One Wrong Plus One Wrong Equals…?

by Shaker Leigh

While perusing the week's newspapers online, I stumbled upon this story about Ameneh Bahrami in Sunday's Washington Post. It sent me into such a tizzy that I e-mailed Liss, imploring her to write about it here. She invited me to step up and do it myself. So.

For those who aren't familiar, here's the short version: Ameneh Bahrami was a university student in Tehran when she met Majid Movahedi in 2002. Over the next two years, Movahedi repeatedly proposed marriage and, after she repeatedly declined, began stalking her, threatening to kill her or himself if she did not relent. In late 2004, he snuck up on her on a crowded street and threw a bucket of sulpheric acid on her head, leaving her blind and severely scarred. Last month, an Iranian court sentenced Movahedi to have five drops of acid placed in each of his eyes.

Bahrami actively sought the sentence, an application of Qisas, a tenet of Sharia law that allows victims to seek physical retribution in lieu of the usual "blood money." According to Bahrami:
"I am doing [it] because I don't want this to happen to any other women."
My head did about three hundred somersaults after reading the account. On the one hand, it's pretty much the definition of cruel and inhuman punishment; the level of violence here is seriously disturbing; and it risks re-affirming the all-too-prevalent (mistaken) belief that Islam is inherently a violent religion practiced by innately violent individuals.

And yet…here we have a high Islamic court very publicly taking the woman's side, agreeing with her that she did not deserve the violence so heartlessly inflicted upon her, and holding her attacker criminally—not simply financially—responsible.

I found myself wandering down a pretty horrifying thought path: "Yes, it's pretty counterintuitive to redress a human rights violation with a human rights violation, but can sending the message that the courts will severely punish men who savagely attack women really be wholly a bad thing?"

And then, I realized that I had just posited a human rights violation as not wholly a bad thing.

The cognitive dissonance that ensued managed to shock me back to the sane side of logical: torture masquerading as justice is a travesty. It always is. Or, as Jill at Feministe put it (in a very even-handed post):
Women's rights cannot be severed from human rights. Women's rights at the expense of human rights are no rights at all.

But I also think my initial reaction was telling. What is going on when a self-described pacifist and progressive becomes so inured to reading countless reports of legal forces failing or flat-out refusing to stand up for women who have been victims of violent crime that a story about state-condoned torture can be twisted into a step in the right direction? Because, hey, at least they didn't tell her, "Fuck off, you deserved it?" It's a pretty sad commentary on the state of affairs. And a pretty severe warning to be hyper-vigilant about where emotion can lead you.

After all, it's natural to sympathize with Bahrami, to desire revenge for her and the untold others whose stories never reach your ears. When you know that the token atrocity on the front page each day is only the tip of the iceberg, it's tempting to grasp at anything that doesn't seem to be openly complicit in upholding the status quo.

But even a cursory second glance shows there is plenty more to be unnerved by.

One example: the WaPo story quotes Tehran journalist Asieh Amini, a vocal critic of the sentence, who specializes in human rights issues.
"This is an extreme case of social violence, but crimes like spouse and 'honor' killings are clearly on the rise in Iran," Amini said. "These crimes are violent reactions to sexual limitations in this country."
I'm sorry, what now? The source the Post chooses to voice the objections of human rights defenders identifies the predominant underlying problem here as the "sexual limitations in this country."

Let us fervently hope that something got lost in translation (either literally or figuratively), because "sexual limitations" suggests that a libertine atmosphere of relaxed sexual mores would've prevented the entire situation, as if it's not the seriously fucked up notions about women's autonomy, marriage, and/or male sexual entitlement so prominently on display in this case that are the issue, but Iran's sexual conservatism. Of course the concept of "sexual limitations" is inextricably related to the patriarchal system that denies women's autonomy and upholds male entitlement, but it does not sufficiently encompass everything at play here.

Let's be clear: Ultimately, Movahedi was not directly responding to the sexual limitations placed on men and women by the country, but to the sexual limitation Bahrami imposed on him by refusing to marry him, in defiance of what he felt he was owed—an expectation created by a patriarchal system more vast than mere sexual restrictions.

Attitudes towards sexuality in Iran are certainly oppressive, but to suggest that this man nearly killed a woman as some sort of rebellion against the dominant social order is just plain irresponsible, not to mention infuriating. He didn't maim a national monument to protest prohibitions against premarital sex. He maimed a woman for asserting her autonomy.

So we have a state-condoned human rights violation being used to rectify a previous human rights violation, and meanwhile, most of the coverage and discussion fail at adequately framing either as a human rights violation. Sad state of affairs, indeed.

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