Shirin Ebadi

TEHRAN, Iran (WOMENSENEWS)–Leila Fathi left her village in the mountains one day to pick wild flowers and never came home.

The 11-year old girl was raped and killed. Seven years later, her parents are still seeking justice and Iranian human rights activists say the case illustrates how the country’s laws are fundamentally discriminatory against women.

Three men were accused of killing Fathi inthe predominantly Kurdish region of Sarghez, northwest of the capital Tehran. One of the suspects confessed and later hung himself in prison. The other two suspects denied the charges but said they had helped bury the body. They were tried and found guilty.

After a series of appeals, the Supreme Court confirmed the guilty verdict. The case has been appealed yet again and proceedings are due to resume soon in the Kermanshah provincial court.

But what has attracted the attention of Iranian newspapers and human rights activists is the death penalty sentence handed down in previous rulings.

Under Iran’s laws that determine compensation, a woman’s life is worth half that of a man’s life. As a result, the killers’ lives are worth more in financial terms than the murdered girl. Bizarrely, Fathi’s family was required to come up with thousands of dollars to pay the “blood money” for the execution of their daughter’s killers.

The concept of enforcing blood money provisions for criminal punishment appears to be unique to Iran, according to Islamic legal experts. In other Islamic countries that use Sharia law as a basis for the legal code, blood money is carried out but only in compensation and inheritance cases and not for criminal sentences.

The family’s lawyer is the winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, Shirin Ebadi, who has long argued for scrapping the blood-money law. She said in a recent interview with Women’s eNews that the murdered girl’s parents sold their house and most of their possessions to try to raise the necessary funds and had moved into a tent outside the local courthouse.

Father Tries to Raise Money by Selling Kidney

The victim’s elderly father, a day laborer, tried to sell his one of his kidneys to raise a total of about $18,000. His doctor refused. Leyla’s disabled brother also tried to sell a kidney, and the doctor refused again.

Appalled by the family’s desperate situation, the doctor went to the judiciary to demand the state provide the remaining funds needed to pay for the execution of the victim’s killers. Ebadi says the doctor threatened the judges that if they failed to take action, he would tell the French medical charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres–known in English as Doctors Without Borders–about the case.

Ebadi, a prominent advocate on women’s issues, says she took on the case to illustrate the inherent injustice of blood money law.

“This case is a result of this terrible law. The victim’s family is homeless now and the case is still not closed,” Ebadi said. “They are decimated by all of this.”

The judiciary decided earlier this year that the state would help pay one third of the sum required, an unprecedented ruling that came partly as a result of the media coverage devoted to the case.

But Ebadi said the ruling does not represent any victory because the law remains. She said she hopes the publicity will force the law to be changed, to make compensation equal for men and women.

Cleric Denounces Law

The national bar association has called for changing the blood-money provisions as well as other laws that discriminate against Iranian women. Female legislators have spoken out against the law and they have found support from an unlikely source, Grand Ayatollah Youssef Saanei, who belongs to the highest ranks of the Shia clergy.

From the theological center of Qom, southwest of the capital Tehran, Saanei has declared that the blood money provisions in Iran are against Islamic Sharia law, which forms the basis of the Iranian legal code.

“Blood money is the price for a human life and the essence of life is driven from the soul,” he has been quoted as saying. “The soul that God gave women is no less than the soul God gave men.”

Saanei and a handful of other moderate clerics have helped provide valuable religious backing for initiatives proposed by reformists in parliament. The reformist legislators argue that discrimination against women violates Islam and merely reflects patriarchal interpretations of Sharia law handed down by certain male clergy.

The rationale for the law on blood money, according to some scholars, dates to an era when men were the sole breadwinners in a household. Executing the breadwinner could make his widow’s family destitute.

But Ayatollah Saanei has argued that such a concept would mean that the lives of children, unemployed people or retired men would be worth less in compensation terms as well. For Saanei, the value of human life is universal and cannot be linked to whether a victim is a breadwinner.

“Blood money has nothing to do with breadwinning at all; it is the issue of the value of the blood and it is a matter of human dignity,” Saanei has said in a published interview. Current provisions in Iranian law are “cruel,” according to Saanei, and violate the fundamental Islamic principle of justice and fairness.

Other powerful clergy disagree with Saanei, one of the most moderate-minded clerics in Iran, and have blocked previous attempts to change laws on blood money and other issues. The conservatives that wield ultimate authority in Iran see any change in women’s legal status as a threat to what they describe as “Islamic tradition.”

Conservative Council Stands Against Women’s Equality

Female legislators in the reformist parliament have had only limited success in pushing through changes to Iran’s legal code. The parliament’s initiatives have been repeatedly blocked by the ultra-conservative Guardian Council–an appointed body that includes hard-line clergy and jurists–that vets all legislation. The council has been particularly reluctant to approve proposed laws designed to improve women’s status.

The Guardian Council recently vetoed the parliament’s approval of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, calling for equal legal treatment for women without exception.

Ebadi said that there are many other cases in which victims’ families struggle to come up with the blood money to finance punishment of convicted murderers or rapists. The law also includes contradictory rules for the loss of limbs or other body parts.

The penal code defines blood money compensation for a man as one of the following: 100 camels, 200 cows, 1,000 sheep, 200 silk dresses, 1,000 gold coins and 10,000 silver coins. These older forms of valuation are not carried out in practice and the courts have opted for cash equivalents instead.

Ebadi said there is little public support for the blood money law or other provisions in Iran’s penal code that impose an inferior status on women. With women entering university in groundbreaking numbers, there is increasing awareness of women’s rights and the theocratic system’s discriminatory ways, she said.

“People are mostly against these laws. They see the problems that are created,” she said. “If you ask Iranian women ‘are you satisfied with your legal situation’ about 90 percent will say ‘no.'”

A petition has been circulated demanding changes to the blood money law and students, lawyers and human rights activists are continuing to press for amendments.

“As an optimist, I believe the law will be changed but when, I don’t know,” Ebadi said. “Maybe in two months or in two years, but it will be changed.”

Dan De Luce is a correspondent based in Tehran, Iran.

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