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Honor Killings and the Struggle for Women’s Rights in Iran

By Annie McDonnell , in Human Rights Iran Women's Rights , at August 5, 2020 Tags:

Written by H. S.    

A flower faded while blooming:    

Romina, a 14 year old Iranian girl, was beheaded by her father with a farming sickle.
He thought Romina had ashamed the family by ‘running off’ with her 29 year old boyfriend. Three weeks prior, he asked a lawyer about what kind of punishment he would receive for her murder, “at most three to ten years in jail.” Knowing the consequences, the 37-year-old Ashrafi walked into his daughter’s bedroom and beheaded her in her sleep.


Romina Ashrafi, the 13-year-old girl who was decapitated simply for wanting “elope with an older lover”.
(Source: Iran International)

The reason why Mr. Ashrafi would get a minor sentence is the absence of a crime: he committed an “honor killing.” In Iran, this typically occurs due to the perpetrator’s belief that the victim has brought shame to the family or breach the “honor culture” within the community. The perpetrator of the honor killing receives a lenient penalty, a reduced sentence or in some cases, not be prosecuted.
An honor killing can be justified and normalized through several actions. If the victim refused a forced marriage, asked for a divorce, alleged or spread rumors about a family member, was raped, was homosexual, or fell in love with a partner not accepted by the family or community, the honor killing can be warranted.

What is worth noting is that, although men and women can both be the subjects of honor killings, in some regions, like Iran, the standards of honor killings vary between the sexual lines. According to the New York Times:

Murder in Iran is subject to the death penalty under the Shariah mandate of “an eye for an eye.” But the penal code, based on Islamic law, exempts a guardian from capital punishment for killing his child, death. A child’s father and paternal grandfather are considered legal guardians. However, a mother who kills her child would face execution.

For example, a man as a family’s patriarch has the right to initiate an honor killing, and he would possibly get a reduced sentence in the court after the execution. However, if a woman of the family were to commit the same crime due to the same justification, she will not be viewed as being motivated by the desire to protect the reputation of the family and get a stricter and likely longer sentence or even death as the punishment for what she has done. The gender-specific, asymmetrical punishments, along with the predominant numbers of male perpetrators of honor killings, indicate that honor killings are disproportionate discrimination against women and serve as a weapon against women.

However, even considering Islam laws as potential justification, honor killings are neither caused nor encouraged by Islam. Most honor-related femicides are not specific to Muslims, and serious occurrences rarely involve Muslims. As the Yaqeen Institute explains:

This ignorance about Islam’s teachings and the realities of violence against women has serious costs. First, blaming honor crimes on Islam antagonizes Muslims unnecessarily. It feeds the narrative, prevalent in many Muslim countries, that dismisses human rights as a proxy for Westernization and cultural imperialism. Second, sensationalism over Islam deflects from a reality that many men are loath to admit: that violence against women is a global problem with roots much deeper than the doctrines of one religion or the features of one culture. It needs to be addressed as such. Finally, obsessing over Islam’s alleged acceptance of honor crimes blinds Muslims and non-Muslims to the condemnation of these crimes in Muhammad ﷺ’s teachings and the Shariah.

Even in our more modern era, honor killings represent a staggering amount of murders in Iran. It was reported that in 2001, 565 women lost their lives in honor-related crimes in Ilam, Iran, of which 375 were reportedly staged as self-immolation. In 2008, self-immolation “occurred in all the areas of Kurdish settlement (in Iran), where it was more common than in other parts of Iran.” However, in nuanced issues such as these, it’s vital to examine its historic background.

The beginning of the atrocity:
Used as a method of maintaining control via the exploitation and subsequent weaponization of violence and fear, honor killing has existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years. A nomadic society, for instance, could commit a less sexually motivated honor killing if a member committed a violation of the group’s ethics. Examples of this include if a member stole another’s valuables. Whereas nowadays, this could be solved in a civil manner, as a violation of the ethical boundaries of the nomadic society, the group would be forced to cultivate a reputation of being violently vindictive to protect their properties in the absence of an established judicial system.

Notwithstanding, we can also see this phenomenon in other forms of society in the past. In ancient Rome, male family members were obligated to act against female adulterers, otherwise, they could be persecuted. In the Qing dynasty of China, males had the right to execute their daughters if they were deemed as “bringing shame and dishonor to the family.” And as for the case in Iran, although murder is subject to the death penalty, the penal code based on the Islamic law exempt those guardians who killed their children or other family members from facing equitable punishment.

However, many scholars still argue that these laws have no basis in Shariah or Islamic teachings. Rather, they were imported from Western culture. Middle Eastern criminal code was based on the Ottoman’s loose translation of the French Criminal Code of 1832, repeating reduced sentencing for honor-related crimes. Seen in contemporary laws in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Morocco, the French and Ottoman law codes served as a major inspiration for Middle Eastern leniency for femicides.

