ینی ایلینیز اوغورلو اولسون


Mar 7, 2013

The Case of Sakineh Ashtiani

International Women's Day

Leila Mojtahedi

Violations of Human Rights and Issues of Equity in the Islamic ‎Republic of Iran:

The Case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani

Ashtiani’s own mother tongue is officially banned in Iran. Is it any wonder then, that she cannot ‎understand the court proceedings and the content of the verdict which has condemned her to ‎death by stoning? Compounding the problem is the overt use of Arabic terms and concepts in ‎Iran’s legal discourse. Arabic terms like “rajm” are drawn from classic Islamic jurisprudence and ‎Sharia literature. It is hard enough for an average Iranian citizen to make sense of such terms, let ‎alone an oppressed woman like Ashtiani whose own mother tongue is banned in her country.

Introduction

This paper offers a discussion about the intersecting nature of systems of oppression based on ‎gender, ethnicity and language in the Islamic Republic of Iran. To this end, the paper examines ‎the case and struggle of a convicted female prisoner named Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani in ‎north-western part of Iran, the region of Azerbaijan. The overall objective of the paper is to ‎expose the gross violations of human rights in Iran in terms of gender, race/ethnicity and ‎language, while aiming to contribute to a discourse on equity, equality and equitability in an ‎Iranian context. ‎

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is an Iranian woman from the province of East Azerbaijan, who ‎has been sentenced to death by stoning by an Iranian court. Right now she is incarcerated under ‎a death sentence in Tabriz prison, having been convicted of adultery and (supposed) ‎collaboration in the killing of her husband. She has been in prison since May 2006. ‎

Ashtiani’s execution was suspended in the wake of international protests against her stoning in ‎July 2010. Due to widespread opposition to her stoning punishment, the Supreme Court in ‎Tehran has delayed the case of stoning but has approved the punishment of death penalty by ‎hanging. ‎

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani's husband, Ebrahim Ghaderzadeh, was killed in 2005. The local ‎police claimed that Ashtiani had collaborated in the killing of her husband. Initially, Ashtiani was ‎sentenced by a court in Tabriz of "illicit relationship" with two men and was then sentenced to 99 ‎lashes. This punishment was carried out in public. Ashtiani's case was opened again before the ‎court of appeals during the trial of the two men for their involvement in the death of her ‎husband. In the course of this trial Ashtiani stated that she had been forced to sign confessions; ‎she also reiterated that she had never committed adultery, a charge to which she has never ‎confessed. ‎

The Iranian Supreme Court approved the death sentence against her in May 2007. Currently she ‎awaits the final punishment which is execution by hanging. Only the intervention of Iran’s ‎supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, may now prevent her final destiny--death. ‎

In my view, Ashtiani’s case makes an excellent topic for exploration because of its relevance for ‎equity and human rights. First of all, she is convicted to maximum punishment because of her ‎gender and also because of the fact that Iran is a patriarchal society. Secondly, she belongs to the ‎minoritized Azerbaijani community whose language does not have an official status in Iran. ‎Thirdly, her case demonstrates how sites of oppression such as gender, ethnicity and language ‎intersect with one another to render her helpless and disempowered. Considering the subject ‎matter of this essay then, the paper will have the following three objectives:‎

‎1.‎ To explore violations of the rights of women and gender-based inequality in the Islamic ‎Republic of Iran;‎
‎2.‎ To illustrate through Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani's struggle, the intersections among ‎gender, race/ethnicity and language;‎
‎3.‎ To bring some exposure to issues of injustice, inequality and violations of human rights in ‎the Islamic Republic of Iran, and expose the nature of patriarchy and racism there. ‎

