he will listen.

The journalist makes his way to Zahra's house and the majority of the story is told through flashbacks as Zahra recounts the fate of her niece, Soraya, who was stoned to death the night before the journalist's arrival. Soraya, a 35 year-old mother of four children, is married to an abusive, philandering husband named Ali who wants a divorce so he can marry the 14 year-old daughter of one of his prisoners and he can't afford to have two wives. Soraya refuses to divorce him because she would then be left with no means to support the children. When a neighbor's wife dies, the village elders and Ali decide that Soraya should go help the widower and his son with the cooking and cleaning. Zahra manages to negotiate a salary for Soraya so she can slowly start to gain financial independence. This arrangement works for a little while, but Ali starts to get impatient and thinks up a new way to get ride of his wife - he accuses her of sleeping with the widower and he and the corrupt village leader threaten the widower with his life and his son's life to go along with the allegations, knowing that under Sharia Law the punishment for adultery is death by stoning.

Ali convinces all the men of the village, and many of the women, that Soraya is guilty of adultery. Zahra tries to sneak Soraya out of the house, but the attempt is futile - the house is surrounded by men with guns. So, Zahra does her best to help prepare Soraya for the inevitable. She helps her get dressed in a beautiful white gown and tells her that she will make it her duty to tell her story to the world. When the time comes, Soraya is led out of the house and buried waist deep in a dirt hole. Her hands are bound and she is positioned facing the villagers. One by one, the villagers pick up the stones and hit their target. Soraya's husband, her father and even her own sons join in. The scene is prolonged and painful; it shows the effect of each and every stone for several long minutes. The stones hit, Soraya's head swings down and the up, blood drips down her face turning her white gown red, and she makes eye contact with the crowd. Cries of Allahu Akbar! (God is Great!) fill the air as eventually everyone starts throwing stones at once until Soraya is dead. That night there is a great celebration in the village. While the villagers are celebrating, Zahra and a few other women take Soraya's body down to the river. They aren't allowed to bury her so they leave her by the water, where we know from the opening scene that her body will be eaten by wild dogs.

Then the film returns to the present where Zahra and the journalist are finishing their conversation. The mechanic, who we now recognize as the widower, arrives to announce that the car is ready. The journalist packs up his equipment and tries to leave town. The village elders stop him to ask what the old woman has been talking to him about for so long. They say that what happens in the village, stays in the village. The head of the village then destroys the tape with Soraya's story. The journalist storms off in his car. The villagers watch him drive off, smugly thinking they have prevented the story from leaking out. Little do they know that Zahra has outsmarted them again. She's waiting for the journalist down the road with the true tape held high in her hand. She successfully passes it off to him. The villagers see what has happened and try to run after the car. There's a tense moment when the old car stalls, but then the journalist gets it going again and successfully drives out of town with Soraya's story intact.

This incident really happened in Iran in 1986. The French/Iranian journalist wrote a book about Soraya's story called La femme Lapidee, which was published in 1990. The film, The Stoning of Soraya M, came out just last year.

The story left me in tears. The tyrannical husband, the mob-mentality of the villagers, the betrayal of Soraya's sons, the desperate attempts of Zahra to stop the inevitable, the brutal, bloody stoning scene. Why would anyone do this?? Many people in the story knew what was happening was wrong but still did nothing to stop it. An extra cruel turn of events comes at the end when we learn that Ali's marriage to the 14 year-old is off because the girl's father was executed. Soraya's death was for nothing - except that Zahra's promise to Soraya came true. The world now knows her story and a lot more about the similar fates of women in other countries where Sharia Law is practiced. If you haven't seen this movie yet, I highly recommend it. For Soraya's sake and sake of women like her, it's important that the world know what's going on. And what continues to happen in Iran to this day.

It was especially interesting to watch this movie about Islamic Sharia Law in a room full of practicing Muslims. The cries of Allahu Akbar! (God is Great!) by the murdering mob was deeply disturbing for many in the audience. Many Indonesian students were shocked. 'This is Islam??' Others were quick to point out that what Ali and the corrupt village elder did was manipulate religion to fit their cause, an ongoing theme in studies focusing on religious violence. Such manipulation is by no means restricted to Islam either.

