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An Eye for an Eye: Iran's Blinding Justice System

Iran's judiciary has postponed the blinding of a man as punishment for throwing acid in the face of a young woman in 2004, after she rejected his offer of marriage. The delay came in the face of mounting outcry both inside Iran and in the West over the sentencing, which is permissible under qesas, a principle of Islamic law allowing victims analogous retribution for violent crimes.

The case has stirred passionate interest in Iran since 2004, when Majid Movahedi, a university student, accosted Ameneh Bahrami on a Tehran street and tossed a red bucket of sulfuric acid in her face. Bahrami, an attractive young engineer, had repeatedly spurned Movahedi's proposals and reported his harassment to the police. She was blinded and severely disfigured in the attack, and has spent the intervening years between Iran and Spain undergoing numerous unsuccessful operations to reconstruct her face and repair her sight.

Much of the public outcry in Iranian media, news websites, and blogs, surrounds the Iranian legal system, which produces such verdicts by practising an 'eye for an eye' approach to justice based on seventh century Islamic jurisprudence. These principles effectively offer victims of violent crime two legal choices, forgiveness or qesas, analogous retribution. "Bahrami must sit in the place of the judge and either forgive her attacker or take revenge" says Asieh Amini, an Iranian women's rights activist living in Europe? "The legal system pushes her into a dead-end, and it's really the law that's deficient here." Bahrami eventually chose qesas, determined that her experience would serve as deterrence for future crimes. "I want people like him to know that they will suffer forever if they cause someone such suffering," she said on BBC Persian television Saturday.
Speaking on the interactive television program Saturday, Bahrami said she favored a more modern course, suing for damages. "I want him to be punished foremost. But if there are human rights considerations, then I'll accept two million Euros and his life imprisonment," she said. The program featured an emotional exchange between Bahrami and Movahedi's weeping mother, who begged for her forgiveness. It drew a flood of callers from inside Iran, many of them concerned that Bahrami's "forgiveness," while perhaps the most humanitarian course, would encourage such a horrific crime by implying legal leniency. "Ameneh, daughter of Iran, we understand your joy and we support you," wrote a prominent Iranian blogger, Dalghak Irani, featured on the program.

Bahrami, who was scheduled to herself administer the blinding drops to an anaesthetized Movahedi, learned of the delay outside the Judiciary Hospital in Tehran. Human rights groups and Western governments pleaded with Iranian authorities last week to call off the punishment. Iran's government usually responds to such foreign pressure by lashing out rather than backing off, but Bahrami's case poses a unique dilemma: unlike many human rights cases which excite opinion primarily in the West, it has resonated deeply throughout Iranian society; the attention inside Iran raises the prospect of a public backlash at a time when the regime is deeply divided by political infighting. "There's no doubt public opinion inside Iran has been stirred up," says Amini. "There's been a huge outpouring of sympathy for both of them, and this puts pressure on the government."
Apart from its headline-grabbing story line, the case is transfixing Iranians because it reflects how their society's old mores are clashing with modern norms. This was no village crime committed by an illiterate, but a tragedy that unfolded in the nation's capital between two educated urbanites. It underscores how Iranian women's social standing — they are now in the majority at universities and active throughout society — fits awkwardly with deep-seated patriarchal attitudes. Women direct top-grossing films in Iran, run galleries, and write best-sellers, but are still covered by cultural mores that often approximate the severe conservatism of neighboring Afghanistan. "This case really highlights the sexist attitudes and double standards within Iran society," says Nayereh Tohidi, an Iran expert and a professor of women's studies at California State University, Northridge. "[Based on] such customs, a man sees it as his prerogative to want and possess the woman he desires, regardless of her feelings and mutual love." Tohidi adds, "This 'eye for an eye,' tribal approach to crimes underlies how the law reinforces a cycle of violence instead of reducing it. A young blind man is going to be added to a young blind woman for society to take care of."


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