June 06, 2020
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Justice Cold As Stone

The sentencing of a woman in Iran and some thoughts on India

Justice Cold As Stone
Illustration by Sorit
Justice Cold As Stone

They say there’s no limit to human endurance; there’s no limit, either, to human cruelty. Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old Iranian widow with two children, having received 99 lashes that helped extract from her a confession of adultery, and having spent five years in jail on that charge, was sentenced by a religious court to be stoned to death. Ashtiani’s son appealed to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s Supreme Leader, but he refused to intervene, not wanting to do anything that would imply disrespect for the judiciary’s independence. This is hilarious—if only you can forget that a woman’s life is involved. A few governments from across the globe—as far as I know, India wasn’t among them and South Block possibly does not want to intrude on Iran’s sovereignity—expressed outrage and the Iranian government has finally relented and said Ashtiani will not be stoned to death. It isn’t clear if this means she is reprieved or if she will undergo some other punishment. But this much should be clear to all: the punishment imposed on Ashtiani bordered on the insane and—as fellow beings if not as Indians—we should have protested. Recently, a cabbie in Cambridge identified me as an Indian from my being ‘polite and dignified’. (Neither did he ask for a tip nor did I give him one for the five-minute drive from the bus station to Clare College.) This civility is a virtue that must be earned—across domains.  Else, we are no different from other nations.

Details of how a stoning to death is carried out are revolting. The execution usually takes place in public view. The prisoner is covered in white shrouds from head to foot  and buried deep in sand—to the waist if it’s a woman, to the shoulders if it’s a man. Stones are hurled from about 10 metres. The ‘privilege’ of hurling the first stone goes to the judge or the witnesses. Our judges would squirm at the very thought of being extended this dubious honour.

Iran’s statement that Ashtiani won’t be executed by stoning doesn’t convince many global rights groups. They say there can be no guarantee of clemency for Ashtiani till she is actually released from prison. As long as she is there, they say, some madcap cleric could easily intervene and get her stoned to death at the earliest opportunity. Such is the peril of living in Iran—which is also so ‘modern’ as to want to have a nuclear device (if it doesn’t have one already).

Iranian women are forced to marry early, and seldom have a choice in who they are married to. (The scene is not very different in some parts of India, although things are said to be changing.) The Iranian man can marry four times, but the woman will have to put up with one, however obnoxious or promiscuous he might be. If a woman strays from this grossly unfair arrangement and is found out, she could face the ordeal Ashtiani is now going through. All this in the name of religion, although some Islamic scholars say this kind of punishment is not prescribed by the Quran. There is also the claim that the revised Iranian penal code had already done away with stoning as a penalty for adultery. We definitely need some expert opinion here.

As Indians, we need to ask ourselves if we aren’t happier living in a much more civilised country. There is no assurance, however, that things will remain the same forever. Public opinion and the media will have to remain alert. I am particularly concerned about the growing number of rapes and murders of women in our cities. Don’t go by cold statistics, which may or may not reveal a rising curve. What I am worried about is the daring attacks on women and children. Single women in particular have to be on guard all the time. Even those in the professions aren’t safe. Take the recent murder in broad daylight of a Bangalore advocate right in the high court building. The assailant, another advocate who was in college with her, was peeved that his entreaties for marriage had been spurned. The rape of an American national working for an international agency and living in the fashionable Jubilee Hills of Hyderabad is equally distressing. Let us not brush these incidents aside as routine urban crime that could happen anywhere in the world. Such complacence will only invite more such crimes. With a little more cooperation from women and sensible allocation of police resources—perhaps through less manpower for VIP security and political meetings—women could feel much safer. This is definitely not asking for too much. As investment in policing increases, taxpayers are well within their right to demand greater protection. It is appalling that we are supine and readily accept low-quality policing. Reforming police structure is welcome. But it must be accompanied by a change in attitudes at the grassroots.

(The writer is a former director of the CBI.)

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