On May 20, 2020, 14-year-old Romina Rashaf prepared to go to sleep as usual, on her family’s farm in northern Iran. Little did she know, she would not live to see the next day. Three weeks earlier, her father, Reza Ashrafi, had called a lawyer, inquiring about the potential punishment for murdering his daughter.
According to the New York Times, he was told that the maximum sentence would be 10 years, which presumably seemed manageable enough because later that month, Romina Rashaf was decapitated with a farm sickle. Reza Rashaf was furious that his young daughter had run away with a boyfriend.
Romina Rashaf’s death was considered to be an honor killing, which is when women are murdered for bringing disgrace or embarrassment to their family name. These crimes occur for all sorts of reasons, including if a woman objects to her arranged marriage or participates in sexual relations before being wed. If a woman is raped or sexually assaulted, that is considered to be disgraceful to the family too.
According to the New York Times, around 30% of all murders in Iran are related to these motives.
These killings are not only rooted in Iranian culture, but also in Iranian law. According to The Lancet, Article 360 of the Iranian Penal Code says that if a husband witnesses his wife participating in a consensual, adulterous relationship, he has the right to kill both participants. Other laws outline similar guidelines.
Gender inequality in Iran is a much larger problem than just these killings; it is a way of life there. According to Human Rights Watch, women are not allowed to watch men’s sports in stadiums, and they are sent to jail for speaking in favor of gender equality. If a woman accuses a man of rape and the court does not believe her, she may face violent punishment, sometimes in the form of flogging.
Even more, women are not allowed to leave the country, file for divorce or apply to work outside the home without the permission of their husbands. According to CNN, one Iranian newspaper said the idea of “gender equality” is simply “unacceptable to the Islamic Republic,” in 2015.
Since then, however, both the people and government of Iran have taken strides in ending violence against women. According to Human Rights Watch, after the murder of Rashaf, a #MeToo social media movement emerged in the Middle Eastern country.
While the movement began with a few female journalists speaking out, dozens of Iranian women soon reported their stories of sexual abuse and violence, which prompted the arrest of at least one accused rapist. The women said they were treated well by police, and that their privacy was respected throughout the process of the arrest.
This movement has prompted more women to speak about other gender issues, such as the restrictions of wearing hijabs as well as child marriage. As a result, the country now faces a potentially major bill, which would outlaw sexual violence against women and create punishments for those who violate it.
According to the New York Times, the bill is relatively surface level, and will not permanently change the culture surrounding gender norms. For example, it will not outlaw child marriage and fails to accurately define domestic violence.
However, these subtleties may make it easier for the bill to be passed in the country’s conservative Parliament, which is the next step in approving the bill since it has already been passed by the more liberal Senate.
If this law does get approved, it will undoubtedly be a step in improving the narrative of gender inequality and sexual violence in Iran.