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The Stoning of Soraya M.
by Elisa DeMartino
The Stoning of Soraya M is a film focused on an environment characterized by male hegemony. Although hegemony has been defined as the “accepted” power structure between the dominant and subaltern (which is made of up females but also anyone victim to the male dominant power structure in this case)*, the film revealed that other methods of domination needed to be utilized in order to fully control the female population. The status of this hegemonic society as a contested process and not in fact fully established ideology is characterized by the use of power through knowledge, law and religion to remind society of the male dominance over women.
The film begins with the arrival of French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam to a small Iranian village where his car breaks down. He briefly meets the mayor and mullah and is subsequently beckoned by Zahra to hear her story. Recorded by his tape-recorder, Zahra tells him the story of her niece, Soraya. Soraya’s husband, Ali, wanted to divorce her so that he could marry a 14-year-old but Soraya did not want a divorce because she will no longer have a means of support for her and her two daughters. When the wife of their neighbor, Hashem, died, the mayor, Ebrahim, and mullah decided that Soraya should help Hashem raise his son, who was then without a mother. Zahra convinced them to require that Hashem pay her a salary. Ali realized that he could simply accuse his wife of infidelity to be rid of her. He obtained the support of Ebrahim and the mullah and then used threats to convince Hashem into saying that Soraya tried to seduce him. The result is, as the title implies, the stoning to death of Soraya. Zahra completes her story and Sahebjam tries to leave the village, but is interrupted by the mayor and the mullah. They confiscate his belongings but while he is driving away with his newly-fixed (by Hashem) car, Zahra hands him the true tape through the car window as he drives off and the movie ends with her telling the townspeople that the whole world will know Soraya’s story.
The movie focuses primarily on the dominant status of men in Iranian culture. This dominance is part of a wider range of culture and is characteristic to Sharia law and Islam. This village in particular, however, is an example of some areas of the Muslim world where such dominance is taken to an extreme. The treatment of women is a controversial issue that is not agreed upon by all Muslims because of various translations of the Qu’ran as well as historical traditions. However, it is not unreasonable to make the generalization that the male hegemony is something very present in Muslim culture.
The lecture slide titled “Decentering Power” makes a distinction between “domination” and “hegemony.” “Domination” says that “people obey because violence or threat of violence threatens them: force of coercion.” “Hegemony” says “people obey because they accept the ideas of the ruling order/class.” Roseberry’s definition however, reveals that perhaps these two words are not as different as their definitions make them seem. Roseberry states that we should “explore hegemony not as a finished and monolithic ideological formation but as a problematic, contested, political process [quotes retained] of domination and struggle” (79). This suggestion is relevant to the movie, in which the victims of this struggle clearly don’t “accept” the power situation to the point where, instead of wielding total power over his situation, Ali has to resort to other methods of power exertion.
Ali’s gender alone is not enough – he must find two witnesses in order to proceed in court with divorcing his wife for her infidelity. Furthermore, he must somehow exercise control over other males, which is a completely different task from directly controlling a female but is directly related to the goal. He uses blackmail to gain the help of the mullah – by threatening to reveal his criminal record – who is of a higher social standing than himself. He gets his second witness by threatening Hashem about his son’s well-being. Hashem does not want to take the side of Ali because he does not want to bring harm to an innocent woman, which also makes him a victim of the male hegemony of this society, making it not just a struggle between men and women but between men with different ideologies.
Once Ali has 2 witnesses, Ebrahim must grant him the right to accuse her, even if he personally doesn’t think she’s guilty (a sentiment which he obviously but wordlessly conveys), because as the mayor he’s under the power of the law (another example of someone of a higher social standing not having power over Ali). The female villagers do not take part in the stoning and look upon it huddled together with fear and, expressed by some, discontent. The male villagers react to this by trying to justify the stoning, saying “It’s God’s law” because she was unfaithful. These examples depict the political process of male hegemony – clearly it’s the dominant structure of society, but not all faith is placed on it to the point where a man can do whatever he wants. There is a system of law established to at least prevent total corruption. They also show that there is a constant search for the justification of this hegemony by the male side in order to maintain it.
When Soraya dies, the women are told that they are not allowed to bury her. There are objections, especially by Soraya’s aunt, who has angrily and vocally expressed her opinions of the situation throughout the movie and gotten away with it due to her social standing. After the bones of Soraya that were left outside are cleaned by wolves, Zahra retrieves them and buries them. This last physical form of opposition along with her later achievement in spreading her story depict the ongoing struggle of the female and not, as the definition states, an actual acceptance. As Roseberry states, then, we can “use the concept [hegemony] not to understand consent but to understand struggle, the ways in which the words, symbols, forms…and movements used by subordinate populations to talk about, understand, confront, accommodate themselves to, or resist their domination are shaped” (80).
Despite the establishment of male hegemony in the society of this Iranian village, there are still methods of contesting it. Therefore, the presence of hegemony alone is not enough to fully establish all aspects of male domination. Ali had to implement additional power techniques by utilizing knowledge, law and religion. And although it was weak, the females of the story – especially Zahra – did have methods of protest. For these reasons, hegemony should be considered not as an accepted ideology within a society but as something that must be continually used in cooperation with methods of domination in order to ensure its enforcement.
The Stoning of Soraya M. Cyrus Nowrasteh. Santa Monica, Calif: LionsGate, 2008.
William Roseberry, “Hegemony, Power, and the Language of Contention,” in The Politics of Difference, edited by Edwin Wilmsen and Patrick McAllister, University of Chicago Press, 1996, pp. 71-84.