Attitude rooted in tribal honour code
Barbara Kay, National Post · Friday, Nov. 19, 2010
In the West, the idea of stoning a woman to death for adultery, or for any reason at all, evokes revulsion.
Last year, a Western outcry embarrassed Iran into postponing the scheduled stoning of alleged adulteress Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani. She was (temporarily) lucky, but thousands of other girls and women in her situation that nobody ever hears about are not.
Iran doesn't see anything wrong with the practice. It may help to understand the mindset there if we remember that stoning (mostly) women for imputed sexual transgression was a punishment stipulated in the Old Testament and was doubtless implemented in the days when the Israelites were still very much a tribal people. The custom fell out of favour when the tribe became a nation.
So stoning was not invented by Iranians or Muslims. The custom goes back to ancient times, and difficult as it is to accept, was practised by the people who laid the foundation for Western civilization.
Honour that is situated in female sexual purity is a feature of -- or a legacy of -- tribalism. Tribes do not have legal systems that operate as proxies for individuals who have been wronged. Tribes must themselves regulate the safety or the person and property. Property--inheritance -depends on indubitable bloodlines -- and biological parentage depends on the sexual fidelity of women.
The closer a culture is to its tribal origins, the more dominant is the honour code in its diverse forms. Sharia law was codified during a period of tribalism. Unlike biblical law, sharia law is not seen as subject to modification with the passage of time.
Stoning arouses particular abhorrence because it is not only a publicly observed punishment, it specifically calls for the participation of the community in its execution. In its own way, stoning joins symbolism to reality in a way that most honour crimes do not.
In most other places where honour killings are prevalent -- Pakistan is the worst offender statistically, with about 10,000 honour killings of girls and women a year -- the victim is killed by a male relative, usually the father or brother. But although the community does not take an actual role in the killing, the killers feel they are acting as surrogates for what is not only the family's honour, but the honour of the whole community.
Stoning calls forth so much global outrage, and yet it is no more horrific for the victim than any other honour killing. Being burned to death, as has happened to many Hindu women, has to be a terrible way to die. Being electrocuted, hacked to death or having one's throat slit -- all are ghastly methods of execution.
While other Islamic states do not impose stoning as a death sentence, they are often tolerant of privately executed honour killings, and those deaths should also excite our horror and condemnation.
Knowledgeable observers reckon there are about 20,000 honour-motivated deaths a year globally. Iran's stonings are a drop in the bucket.
The larger problem is the honour code itself. Our attention is usually focused on the overwhelmingly Muslim component of the crime. But religion is not the only indicator for honour-based behaviours. Culture is. (Indeed, in Jordan, there are as many Christian honour killings as there are Muslim).
We will never see a woman stoned to death in Canada. That doesn't mean we don't have a problem with girls and women who are victims of honour culture. Actual killings are the tip of a pernicious iceberg.
When that killing involves stoning it excites our disgust because it is imposed by a state that in other respects operates on modern principles. It shows us what an Islamic state that takes Islam seriously in its most fundamentalist form looks like in action.