Conceptual Framework

This paper utilizes the intersectional theory as its main discursive and conceptual framework. Up ‎until a few decades ago, issues such as race, class, and gender were viewed as separate categories ‎of discrimination experienced by people who are oppressed. However, recently feminist scholars ‎have recognized how different sites of oppression such as gender, race/ethnicity and class are ‎inextricably linked together (Collins, 2000). Coined by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw (1991), ‎Intersectionality attempts to bring into focus all areas of difference (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity, ‎class, language, religion, etc) and incorporate them in a cohesive analysis regarding the ‎multidimensional nature of oppression. Such areas of difference include (but are not limited to) ‎gender, sexuality, age, ethnicity, physical disabilities, class, status, immigration status, citizenship ‎and so forth. The main idea in intersectionality theory is centred on the notion that there are ‎many stratifications and layers of oppression and discrimination that comprise a person’s identity ‎and that these principles are interconnected with one another and they strengthen each other ‎‎(Davis, 1981; Anderson and Collins, 2004). Full attention, therefore, must be paid to all ‎dimensions of oppression and domination. ‎

Thus, using an intersectional approach in a paper like this will allow me to better analyze the ‎interlocking and intersecting nature of oppression in Iranian society particularly in terms of ‎gender, ethnicity and language. Additionally, the intersectional approach allows us to probe into ‎violations of human rights and abuses of power much more effectively. By shedding light on ‎multiple dimensions of oppression, it makes the exploration of issues of equity and equality much ‎more transparent and comprehensive. ‎

There can be little doubt that issues around equity, equality and human rights have become major ‎issues in our contemporary globalizing world. While equality is defined in terms of “same ‎treatment” regardless of race, gender, class and other markers of difference; equity is defined in ‎terms of an ability to go beyond “same treatment” and consider systemic and structured forms of ‎inequality and issues emerging from historical notions of oppression and marginalization ‎‎(Asgharzadeh, 2008). ‎

Gender

Gender serves as a most visible site and category of oppression in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In ‎contemporary Iran, the value of a woman is half the value of a man, for example in the legal ‎system; the veiling is compulsory; the minimum age for marriage is reduced to 13, and among ‎other things, polygamy is sanctioned by the law. ‎
‎"Based on the Islamic ‘Law of Qisas’ or the ‘Bill of Retribution,’ the dieh or 'blood-‎money' to be paid for a female victim of murder is only half of that paid for a male ‎victim. Under this Bill, women's testimony in court is only half the value of men's ‎testimony. Since Islamic law requires two women to testify for every one man, a woman ‎can, therefore, not participate in the legal profession. Since a woman’s right to form ‎judgment is not fully recognized, it is rarely possible for her to become a lawyer or a ‎judge. Since a woman's testimony alone does not carry any legal weight, proof of any ‎kind of abuse, mistreatment and crime against her is almost impossible." (Asgharzadeh, ‎‎2010, p.5) ‎
As we can see, there are many ways through which women are oppressed in Iran. Relations of ‎domination and subordination are sanctified through religion and Islamic Sharia which are the ‎bases for Iran’s constitution, juridical and legal systems. Oppressive gender-based relations exist ‎within the wider society in general, and within the family in particular. Under such conditions, ‎women are expected to care for the domestic sphere, to bear children and raise them, to cook, ‎clean and wash the cloths; whereas men are considered to be ‘the bread winners’ and the ‎providers for the financial needs of the family (Tabari and Yeganeh, 1982; Tohidi, 2005; ‎Deraryeh, 2006; Asgharzadeh, 2007; Bahramitash, 2007; Kar, 2007). ‎

This oppression is multiplied when women do not live in major urban centers; when they don’t ‎speak the dominant Persian language, and when they live in impoverished working class families ‎and rural areas. This notion of multiple oppression applies to the case of Sakineh Mohammadi ‎Ashtiani who is now awaiting execution in a Tabriz prison in Iran. The patriarchal Iranian society ‎oppresses Sakina Ashtiiani because she is a woman and not a man. She is also oppressed because ‎she is an Azerbaijani-Turk and not a Persian. What this means is that in addition to being ‎victimized because of her gender, she is also marginalized and oppressed because of her ethnicity ‎which is subject to racism within Iran (see for example, Asgharzadeh, 2007). ‎

