Iran’s women struggle for basic rights

2nd June 2020

The so-called honour killing of fourteen year old Romina Ashrafi last week, beheaded by her own father, has sent shock waves throughout Iran and across the world.  Even in a society as conservative as the Islamic Republic the action is widely regarded as extreme.  Jane Green considers the implications of the killing and the struggle to gain legal recognition of the rights of women in Iran.

For nearly ten years a Parliamentary bill, aimed at giving women some legal protection in Iran, has been lost in the labyrinthine legal structures of the Islamic Republic.  The Bill for the Protection of Women Against Violence originally started its passage in 2011, eventually being sent to the judiciary in 2017 for review by the Rouhani administration.

The contribution of the judiciary was to dilute the bill significantly, removing 40 of its 91 clauses before sending it to Iran’s judiciary head at the time, Sadeq Larijani, for approval.   The amended bill was now much weaker than the first draft proposed by the government. For one thing, the country’s judiciary has discarded the articles defining “violence” and its different manifestations, including violence at home.

However, it was discovered in 2018 that Larijani had sent the bill to religious leaders in Qom for further scrutiny.

The fact that this step is not required as part of the formal legislative process makes it clear that the only reason for sending the bill for further scrutiny was to add to the delay.

A prominent campaigner for human rights in Iran was quoted in 2018 as stating: “The Iranian authorities can take three months to arrest, sentence and execute an individual, but after seven years they still cannot pass legislation to protect women’s lives,”.

Women’s and human rights activists have argued for the legislation in order to give women some degree of legal protection from domestic violence.  They have been demanding that Iranian civil society be engaged in a review of domestic violence and an assessment of women’s needs, allowing individuals and groups working on the issue to have meaningful input into the process.

Campaigners for women rights in Iran have argued for allocation of more resources for the independent study of domestic violence so that the dearth of information and data on the subject is addressed. They have also demanded that the issues of marginalized women facing domestic violence – such as women from ethnic and religious minorities, refugee and migrant women, women with disabilities and widows – be addressed.

At present Iran’s laws lack the necessary protections against violence toward women and, in many respects, exacerbate the vulnerabilities of women to domestic abuse. The Civil Code in Iran for example, forbids a woman from leaving the matrimonial home without the husband’s permission unless she is willing to go to court to prove she is endangered.

This leaves Iranian women deeply vulnerable to violence, including marital rape, especially given the requirement of witnesses, the fact that a female witness’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s, and the stipulation that if a woman leaves the marital home, she is not subject to maintenance.

The Civil Code reinforces the rights of men over women in several other ways stating, “In relations between husband and wife, the position of the head of the family is the exclusive right of the husband.” The code goes on to say that, “If the wife refuses to fulfil the duties of a wife without a legitimate excuse, she will not be entitled to the cost of maintenance.”  The rights of women are further diminished by the code’s assertion that, “The wife must stay in the dwelling that the husband allots for her unless such a right is reserved to the wife.”

The position of the Civil Code becomes reflected in the day to day realities of life for women in Iran.  There have been examples of women dying due to domestic abuse where the perpetrator is not prosecuted because the police do not regard domestic violence as a crime.

The extent of domestic violence is Iran is difficult to estimate, as it is widely under reported.  However, a national study undertaken in 2004 indicated that two out of three Iranian women had suffered domestic abuse in marriage.  An Iran based charity reported in 2017 that 32% of women in urban areas had suffered domestic violence and that this figure rose to 63% in rural areas.

Iran remains only one of six nations in the world not to have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, although violence against women is regarded as a crime in other international treaties to which Iran is a signatory, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

A diluted version of the proposed legislation finally reached the Iranian parliament in September 2019,

“A joint task force, composed of the representatives of the judiciary, government, and Majles (parliament) Research Centre have reviewed the bill and prepared the final version,” a spokesman of the judiciary said during a weekly press briefing on in September last year.

The legislation has still not been passed.  Whether it would have been enough to save Romina Ashrafi is doubtful, given the deeply held conservative views of state officials and law makers in Iran.


Miss Ashrafi had initially fled the family home following her father’s fierce and violent objections to the relationship and the advances of her suitor, the 28 year old Bahman Khavari, which included repeated threats that he would kill her if she indeed eloped.  Miss Ashrafi was then tracked to another address by police who forcibly returned her to the custody of her father, despite her frantic and repeated pleas that he would kill her.

It will take a massive shift in society and attitudes to change the situation for women in Iran.  The deeply held conservatism and religious dogma governing the country, remains a major impediment to the progress of women and the development of women’s rights.

The death of Romina Ashrafi is the latest dramatic example of how medieval religious laws can play out, even in the 21st century.  For women campaigning in Iran passing the Bill for the Protection of Women Against Violence would be small step but at least it would be a step in the right direction.  Ensuring that Iran’s women have the support of those seeking equality and human rights elsewhere in the world is the least we can do.

Jane Green is a member of the National Executive Council of CODIR. For information on Iran and views and news from CODIR visit: and/ or contact





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