If you have never seen a stoning (and chances are you haven’t), the award-winning film, “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” showing in Washington, D.C. and New York on June 26, will turn your stomach upside down. Be warned that filmmaker Cyrus Nowrasteh did not leave any details out. But if you think you can’t stomach it, that’s the very reason you need to see it.
The story of Soraya is real. Even though the book that exposed the true story was published over a decade ago, the scourge of stoning and other brutal punishments of women (including whippings, burnings, and beheadings) continues today in many countries around the world.
Due to the secrecy of these executions, accurate statistics are hard to come by. Reports suggest that there have been at least 1,000 women stoned to death, primarily for marital or sexual violations, in Iran, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, and Pakistan during the past 15 years. The United Nations estimates that some 5,000 women each year, including some in the U.S., become victims of so-called “honor killings” in which family members kill a woman who has allegedly brought dishonor on them through such acts as dressing provocatively or engaging in illicit sex.
In “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” Shohreh Aghdashloo (“House of Sand and Fog”) stars in the heroic role of Zahra, an Iranian woman with a burning secret. When a journalist (Jim Caviezel, “The Passion of the Christ”) is stranded in her remote village, she takes a bold chance to reveal what the other villagers have kept hidden.
Zahra tells the story of Soraya (Mozhan Marnò, “Charlie Wilson’s War”) a woman who is in an impossible situation. Soraya’s husband wants to divorce her so he can marry a 14-year-old virgin. Given her options (live in destitute poverty with her children or sanctioned prostitution to provide for them) Soraya refuses to give her husband the divorce. But in her post-Iranian Revolution world, the men rule with an iron fist and the legal system is stacked against her.
Soraya’s husband conspired with the local mullah, himself a former criminal and con man, to accuse Soraya of infidelity. Despite the lack of any real evidence, and without an option to defend herself, the all-male tribunal declared Soraya guilty and ordered her executed under the dictates of ancient law. Soraya was not present in the “court” where her own father, husband, and the village’s men congregated to decide on her fate. The punishment was public stoning.
The film culminates with the stoning of Soraya in the village square. “All I can tell you is that compared to what I saw and read, the scene in the movie is far less graphic than it could have been,” says the film’s director Cyrus Nowrasteh. “Stoning does terrible things to the human body, but we didn’t want to focus on that. Most of all, I wanted to capture the whole ritual design of it and how it affects the crowd.”
Cyrus Nowrasteh had a singular guiding principle throughout the making: “Yes, the film is a gripping drama,” he says, “but more than that it is a form of bearing witness, much like Zahra does in the movie. It becomes a liberating story about the power of breaking a silence and hopefully will encourage others to add their voices.”
Indeed, the film succeeds in bringing to life the dry statistics and writings that warn us that stoning, an ancient form of execution, remains in use today, particularly in countries that follow Sharia law, which upholds stoning as a punishment for offenses such as illicit sex and infidelity.
In 2002, the United States Congress condemned execution by stoning, noting that “women around the world continue to be disproportionately targeted for discriminatory, inhuman and cruel punishments.” Yet shocking stories continue to mirror that of Soraya M. In 2008, a 13 year-old Somali girl was stoned by 50 men in front of a crowd of 1,000—for the “crime” of having been raped. The BBC reported that the girl begged for her life, pleading “don’t kill me, don’t kill me” before being buried in a hole up to her neck. The BBC report continued: “According to Amnesty International, nurses were sent to check during the stoning whether the victim was still alive. They removed her from the ground and declared that she was, before she was re-placed so the stoning could continue.”
Aghdashloo, who plays Zahra, says: “This film is not really at all about Iranians—the characters could be Egyptian, they could be from Yemen, or Somalia. This is an international subject matter that needs to be seen everywhere on the planet.”
Cyrus Nowrasteh goes far beyond our comfort zone to show us that the battle for human rights continues. By the end of the film, when Soraya is finally at peace, we feel compelled to advocate for her. Recent events about the degradation of girls and women’s rights in Taliban-controlled Swat Valley are a stark reminder that we have miles to go in protecting these innocent victims of brutal practices, and that this film was sorely needed.