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Women in Iran Deem Rape Laws Unfair

Sunday, December 21, 2003

In Iran, a woman awaits a new execution date for killing the man she says tried to rape her. There, if a woman is raped, she can be charged with adultery. If a woman kills her attacker, she can be charged with murder. Both are punishable by death.

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In Iran, a woman awaits a new execution date for killing the man she says tried to rape her. There, if a woman is raped, she can be charged with adultery. If a woman kills her attacker, she can be charged with murder. Both are punishable by death.
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Afsaneh Nowrouzi with her family

TEHRAN, Iran (WOMENSENEWS)--One week after Afsaneh Nowrouzi learned that her execution had temporarily been stayed by a Supreme Court decree, she eagerly anticipated a visit with her husband to celebrate the news. Convicted for killing the head of security police on an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf, the 34-year-old mother of two has spent the last six years in a desolate prison in southern Iran, despite her claim the man attempted to rape her.

Nowrouzi's husband Mostafa Jahangiri was toldhe could have a private meeting with his wife. But after traveling to the Persian Gulf port city of Bandar Abbas, where Nowrouzi is being held at the notorious Bandar Abbas prison, Jahangiri was turned away by prison authorities.

Upset by the news, Nowrouzi hit her head repeatedly on the wall of her cell. A prison guard sprayed her with tear gas to subdue her, infecting her eyes for almost a week.

Nowrouzi's execution date--most likely by hanging--was set for mid-October. But after widespread protests by the Iranian press, female members of parliament and international human rights organizations, the date was temporarily delayed earlier in the month by Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, the head of the judiciary, which is the highest court in Iran.

Nowrouzi's attorney has filed an appeal with the Supreme Court for a new trial. Her stay of execution has turned a spotlight on the complicated national law, which gives women almost no recourse against rapists.

In Iran, if a woman is raped, she is considered an adulteress and faces death by stoning. But if a woman fights off a sexual predator and kills him, she can then be tried for murder and face death by hanging.

If a man is proven to have raped a woman, his punishment is execution by hanging. But in almost all cases, the man is set free because judges traditionally look for signs in the behavior and clothing of the woman in order to explain away the act of rape. A Persian-language proverb goes like this: "It is the tree that hosts the worm," meaning rape is caused by women and their suggestive behavior.

The penal code, which is based on Iranian interpretations of Islamic law, states that if a woman injures or kills a rapist in self-defense, she will not be prosecuted. But proving self-defense is very difficult. The woman must demonstrate that her defense was equal to the danger she faced. Additionally, she must prove inflicting harm was her the last resort in escaping rape. According to press reports, in the last year one woman successfully argued self-defense while being tried for murdering an alleged rapist.

The Iranian government does not publish prison records, and there are no official statistics about the number of women who have been sentenced to death by stoning for rape. In 2002, the press reported four cases, but it is generally believed the number is higher.


New Start Becomes Death Sentence

In 1997, Nowrouzi moved with her family to Kish Island, Iran's tourist spot and free trade zone in the Persian Gulf located about 180 miles from Bandar Abbas. Her husband Jahangiri hoped his friend Behzad Moghaddam, who held the highest position within the security police in the island, could help him find a job. The family stayed at Moghaddam's house.

Shortly after their arrival, Moghaddam arranged for Nowrouzi's husband to carry some merchandise to Tehran. Many Iranians make a living by buying imported electronic goods and home appliances from the island's duty-free shops and selling them at higher prices on the mainland. According to trial testimony obtained by Women's eNews, Nowrouzi says that after her husband departed, Moghaddam attempted to rape her.

"When I went upstairs, I saw Moghaddam naked. He pulled me into the room and threw himself on top of me," she testified. "As the children heard noises and walked up the stairs, he gave up his intention." Nowrouzi says she could not sleep that night and, as a precaution, hid a knife under her pillow.

In her testimony, Nowrouzi says she wore a skirt and blouse, as well as a pair of pants underneath her skirt. She says she covered her hair with a headdress and also wrapped her veil around her waist, a common practice by traditional women to cover their legs.

She says the next day after finishing a shower, she again found a naked Moghaddam lying on the bed waiting for her. "I showed him the knife and told him if he attacked me, I would strike him," Nowrouzi said.

Nowrouzi says Moghaddam grabbed her, and in defense, she stabbed him in his chest, torso and face with the knife. According to the local coroner's office, Moghaddam sustained 34 stab wounds.

Nowrouzi fled the house and took her children to Tehran to join her husband. When Moghaddam didn't report to work, local police became concerned and went to his house the next morning, where they discovered his body. Nowrouzi was arrested in Tehran several days later.

When asked by the judge why she stayed in the house after Moghaddam's first rape attempt, Nowrouzi responded, "At 10 o'clock in the evening where would I go? I didn't know any place. My husband was absent. I didn't have any money."

Nowrouzi also admitted Moghaddam caught her stealing some of his jewelry to buy food for her children. She says Moghaddam told her he would report the theft unless she submitted to his advances. "When he attacked me, I first warned him that I would report him," Nowrouzi said. "He replied to me 'I am the head of police in Kish; nobody would believe you.'"


Torture, Confessions

During her three-year pretrial investigation, Nowrouzi made several contradictory confessions. She says that at first, investigators tried to convince her that her real motive in killing Moghaddam was stealing his money. "They beat me so much that two times I confessed against my husband so they would leave me alone," she testified at her trial in 2000.

Police also theorized that she and the victim had an affair. "They were beating me with cable wire from morning until noon and again at night," Nowrouzi said.

Under Iranian law, obtaining confessions from suspects and defendants under torture is illegal. But few defendants are ever able to prove they were tortured during detainment. For example, this year, Iranian-Canadian photographer Zahra Kazemi died while being interrogated. But a recent special commission that investigated the charges ruled that Kazemi accidentally hit her head while in custody.

Judge Mortazavi did not believe Nowrouzi's confessions were obtained under torture and rejected her self-defense argument. "This woman is presumptuous and opportunistic," he wrote in his verdict convicting her of murder.

Now, Nowrouzi waits for news of her appeal. If the Supreme Court decides to overturn her conviction, she will face a new trial in another court.


'What Should a Woman Do?'

Golku, a student in her 20s, says all women in Iran feel trapped by the lack of legal protection they have against rape. "Which of us does not put a knife in our purse, when we leave our house? All of us contemplate about how to defend ourselves, if we feel unsafe in a situation," she writes in her public Web log, an increasingly popular means for young women in Iran to talk freely and anonymously about social and political issues.

In an open letter last August, journalist Fereshteh Ghazi, who writes for the Tehran-based daily Etemad newspaper, told the presidents of the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of the Islamic government that women who face rape have almost no recourse under Iranian law.

"What should a woman do, if she found herself in Afsaneh Nowrouzi's situation?" she asked in her letter.

Sahar Sajjadi, a medical student and member of the Tehran-based Women's Cultural Center, says women have no control over their own bodies. "In this country, we cannot discuss this simple concept that no means no," she said.

Shadi Sadr is an independent journalist residing in Iran, who covers women's issues. She is also editor in chief of the Web site Women in Iran.

Women's eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.