Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Iran: Surge in Cases of Husband Murder
Female prisoners at the Evin jail in Tehran. (Photo: Azin Zanjani, Mehr News Agency)
Courtside stories about wives accused of murdering their husbands were once almost unheard of in Iran, but these days they are common enough to excite little attention.
In the last decade, the number of women accused of the crime has surged.
One ongoing case involves a woman accused of strangling her husband with a motorcycle chain. Making her eighth court appearance on November 10, the defendant, who has been named in court only as Leila, continues to insist she is innocent and says her husband committed suicide. Her daughter testified against her.
“Mariticide as a commonplace crime is a recent phenomenon in Iran,” a local lawyer who wanted to remain anonymous said. “I can scarcely recall any cases of this kind occurring 30 or even 20 years ago.”
Precise statistics are hard to come by but Samira Kalohr, a social studies researcher who reviewed cases reported in the news in 2007 found that 22 per cent of murders committed within the family involved women killing their husbands, and 27 per cent were men who killed their wives.
Kalohr’s figures did not include murders of men where the wife was implicated as an accomplice – quite a common phenomenon in such cases.
Shahla Moazzami and Mohammad Ashouri, professors at Tehran University who carried out a rare study of the issue, found that when husbands were murdered, only a third of the crimes were committed by the wife herself, and the rest involved a third party acting on her behalf. Often these were men involved in illicit relationships with the wives.
Mostafa Rajabi, deputy head of criminal investigations in the Iranian police, has said the proportion of murders that occurred within the family in 2009 was 33 per cent of the total. Figures from 1989 indicated that this kind of crime accounted for 16 per cent of the total that year.
Ashouri, who is head of the Criminology and Forensics Research Institute at Tehran University, told the Hamshahri daily, “The percentage of crimes committed by women is low in Iran, but unfortunately the figures for mariticide are high.”
This is 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”.
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. In reality, this standard of proof is rarely met and “honour killings” are often committed out of jealousy, suspicion or merely as a way of ending a marriage.
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 per cent 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.
For many years, women’s rights activists in Iran have been calling on the government to establish shelters for women who fall victim to violence. The authorities have so far refused to accede to this, citing Islamic laws that state it is wrong for a woman to leave home without her husband’s permission.
Many of the women who commit mariticide fit the same profile – they commonly live on the impoverished outskirts of major cities; they are housewives and do not have a high school diploma; they were forced into marriage at an early age and may be much younger than their husbands. This combination of factors means they are less able than most to find other ways out of the situations they are in, and turn to murder as a last act of desperation.
Such murders are often carried out with unusual brutality.
Behjat Karimzadeh, who is currently awaiting sentencing in Karaj’s Rajayi Shahr Prison for killing her husband together with an accomplice.
“I strangled my husband, and then I looked at him and I was scared he might not be dead, so I cut off his head with a knife,” she told me.
Another convict, Fatemeh, speaking after ten years in Shiraz’s Adelabad prison, said, “After giving my husband poison, I cut off his hands. He broke my nose with those hands.”
Fatemeh has won a stay of execution because her husband’s family gave consent for clemency, with no need for monetary compansation.
My interviews with ten women in Tehran’s Evin prison and the Rajayi Shahr jail indicated that all the murders involved premeditation. Nine of the ten did not regret killing their husbands, and eight considered themselves innocent.
Moazzami’s survey similarly showed that men tended to regret murder more than women in equivalent cases.
“After committing an act resulting in murder, the majority of men take their spouses to hospital and attempt to save them. And more than a quarter of the men in prison for wife-killing turned themselves into the police,” she said. “Women, however, see themselves as innocent afterwards, and will not confess to murder even after years of incarceration.”
The case of Akram Mahdavi the phenomenon of women who seek a male accomplice to carry out the murder – in sharp contrast to men, who are generally the sole perpetrators.
Mahdavi, now in the Rajayi Shahr prison, grew up in a poor family and was forced to marry her cousin when she was just 13. She divorced him after discovering that he had taken a second wife, but her father forced her into another marriage when she was 20, this time to a 75-year-old antique dealer.
She says she tried and failed to secure a divorce after finding out that her husband was sexually abusing her young daughter. Then she started looking for an accomplice, and found a man willing to carry out the murder.
At present, the death sentence against Mahdavi is suspended pending payment of “blood money”, the compensation that a murder victim’s relatives can be paid if they so choose. A group of rights activists were able to get one of her husband’s close relatives to agree to compensation. If other relatives disagree, they can pay the percentage due to the person who gave consent, and overturn the act of clemency.
The judicial process is marred by gender inequalities. For example, blood money payable for a woman is half that for a murdered man, meaning that husbands are more likely to be able to come up with the compensation funds than women are. (See Iran: High Price of Flouting Marriage Rules.)
Another significant difference is that wives convicted of murder are shunned by their own relatives and receive no prison visits. Mahdavi was being taken to the gallows just before a last-minute stay of execution was ordered. She said, “I will never forget that my family didn’t even come to see my sentence carried out.”
Saba Vasefi is a women’s and children’s rights activist from Iran, now living in Sydney, Australia. Her documentary “Do Not Bury My Heart” on executing minors in Iran was recently screened in the underground documentary section in the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival.
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