As Mullaly rightly points out,‎
‎"Women like all oppressed groups, do not constitute a homogeneous group with regard to ‎their oppression. Although all women are oppressed by patriarchy, not all women are ‎oppressed to the same degree or experience oppression in the same way… For example, ‎ethnic minority women may face `Double jeopardy` because of the combined ‎disadvantages of their gender and ethnicity and may be relegated to the most menial and ‎devalued jobs." (Mullaly, 2010, p. 195)‎
Mullaly’s observation is certainly applicable to the case of Ashtiani who is being subordinated ‎and oppressed from multiple sites and dimensions. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the majority ‎of those sentenced to death by stoning are women. Stoning is a kind of government sanctioned ‎punishment in which the victim is buried up to her chest and executioners (including general ‎public) apply the sentence by throwing large stones at the victim until she is dead. ‎

Amnesty International and other sources have time and again pointed out that women in Iran ‎‎“are not treated equally before the law and are particularly vulnerable to unfair trials because they ‎are more likely to be illiterate and therefore sign confessions to crimes they did not commit” ‎‎(BBC, 15 January 2008 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7188121.stm). ‎

Not surprisingly, Ashtiani’s lawyer, Javid Houtan Kian was arrested and put in jail just for ‎helping this oppressed woman. In a now famous letter from prison, Mr. Houtan Kian wrote: “A ‎thousand times a day I wish I was dead, but the prison officials and the intelligence ministry ‎want me to die slowly… I appeal to the conscience of the world not to forget me.” The kinds of ‎torture endured by this 33-year-old lawyer include: “his feet and testicles were burned with ‎cigarettes, his teeth were knocked out in beatings and he was soaked with fire hoses on freezing ‎cold nights.” (see the link here for details): http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-‎‎2164335/Sakineh-Mohammadi-Ashtianis-lawyer-says-execution-cancelled.html?ito=feeds-‎newsxml

Language and Ethnicity

‎Sakineh Ashtiyani, having heard the verdict of an Islamic tribunal in Iran, returns to the jail. ‎Upon arrival, an inmate asks:
“So, what did they give you? How many months did you get?” ‎
‎“I didn’t get any time,” she replies with excitement. “They just gave me the Rajm!”‎
‎“Oh, my God! Oh my God!” the inmate starts crying and pulling her hair.‎
‎“But they gave me the rajm,” yells Sakineh. “Why are you so upset?”‎
‎“Don’t you understand?” interferes another woman prisoner. “Rajm means stoning to ‎death! You are to be stoned! You are condemned to death by stoning!” (informal ‎interviews) ‎
I have collected the above information through my informal interviews with Ashtiani’s ‎sympathizers, lawyers and Azerbaijani activists. This narrative most vigorously demonstrates the ‎role of language as a site of marginalization and oppression. As an Azerbaijani Turk, Ashtiani ‎speaks Azeri as her natural mother tongue. However, she does not speak Farsi, the only official ‎language in Iran, which is the language of governance, education system, legal system and so ‎forth. Ashtiani’s own mother tongue is officially banned in Iran. Is it any wonder then, that she ‎cannot understand the court proceedings and the content of the verdict which has condemned ‎her to death by stoning? Compounding the problem is the overt use of Arabic terms and concepts ‎in Iran’s legal discourse. Arabic terms like “rajm” are drawn from classic Islamic jurisprudence ‎and Sharia literature. It is hard enough for an average Iranian citizen to make sense of such terms, ‎let alone an oppressed woman like Ashtiani whose own mother tongue is banned in her country. ‎

