Remove Islam’s ‘Scarlet Letter’ Sex Laws
On a rocky patch of dirt in the mountainous province of Ghor in central Afghanistan, a band of about a dozen men, clad in turbans and traditional salwar kameez, or baggy pants and tunic, tower over a young woman, named Rokhshana, buried, yes, in a pit.
A pile of fresh dirt is piled around her shoulders and head, peeking out from the hole, just above ground. The long, dark shadows of the men dance around the woman menacingly.
In a shocking two-minute video, shot just days ago and ricocheting around the world this week, a man stops just a few feet from Rokhshana, close enough to look her in the eyes. He picks up a stone, reels back and flings it toward the young woman, aged about 19. The rock hits the ground, landing with a thud. The man reaches down to pick up another rock and throws again.
This time, the man hits his mark: Rokhshana, a name that means bright, brilliant and shining. Her crime: zina, or illegal sex, for rejecting a forced marriage for a love marriage. Her chosen husband was lashed and set free.
The men speak to each other in Pashto, the language of Pashtuns. Afghan government officials claim the Taliban, warlords and local mullahs,
or religious leaders, were responsible for the attack. At about 29 seconds, a man in white shouts to the woman, using Dari, another major language in Afghanistan, and says, “Kalima bogo.” “Say the kalima,” a Muslim proclamation of faith that is supposed to be the words we utter, as Muslims, in our last breath on this earth.
“La ilaha illallah Muhammad rasul Allah,” says a bellowing man’s voice beside the camera, the mountains towering in the horizon, alas, silent witness over the bloody murder scene. “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.”
In turn, men walk up to the helpless woman, pelt stones at her head and shoulders and walk away. Rokhshana protests and, at 41 seconds, invoking divine aid, she whimpers, “Ai Allah jaan.”
“Oh, dear God.”
With this video of barbarism as living testimony by Rokhshana, killed that day, Muslims in the 21st century need to hear the young woman’s appeal. We must reject the scarlet letter culture of too many Muslim communities and repeal the medieval zina laws that criminalize consensual adult sex, from premarital sex to homosexuality. These laws lead to a culture of vigilante justice, shaming, and intimate tyranny that belies Islamic teachings of compassion, justice, and privacy.
What transpires over the next two minutes of video strikes a blow not only at the conscience of the world, but Muslims, in particular, who want to invoke God’s name for good, not oppression, or zulm. While Rokhshana appeals to God for mercy, the men invoke the name of Allah to punish the woman for zina, which is criminalized by state-sanctioned sharia, or Islamic law, in countries from Afghanistan to Nigeria.
Like in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, set in 19th-century puritanical America with the character Hester Prynne jailed and then sentenced to wearing the scarlet letter “A” for adultery, women in Muslim communities are disproportionately punished for zina, either with bodily harm, imprisonment, or shaming and emotional abuse. Men, too, are unjustly shamed and punished.
Referenced several times in the Quran, the ordinance against zina takes on a divine nature with edicts like, “Nor come night to zina for it is a shameful (deed) and an evil, opening the road (to other evils)” (17:32). Another verse (24:2) makes it a crime punishable by 100 lashes and orders, “Let not compassion move you in their case.” It adds: “Let a party of the believers witness their punishment,” as occurred in the Afghan murder video. An allowance (24:4-5) metes out a punishment of 80 lashes against false accusers of “free women.”
But many of us, from organizations like Women Living Under Muslim Laws to a campaign, Violence is Not Our Culture, argue that higher Islamic principles trump this interpretation of justice from the seventh century, when Islam was born.
“The zina law is the ultimate manifestation of misogyny,” or hatred of women, says Nushin Arbabzadah, a lecturer at UCLA and an Afghan writer-activist on women’s rights and Islamic reform. Despite its traumatic affect, Arbabzadah watched the murder video with me, again and again, so we could accurately witness to Rokhshana’s last minutes on this earth. “This law turns women’s bodies into a prison. A murder weapon against women themselves. We have to speak up to compensate for the loneliness Rokhshana suffered in the moment of her horrifying death. We are all party to her death because we are cowards and crowd pleasers. We don't want to offend. Muslims need to develop a consciousness. We have lost our moral compass.”
“As a 21st-century women,” says Arbabzadah, “I reject the zina law with every fiber of my body, every cell of my brain. It’s dark shadow hanging over us from the dark ages. We need light and this law keeps us in the dark ages.”
The videotaped murder took me back to a moment 13 years ago when I sat on the edge of a sofa in a home I had rented in Karachi, Pakistan, and looked down at a pregnancy test as it came back positive. I did three more tests. Reporting in Pakistan, post-9/11, I had fallen in love with a man who worked on Karachi’s Wall Street. We had plans of getting married, but when I told him I was pregnant, he told me, “I have to go.”
I was not only a new mother but a criminal according to the sharia, practiced in Pakistan and too much of the Muslim world. The evidence against me: my unborn baby. When I learned I was pregnant, I researched the abortion rulings in Islam. I learned that a baby is considered “viable” after it has passed about four months and experienced nafkh al ruh, or a proverbial breath of divine soul being blown into the fetus, giving it life. I considered aborting my baby to avoid the shame of being an “unwed mother.”
Yet, when my father, a conservative but loving man, learned that I was pregnant, he wrote me a simple email: “Allah is rehman. Allah is raheem.” “God is beneficient. God is merciful.” And my mother, also conservative but adoring, said, “Have the baby.”
When I lived in the shadow of shame, depressed and struggling, during my pregnancy, my mother walked with me in our neighborhood in my hometown of Morgantown, W.Va., and told me, “You don’t live in a village, Asra. Don’t live in shame.”
