Wall Street Journal | August 5, 2010
By Shirin Ebadi

Iran’s penal code reserves the harshest punishments for women.

The harrowing case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani—a mother of two sentenced to stoning by an Iranian court for adultery—has rightfully drawn attention to Iran’s draconian penal code, which reserves its cruelest punishments for women. Even Tehran’s new political ally, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, has been roused into action, publicly offering Ms. Ashtiani asylum in his country.

Iran has yet to respond formally, and a foreign leader can have no direct bearing on a domestic legal proceeding. But the intervention—a direct appeal to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—demonstrates that the Islamic Republic’s human rights record can’t be divorced from its nuclear diplomacy.

Before the 1979 Islamic revolution, in the years when I worked as a judge in Iran, consensual sexual relations between adults did not figure in the country’s criminal code. But the revolution enacted a version of Islamic law extraordinarily harsh even by the standards of the Muslim world. Under the new regime, extramarital sex was a crime punishable by law. The punishment for a single man or woman guilty of sex outside marriage became 100 lashes; under Article 86, the punishment for a married person became death by stoning.

On the face of things, stoning is not a gender-specific punishment, for the law stipulates that adulterous men face the same brutal end. But Iranian law permits polygamy, so it offers men an escape route. Because Iranian law recognizes “marriages” of even a few hours between men and single women, men can claim that their adulterous relationships are in fact temporary marriages. By exploiting this escape clause, men are rarely sentenced to stoning. Married women accused of adultery have access to no such reprieve.

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