Iran’s Judiciary Reluctant to Prosecute Violence Against Women

By Minou Yeganeh

Gender inequality and discrimination pervade Islamic laws that govern Iranian society today. Discriminatory laws in both the civil and penal codes are playing a major role in empowering men and making women susceptible to violence.

Under Iran’s penal code, a man is rarely given the death penalty if he is found guilty of killing his wife or daughter. Article 1105 of the Civil Code reads: “In relations between husband and wife, the position of the head of the family is the exclusive right of the husband.” There have even been instances when a man has been released without charge after claiming that he had killed his wife because she had been unfaithful to him.

The regime is fully aware of these antiquated and chauvinistic practices, which favor men and treat women as second-class citizens. It has, however, proven reluctant to amend legislation for fear of compromising Islamic values.

Fathers involved in the honor killing of their daughters rarely see the inside of a jail cell.

The father of a student at Kermanshah University had warned his daughter against living in the girls’ dormitory. He had demanded that she quit school and return home. The girl had refused and stayed at school. The father then traveled to Kermanshah and brutally murdered his daughter. During his trial, the man claimed that his daughter’s interaction with male students at the university had offended his honor as a man and a father. He was sentenced to five years in jail, but was paroled after serving two of those years.

In another case, a young girl living in Tehran came home to an angry father who interrogated her about her whereabouts earlier that day. Not satisfied with her answers, the father took his daughter to the bathroom, doused her with gasoline, and set her on fire. She died of severe injuries. During the trial, it emerged that he had suspected her of having a boyfriend.

Many women who have endured years of abuse at the hands of their husbands and fathers commit suicide. A recent study into the causes of suicide among young girls in tribal communities in southern Khuzestan Province shows that most of these girls came from oppressive patriarchal families.

Women in public life – be it government ministers or Majlis (Iranian Parliament) deputies or those serving in other state organizations – must adhere strictly to the Islamic Hijab.

Masoumeh Ebtekar, Iran’s Vice President and the head of the Environmental Protection Organization, was the spokesperson for the students who occupied the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. Known as “Mary” at the time, she wore tight jeans and a down jacket.

Nowadays, Mrs. Ebtekar wears a strict Islamic Hijab.

Shahindokht Molaverdi, a Vice President in the section of Women and Family Affairs, and Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi, the former Minister Of Health And Medical Education, are two other examples of women who have had to comply with strict Islamic Hijab rules once they have assumed government posts.

Women who kill their polygamous and adulterous husbands are often sentenced to death by the courts. By contrast, courts are lenient on crimes committed by men against women.

After a night of heavy drinking, a few members of the Basij (Volunteer Force) in the southeast city of Kerman brutalized and drowned a number of young couples. During the trial, it emerged that the brother of one of the defendants, who was a cleric, had instigated the crime. The murders were meant to “cleanse the couples of the sin of having a relationship before marriage.”

The men were convicted of the murders, but the clerics on the appeal court threw the case out. The case was retried and the men were found guilty again. However, a higher court overruled the verdict and freed them. The judges argued that convicting members of the Basij would endanger the social status of the force. This led to the resignation of the prosecutor in the case.

Sexual abuse and rape cases against women are rarely tried in courts. In most cases, the accused individual is not even charged. According to the sociologist Saeed Moidfar, there is a legal vacuum regarding sexual violence against women.

“Male defendants in crimes of sexual violence against women are routinely acquitted,” Moidfar explains. “We can see gender inequality and discrimination against women in every aspect of life in Iran. Domestic violence is often not prosecuted due to the absence of a coherent criminal law.”

Moidfar points out that, historically, most acts of violence against wives and daughters were never reported. They were considered as a normal part of family dynamics.

“Times have changed. There is greater awareness about discrimination and abuse against women. The public is more sensitive to the plight of women, children and the elderly. Women demand their civil rights. They are urging government officials to amend the laws,” he adds.

Still, “the public is more sympathetic to the plight of children and the elderly than women,” concludes Moidfar. “Iranian society is not sufficiently outraged by the domestic abuse and violence committed against women.”

Articles 6, 42 and 43 of the Penal Code Code prohibit “crimes against rights and responsibilities within the family structure.” In practice, however, they fail to protect women against violence and domestic abuse.