In Iran and the Challenge of Diversity, Dr Alireza Asgharzadeh (2007) has given a vivid picture ‎of Iranian’s ethnic and linguistic diversity. For many centuries Iran has been home to peoples of ‎various ethnic origins, such as the ancestors of contemporary Azeri-Turks, Kurds, Baluchs, ‎Turkmens, Arabs, Lurs, Gilaks, Mazandaranis, Persians and others. The Persian ethnic group ‎constitutes about 40% of Iran’s total population. However, as of 1925, the Persian language has ‎become the only official and national language for the entire country. More than this, successive ‎Iranian governments have actively sought to demonize, dehumanize and eradicate various non-‎Persian languages in the country (Asgharzadeh, 2007). ‎

Sakineh Ashtiyani is one of Iran’s millions of non-Persian citizens who has not been able to read ‎and write in her own language, a right that has never been denied to Iran’s Persian ethnic group, ‎and the Persian women more to the point. Thus while Ashtiani is a victim of sexism and ‎patriarchy like all Iranian women regardless of ethnicity and language, she is also a victim of ‎racism and linguistic oppression because of her non-Persian ethnicity. And this is why her case is ‎very appropriate for an intersectional analysis. We cannot make sense of what is happening to her ‎unless we take into account the intersections of gender, race/ethnicity and language in Iranian ‎society. ‎

Conclusion

The case of Sakineh Ashtiani is a case of equity, human rights and equality. It speaks directly to ‎violations of human rights in Iran based on gender, ethnicity and language. An exploration of ‎Sakineh Ashtiani’s case sheds light on the dismal violations of the rights of women in the Islamic ‎Republic of Iran. At the same time, this case has the potential of bringing exposure to issues of ‎equity and equality in Iranian society in terms of race/ethnicity and language. Sakineh Ashtiani is ‎an Azeri woman and belongs to a minority group in Iran who are deprived of education in their ‎own mother language. This makes her situation even harder in understanding the verdict and ‎court procedures, as time and again she has shown to be incapable of understanding the language ‎of the court system and its verdict. ‎

In spite of being a richly multicultural and multi-lingual society, Iran has only one official ‎language—Farsi. All non-Persian languages are considered “unofficial” and cannot be used in ‎governmental organizations and throughout state apparatuses. What kinds of obstacles do issues ‎of ethnicity and language create for Sakineh Ashtiani’s case and millions of others like her? This ‎paper has explored this question, to the extent that it could, given the limitations of time and ‎space. ‎

Using the intersectionality perspective, the paper has tried to bring together the intersections of ‎race/ethnicity, language and gender. Intersectionality theory has enabled me to resist the view ‎that sees culture as fixed and depoliticized. Instead, I have tried to see culture as socially ‎constructed, where relations of power and privilege based on race/ethnicity, gender, religion, ‎language and other markers of difference can easily be identified and challenged. And it is ‎through seeing culture as socially constructed that we can look for allies in our struggle beyond ‎our own culture. This is exactly what happened in the case of Sakina Ashtiani. It was the ‎international outcry coupled with the efforts of human rights activists, feminists and students ‎inside and outside Iran that forced the Iranian government to abandon the stoning penalty. The ‎danger, however, is still there. Sakina Ashtiani is still awaiting her execution.‎
‎ ‎
What can be done then? Our solidarity against the stoning punishment showed that if we come ‎together, we can indeed influence change. The first step is to bring exposure to this case and ‎show the gross violations of the rights of Sakina Ashtiani as a woman and as an ethnic/linguistic ‎minority. The second step is to bring pressure on the Iranian government to postpone her ‎execution permanently. This can be done by staging various campaigns, writing letters, informing ‎the general public individually, collectively, and through the media. The Iranian authorities ‎should be made aware that the world has not forgotten about Ashtiani and that we, as world ‎citizens, do care when the rights of an individual like Sakina Ashtiani are grossly violated. ‎

References

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Asgharzadeh, A. (2008). The Return of the Subaltern: International Education and Politics of ‎Voice. Journal of Studies in International Education, (12) 4, 334-363. 

Asgharzadeh, A. (2007). Iran and the Challenge of Diversity: Aryanist Racism, Islamic ‎Fundamentalism, and Democratic Struggles. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.‎

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