British law can even be traced to contemporary Pakistan’s criminal law. During Britain’s colonial rule over India, an 1860 law granted a husband permission and leniency to kill his wife due to “grave and sudden provocation.” Pakistan reformed this law in 1990 in order to, albeit incorrectly, reflect the Shariah in the country’s law, and although there is occasional dissidence in criminal courts, many judges justify femicides by citing the “grave and sudden provocation” of the murderer.

Furthermore, some scholars argue that patriarchy and sexual inequality are the reasons for honor killings. They assert that in many cultures, men are viewed as the generator of the family’s honor, while women can only bring shame to stigmatize men’s achievement. If the family’s honor is perceived as being destroyed by the females, the male members are necessitated to take immediate action to restore it to save their reputation within the community.

There are other voices regarding honor killings’ origins, as Sharif Kanaana, professor of anthropology at Birzeit University puts it:

[Honor killings are] a complicated issue that cuts deep into the history of Islamic society… What the men of the family, clan, or tribe seek control of in a patrilineal society is reproductive power. Women for the tribe were considered a factory for making men. The honor killing a means to control sexual power or behavior. What’s behind it is the issue of fertility, or reproductive power.

Amnesty International also notes:

Women’s bodies, particularly, are considered the repositories of family honor, and under the control and responsibility of her family, especially her male relatives… large sections of society share traditional conceptions of family honor and approve of ‘honor’ killings to preserve that honor.

Despite these nuances and debates on the exact cause of honor killings, this issue has persistently brought pain and trauma to many women throughout history, as they still live under the control of their husbands, fathers, or other males in their community. Even though this particular crime has been abolished in major areas of the contemporary world, it still haunts many regions. In Iran specifically, local honor killing atrocities frequently become the subject of international scrutiny, demonstrating the extensive sexual inequality and abusive environment Iranian women are suffering.

The same destiny of two women:
On a typical Monday morning in June, Rayhaneh’s sister went to visit her. Instead of a warm welcome, garments soaked in her sister’ blood was all she found. After investigation, the police identified that some of the blood belonged to the victim’s father, who “proudly” confessed his murdering when questioned.
His motivation? She came home late.


Rayhaneh Ameri, whose death was caused by profuse bleeding
(Source: Iran International)

Despite international outcries, the Islamic Government has attempted to cover-up the sentencing reduction of the perpetrator by asserting that Rayhaneh’s father killed her with an iron bar, which contradicted initial news coverage. Furthermore, Colonel Yousefi insisted that her father killed her due to his anger and had regretted his actions, despite the initial investigation report recording that Rayhaneh’s father had “proudly” confessed to the murdering of his daughter.

Within the same month, in the City of Kermanshah, Somayeh Fathi, a married and pregnant woman was forced to drink aluminum phosphide, a type of rat poison, by her own father and brothers for having an affair with a younger man. According to Hengaw, Fathi’s family did not mourn her death and no perpetrator was arrested for her murder. In response, officials denied the credibility of the reports, referring to them as mere fabrications created by dissidents. A human rights activist told IranWire that:

The Islamic Republic’s record over the years shows that it easily conceals the truth…of course, [trusting local sources more than the police] may be wrong, but just as much as there is a possibility of the news being a mistake, there is the possibility of concealment by the police.

The so-called “honor” killing is a contentious topic within Iranian society, with some members calling for the repeal of honor killing laws, whereas other members defend honor killing laws by asserting that “the laws for violence against women are enough.”

The killing of Romina reflects the fundamental issues of modern Iranian society: women’s rights. Women have been significantly objectified, mistreated, and abused since the Islamic revolution. For example, even nowadays they are strictly confined to wear certain clothes and dance with only family members in public. Multiple Iranian women’ rights advocates are in either exile or prison, for women’s rights movements had been criminalized by the government, claiming it threatened national security. Women can face stoning as the death penalty for adultery.

What can we do?
In order to achieve the abolishment of this bloody practice, the international community must make serious strides. Action must be taken in the United Nations, as well as on U.S. soil, to prevent and combat violence against women in Iran and other places afflicted by honor killings.Here are some first steps for you to take:

  1. Support organizations such as Stop Honour Killings, Women’s Organization of Iran, Center for Human Rights in Iran, and other organizations and activists.
  2. Post relevant news and reports about the practices of honor killings occuring in Iran.
  3. Sign petitions on all kinds of social platforms to raise your voice and the voices of the women in Iran.

Indeed, we are living in a time where crimes and atrocities are being exposed and normalized more than ever before. However, it’s important to remember that history teaches us that when attention is paid to previously legalized human rights violations and actions are taken against this normalization, changes will occur, with the endeavor of all the people who believe in the better nature of humanity. So, please act today to build us a better future tomorrow.

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