On Sunday evening I returned from a pastoral visitation to find my wife and mother watching a movie together. I sat down to do some work at the table and glanced up at the screen. It was a foreign language film and when I enquired as to the title of the movie I was told that the name of the film was, "The Stoning of Soraya M."
Intrigued by the title, I placed my work aside to watch; but not for long. Soon the images and the story unfolding had me feeling so uncomfortable that I turned to my work to distract me from what was taking place in the film.
By the end of the film I felt sick to my stomach, emotionally drained and stunned, because this film was based on a true story in which an innocent woman is falsely accused and stoned to death.
The film was adapted from French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam's 1994 book of the same name based on a true story of one of the victims of stonings in modern Iran.
Stranded in a remote Iranian village, Sahebjam (the author) was approached by Zahra, a woman with a harrowing tale to tell about her niece, Soraya, and the bloody circumstances of her death the day before.
Soraya M.'s husband Ghorban-Ali was an ambitious man, prone to rage with a lust for power. He wanted a way out of his marriage in order to marry a 14-year-old girl but did not want to support two families or return Soraya's dowry. When Soraya began cooking for a friend's widowed husband, he found his excuse: abetted by village authorities, he accused his wife of adultery. She was taken away, buried up to her waist, and then stoned to death.
Zahra's story to Sahebjam is an attempt to expose the inhumanity of Sharia law. Her last and only hope for justice lies in the hands of the journalist, who must escape with the story - and his life - in order to communicate the violence to the world.
According to the Muslimah Media Watch website (a forum where Muslim women, can critique how their images appear in the media and popular culture), rather than just being a film that objectifies and misrepresents Muslim women, the movie is "powerful in its message; incredibly moving and is about extraordinary womanhood and moral courage in the face of injustice." The website goes on to say that the tragic story of Soraya to the world, is not a condemnation of Islam, but a condemnation of men who misinterpret the religion to institutionalize cultural patriarchy and misogyny (hatred of women).
According to a 2009 UN study on freedom of religion or belief and the status of women in the light of religion and traditions, at the end of the first decade of this third millennium, many women across the world continue to suffer discrimination in their private and family lives and in relation to their status in society. Such discrimination, which is deeply rooted in the dominant culture of some countries, is largely based on or attributed to religion.
Fundamentalist interpretations of scripture, mixed with oppressive cultural practices continue to provide people such as Soraya M.'s husband with the freedom to treat women as property and objects rather than human beings deserving of dignity and respect. Religious and traditional extremism leads to the persistence of cultural stereotypes which are detrimental to women such as genital mutilation, marriage practices (child brides, consent to marriage, dowry polygamy) and "the preference of parents for male children which often manifests itself in neglect, deprivation or discriminatory treatment of girls to the detriment of their mental and physical health".
According to the report, extremism can be seen in the action of groups or, in some instances, of the State itself.
In Afghanistan, for example, discrimination against women has become institutionalized by the Taliban with the introduction of what is in fact a system of apartheid against women based on the Taliban's own interpretation of Islam: the exclusion of women from society, employment and schools, the obligation for women to wear the burqa in public and restrictions on travel.
Women are barred from society and consigned to an area where they enjoy neither citizenship nor rights and where their total submission to the all-powerful man in the name of Allah is the rule.
In other cases, official representatives of the religious hierarchy condemn abortion or the use of contraception, including where women are raped or exposed to rape in situations of armed conflict.
In some States, widows are subjected to inhuman rituals, which sometimes assume especially cruel forms. In India, for example, sati (widow burning), which was thought to have been discontinued or greatly restricted, is firmly rooted in beliefs. Although officially banned as long ago as 1829 and again in 1987, the practice is tolerated by the State, which turns a blind eye to the many rituals and rites which glorify it in different regions of India.
Still today, widows are viewed in some cultures as witches or sorceresses, shunned by the community and exposed to sexual exploitation by male members of their husband's family. They are in some instances forbidden to remarry. Such status clearly reflects the belief that women have no role outside marriage, a widow being defined by comparison with a wife.
Many Christian religious practices and persuasions agree on barring women's access to positions of responsibility such as the reservation of ordination to men. Exclusion from the priesthood also prevents women from assuming governing authority in the Church, and international or State law respects the internal law of religious communities. Although women have only in the past four decades been admitted to the pastoral ministry in some churches, there is still much dissent on women ministers taking on leadership roles.
The Methodist Church in Fiji only appointed its first woman Superintendent Minister last year, and the appointment of a woman as Bishop in the Church of England is currently a major issue of debate.
However, just as religion and culture can be misused to perpetrate discrimination against women, there are many scriptural references, traditional teachings and cultural practices which honour and empower women.
Stories, like that of Soraya M. that reach into our very souls and wrench us out of our comfort zones ensure that the cries of the oppressed are not only heard but felt. There are many more women and children whose voices remain unheard.
Be still, stand in love and pay attention.
* Reverend J.S. Bhagwan is a member of the Faculty at Davuilevu Theological College and the Associate Minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva. This article is the sole opinion of Mr J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with.