14-year-old Romina Ashrafi was allegedly murdered by her father, Reza Ashrafi, in a so-called “honour killing” on 21 May, 2020. The murder took place in the Ashrafi household in Talesh, a town northwest of Iran’s capital Tehran.
Romina had ran away from home with her 34-year-old boyfriend Bahamn Khavari, after her father objected to their marriage. Five days after their escape, the pair was found by authorities and taken to a police station. Romina’s father was allowed to take her back home, despite Romina telling the police she feared a violent reaction from him. After being brought back home, news outlet Gilkhabar.ir reported that Romina was decapitated in her sleep with a sickle by Reza Ashrafi, who afterwards walked outside the house with a sickle in his hand and confessed murder.
Romina’s murder sparked outrage amongst Iranians, with Iranian media covering and condemning the “honour” crime extensively. The hashtag #Romina_Ashrafi spread on social media and was used over 50 000 times on Twitter, with most people condemning the killing and Iran’s patriarchal society overall.
Shahnaz Sajjadi, an aide to Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani on human rights affairs, told the khabaronline.ir news site, “We should revise the idea that home is a safe place for children and women. Crimes that happen against women in society are less than those that happen in homes.” Amnesty International called on authorities to ensure full “accountability” for the crime and to amend Article 301 of the Penal Code, which reduces measures for fathers involved in the so-called “honour killings”.
President Rouhani expressed “regret” over Ashrafi’s death, and urged his cabinet on 27 May to speed up the adoption of relevant bills that would outlaw the so-called “honour killings”. The proposed legislation has been going back and forth amongst decision making bodies in Iran for years. Under the current law, Reza Ashrafi faces a prison sentence up to 10 years, but Iran’s judiciary said the case will be tried in a special court.
Romina’s boyfriend faces no penalty for the time being, as Iran’s law allows girls to marry after age 13. The codes of “honour” in the traditional or tribal societies of the Middle East, including Iran, would typically place blame and responsibility of “bringing dishonour” on a runaway 14-year-old girl, rather than the adult male luring away a child. There is currently little data on the number of so-called “honour killings” that happen in Iran, but a Tehran police official in 2014 reported that 20 percent of all murders in the country were “honour killings”.
The so-called “honour killings”
The so-called “honour killings” are extreme acts of domestic violence. The perpetrator acts under the belief that the victim has brought upon shame and dishonour to the family by violating a community or religion’s patriarchal code of honour. It is committed with the goal of restoring honour. Victims of “honour killings” are usually alleged to have engaged in “sexually immoral” acts, which include refusal to enter a forced or child marriage, divorce or separation from spouse, having premarital or extramarital sex, being a victim of rape, and engaging in homosexual relations. Concepts of “honour” are closely tied to virginity, fidelity, and modesty.
It is a systematic means of forcing girls and women into obedience through violence and intimidation, to persuade them that their bodies, sexuality, and minds do not belong to them. It originates from cultural norms that view women and women’s chastity as the property of men, and as mere vessels or symbols of their family’s honour. It inherently devalues women as individuals and human beings with autonomy. Girls and women are expendable when that symbol of honour is tainted. These gender-motivated killings constitute a serious violation of human rights.
In 2008 the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated that annually 5,000 women and girls are murdered by their family members in the so-called “honour killings”, although it is suspected that such crimes are widely under-reported. These crimes occur significantly and consistently in parts of the Middle East and South Asia, with nearly half of the killings taking place in India and Pakistan.
Societal norms must be challenged for real change
Shahindokht Molaverdi, the secretary of Iran’s Society for Protecting Women’s Rights, wrote: “Romina is neither the first nor will she be the last victim of honour killings.” She added that such murders would continue “as long as the law and dominant cultures in local and global communities are not deterring enough”.
This reminds us that aside from law making, the societal norms which determine the codes of “honour” must be challenged and transformed on a grassroots level to truly eradicate the so-called “honour killings.” For instance, when Turkey tried to combat “honour” violence by imposing life sentences for the so-called “honour killings” around 15 years ago, the cases of “honour suicides” began to rise. These were forced suicides, staged to act as substitutes for the “honour killings.”
Since the concept of so called “honour killings” originate from patriarchal systems of structural discrimination against women, and are practices deeply entrenched within a culture, there needs to be changes in cultural norms as to where and how women and their sexualities are placed within a society. As long as girls and women are viewed as symbols of “honour” for their family, are valued on the basis of their chastity, and are unaware of their individuality and rights, such gender-based violence will continue to perpetuate -whether that be in the form of a murder, a forced suicide, or perhaps even a staged accident.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights stressed that stopping gender-based killings require a holistic approach, including legal, administrative, and policy measures that address the social, political, economic, and cultural factors that perpetuate such violence. The approach should equally encompass promoting societal transformation, eradicating dangerous stereotypes, and educating both males and females on gender equality -whilst developing information systems and accurate data on such crimes.
In a 2014 article written by Dexter Dias and Charlotte Proudman for the Guardian, it is emphasized that we must be aware that every time we refer to such crimes with the term “honour killings”, the murder of the women are viewed through the eyes of their killers. The article argues that the linguistic labeling of the killings as “honour killings” is problematic, as it grants power to the perpetrator by risking excusing or justifying their crime on the basis of “honourable” motives, and is offensive to women and especially to survivors. There is nothing honourable about stripping someone off of their freedom and autonomy on the basis of gender and murdering them, and the term should be replaced to “reflect the fact that women are being punished because they seek to be free and challenge patriarchy.” Kofi Annan, during his time as the UN secretary general, suggested “shame killings.” The Canadian Council of Muslim Women suggests “femicide.” Occasionally the term “patriarchal killings” is used.
On an ending note, it must be kept in mind that although the so called “honour killings” occur in predominantly Muslim communities in the modern era, this kind of violence must not be attributed to a certain religious belief. Numerous religious leaders condemned the practice as a “repulsive act, condemned and prohibited by religion.” However, it is a patriarchal and usually a tribal crime that took place in the Middle East before Islam under the Code of Hammurabi, was encouraged in ancient Rome under Julian Laws, existed in China during the Qinq dynasty, and exists currently across diverse communities in India. Therefore it must not be used to fuel and further Islamophobia.
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