Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran

Iran’s abuse of the death penalty, and the astonishingly high number of crimes for which it foresees capital punishment in its laws, have made thousands of victims across lines of ethnicity, nationality, age, faith, and gender. Today, in honor of the 19th annual World Day Against the Death Penalty, Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC) highlights a group whose rights were targeted soon after the 1979 revolution: women. Women face violence and blatant discrimination in many aspects of their lives in the Islamic Republic of Iran, including when facing the death penalty.

“Because men constitute the majority of the victims of Iran’s four-decade assault on citizens’ right to life and due process of law, the plight of women who face the death penalty has too often been ignored.  We cannot allow Iran’s crisis of the right to life to numb us to this invisible reality; the unique ways it affects women” said ABC Executive Director Roya Boroumand.

Reports compiled by ABC indicate that in the last ten years alone (from the beginning of 2011 through the end of 2020), at least 5,923 people have been put to death by Iran’s judiciary. At least 150 of these were women [1]. Women’s disproportionately low representation in total executions for the period - some 2.5% - should not detract from a staggering overall toll. 

Numbers alone speak nothing of a legal and institutional context - characterized by UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran Javaid Rehman as  “persistent discrimination... enshrined in the Constitution… and law and practice” [2] - which leaves women systematically and uniquely vulnerable.
In Iran, women are barred by law from becoming judges, meaning that those who rule in matters of life or death are invariably men. The testimony of women in legal cases is worth less than that of men, and their lives are officially valued as half of those of men in the scheme of blood money payments. Women’s right to effective defense may also be disproportionately compromised - either by discrimination on the part of a lawyer, or by economic precarity unique to women which leaves them unable to pay for legal services. 

An area of legal inequality tragically relevant to many of the death penalty cases ABC has collected reports on, is family law. Women’s stake in inheritance is half that of men, and men have automatic priority in child custody. Iranian law makes securing divorce considerably harder for women than for men: Article 1130 of the Civil Code requires that women demonstrate “intolerable” hardship as a condition for divorcing a husband, while there is no such requirement for men.
In a country wracked by economic crisis, where laws continue to permit girls younger than 13 to be married with the permission of a male custodian and court, families - especially those of traditional backgrounds - may arrange for marriages of young daughters for economic and cultural reasons [3]. In such cases, girls and women too often find themselves in abusive or otherwise untenable marriages with very narrow options. 

The outcome can be sobering: of the 150 women put to death in the last decade, at least 21 were convicted of murdering their husbands (the number could be higher: for another 20 cases, it is unclear for what offense they were put to death). Three of these were minors at the time of the act for which they were sentenced.
Crucially, avenues to pursue meaningful reform in these areas are blocked by a constitution which gives unelected male religious authorities of the Council of Guardians final say over women’s choices. 

At a crossroads of individual misogyny, formal legal discrimination, and a strangulation of civil society and dissent, Iranian women’s experience with capital sentencing is harrowing, even in a system where failures of due process regularly marr death penalty cases. A selection of recent stories from ABC’s Omid database evoke the intersectionality of violations of women’s human rights:
  • Raheleh Zamani was executed for the murder of her abusive husband on January 28, 2008. She married at the age of 14 at her father’s decision. She told media her husband beat her regularly, once requiring three days of hospitalization, and once suffering a miscarriage as a result. When she sought a divorce, her family refused, telling her “a woman must carry a man’s name.” A judge told her: “Go make do, my dear girl. He’s your husband, so he beat you up.”
  • When a burnt body was discovered at the house of Safieh Ghafuri, she initially denied having committed murder. An individual with knowledge of the case reports she was subjected to beatings and rape in interrogations and subsequently confessed to the crime. She was put to death in part on the basis of this confession on July 12, 2012 - a shocking example of the potential vulnerability of women in a system where coerced confessions are used far too often to issue capital verdicts.
  • Atefeh Salehi Rajabi, who reportedly suffered from psychological disturbances, was charged with adultery for acts which occured when she was just 16. Prior to her arrest, she had been arrested and charged with “corruption” and “fornication” on three separate occasions and was convicted and sentenced each time to 100 lashes. She was hanged on August 15, 2004 - an astonishing example of a young woman’s life cut short by laws which foresee a punishment of death for acts which should not be criminalized in the first place. 
  • At 16, Sharareh Elyasi married a man owing to her family’s financial state. According to her acquaintances, Elyasi’s husband killed a man in her house over a personal dispute, and Elyasi took the blame, having been convinced that, as a woman, she would be spared the death penalty. Elyasi was put to death on December 13, 2018.
This World Day against the Death Penalty, ABC bears witness to the women who have faced the death penalty in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s judicial system. By saying their names and telling their stories, we insist that Iranians, the international community, and other stakeholders imagine a future in which Iran’s judicial system honors all of women’s human rights - including the right to life.  

“For lasting, meaningful protection of women’s rights and lives, stakeholders must take seriously the primary obstacle to women’s self-empowerment: a set of laws and structures that encode inherent inequality of women, then deny them the tools to contest it.  To effectively address the plight of women and fight for death penalty abolition, the international community must fight for space for civil society and assurances for monitoring, legal defense services, and public awareness raising inside Iran” said Boroumand.

[1] In 26 cases for which ABC has collected reports, the gender of the person put to death is not clear.

[2]  Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman, January 11, 2021, https://undocs.org/en/A/HRC/46/50.

[3]  From March 2020 to March 2021, 31,379 girls aged 10 to 14 were married (ISNA, August 20, 2021, https://www.isna.ir/news/1400052819706/). In September 2021, Iran’s national secretary for the Convention on the Rights of the Child said the real number of underage marriages in the country was at least three times higher than the official figure, and that some families in dire economic conditions commit their underage daughters to marriage for one millions tomans - equivalent to just 35 USD (HRANA, September 29, 2021, https://www.hra-news.org/?p=331551).