It is a scandal that in 2013 women still risk death by stoning in 15 countries. Incredibly, that number is now set to rise as the southeast Asian kingdom of Brunei prepares to introduce this brutal punishment.
Last month, the Sultan of Brunei announced a harsh new penal code based on an interpretation of sharia law. Along with flogging and amputation for certain crimes, the code introduces death by stoning as a punishment for adultery.
Let’s be clear. Stoning is a heinous and protracted form of torture, and one of the cruellest kinds of violence perpetrated against women to control and punish them for the exercise of their basic freedoms and control over their own bodies.
This punishment is not prescribed in the Qur’an, nor is stoning legal in most Muslim countries. Yet unfortunately today the practice is on the rise.
This past July, local sources reported that Arifa Bibi, a young mother of two in Pakistan, was stoned to death upon the order of a tribal court for possession of a mobile phone. According to media reports, her uncle, cousins and others hurled stones and bricks at her until she died.
In 2008, 13-year-old Aisha was buried up to her neck and stoned to death by 50 men in front of 1,000 spectators at a stadium in Somalia. Her father told Amnesty International that she had been raped by three men, but was accused of adultery when she tried to report the rape to the militia in control of the city.
In several countries, such as the UAE, women and girls who report sexual assault may be charged with adultery if rape charges are unsuccessful.
Like many other forms of culturally-justified violence, stoning disproportionately targets women and their conduct. In practice, women are more often found guilty of adultery due to systematic and often legally codified gender discrimination, as well as higher rates of poverty and illiteracy. And if they are sentenced to death by stoning, women traditionally have fewer avenues of escape open to them.
We must remember that stoning is a serious violation of international human rights law. The practice contravenes a host of U.N. treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that no one should be subjected to torture, or cruel or inhuman punishment.
So it’s shocking that this appalling practice continues to persist, much less expand. Brunei is not the only country planning to legalise stoning. Afghanistan, where stoning is already practised extra-judicially, is preparing to do likewise, according to reports.
Earlier this year a number of women’s rights activists rooted in the Global South launched an international campaign for a ban on stoning. To date, well over 11,000 supporters from around the world have signed our petition to the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The time to act on stoning is now, before Brunei joins the 15 countries where it is legal and/or practised extra-judicially. Indeed, public and sanctioned displays of violence against women appear to be a growing trend in several countries. In neighbouring Malaysia, the numbers of women sentenced to whipping has substantially risen in the past three years, and U.N. experts have called on Sudan to stop threatening women with flogging. Amnesty recently highlighted the case of two women who remain at risk of flogging on charges of “indecent behaviour”.
In Brunei, where elections were last held in 1962, open dissent is rare but criticism of the new law exists. One concerned female Bruneian citizen, who didn’t wish to be named, told us in an email that “this has raised a great deal of concern amongst Bruneians. The protection of women’s rights would be affected”.
The director of the Malaysian thinktank the Islamic Renaissance Front also said that he believes the new laws will lead to the erosion of personal freedoms and women’s rights.
Attempting to ease public fears about the code, the government has promised to apply a high burden of proof and said that judges would have wide discretion in applying the law. Yet in Iran, where stoning is legal, activists argue that judicial discretion has greatly increased the number of deaths by stoning.
Women’s groups and grassroots activists in Southeast Asia are speaking out against the new penal code. The global Stop Stoning Women campaign recently launched an appeal calling on the Sultanate of Brunei to immediately cease its implementation. At least 17 Indonesian and Malaysian groups, including Sisters in Islam and Solidaritas Perempuan, support the appeal and are helping to organize a letter-writing initiative.
As part of our efforts to implement a worldwide ban, the Stop Stoning campaign will present its petition to the United Nations this coming March, and we will work towards a crucial step in the naming and shaming of this practice: a U.N. resolution against stoning as a form of violence against women.