One ICRS student also shared a very interesting academic theory as for why people would engage in an act as barbaric as stoning, especially to someone they know, love, and might even regard as innocent. Once an act of adultery has been committed, there is a disequilibrium in the community. In order to restore harmony, a scapegoat (guilty or innocent) must be found. Every stone that is thrown is a means to restore this harmony and win back God's good will. The otherwise inexplicable celebration scene following the stoning can be seen as a celebration of the restoration of harmony or equilibrium to the community. Powerful stuff, huh?

The aspects of Sharia Law depicted in this film also made me think about my upcoming trip to Banda Aceh, an Indonesian town in northern Sumatra governed by Sharia Law, where I've been asked to present a workshop next month. I've heard about the strict curfews and dress codes as well as the recent law change allowing stoning. Is it really true that right here in Indonesia adulterers can be punished with death by stoning? I dared to raise this question to the room. The response I got was that although death by stoning is on the books in Aceh, it's meant to scare people into behaving properly. The fact that four eye witnesses to the same act of adultery are needed to convict someone makes it highly unlikely that anyone will ever meet their end this way. A little online research at home revealed that the Acehenese defend their stoning law by asking how is it different from other countries with strict laws, such as death by lethal injection in the United States. The region also wants to attract tourists to the area so they can see for themselves how Sharia Law helps create a peaceful and secure community. Stay tuned for my reports from Aceh next month.


  1. I've wanted to watch this movie for so long now. Thank you for posting. What a great context to watch the movie in. It sounds like it was great impetus for thought and discussion with your students.

  2. You're welcome, Jackie! However, I guess should add that I was just a participant in this event; this was not one of my classes. The discussion was moderated by one of the CRCS students. I might be asked to lead a few movie discussions next semester, though. We'll see!

  3. Participation in Soraya’s stoning sounds much like the psychological study known as the Milgram Experiment ( The experiment requires a teacher (the test subject) to ask a student (actually an actor) a series of questions and “electro-shock” the student whenever they answer incorrectly. Each wrong answer increases the alleged voltage to painful, dangerous and then deadly levels.

    The experiment tests an individual’s willingness to follow orders in direct conflict with their morality. The results showed a high percentage of people were willing to inflict serious harm on a fellow human being so long as an authority figure told them it was acceptable.

    These experiments were originally used to help understand how so many soldiers and citizens of Nazi Germany could participate in mass murder with few objections. This study, if believed, partially explains how prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, and the rolling blackouts Enron inflicted on California to raise electric costs started almost innocuously then snowballed into horrific situations. Authority figures assured their subordinates what they were doing was permissible or even the right thing to do.

    Soraya’s fellow townsfolk may have been equally swept up by events. They live in an isolated community controlled by authority figures who maintain power for personal gain. It quickly becomes dangerous even fatal for an objector to stand against the mob incensed to protect autocratic law.

    Meanwhile today in Iran, two German journalists were arrested for not having proper reporting credentials from the Iranian government. ( The journalists sought to interview a man whose mother is accused of adultery. Just a reminder there are two different ways to ensure the world is not rocked by a repeat of Soraya’s brutal murder.

  4. Interesting connection to the Milgram Experiment, Henry! Yet another theory can be seen in Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery". Have you ever read that? We read it in school and I remember my teacher saying the stoning in that story happened just because it was the tradition. And no one thought to question tradition.

  5. Wow, powerful stuff. I have read "the Lottery" but not seen this movie. I don't think I can now. Your post and Henry's also reminded me of "Red Scarf Girl." It's sometimes so hard to watch and read things like this, because you are always screaming at the characters in your mind, "How can you not stand up and fight for what's right?"

    I too am both worried and excited about Aceh. Being in Sulawesi Utara, I am in the vast majority as a Christian, and the Muslims that are here, are so very moderate. It will be an eye awakening experience for me, I'm sure.