Christianity went through the same evolution we are seeking from Muslim societies with churches today mostly teaching that, while we may judge “the sin,” we should not judge “the sinner.” I gave birth to my son, my loving family around us, and gave him the first name, Shibli, which means “my lion cub,” and the middle name, Daneel, a version of the biblical name, Daniel, which means “God is the judge.”
When my son was 7 months old, I wrote my first opinion piece for The Washington Post, headlined, “She Shouldn’t Be Stoned. None of Us Should,” defending the right of a mother in Nigeria, Amina Lawal, to live freely and not be stoned to death for having a baby outside of marriage.
Three weeks ago, my family and I celebrated my son’s 13th birthday, my father buying my son cupcakes from Alexandria Cupcake in Northern Virginia, and my mother baking him a Betty Crocker yellow cake with chocolate icing. In a real show of love, these devoted grandparents walked Six Flags' Fright Fest with my son to celebrate his birthday, as he enjoyed rides like the “Apocalypse.”
Unfortunately, the culture of zina laws in Muslim societies has created a nightmare of personal repression, deceit, and human-rights violations. As my parents taught me, I believe that, in our Muslim communities, we must choose compassion and grace over stoning, condemnation, and shame. To that end, I wrote a Muslim Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom, which includes the right to have consensual adult sex without criminalization.
Sadly, in the 21st century, in our Muslim communities, we are still debating such base questions as whether pregnancy is proof of zina, whether oral sex constitutes zina, whether a person should be lashed or stoned and, even, if a rape victim has committed zina.
To this, many of us say: what the fatwa.
Feminists like attorney Asifa Quraishi are trying to parse rational conclusions, in papers with titles like, “Islamic Legal Analysis of Zina Punishment of Bariya Ibrahim Magazu, Zamfara, Nigeria.”
In a paper published a few years ago, Ziba Mir Hosseini, an Iranian anthropologist who lives in London, argues that zina laws are part of a systemic “violence against women” in Muslim societies. And the organization, Women Living Under Muslim Law, notes the rise of zina laws with the upsurge in political Islam in the world in recent decades.
But, really, we need to end the culture of injustice and shame that zina laws foment.
Human Rights Watch notes that in Afghanistan at least 400 women and girls are imprisoned for “moral crimes,” including zina, “after being raped or forced into prostitution.” In Pakistan, women are unfairly punished under the “Hudood Ordinance,” or set of laws governing violations of hadd, or sacred crimes, put in place in 1979 after General Zia ul-Haq’s Islamization of Pakistan. About 200,000 cases under the Hudood laws were being prosecuted, according to a Human Rights Watch report some years ago. And countless others are punished, vigilante-style. Despite military and civilian rule, politicians haven’t had the courage to repeal the unjust laws.
Karamah, a nonprofit based in the U.S. focused on issues of women and Islamic law, concludes that zina laws used to criminalize rape victims are “incompatible with basic Qur’anic principles and the prophetic tradition.”
Amnesty International has called upon the government of Iran to stop executions for alleged violations of zina laws. In a report, “The Bloodied Stone,” an Iranian activist, Emadeddin Baghi, called for an end to stoning for zina.
Indeed, we need to be honest about the fact that the normative interpretation of sharia on zina is no different than the interpretation put forward by the executioners of the Islamic State.
Nemat Sadat, a native of Afghanistan and human-rights activist living in New York City, who has published a Change.org petition to oppose zina laws, as well as apostasy and anti-gay laws, says, “Honor violence is nothing new to Afghanistan or the Muslim world. It’s an oppressive system that’s been passed down for centuries. The international community has tried to stymie honor violence in Afghanistan by advocating for reform of women’s and girl’s rights.”
While stoning is technically illegal under the Afghan constitution, he says, “The problem lies with the lack of separation of mosque and state. While Afghanistan is a transitional democracy, it’s also an Islamic Republic. Islamic jurisprudence is mixed with and supersedes any secular law. Under sharia, it’s permissible to stone a person who’s violated a moral vice like adultery or pre-marital sex. These contradicting laws and appeasement to Islamists in Afghanistan allows for the Taliban and other radical elements to misuse religion to exercise their authority and justify their violent crimes, which too often results in capital punishment.”
He notes: “Until the government of Afghanistan—and all Muslim societies—decriminalize apostasy, adultery, homosexuality, etc., the mob violence without due course of justice will continue with impunity and the gender, religious and sexual apartheid will continue to punish the silent majority who have no say over the supremacy of patriarchs and their divine law.”
This murder harkens back to the murder of another young woman, Farkhunda, at a mosque in Kabul at the feet of men, most of them lightly punished, if at all, by Afghan judges. In defiance, Afghan women carried Farkhunda’s coffin to her burial.
In the video of her murder, the men ignore Rokhshana’s pleas for mercy. Instead, one man winds up, leftie-style, and flings a rock at her with all of his might, stepping into his throw.
In our latest act of brutality, as stones hit her, Rokhshana whimpers.
She squirms and turns in the tight space, trying to escape the rocks. The rocks smack against her with a thud, bouncing off her fragile body.
As the men fling stones at the woman at a more frenzied pace, the woman’s high-pitched cries become more desperate.
One by one, about two dozen men, squatting nearby, join in the assault. One man passes the camera to another man so his hands are free to stone Rokhshana.
At 1:20 in the video, a man throws a huge rock, smacking her in the back of the head, the rock tumbling backward into her pit of death, and in the 40 seconds that follow, the men circle her and pelt rocks at her, stones raining upon her from all directions, as she wails in a stream of protests, crying, “Ai Allah.”
It’s time that we, as divine beings on this earth, listen.