Monday, August 9, 2010

In The Land Of Elam

With respect to Women's Day and in honor of women, mothers, wives, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, cousins, nieces, girlfriends, godmothers, fiancees, godchildren and daughters everywhere (with excerpts from Circle of Stones by Judith Duerck).

Long ago when life was still sacred, in many places on earth, the Goddess was worshipped. Known by many names in many lands as Isis, Astarte, lshtar, Ashtoteth and Hathor; temples built in her honour saw to the care of lands and flocks and kept the books and records. The Great Goddess was revered in ceremonies perpetuating the fertility and holiness of the earth. Sanctified and empowered unto herself, a woman could empower other women. Woman passed down to woman a sense of herself, of her body, of the mysteries of fecundity and regeneration. Woman was autonomous, sat on the councils of elders, served in the courts of law; and passed down the sovereign rule in many lands. The children born to woman were legitimate and respectable - inheriting her name and title in many places - whether or not she was married.

Woman was recognized for her knowledge and sought out for her advice in practical matters. She held jobs alongside men and was valued for her insight and authority in all things seen. But it was for her insight and authority in things unseen that woman was most valued. Through her feminine rituals, through the sacred art of sexual love, woman came into the direct presence of the Goddess, and through this experience, was opened to her own prophetic and oracular vision. Woman knew the mysteries of life and how to invoke the primal elements of nature, touchable and untouchable. Woman passed down to woman knowledge of the elemental energies in the earth and of herself, and of how to align herself with the eternal flow of those energies, within and without.

Among the last of nations to hold the Goddess in highest reverence and woman in a place of honour was the small land of Elam. Elam was an ancient civilization located in what is now southwest Iran, as well as a small part of southern Iraq. Situated just to the east of then Mesopotamia, Elam was part of early human urbanization; and the recent emergence of written records (circa 3000 BC) parallel Mesopotamian history. The Elamite culture and language has no established affinities with any other, and seems to have developed in isolation.

The Elam society was matrilineal, that is, in tracing descent and settling inheritance, they followed the maternal line. Their system of kinship was matrilineal too, and women held a very good position and wielded great influence. A child belonged to the clan and village community of its mother; and wealth as well as social position was inherited, not from father to son, but from maternal uncle to nephew. As regards kinship, the main thing to be remembered was that the Elamites were matrilineal, and that the succession of rank, membership in all the social groups, and the inheritance of possessions descend in the maternal line.

Property was succeeded inside the mother-line; the ownership of trees in the village grove and ownership in garden plots was ceded by the father to his son during the lifetime of the former. At his death, it often had to be returned to the man's rightful heirs, that is, his sister's children. Men had life-long obligations to work for women and their relatives in that society; they entailed a life-long obligation of every man to work for his kinswomen and their families. When a boy began to garden, he did it for his mother. When his sisters grew up and married, he worked for them. If he had neither mother nor sisters, his nearest female blood relation would claim the proceeds of his labour.

Time passed. Things began to change. Laws were introduced taking rights of inheritance away from woman. Control over her property, finances and legal affairs was given to the men related to her. Her political and social autonomy was taken, and in some places she was considered property. The most supreme gift of the Goddess was denigrated - sexual love was shamed and reviled. Her claiming of her sexuality as sacred to herself and to the Goddess was scorned and humiliated. Sexual union, once sacred and ecstatic, became debauchery. The sacred temple rituals, wherein a woman had become holy and free, were condemned as orgiastic and the priestesses as temple prostitutes.

The sacred groves dedicated to the worship of the Great Mother were condemned as closed. The serpent, venerable symbol of wisdom and nobility, was denigrated and reviled. It became, for the epochs following, a target for humiliation and derision; treated as a symbol of woman’s folly, evil, cunning and lust. This ancient symbol of life was abased as that which tempted Eve; and, through Eve, all of humankind into sin and death. The wisdom of woman, gained through her identification with her body, with the Goddess and with the earth; was no longer revered but ridiculed and rejected. Once honored as prophetess and seer, woman was now scorned. Her instincts and intuition, through which she perceived the elemental energies and the cycles of nature and her knowledge of healing, were rebuked and humiliated.

Some 2500 years later, following recent international protests, the present day Iranian government announced that a 43-year-old woman will not be stoned to death. Sakineh Ashtiani was arrested in 2006 and charged with carrying out an "illicit relationship" outside marriage; and has been in Tabriz prison ever since. Although judicial authorities have announced that Sakineh will not be stoned to death; they have not however indicated whether they have lifted the death sentence against her. Sakineh, a mother of two, had initially been sentenced to 99 lashes and stoning for "committing adultery". She has already been flogged and her stoning sentence was approved by the Supreme Court.

In the mean time Mohammed Mostafaei, human rights activist and Sakineh’s lawyer; has fled to Turkey and left his family behind in Iran. He has had to make difficult, life-altering decisions in recent weeks. The lawyer has been a longtime defender of Iranian juveniles facing the death penalty. On July 24, as activists around the world staged protests against Ashtiani's death sentence, Mostafaei was taken in by Iranian authorities for hours of interrogation. After they released him, he went into hiding. Around the same time, Iranian security forces detained his wife and brother-in-law. The brother-in-law has been released, but his wife Fereshteh is still being held in solitary confinement without charge.

Before the 1979 Islamic revolution, 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. 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.

Stoning has long been criticized by Islamic jurists, most notably the Iranian Grand Ayatollah Yousef Saanei. These jurists believe that such punishment was meted out during Islam's early history - in the 7th Century desert of Saudi Arabia - in accordance with the customs of the time, but are no longer valid. Iran tries to limit international knowledge by not announcing stoning verdicts publicly. Only slowly, and by word of mouth, do stoning cases make their way to media in Iran and sometimes elsewhere. A year-and-a-half ago, Iranian media reported that a man was executed by stoning in the city of Qazvin. We cannot know how many Iranians have been killed by such punishment in the past three decades. Sakineh Ashtiani may yet become one more. Others are in her position, but how many, no one knows.

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