No safe space for women
Yassamine Mather points to the link between two outrages in the Islamic Republic
On October 25 the authorities in Iran’s Islamic Republic executed Reyhaneh Jabbari for killing a man who allegedly tried to rape her in 2009. The 26-year-old Reyhaneh had spent the last seven years in prison, charged with the murder of Morteza Abdolali Sarbandi, a general medical practitioner who had previously worked for the intelligence ministry.
Reyhaneh was executed after her relatives failed to gain consent from the victim’s family for a reprieve. During her trial and subsequent appeals Jabbari had admitted stabbing Abdolali Sarbandi once in the back. However, she maintained throughout those seven years that there was a third person in the house who actually killed him. According to Jalal Sarbandi, the victim’s eldest son, Reyhaneh had refused to identify the man. He was quoted in the Iranian media as saying: “Only when her true intentions are exposed and she tells the truth about her accomplice and what really went down will we be prepared to grant mercy.”1
One law for the rich
The consent of the victim’s family was essential for a reprieve because of Iran’s adherence to the medieval laws of hodoud (punishment) and qasas (retribution). The sharia law of qasas covers all crimes involving personal injury or murder. The victim (or in the case of murder the victim’s family) are entitled to retribution (‘an eye for an eye’ or ‘a life for a life’). However, the victim or the victim’s family have the power to forgive the culprit and stop the punishment decided by the court in exchange for compensation paid in the form of diyya or blood money.
In the days since the execution most of the criticism directed against this particular hanging and the practice of qasas have concentrated on the medieval nature of this law, and there are valid reasons for arguing against it. However, an additional and potentially more serious aspect of the law is the fact that it gives the rich the ability to pay money in exchange for a reprieve, a practice widely used in Iran’s Islamic Republic. A clear example of the universal reality that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. On the day Reyhaneh was executed, another two prisoners were reprieved because they paid substantial sums to the family of their respective victims. Reyhaneh’s case was different, in that she did not admit murder and paying the diyya would have amounted to an acceptance of guilt.
Of course, paying large sums of money to avoid serving a proper sentence for heinous crimes, including murder, exists in western judicial systems, albeit in a different form. The rich and powerful are able to employ the best available legal team, who are more likely to deliver a ‘not guilty’ verdict or a reduced sentence. In the OJ Simpson case in the US, expensive lawyers ensured a ‘not guilty’ verdict in 1995 and two years later a jury in a civil court decided Simpson should pay $25 million in punitive damages to the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L Goldman, the two people he was accused of murdering. True, he was subsequently jailed for 33 years for armed robbery and kidnapping, but his lawyers have already succeeded in getting the minimum period before parole is considered reduced to four years.
No doubt Iran’s laws of hodoud and qasas are medieval. However, the OJ Simpson case is but one example of the increasing tendency in many western countries to imitate the system of sharia compensation. Both in the United States and the United Kingdom, criminal injuries compensation has become an integral part of ‘victim support’.
Several commentators have pointed to another deficiency of Iran’s judicial system: the fact that women cannot become judges. Sharia law considers women too ‘emotional’ and ‘irrational’ to hold such a position and this is certainly a clear example of misogyny - an obvious case of discrimination against women which must be condemned in the strongest terms. Having said that, we should also remember that the appointment of female judges is no guarantee that women will obtain justice, be they victims of violent crime or defendants like Reyhaneh. After all, only last week a woman judge in South Africa gave a five-year sentence to Oscar Pistorius for ‘culpable manslaughter’ - a sentence considered grossly inadequate by women activists in South Africa and worldwide.
The third aspect of the execution that has provoked controversy is the role played by social media, personalities and campaigners trying to help Reyhaneh inside and outside Iran. Her lawyer has claimed that, far from helping her case, the international campaigns and ‘attempts to politicise her trial’ had precipitated her death.2 The reality is that in a country like Iran this trial, like many other aspects of people’s lives, was political, irrespective of who takes up the case.
There is no such a thing as non-political human rights and, although it is true that Iran has at times responded to interventions over such issues from, say, the UN’s human rights commissioners with more arrests and executions, the fact remains that confronting a dictatorship in support of a prisoner via social media, and campaigning to enlist such support from artists, writers, etc, is one of the few means left for anyone wishing to help a victim of injustice.
What is problematic is the use of ‘human rights’ issues by western governments during times of confrontation with Iran - although now, of course, when Iran is no longer imperialism’s main enemy, such campaigns are less vocal and so the increasing dependence on imperialist resources by Iranian human rights groups means they are now worse placed than ever before. In the face of a bigger threat in the form of Islamic State, the priority for US and EU governments has changed. They are no longer so enthusiastic for regime change in Tehran and all those feminist, pseudo-left and human rights groups who relied on US/EU largesse are now finding themselves increasingly deprived of funding. Yet campaigns such as the one aimed at saving Reyhaneh are still considered by Tehran as imperialist interventions, even though the groups concerned are these days struggling to generate interest from the ruling class (except amongst hard-line Zionists and ultra-conservative Republicans).
