Last month, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that it received a gruesome video showing a woman being stoned to death by her father, along with a group of men who appeared to be militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The report said the stoning took place in the ISIS-controlled countryside of Hama, Syria.
The video begins with a tall, bearded militant in camouflage passing down the stoning sentence to the woman. “We hope that this will serve as a lesson to other women,” he says, with his right hand on the father’s shoulder. “This punishment is the result of the actions you did of your own free will,” the bearded militant continues, “therefore, you should be satisfied with the ruling decree by Allah.”
He then turns to the woman’s father, “Is there anything you would like to say to your daughter?”
“No,” answers the man wearing a red-and-white checkered ghutra.
Then the woman, covered in a brown dress from head to toe, pleads with her father for forgiveness. He insistently refuses, until he finally grants her final wish after another hooded ISIS fighter approaches him to persuade him of doing so.
The father ties a rope around the woman, drags her into a pit, and the stoning begins.
According to the Syrian Observatory, the terrorist group stoned two other women earlier this year in the province of Al-Raqqa, after accusing them of adultery. Only the stoning case in Hama was caught on video.
The date of the recording was not verified, and it was not clear how the woman was found guilty of adultery.
What the video shows clearly, however, is that those members of the terrorist group were able to convince the woman’s father of the legitimacy of their decree, to the extent that he was willing to take part in her execution. Shocking, but not impossible in a harshly misogynistic, perpetually patriarchal environment, where honor killing is condoned by many men and women and has long been protected by the constitution, even under the so-called secular regimes around the region.
Consider the fact that the Syrian constitution, for example, allows a male perpetrator of rape to escape punishment by marrying the victim, and limits punishment of “honor killings” to 2-7 years in prison. Such is the case under the protection of a secular, civil state; now try to envision the matter in the hands of the unrestricted group of terrorists.
It appears that the evils of fundamentalism and the cowardice of social bullies have joined forces in the form of ISIS.
Many Arab and Middle Eastern societies are what anthropologist Edward T. Hall calls a “high-context” culture — meaning that more importance is given to the family over the individual, and a self-governing individualist is viewed as a risk to the family’s reputation. Under such circumstances, patriarchy tends to thrive.
But let us not forget that the patriarchy has another equally ugly side to it. Men in such societies are also bound by the same highly masculine social construct, where aspects of misogyny are viewed as a necessity to maintain the order of society; an inescapable harness that men are always expected to tie around women and handle with utmost care. Consequently, a man’s failure to fit the restrictive mold of the patriarchal order would be faced with a lot of scorn and lifelong shaming by his community.
Let us, for the sake of argument, think of what other options were available to the stoned woman’s father. Let us imagine for a minute that the man, instead of refusing his daughter’s plea for forgiveness, had refused to participate in the stoning, took his daughter’s hand, then walked her away from the group of armed fundamentalist thugs.
If the man and his daughter, miraculously somehow, were able to survive our imaginary scenario, it would not be possible for either one of them to rejoin their families and go on with their ordinary life: The man would be labeled a “cuckold,” and the woman a “whore,” for generations to come. This brings us to the concept of a “sacrifice”: The family of a fallen woman must offer her to society as a sacrifice in order to publicly clear their responsibility, declaring that they have removed the cause of their social alienation and announcing that they should be welcomed back into their community as respectful individuals.
Does that mean all Arabs or Muslims support stoning women to death as a punishment for adultery? The short answer is, no. This raises another fundamental question: Doesn’t Islam prescribe stoning as a punishment for married adulterers?
As an Arab woman who was born into a strict Muslim family who grew up in a Muslim community, I can tell you, the answer depends on who you ask. A moderate Muslim would make a distinction between the misogynistic culture and the religion of Islam, saying that stoning has questionable grounds in the Muslim faith. A fundamentalist or Wahhabi Muslim, on the other hand, would suggest that the cultural values of male-dominance are in the core of Islamic teachings, and would strongly defend the deep-rootedness of the stoning practice in Islam. Ironically, both individuals would provide Qur’anic texts and other religious tracts to support their views.
The level of barbarism illustrated in the terrorist activities carried out by ISIS members in Syria and Iraq has led many Western observers to call for a collaboration with the Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad’s regime to fight against terrorism.
As tempting as it is, however, to blame fundamental Islam for the savagery of ISIS — particularly its misogynistic practices, as in the case at hand — one should not turn a blind eye to the dangerously effective role played by bad politics, both foreign and interior, in the perpetuation of internalized sexism.
ISIS is not the malignant tumor that ought to be resected; it is merely one symptom of a serious underlying disease that has been developing over centuries of oppression and cultural segregation on one hand, and the blind idolization of the past, accompanied by fear of the responsibilities that come with change, on the other.
While the eradication of ISIS is both important and necessary, the path to achieving gender equality in the region runs a lot deeper than the caves of terrorists.