Women on Death Row
A Look at the Lives of Three Women Awaiting Execution
“In all my studies on insanity or prison (regimes of punishment) I believe the central issue is the question of what power is, or, more specifically, how power is deployed.” (Michele Foucault)
The Death Penalty and Women
Behind every execution decision in Iran, one can hear the same reality-negating cliché: “the execution of this verdict sets the example for others.” As such, the philosophical underpinning of the death penalty in the Iranian justice system is based on prevention and cure, not on punishment. In a society so ripe for criminality and potential offenders, the death penalty speaks the first word. More than being the system’s last resort against the agent of a crime. The Islamic Republic’s judicial system prescribes “execution therapy” rather than “crime therapy.”
According to the cultural basis for Islamic judiciary regulations, the ultimate punishment comes in two forms. The first is the death penalty (“ghasas”) which is implemented for crimes that are not related to extramarital sexual relationships (“zena”). This verdict is usually carried out within prison walls, with old methods such as hanging using a rope and a chair. Those whose sentences are carried out in public places are hanged by being hoisted on a construction crane.
The second method utilized by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Sharia-based judiciary system is much crueler than the first. Death by stoning is issued for extramarital sexual affairs. As a result of the pressure applied by international human rights defenders, stoning verdicts have not been carried out in Iran during the last few years. However, this kind of sentence is still issued by Sharia courts in small cities.
Establishing democracy is the dominant discourse in Iran’s current social and political movements, and fighting the death penalty and implementing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are inseparable from this struggle. The dialogue on the elimination of the death penalty in Iran does not prioritize one gender over another. Obviously, whoever opposes the death penalty for women also rejects it for men. In democratic societies, human rights are indivisible. However, due to reasons that will be discussed below, human rights activists’ attention is focused particularly on defending Iranian women, especially those condemned to execution by stoning.
The historical inferiority of women in Iran’s patriarchal society, and the regime’s humiliating aggression against women’s social and civil rights through anti-women legislation, has made women’s suffering and their double marginalization a priority for human rights activists.
Humiliating laws, such as a woman’s blood money being half that of a man’s, and the legalization of one of the ugliest expressions of sexual slavery, temporary marriage—on top of stonings and executions—are but one small part of the woman’s tragic situation in Iranian society under the Islamic regime.
Women on Death Row
Iran Sharif was the first woman to be put to death by the Iranian justice system. She was hanged on June 27, 1972, in Tehran. Iran’s case, which became one of the most sensational of its time, was based on the murders of four and 11-year-old sisters. Iran, the abandoned temporary wife of the children’s father, kidnapped his two innocent daughters and less than a month later, in the fall of 1970, gruesomely killed them.
After extremely controversial court proceedings in 1972, with public opinion building against Iran and a sharp divide amongst the jurists as to whether to execute or imprison her, the sentence was issued. Iran Sharif, the first Iranian woman to receive the death penalty, was 39 years old.
33 years passed between the first execution of a woman and the last, that of Atefeh in the Nekah district of Mazandaran. Although the first decade following Iran’s death saw no female executions, the next two decades coincided with the first 20 years of the Islamic revolution and witnessed tens and hundreds of young women being sent to their deaths. Political executions are one of the most inhumane practices of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and are a very sensitive and important issue. It is not, however, part of the regime’s criminal and judicial records and thus needs a separate analysis.
Atefeh’s execution was not the last death penalty issued, but it was the last verdict to be carried out. The shockwave from sentencing a 17-year-old to death by hanging still continues after almost two years. The movie documentary about her life and death, which is broadcast repeatedly by television channels around the world, demonstrates the human rights activists’ sensitivity to Atefeh’s grim death.
Two issues made Atefeh’s execution extremely significant in terms of international public opinion. First, because this was a young woman who was condemned to death for her alleged “moral corruption,” and second—against all international conventions—she was put to death before she reached the age of 18. Her execution brought more scandal to the already disreputable and corrupt judicial system in Iran. The changes authorities made in her identity card to show her age as 18 were soon exposed by her aunt and father. And the local authorities could not hide the fact that one of the reasons for her rushed execution was because the city’s judicial and police forces had repeatedly sexually exploited this woman, and as such were fearful that their actions would be revealed by Atefeh. The tale of Atefeh’s life and death is one of thousands of unwritten stories that occur in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s prisons. The grim life stories of Kobra, Shahla and Delara are but a few pages of this continuing history.
The Malicious Face of Poverty
Poverty played an ugly game with a 20-year-old woman who did not want to see her brother and sister go hungry. Kobra Rahmanipour, who became known as “the ill-fated bride,” married a rich man older than her own father in the hope of advancing her family’s financial status. Kobra was 19 and her husband was 53 years old. Against her parents’ will, she chose to marry this man as an alternative to what she felt was her only other option: prostitution. She entered into the life of a man from affluent North Tehran who, despite his tough money-laundering profession, was very weak when it came to his 80-year-old mother. The mother-in-law’s contemptuous and arrogant behavior—she accepted Kobra only as a housemaid—soon drove Kobra to develop a psychological disorder. In this degrading environment Kobra was repeatedly beaten by her mother-in-law. It was during one of these fights that Kobra, in a state of panic, put a knife in the old woman’s heart.
