Iran debates ‘honour killings’ after death of 14-year-old sparks outrage

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A photo purportedly of Romina Ashrafi.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has called for new protections for women after a 14-year-old girl was beheaded by her father in a so-called “honour killing,” sparking outrage in the country.

The recent murder of an Iranian girl by her own father has highlighted women’s inequality and the country’s antiquated legal system. But religious authorities continue to oppose change.

In late May, a village in northern Iran was the scene of a particularly horrifying crime when 37-year-old Reza Ashrafi beheaded his own daughter in a so-called honour killing. While similar cases are often kept quiet by the family, this one drew widespread attention from both traditional media and social networking platforms.

Romina, the 14-year-old victim, had secretly run away from home with a 29-year-old man who later claimed to have been in love with the child for five years. Romina’s family had not given the man permission to marry her, although it would have been legally possible had her father given his consent. The legal age to marry in Iran is 13 for girls.

Five days after Romina went missing, police found the couple and brought the girl back to her father. According to media reports, Romina’s mother then heard her husband telling Romina to kill herself, saying that otherwise he would do it. However, the mother did nothing to save her daughter. After Romina’s brutal murder, relatives organised a funeral service in the name of the “honourable” father.

Despite progress, women still repressed

Women have held political office in Iran for decades, but they still still face discrimination

Iran is not a third world country. Iranian culture is rich, diverse and intelligent but tradition holds sway

“The bitter truth is that patriarchal culture is deeply rooted in Iranian society,” Asieh Amini, an author and women’s rights activist, said in an interview.

“It doesn’t matter how well-educated Iranian women are or how much they have achieved through their strong status in civil society,” said Amini, who fled Iran after the 2009 unrest and now lives in Norway.

In the current political system, men have not only tradition on their side but the law as well.

To the outside world, women in Iran appear to have achieved much when it comes to equality, especially when compared with other countries in the region. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women only recently won the right to drive and have only been allowed to vote since 2015.

In Iran, women have been allowed to drive since 1940 and were given the right to vote and be elected to office in 1963. Half of the university degrees in Iran are held by women, and the number of women who have filed for divorce or have found a mutual agreement to end an unhappy marriage has risen steadily in recent years.

Still not equal to men

Women in Iran and Saudi Arabia have one thing in common: They aren’t considered to have the same rights as men, due to laws deriving from sharia, or Islamic law. All important decisions are made by their fathers or husbands, even after death. Iran’s Islamic code of criminal law enshrines the principle of retribution. That means that if a girl or woman is the victim of a crime, her father or husband decides whether the perpetrator is punished — frequently with the death sentence — or pardoned.

Romina’s case highlights the absurdity of this system, with the perpetrator also being the one who is meant to decide between pardon and punishment. According to Iranian media, before his daughter’s murder, Romina’s father asked a lawyer what punishment he could expect. The answer: between three and 10 years in prison.

Ashrafi isn’t the only father to have used this loophole in the Iranian justice system. According to a study carried out by the Iranian Police Academy, up to 45% of murders committed in several particularly tradition-bound provinces in the west and south of Iran are honor killings.

Conservative resistance to reform

Romina’s fate has deeply shaken Iranian society, and not only on the internet. Almost all of Iran’s newspapers reported on the murder, and President Hassan Rouhani ordered his Cabinet to finally introduce the necessary legal reforms to more severely punish violent acts committed in the name of “family honour.”

But the president knows that draft laws aimed at protecting women from family violence will be rejected by the conservative justice system. Hard-liners argue that such laws aim to imitate Western values and goals that contradict Islamic principles.

Kobra Chasali, a member of the influential Women’s Social and Cultural Council (WSCC), carries this argument to an extreme. According to Chasali, Islamic values and laws aren’t to blame for Romina’s death. Rather, it’s supporters of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which, among other things, aspires to establish equality between the sexes worldwide.

The WSCC answers directly to the country’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For 35 years, the council has tried to establish what it sees as Islamic culture and values in Iranian society and has fought bitterly against the UN’s development goals because they call, among other things, for sex education and the equality of boys and girls.

For the conservatives, the answer to the problem of honour killings is simple: having girls marry at as young an age as possible.

Iranian women watch a football match in a stadium (AFP/A. Kenare)
In 2019, Iran lifted a ban on women in football stadiums

Amnesty International condemned the killing and called on authorities to ensure full “accountability” for the crime.”We call on Iran’s authorities & lawmakers to end the impunity for violence against women/girls & criminalise domestic violence. They must amend Article 301 of the Penal Code to ensure accountability proportionate to the severity of the crime, without resort to the death penalty,” Amnesty said in a statement on Twitter, Thursday.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Article 301 reduces punitive measures for fathers involved in so-called “honour killings.”Rouhani has expressed “regret” over Ashrafi’s death. During a cabinet meeting in Tehran, the President “ordered accelerated study and ratification” of a bill that protects women against violence, Fars reported Thursday.

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