September 25, 2008 By Maggie Gallagher
In New York this week, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced a slew of questions about Iran's lack of cooperation with U.N. inspectors, belligerent threats to Isreal, and Iran's future as a U.N.-defying nuclear power.
Here's a new question: Does Iran really want to be a country that stones women to death for their sexual sins?
Soon I hope I'm not going to be the only one asking that question. Cyrus Nowrasteh's "The Stoning of Soraya M." debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival this month. Audience members wept at the shocking portrayal of an innocent woman's descent from a respected wife and mother into a thing to be killed slowly, painfully by every man in her village.
"The Stoning of Soraya M." is based on a true story -- and another is still playing out in Iran. Even now, human rights activists say, Gilan Mohammadi, a 30-year-old woman in Isfahan, is awaiting death by stoning -- imposed by a local court for what American politicians like to call an "inappropriate relationship."
Stoning is an ancient, slow and agonizing punishment that is also a powerful communal ritual: the whole (male) village participates, bonding together by excluding, dehumanizing and finally destroying the evil in their midst.
Stoning has an enormous symbolic resonance for Christians. In the New Testament, Jesus tells the village mob about to stone a woman to death for adultery, "Let he who is without sin throw the first stone." The very first Christian martyr, Saint Stephen, was stoned to death.
But this method of execution is only a symbol of the real evil: a society in which women are systematically deprived of basic human rights. A wife who accuses her husband has to prove his guilt; when a husband accuses his wife, she has to prove her innocence, the village mayor informs Soraya.
"Given the title of the film, we all know exactly what is going to happen," writes Hollywood Reporter critic Peter Brunette. "And the film's strategy is to slowly draw out the horrifying details: the gathering of the stones; her burial standing up, as far up her waist; the forcing of her two sons to abjure her and throw stones themselves; and of course the chilling spectacle of the blood lust of the mob."
Fans of producer Steve McEveety will recognize why "The Passion of the Christ" producer was drawn to this narrative.
But "The Stoning of Soraya M." is a work of art, not politics. It explores the roots of evil: How does a husband do this to the mother of his four children? How do her sons consent to their own mother's dehumanization? How does the witness live with the knowledge of what ordinary, good people can do and can also justify? But the film also asks: What kind of system produces these kinds of communal barbarities?
At a small, private lunch in the Hay-Adams Hotel last week, lead actress (and Academy Award nominee) Shohreh Aghdashloo told us about the time she once testified to a U.S. reporter about Iranian torture victims -- the Iranian police showed up at her brother's door and hauled him to prison for over a year.
This is a film that has real courage, made by people who understand personally what evil can do and what it takes to fight it.
Women's rights advocates, Christian conservatives and Muslim modernizers alike will find in this important film if not an unlikely common ground, at least a common springboard for an important discussion.
Stoning in the 21st century? Let the debate begin ... and continue on, I hope, until next year when the face of Ahmadinejad appears yet again at the U.N. plaza to taunt us.