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Book Review: The Stoning of Soraya M.: A Story of Injustice in Iran by Freidoune Sahebjam (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

October 22, 2013 2 comments

Picture of a woman in a niqab.  The title of the book and author's name are in gold and black banners across the top and bottom.

Summary:
Sahebjam, a French-Iranian journalist, was traveling through Iran in the 1980s when he had to stop in a small village.  An elderly woman, Zahra, asked him for tea so she could tell him the story of what happened to her niece, Soraya, mere weeks before.  Sahebjam grants narrative to her tale to get the story of injustice out.

Soraya was a typical rural Iranian woman.  Married to a villager at a young age.  Her husband, Ghorban-Ali, became less and less invested in his family and more and more likely to beat them.  He also became increasingly interested in young women in the city.  When a criminal posing as a mullah comes to town, Ghorban-Ali sees the perfect opportunity to be rid of his wife without any costs of divorce.  He, the mullah, and an easily swayed widower friend corroborate to falsely accuse Soraya of adultery and sentence her to death by stoning.

Review:
Things can easily go awry when the powers of justice are held in the hands of a select few.  A lot rests on whether or not those few are good people.  This book tells that tale, and it tells it movingly, regardless of whether or not all the facts of the story are precisely correct.  The biggest facts are accurate, and that is what matters.

Sahebjam is a French-Iranian journalist.  He thus has both the perspective of insider and outsider, which is the ideal one for a story like this.  He understands the people and the village but he also knows how to present and explain things to the non-Iranian reader.  Sahebjam clearly and honestly states from the beginning that he got this tale from one eyewitness.  Some might argue that this story thus isn’t researched well enough or thoroughly vetted.  It is indeed one eyewitness account passed through an author (and for English speakers, a translator).  But the core of the injustice is verifiable: the handling of adultery in Islam.  Combine this with religion and state being one and the same, and it’s easy to see how if this story didn’t indeed already happen how it could easily come to be.

The first half of the book introduces us to Sahebjam, Zahra (the aunt), and Soraya, as well as the organization of the small town and the adultery laws as followed by fundamentalist Islam.  Sahebjam does a good job introducing all the people and explaining the context of the injustice without overwhelming the reader with info dumping.

Essentially, in Islam, when it comes to adultery, the woman has to do all the proving.

When a man accuses his wife [of adultery], she has to prove her innocence [in Islam]. This is the law. On the other hand, if a woman makes an accusation against her husband, she has to produce proof. (location 1079)

If the woman is wealthy, she can pay off the mullah (think of it as paying a penance in Catholicism).  But:

In most cases the woman [accused of adultery in Iran] is poor—which means she is a virtual slave to her husband. She has no rights, except for the meager right to remain silent. All the husband needs to win his case of infidelity is two eyewitnesses, who are generally friends and accomplices. As for the accused woman, she has to prove her innocence and that is impossible: no one will come to her aid; no one will bear witness on her behalf. (location 129)

Regardless of whether or not Soraya was a real person (and I do believe she was), these are problematic laws that leave the door wide open for abuse by a few corrupt people.  This book demonstrates that danger eloquently.

Sahebjam clearly made a choice to make the tale flow better by giving it some narrative qualities.  He inserts dialogue he clearly wasn’t there to hear, and he even talks about what was going on inside people’s heads.  I didn’t like that he did the latter, especially.  I understand dialogue can help make a nonfiction book flow a bit, and I’m ok with that.  But claiming to know what was going on inside people’s minds turned me off the narrative a bit.  It leaves the door open for criticism of a story that needs to be taken seriously, and I wish he had made other narrative choices.

At first, it is easy to be irritated by Soraya’s choice to remain silent when accused.  She gives up so quickly, one wonder why she never advocates for herself.  But in retrospect, it’s a clear, yet subtle, depiction of what can happen to a victim of abuse over time.  Eventually their spirit is just beaten out of them.  Soraya demonstrates what happens when abused people are left to deal with the abuse and abuser on their own.

Overall, this book highlights the inequality innate is Muslim adultery laws, as well as the dangers of leaving justice to the hands of a few.  The narrative structure doesn’t precisely suit a nonfiction account of an event, but the bones at the core of the injustice are still verifiably true.  Readers who prefer a dry, precise nonfiction might not be able to look past the narrative structure.  Those who can will find a moving tale of how easy it is for injustice to take over a community.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph (The Real Help Reading Project)

December 3, 2011 7 comments

Plantation house and slave houses.Summary:
Thavolia Glymph analyzes the power relations between black and white southern women within the plantation household in the antebellum, Civil War, and immediately post-Civil War American South utilizing primarily slave narratives/interviews and the diaries and letters of white mistresses.

Review:
I am chagrined to admit that not only is this the first time I was late on the schedule of The Real Help Reading Project I am co-hosting with Amy, but I was exactly a week late!  The lesson I have learned?  Never schedule a timely thing for a holiday weekend.  I apologize to Amy and everyone following along for making you wait, but at least it was Amy’s turn to host!  Moving right along….

Whereas Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow was extraordinarily all-encompassing, here Glymph narrows her focus severely to only relationships between black and white women in traditional plantation households in the American South.  She, alas, stops her analysis around the turn of the 20th century, only venturing into the unique relations within the domestic work realm depicted in The Help in the epilogue.  However, this book is quite valuable in that it analyzes the relationships that led up to that odd dynamic of the 1950s and 1960s.

This book covers a lot of information, but what sticks out the most to me in retrospect was how much work and effort it took to maintain a racist, unequal society.  The white mistresses had this odd, completely illogical dichotomy of viewing black women both as inferior and needing their guidance and as naturally suited to hard labor.  My eyes practically bugged out of my head when reading of white women teaching black women to do chores that supposedly white women were too weak to do….and yet they were perfectly capable of doing them well enough to show the black women what they wanted done.  Um….what?  That is the sort of illogical situation that only someone entirely committed to a belief system, no matter how wrong, will be able to come to terms with.

Similarly, the former mistresses predicted the imminent downfall of their former house slaves only to find themselves hired by these same freedwomen to sew fine dresses for them with the money they earned by working the plantation.  Yet, the former mistresses persisted in believing in the racial inferiority of the freedwomen.  Perhaps the most mind-boggling to me was the story of one former mistress who wound up teaching at a freed black school, yet even though she was with these children daily, she still believed in white supremacy.  Why this persistent need to believe you’re better than someone else?  Personally, it seems to me that the white men were so constantly judgmental of the white women that they reacted by taking it out on those society deemed inferior to them.  If black free women rose to their same status, then who would they take their frustrations out on?  This logic doesn’t free the white women of the guilt that they definitely deserve, but it does help to make sense of their ability to take on completely illogical stances.

I feel that I am repeating myself a bit with this project, but the books repeatedly demonstrate how inequality on any level acts as a poison to the whole society.  I hope that is something that we modern readers will bare in mind in our own daily lives.

Source: BookU

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Please head over to Amy’s post to discuss this book!