Saba Vasefi is an Iranian women’s and children’s rights activist who is now living in Australia. Her documentary, Do Not Bury My Heart–for which I have not been able to find much information on the web – about the execution of minors in Iran was screened recently in the underground documentary section of the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival. She’s written an article, which I found on the Tehran Bureau website and which was originally published in Mianeh, about the increase in Iran of the number of women accused of murdering their husbands. “This is,” she writes, “a significant shift in Iranian society, where murders involving spouses have in the past almost always involved men killing women, often in what is known as an ‘honour crime.’” Moreover, these murders are usually, nominally, legal since “Article 630 of Iran’s Islam-based criminal code makes it legal for a man to kill both his wife and her partner if he finds them in the act, and it is consensual.” This burden of proof, she goes on to say, “is rarely met,” with most honor killings being more about “jealousy, suspicion or merely a way of ending a marriage.”
One of the things I found most interesting about Vasefi’s article is the difference between what her research reveals about women who’ve been accused of murdering their husbands and what the available research says.
In the case of wives who kill their husbands, the available research indicates that two-thirds of cases are motivated by a desire for revenge for the husband being unfaithful.
The survey that Moazzami and Ashouri conducted across 15 provinces of Iran showed that in 58 percent of cases, the women had been unable to get a divorce because their husbands or families would not agree to it, or had children and would have had no means of supporting themselves if they had separated from their spouses.
My own research indicates that many women who resort to violence are themselves victims of abuse, and have been unable to find justice through the legal system.
She points out that many of the women who murder their husbands fit the same profile: they are poor, relatively uneducated, often forced into marriage at an early age to men who are much older than they are, circumstances which combine to make much more difficult for them to get help through the legal system or to find other ways out of their situation. Murder is, for them, “a last act of desperation.”
Akram Mahdavi, one of the women Vasefi interviewed, is in Rajayi Shahr prison under a suspended death sentence for hiring a man to kill her husband, whom her father had forced her to marry – she was 20 and her husband was 75. Her motive? That she’d discovered her husband was sexually abusing her daughter and her attempts at securing a divorce had failed. Yet it’s not that there aren’t people in Iran trying to call attention to the plight of such women. Women’s rights activists have been calling on the government to set up shelters for battered women for years, but the government has always refused, “citing Islamic laws that state it is wrong for a woman to leave home without her husband’s permission.” I confess that reasoning leaves me almost speechless, as it still does all these many years later when I remember the cop who asked me, when I was sixteen and calling for help because my mother’s boyfriend had forced her into her bedroom and locked the door behind them because she’d finally asked him to leave and he didn’t want to,“Are you sure your mother’s in their against her will, son?”
I don’t want to erase the differences between what happened to my mother and what happened to Akram Mahdavi, nor do I want to trivialize the significance of the fact that, in Iran, the reasoning that makes it so difficult for battered women, or women like Mahdavi, who was trying to protect her daughter from abuse, to find justice is couched in an absolutist religious rhetoric – though it’s not as if religion has not been used here in the States to justify treating women, not to mention people of color, as second class citizens – but I find right now the similarities more compelling than the differences. In each case, the woman’s autonomy is understood to be circumscribed by the authority of the man who possesses her sexually. In Islam, the husband must give her permission to leave the sphere of his authority (and, therefore, of his protection) without him1; in the case of the cop on the phone, his assumption was that I might have mistaken some kind of sexual play, in which my mother was enjoying the force her boyfriend was using to keep her in the room, for a situation in which the boyfriend was unwilling to let my mother go outside the sphere of his authority and in which he might turn – was already turning – violent because she did not obey him. That the authority is legal in the case of Islam and, for want of a better word, cultural in the case of my mother and her boyfriend, does not change the fact that the nature of the authority, a man’s right to rule his women, is the same.
- One of the oddest experiences I’ve had being married to a Muslim woman who occasionally travels to Iran has been the requirement, imposed by the Iranian government, that I write her a letter giving her my official permission to travel without me. [↩]