Film Review: The Stoning of Soraya M.

soraya movie posterYou need to watch this movie.

You will hate it. You will writhe in your chair during the last 20 minutes. You won’t be able to get the images out of your mind.

In this case, that’s exactly what ought to happen, and you need to see it.

The Stoning of Soraiya M tells a modified version of a true story from the early post-Shah days in Iran in the 1980s. A French-Iranian journalist wrote the book that forms the basis of the film. The plot is simple: a bad, adulterous husband sets up his wife to be accused of adultery so that he can be rid of her in order to marry a 14 year old girl he’s already sleeping with. Cheery. If you’ve read the title, you know how this is going to end.

Finding out how the story went public pulls you through this dark tale of misogyny, oppression, religious hypocrisy, and ribald injustice. On the surface, some would see the film as anti-Islamic. I’d say it’s more of a piece about the way power-holders (in any culture) can abuse their authority to smash other people. The husband’s actions would be improper in any form of Islam. But the good-ol-boy network is alive and well in Iran just like anywhere else.

Rarely have I seen a story that literally turned my stomach. The rank injustice of it. The way the women were shackled with stupid laws. The abuse of those who are weak: it made me sick.

I’ll be honest: watching the stoning, I questioned how God could ever put such a horrific form of capital punishment in the Law. Coart reminded me that ancient law was often far less gracious, that stoning was a restricted form of punishment in the Mosaic law, and that public participatory execution is designed to keep people honest. (As Christ asked, are you arrogant enough to throw the first stone…unless it’s an overwhelming example of a crime?)

But I didn’t find those intellectual arguments very convincing against the ugliness of it all. I will be thinking on this point for some time. Perhaps I am a soft, Western modern, but I can’t really think of more than one or two crimes that would merit such horrific physical abuse in the name of Justice. Stoning makes the electric chair look like a hug from your grandma.

I recommend this difficult yet well-told film for these reasons:

1). Islam is foreign to many Americans. 
While I do need to caution folks not to take the story to be a representation of Islamic theology, it IS an accurate portrayal of how hyper-conservative Islam beats up on people (male and female). If you want to understand what the people of Iran or Saudi Arabia have been subjected to for the past several decades, this will do.

2). We tend to forget what injustice looks like.
Not that America doesn’t have a lot of it’s own injustice to deal with (don’t get me started on Alabama’s ugly anti-immigrant law or the way current local, state, and federal budget cuts affect primarily the poor), but our idea of injustice is shaped within a relatively just legal code. A woman in Soraya’s position if she lived here would have had some shred of hope.

3). Domestic abuse is a vile crime.
We don’t talk about it. People don’t want to hear about criminal domestic violence. But SC is 3rd in the nation for CDV. I hope a thoughtful watcher of this film would move from self-righteous condemnation of the village leaders to an appalled realization that SC “villages” don’t do a very good job of protecting their women from abusive jerks either.

While you’re at it, go make a donation to Safe Harbor here in town. Because very few people are willing to hear that we need abuse shelters in our city in 2011.

4). Biblical gender roles must not be used to justify oppression.
Sometimes the whole patriarchy movement in evangelicalism really worries me. We need to stop reacting to our culture and its perceived excesses and start teaching about relationships that are shaped by love and respect. Apart from the stoning, the women’s roles portrayed in this film match what I have read in some Internet posts by Christians in the patriarchy movement.

5). Remember that God Himself says He will avenge those who abuse, hurt, or oppress those without a voice. 
I read the Psalms to my homeroom kiddos every day. Usually the language shocks them. When David says to God, “Break the teeth of those who oppress the poor, the widows, the orphans,” my students shuffle uncomfortably in their chairs. This isn’t a typical Sunday School emphasis. Perhaps we need to dust off the truth that God gets really, really angry with people who think they can smash the powerless or poor, regardless of the reason.

6). Realize the religious hypocrisy exists in every religion.
The abusive form of religion that drives the events in the film isn’t true to Islam. Similarly, there’s a lot of abuse done in the name of Christ. In neither case is it fair to judge an entire religion based on the actions of its extremists.

So I commend to you The Stoning of Soraya M.

The violent end is very graphic. This isn’t a movie for children.

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