What do you do in the face of injustice toward another? Do you immediately look away, not wanting to see or hear because it's too uncomfortable? Do you observe the injustice, silently thank God it's not impacting you, then proceed as usual? Do you speak out against the wrongdoing? Do you fight the injustice lawfully? Unlawfully?
This is a question nearly all the main characters in The Stoning of Soraya M. have to grapple with at some point in the film. How they respond is at turns unthinkable, disappointing, relatable, and inspiring.
The Stoning exists thanks to the response of one person in this inspired-by-true-events story, a man who happened into this disturbing scenario quite by mistake. In the late 1980s, French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam (James Caviezel) got stranded in a remote Iranian village when his car broke down. While waiting for repairs, he was approached by Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a local woman insistent on telling him a story about a recent local conspiracy.
"Voices of women do not matter here," Zahra explained, "I want you to take my voice with you." (Which he eventually did via the 1990 international bestselling book The Stoning of Soraya M., upon which this movie is based.)
Skeptical, Freidoune got out his tape recorder, pressed play, and listened as Zahra shared about her niece Soraya (Mozhan Marno). Soraya was married for 20 years to an abusive man, Ali (Navid Negahban), who wanted out of their marriage so he could wed a 14-year-old girl. If he requested a divorce for such reasons, Ali would have to pay support to his wife and two daughters (he planned to take their two sons with him). But, if he found another way out of the marriage, he would be free to do as he pleased without the financial burden. So Ali falsely accused Soraya of having an affair with Hashem (Parviz Sayyad), the local widower she'd been caring for.
But Ali could not ensure her guilty verdict alone. He needed help from the local religious leader, the Mullah (Ali Pourtash), who helped maintain Islamic Law. He needed the mayor, Ebrahim (David Diaan), to be willing to hear the case. And he needed the widower to substantiate the false accusations. How Ali wielded power with each man and how they responded and even participated in this injustice is frustrating and sobering.
But not as frustrating and sobering as the fact that many women in that culture had (and still have) absolutely no power—not even over their own fate. Under Islamic law if a man accuses his wife, she must prove her innocence. If she accuses her husband, she must prove his guilt. "It's a man's world," Ali instructed his sons, further turning them against their own mother.
At times Ali is portrayed so unsympathetically he almost seems like a caricature. He most assuredly is an evil man, but the danger is prompting Western minds that already find these events difficult to fathom to wonder if perhaps parts of the story are ramped up for emotional manipulation. Though it could be argued that if even a fraction of this story is true, it's still disturbing. And that the realities of Islamic law and other documented cases of death by stoning (mentioned in the film's closing credits) provide that fraction of truth.
Soraya's case was quickly tried behind closed doors with only the town's men in attendance. She was found guilty of adultery, a crime punishable by stoning. And a punishment we're then shown in staggering, gruesome detail. The scene is difficult—and yet important—to watch, because our discomfort is intermingled with the film's only redemption: knowing.
The title gives away the film's ending, but it's the journey there that's the real point—especially as it illustrates the oppressive realities under more extreme forms of Islamic law. In some Muslim regions, women are routinely treated cruelly, are often denied a voice and true justice, and are frequently victims of inhumane punishment. During a time when humane treatment of criminals is being discussed throughout the US, when stoning is still a means of punishment in places throughout the world, when women are still subject to such injustice (sex trafficking, domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, etc.), The Stoning is timely and relevant.
As a Christian woman watching this film, I was grieved for my sisters overseas, where their gender, lack of rights, and higher incidence of poverty (women make up 70 percent of the world's poor) make them so vulnerable. It makes me grateful to be a woman today in the U.S., where we have unprecedented rights and influence. It makes me want to use these rights and this influence mightily. It prompts gratitude for a God who, when he walked this earth, counter-culturally reached out to women with compassion, respect, and love.
And it makes me feel challenged and inspired by Micah 6:8's command to act justly and by Proverbs 31:8, "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those who are perishing." Because, of course, knowing about injustices such as that of Soraya M. is only powerful when we do something with it. And when we do the important work of wrestling with the question of what we do in the face of injustice toward another—and then follow our just and compassionate God with our response.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- What emotions do you feel as the closing credits roll? What next steps might you need to take? (For ideas, visit thestoning.com.)
- Besides the stoning, there are many other injustices shown throughout the film. List those who do wrong in the film as well as their sin. Which of these sins trip you up most?
- Think about the importance of the human voice throughout the film—both as a force for good and a force for bad. Does this make you think about the power of your own voice any differently?
- Do you think the film had to be as graphic as it was to get people to understand and care about this human rights issue?
- Are you surprised by the women's rights issues shown in this film? What can you do to show more respect and justice to the women in your life—and in our world?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Stoning of Soraya M. is rated R for a disturbing sequence of cruel and brutal violence, and brief strong language. Take the R rating very seriously. Due to the violence—a graphic depiction of Soraya's stoning—many adults will find the movie disturbing, let alone children. It's especially disturbing to watch Soraya's husband, father, and even sons hurl insults and stones at her. If you want your mature teens to know about such atrocities in the world, see the film and tell them about it.
Photos © Roadside Attractions
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