ALL WE KNEW ABOUT HER WAS that she was a mother of three, a migrant worker labouring as a domestic aid in Saudi Arabia. But she was one of our own and the news that she was sentenced to be stoned to death touched a raw nerve. It is not uncommon for women (and men) to be stoned to death for transgressing archaic moral codes in places where religious obscurantism reigns, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan. News of such happenings always generates incredulity, horror and anger. But this time it was far more personal. We didn’t even know her name, but she was a Sri Lankan and that was all that mattered.

Fortunately the sentence was commuted to imprisonment thanks to some excellent behind-the-scene lobbying by Lankan government.

The woman had consensual sex with a man who was not her husband. For that ‘crime’ she was to be subjected to a slow and tortuous death.

The word ‘Torture’ conjures images of secret police, clandestine facilities, prison cells, water boarding, electric shocks, Gestapo, Pinochet, Guantanamo…. We think of torture as something states, governments or political organisations do to people deemed inimical or undesirable, something done in secret and rarely acknowledged. This secrecy implies illegality and even shame; it indicates that the perpetrators sense they are committing acts which fall outside the law and societal norms.

But this is only a part of the picture, probably the smaller part. In all too many places of our world torture happens in public and is sanctioned by law or societal norms.

In a number of countries such as Saudi Arabia or Iran, torture, such as stoning someone to death, is written into the legal system. Consequently, torture is seen not as a crime or an act of injustice but as a just punishment, a right and proper way to correct a wrong. It is implemented in the open, in the full view of other humans, who either cheer or look away. Or participate.

Had her sentence not being commuted, the unnamed Lankan Muslim woman would have been stoned to death not in some secret location but in a public square in Riyadh. She would have been killed not by a professional executioner but by ordinary men, who would have lobbed stones at her until she died. They would have heard her cries, watched her die and gone back to their ordinary lives, probably feeling virtuous about what they just did.

Zbigniew Herbert was right; “The torturers sleep soundly, their dreams are rosy.”[i] Why shouldn’t they, especially when their acts of torture are sanctioned by law, belief or tradition, and they do not have to worry about societal opprobrium?

Gang Rape, Witch Hunting and FGM: Torture by Family and Friends

In West Bengal, India, a 20 year old woman was gang raped by 13 men. In the eyes of the rapists, they were not committing a crime but meting out justice. The woman had a love affair deemed unacceptable by the community. Gang rape was the punishment decreed by a village tribunal known as Salishi Sabha[ii]. And this happened in 2014.

Archaic ideas, often justified by some religious superstition, continue to be alive and well in the 21st Century, giving rise to horrendous acts of torture. Minimising such practices and combating their ideological justifications should form an essential component of any regional or global campaign to end torture.

In January 2015, Faidha Bakari a 58 year old Tanzanian woman was hacked with sharp knives and burnt alive. That horrific crime was committed by a group of fellow villagers who accused her of being a witch[iii]. This was hardly an isolated incident. According to the Centre for Advocacy in Rural Development, more than 1000 women were hacked or stoned to death for being witches in 2014. The horror European and American women experienced centuries ago is now being visited on African women.

Even children are not spared and often their torturers are their own parents. According to a Nigerian evangelist Helen Ukpabio “If a child under the age of two screams in the night, cries and is always feverish with deteriorating health, he or she is a servant of Satan.”[iv] Treatment for such ‘Satanic possession’ is likely to include being splashed with acid, buried alive or immersed in fire[v].

In 2009 in Nigeria, a father tried to force acid down the throat of his nine year old son, after the family pastor accused the boy of being a witch.

Sri Lanka with its high rate of literacy should do infinitely better, but does not. In 2012, a little girl was killed when an exorcist forced her to swallow a sharp knife as a ‘cure’ for a malady; two other ‘sick’ girls suffered severe burn-injuries when the same exorcist and his wife pushed them into the ritual fire. This bizarre triple-crime took place amidst a large gathering. In June 2015 in Sri Lanka, a young man was starved to death by his own parents, acting on the advice of an exorcist.[vi] The two deaths by exorcism indicate the potency of divine/paranormal phobia and its capacity to make ordinary people commit/tolerate brutal acts of torture, even against their loves ones.

Another method of torture which continues to be visited on babies and young girls by their own families is female genital mutilation (FGM). One of its many horrendous after-effects is an increase in child mortality. According to the World Health Organisation, this practice has caused a 20% increase in still births in the African continent[vii].

Europe and even the United States experienced many of these horrors in the past, especially witch hunting and burning at the stake for heresy. It was a combination of Enlightenment, secularisation, modernity, democracy and even capitalism which put an end to such habits. But in all too many parts of the world, torturing people for transgressing some tribal moral code (or to prevent such transgressions in the future) continues to thrive.

Ending such practices would require breaking the mould which gives rise to them and justifies them. It would be far harder to achieve because this torture is sanctioned by beliefs and customs. But it needs to be done, because this second type of torture claims many more victims, including children.

[i] An Unwritten Theory of Dreams



[iv] (Unveiling the Mysteries of Witchcraft)