As predicted, those groups that allowed themselves to become incorporated by the imperialists in their anti-Iran drive have now become a true hindrance to the cause of democratic, women’s and working class rights in Iran and the Middle East. Their association, direct or indirect, with unsavoury ‘regime change’ forces has brought into disrepute the genuine struggles of women, national minorities or workers inside the country and in this particular case did indeed probably increase the likelihood of execution.
According to reports published on Iranian websites and social media last week, thousands of people have staged angry protests in Isfahan and Tehran against recent acid attacks on young women. The women who were targeted in Isfahan had their hair covered, but their hijabs were considered by some clerics to be inadequate. The demonstrators’ placards read: “Stop violence against women,” “Iranian women have a right to freedom and security”, “Isfahan doesn’t want Daesh [Islamic State]” and “Stop acid attacks”.
It is not clear exactly how many have been victims of such horrible attacks, but the authorities have admitted that eight women are currently in hospital - although many believe the real number is rather higher. Women activists claim these vicious assaults are related to a recent campaign by the more conservative religious leaders to launch civilian vigilante groups to enforce the commandment, Amr be marouf, nahye az monker (‘Command the good, forbid the evil’).
President Hassan Rowhani has tried to distance himself from the conservatives, but his opposition has so far been limited to ‘moderate’ comments, in which he has refused to contradict the supreme leader and conservative clerics, while attempting to appease his own supporters. For example: “Do not interfere in people’s lives so much, even if it is out of compassion. Let people pick their own path to heaven. One cannot take people to heaven through force and a whip. The Prophet did not have a whip in his hand.”3
The response from conservative clerics was predictable: “They say, let people be and don’t take them to heaven by force. Fine: we’ll suspend commanding the good and forbidding evil. To the thief, and to the girl … with bad veiling, we’ll say, ‘Be a good child.’ Is this Islam? Is this a determination to implement religion?”4
Last week the Iranian parliament debated a bill aimed at prohibiting the use of violence in the hijab crackdown and in fact, as protests against the acid-throwing incidents grew, conservative clerics went out of their way to condemn these attacks, demanding severe punishment for the culprits. Indeed, sections of the pro-government media were blaming Mossad! For his part, Mohammad-Reza Naghdi, the head of the religious basij militia, claimed that there was no evidence that the attacks were linked to ‘bad hijabs’, and those who claimed otherwise were trying to distort the image of Islam. He claimed that “western intelligence services” were behind the attacks.5
Mostafa Pourmohammadi, Rowhani’s justice minister, claimed the assaults in Isfahan were terrorist attacks, aimed at sabotaging the city’s safety. A number of Iranian papers, including the pro-‘reformist’ daily, Shargh, have said such incidents have the effect of making Isfahan, one of Iran’s main tourist cities, appear unsafe for visitors. The following statement from one of the victims summarises the horrific nature of these attacks: “I was coming back from the swimming pool and pulled over in Bozorgmehr Street, so that my friend could get out. That’s when it all happened ... I took off all my clothes and threw them to the ground. People gathered in a circle, but no-one helped to wash my body. Everyone was throwing back clothes on me, so that my body would not be naked.”6
The government has now issued instructions on how to deal with such incidents, both in terms of helping the victims and avoiding contamination. However, as many Iranians have pointed out, this is a case of ‘too little, too late’. And, in a bizarre twist, there was news of arrests in Isfahan - not of those accused of throwing acid, but of women journalists from the semi-official news agency, ISNA. Their crime? Reporting the acid-throwing incidents and the subsequent protests.
Both Reyhaneh’s execution and the acid attacks have had limited coverage in sections of the British press and media. But, given the appalling injuries caused and the fact that even by Iran’s standards the hanging of a young women is unusual, the muted response in Europe and the US shows the opportunistic nature of imperialist ‘concerns’ for women’s rights in the Middle East. Iran is no longer the main enemy - some might even say it is an ally right now. So who cares about women’s rights in that country?
These events are also a reminder of other feminist misconceptions. Throughout the last three decades Islamic ‘feminists’ told us that the veil protected Iranian women against violence, that it created a ‘safe space’ for women and indeed one could argue that the ultimate safe space would include gender segregation and the veil. Yet the events of the last two weeks show the fallacy of such claims. The Islamic ‘safe space’ does not protect women against acid attacks. It does not protect women like Reyhaneh when they are attacked by a powerful man. It does not assist them during the lengthy judicial process.
The lessons from Iran are crystal-clear: women cannot be protected through the imposition of (visible or invisible) restrictions - either through the veil or through phoney bureaucratic measures. It is only through the empowerment of women that we can ensure their safety and their equality. And that empowerment must start with the rejection of such patronising attitudes as those that aim to restrict women to ‘safe spaces’.
2. BBC Persian service Radio, 26 October 2014,,Cheshm Andaz Bamdadi.