Under intense questioning, Kobra confessed to first-degree murder. But no one paid attention to the defensive wounds on the palms of her hands or to the fact that she constantly took tranquilizers. She was sentenced to death in her first court appearance. Several times she was taken out of her cell to be hanged, but the execution was postponed each time for various reasons, such as not having the proper instruments. At present, her teeth are completely ruined, her hair is gone, and she has lost her vision. The psychological pressure of being kept between life and death has considerably aged this 20-something woman. Kobra’s family situation and the honest confession of this poor, chaste young woman, whose exceptional academic talent succumbed to the pressure of poverty, generated sympathy in the media and in the public. For the first time, everyone from the civic community and journalists to judicial and law enforcement authorities, are united in asking for clemency for her. However, one of the victim’s children, who resides outside of Iran, will not agree to this clemency, thereby negating any chance for her release. Kobra is one of many victims of a poverty-stricken society whose class inequality has created a horrendous social chasm. In these social relations, “The real victim is not the one murdered. The real victim is Kobra. But who is the real murderer?”
Iranian society does not accept Shahla Jahed, alleged to have killed her lover’s wife and now on death row, as a murderer. Nemat Ahamadi, her well-known lawyer, in a short article published in the newspaper “Vaghaye-e Etefaghieh,” writes: “When Shahla cries that she was tortured while being investigated, that three of her fingernails came off under torture, how can we have judicial and legal trust in this court and its verdict?”
Although Shahla Jahed does not arouse public sympathy for her economic or class situation (she was the mistress of famous soccer player Nasser Mohammadkhani), people have never accepted that she was responsible for the mysterious slaying of Mohammadkhani’s wife, whose murder is believed to have been put on Shahla Jahed’s shoulders by powerful hands. Shahla, after a preliminary interrogation conducted using extreme pressure and torture, confessed to the crime in the hope that she could disprove this false confession later in court. Still, her death sentence was issued based upon her original unreliable confession. She and her lawyer strove to prove her innocence, but it seems that greater forces are preventing a change in the court’s decision. In her criminal case there are numerous contradictions, each sufficient enough to warrant the dismissal of the case in its entirety. To date, Shahla has been called up for execution several times but the decision has repeatedly been postponed due to pressure from international human rights activists, the public and the media. In the above-mentioned article, Nemat Ahamadi states “Shahla’s appearance on television trying to describe the crime scene under such wretched conditions convinced neither the consciousness of legal society nor that of the public.”
Immaturity of a Young Painter
Delara was a young 16-year-old who would paint and play the piano. Beyond her passion for art though, she loved her boyfriend, Amirhassan, and wanted to marry him, regardless of the cost. But youth and the social pressures that hindered the development of a healthy relationship, combined with a lack of financial resources, prevented a bright future for this couple. To overcome their financial difficulties, Delara suggested to Amirhassan that they rob one of her father’s relatives, a rich, single, elderly woman. The day they went to this woman’s home in the city of Rasht to steal her jewelry, they did not anticipate that the woman might resist them, and they ended up killing her. But Delara is still not a murderer. According to her court testimony, after the woman refused to give up, Amirhassan hit her in the head with a baseball bat and stabbed her repeatedly with a kitchen knife.
Delara, in both her initial interrogations and later in the first round of court proceedings, placed the burden of the murder upon herself. The couple’s rationale was that since she was underage, and related to the victim, it would be much easier for her to obtain the family’s clemency. But the court ignored her age and condemned her to death. She tried to retract her original confession and prove that she was not the killer, but the Islamic judicial system did not heed the evidence. Delara explained that she is left-handed and that the stabbings were done by a strong right-handed person, meaning that she could not have been the killer, but to no avail. Her lawyer appealed the case, but the Supreme Court upheld the decision and for the third time sentenced her to death.
Delara’s case resembles that of Fatemeh Moti, the oldest female prisoner in Iran. In both cases, out of their selfless love, these women took on the burden for the worst kind of crime. Fatemeh is the woman to whom Iranian feminists owe a lot. After being in prison for 13 years, she was released a few months ago. Out of her love and devotion to her husband and family, she also confessed to a crime in which she had no role in the hope that her husband would work for her release. Some 13 years passed and Fatemeh’s husband lived his carefree life while his wife aged behind bars. When Fatemeh was released, no one, not even for International Women’s Day on March 8, wrote an article about her. No one paid attention to her selfless suffering. Now, Delara’s words are very much like Fatemeh’s. Should this youngster also spend 13 years behind bars until someone listens to her?
Getting Together To Unite
That which has so far prevented many women’s executions, stoning and hangings is nothing but the alliance among Iranian human rights defenders. A few years ago, because of the widespread objections of the supporters of democracy and human rights, one more woman, Afsaneh Nowroozi, escaped death row. Due to the ceaseless efforts of freedom-loving Iranians, who exposed stoning in Iran as a crisis for the civilized world, many women escaped execution. Kobra Rahmanipour, although she has been taken to death row three times, has yet to be executed.
But it is because of our negligence and inaction that Atefeh, a 17-year-old woman, was hanged. Right now, Sharia courts in Iranian provinces still issue stoning sentences, and three women are on death row. It is the responsibility of human rights and women’s rights advocates to pressure the Iranian regime and inform international public opinion in order to save these women, who are nothing but the victims of poverty and a sick socio-cultural system.