The Horror of Femicide in Iran

MARJAN GREENBLATT (Newsweek)

Last month, while 13-year-old Romina Ashrafi was asleep, her father entered her room and decapitated her with a sickle. He then wrapped her long hair, like a rope around the sickle, to mount his child’s severed head, before venturing out to the neighborhood to declare that he restored the “honor” of his family by eliminating the daughter who had brought them shame by having a male friend.

The bloody murder startled the country, but the anguish didn’t trigger any widespread regret, repentance or social reform. In the four weeks that followed, at least four more women were murdered by their immediate family members in equally obscene fashions.

Like other injustices and revived barbaric practices in Iran, killing women in the name of honor and culture is being re-integrated in a society that uses propaganda as a preliminary means of coercion. For those who do not fall in line, the regime resorts to execution, torture and imprisonment to suppress voices, repress freedoms and eliminate the patina of conflict.

Femicide reinforces Iran’s social hierarchy that some people have the right to control the destiny of others—whether in the name of God, country or honor, even in the most grotesque and dishonorable conventions. The self-proclaimed arbiters of destiny are often the unelected government officials, the morality police who make the initial arrests, the judges who determine the penalties and the torturers and the executioners who deliver the sentences. Also, as post-Islamic Revolution laws dictate, brothers, fathers and husbands maintain “ownership” of the women in their lives. They’ve emerged as keepers of the women’s destiny, allowed to control their fate by monopolizing their money and their marriage choices, and acting as judge and executioner to take their lives.

The prevalence of “femicide” in Iran is a direct result of the government’s patriarchal re-engineering of social structures and the legal and cultural disempowerment of women and girls. Since the onset of the 1979 Revolution, Iranian women have gradually lost their equal standing before the law and their right to self-determination. In courts of law, women are worth half their male counterparts; in society at-large, women are often regarded as others’ property.

From the choice of clothing, schooling and employment, to marriage, divorce and custody, women are at a disadvantage. In all stages of life, a woman’s fate is determined by the men in her family. Take the case of the 19-year-old Fatemeh Bahri, who was recently killed by her husband in Abadan. Fatemeh was in a forced marriage to her cousin and ran away from home on multiple occasions, possibly fearing his abuse. Fatemeh’s fate was decided for her: first by her father, when he arranged her marriage, and then by her husband, when he took her life. Silenced and subjected to the whines of others, she was never allowed to determine her place in this life.

Iranian customs also mandate that girls and women abide by traditional social and gender-appropriated roles. As was the case for Hajar Hossein Bar of Baluchistan, who just this month was also killed by her husband. Local women have expressed confidence that in their community, upon marriage, a woman is the de facto unpaid servant to her husband and even his clan—an ersatz slave. Her duty is servitude, and her attitude is silent obedience. It is likely that Hajar shared this same fate: slavery at the mercy of a cruel husband and a repressive system.

One of Hajar’s female neighbors shared that, unlike other women in her village, Hajar had the fortune to die and not prolong her suffering. Hajar, who was married at 16, mother at 18, and dead at 20, had warned her father and brother that she feared for her life: “If he kills, me he will shred me to pieces.” The coroners described the horror of her physical condition at the time of death with the fractured bones, missing teeth and signs of forced ingestion of acid, bruises, scars and scratches from rocks and debris, as he dragged her body to the hospital before her last breath. Rather than condemning the horror, many local Iranians justified the sadistic murder as a “domestic” case involving the family’s “honor.”

The power and dignity of women is further diminished as public discourse around these murders is further restricted. Government officials have now restricted mental health professionals from using “controversial” terms such as “honor-killings.” Mental health professionals are at a loss for treatment of something that they cannot even call by name. The country has gradually shifted from a science-based practice of psychology to a religious-based explanation of misfortune.

The engineered erosion of women’s power is apparent in the courts. In life and death, women are always regarded as less valuable. A woman’s testimony is worthless and worth less than a man’s. Her right to inheritance is less than her brothers. Her initiation of divorce has little merit. In death, her life is dispensable, making honor killings more justifiable, especially given the minimal penal consequences.

Treating women as lesser creatures encourages a dangerous, and even deadly, power dynamic that puts men in the ultimate position of power and control over women. Men are conditioned to expect subservient and obedient women to affirm their dominance. Upon seeing a poorly veiled woman, men are free to judge her as available or easy. The current law allows them to make decisions about her livelihood and income. Seeing her as a possession, they feel entitled to violate her body as they wish and make determinations about her reproductive capacity. Most significantly, they can take her life without suffering significant punishment.

It was arguably this disequilibrium of rights and power, and the erosion of compassion, which led the father of Romina Ashrafi to pick up the sickle. He had reportedly researched his legal consequences and consulted with his brother-in-law, a lawyer, who informed him of the limited prison term he would likely face.

This fight for equality and compassion is a microcosm of the ongoing unrest and struggle in Iran today. The stories of innocent victims lost continue to emerge. Sometimes, the cries are muffled and muted; other times, they are heart-wrenching and bloody. But until fundamental social and legal changes have been put in place, more lives will be lost.

  • Marjan Greenblatt is a human rights activist and the founder of the Alliance for Rights of All Minorities in Iran (ARAMIran.org)

The opinion expressed do not necessarily reflect those of ITC

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