I know something about men. I say this without boasting, but rather out of the experience of nearly twenty years’—eighteen, to be precise—association with the ManKind Project and its training programs. I have watched men explore the deepest secrets of their hearts and souls. I have done the same, with the support of other men. So I know a bit about the masculine psyche, about men’s anger and hatred, about their pains and fears, about the wounds they carry and the tenderness of which they are capable behind the veneer of invulnerability and strength.
I say all this in the context of having watched the powerful, deeply disturbing Iranian film, The Stoning of Soraya M, a story based on true events of the recent past. A woman waylays a stranded journalist from the outside world and tells him the story of her niece, Soraya, mother of two daughters and two sons, falsely accused of adultery by a husband who wants to leave her for a younger woman. Only her honor and fidelity protect her. Determined to have his way, the villain enlists the support of the local mullah in perverting the Islamic faith of his fellow-villagers. Starting with a whisper campaign of innuendo and rumor, he succeeds in provoking their outrage, and stokes the flames with lies, intimidation, and threats until he has “witnesses” to her infidelity. She is condemned and, under sharia law, is stoned to death.
The stoning itself has to be amongst the most brutal scenes I have ever watched on film. The woman is buried, waist-deep in the village square, her hands bound in front of her. A line is drawn in chalk perhaps ten yards from the spot, and the men of the village stand behind it, enraged, and hurling insults before they begin to cast the stones the boys have gathered for them into piles. The woman's father is the first to cast a stone, whipped into pain and fury by the calumny. He misses. Several times. When some begin to see this as a sign from God that she is innocent, the husband picks up stones himself and draws first blood. Then he forces his two sons to cast the next ones...
This is not a film about Islam, nor even about sharia law—or only incidentally so. Stoning was a practice used by Jews and Christians, too. And let's not forget the equally hideous history of burning "witches" at the stake. No, it's a film about men and women, and particularly about men. It's about the fear of the power of women that promotes misogyny and the abuse of masculine physical strength, about the insecurities and fragile egos that instill in men the need to dominate. The fear and mistrust run deep, to the womb itself, and the passage from the womb into the world. The urge for power springs from sources equally deep, from the act of procreation and the aggressive physicality of genital arousal. The overwhelming majority of men experience it--even, as we know recently, supposedly celibate Catholic priests, who prove that the urge that comes along with it is virtually irresistible.
This phenomenon--the rod, the phallus--has come to be culturally associated with power, dominance, authority. It's the source of great pride and joy in men, but also of still greater insecurities around virility, stamina, size, self-worth. It becomes readily the emblem of our personal power--or powerlessness--such that men are often driven to prove their manhood through sexual violence, addiction, or abuse. Jealousy and possessiveness are expressions of these same insecurities, as are shame and guilt. Infidelity, whether real or suspected, involves an invasion of ownership, a loss of power that threatens the ego and humiliates the man, provoking rage. By extension, of course, it has become a common truism to see male vulnerability and sexual insecurity at the root of many of the troubles that plague our planet.
Be that all as it may, it's intensely troubling to see the tragedy of Soraya play out on the screen. This is not a film for those whose sensibilities are easily offended. It is, though, one of the most powerful indictments I have ever seen of the vile abuses of religious fervor of which men are capable. If you can bear it, see it. It lays bare some dreadful truths about humanity.