An Eye for an Eye: Iran's Blinding Justice System

Publication Date: 
May 15, 2011
Time Magazine
Ameneh Bahrami, in her Tehran apartment with her mother and the remains of the clothing she wore when she was attacked with acid

Iran's judiciary has postponed the blinding of a man as punishment for throwing acid in the face of a young woman in 2004, after she rejected his offer of marriage. The delay came in the face of mounting outcry from both inside Iran and the West over the sentence, which is permissible under qesas, a principle of Islamic law allowing victims analogous retribution for violent crimes.

The case has stirred passionate interest in Iran since 2004, when Majid Movahedi, a university student, accosted Ameneh Bahrami on a Tehran street and tossed a red bucket of sulfuric acid in her face. Bahrami, an attractive young engineer, had repeatedly spurned Movahedi's proposals and reported his harassment to the police. She was blinded and severely disfigured by the attack, and has spent the intervening years in Iran and Spain undergoing numerous unsuccessful operations to reconstruct her face and repair her sight.

Much of the outcry in Iranian media and on blogs surrounds the country's legal system, which produces such verdicts by practicing an "eye for an eye" approach to justice on the basis of 7th century Islamic jurisprudence. These principles effectively offer victims of violent crime two legal choices, forgiveness or qesas. "Bahrami must sit in the place of the judge and either forgive her attacker or take revenge," says Asieh Amini, an Iranian women's rights activist living in Europe. "The legal system pushes her into a dead end, and it's really the law that's deficient here." Bahrami eventually chose qesas, determined that her experience would serve as a deterrence for future crimes. "I want people like him to know that they will suffer forever if they cause someone such suffering," she said on BBC Persian Television on Saturday.

Speaking on the interactive television program, Bahrami said she favored a more modern course: suing for damages. "I want him to be punished foremost. But if there are human-rights considerations, then I'll accept 2 million euros and his life imprisonment," she said. The program featured an emotional exchange between Bahrami and Movahedi's weeping mother, who begged for forgiveness. It drew a flood of callers from inside Iran, many who were concerned that Bahrami's "forgiveness," while perhaps the most humanitarian course, would encourage the horrific crime by implying legal leniency. "Ameneh, daughter of Iran, we understand your joy and we support you," said a prominent Iranian blogger, Dalghak Irani, on the program.

Bahrami, who was scheduled to administer the blinding drops to an anesthetized Movahedi herself, learned of the delay outside the Judiciary Hospital in Tehran. Human-rights groups and Western governments pleaded with Iranian authorities last week to call off the punishment. The Iranian government usually responds to such foreign pressure by lashing out rather than backing off, but Bahrami's case poses a unique dilemma: unlike many human-rights cases that excite opinion primarily in the West, it has resonated deeply throughout Iranian society; the attention inside Iran raises the prospect of a public backlash at a time when the regime is deeply divided by political infighting. "There's no doubt that public opinion inside Iran has been stirred up," says Amini. "There's been a huge outpouring of sympathy for both of them, and this puts pressure on the government."


Apart from its headline-grabbing story line, the case is transfixing Iranians because it reflects how their society's old mores are clashing with modern norms. This was no village crime committed by an illiterate but a tragedy that unfolded in the nation's capital between two educated urbanites. It underscores how the social standing of Iranian women — they are now in the majority at universities and active throughout society — fits awkwardly with deep-seated patriarchal attitudes. Women in Iran may direct top-grossing films, run galleries and write best sellers, but they are still affected by cultural mores that often approximate the severe conservatism of neighboring Afghanistan. "This case really highlights the sexist attitudes and double standards within Iranian society," says Nayereh Tohidi, an Iran expert and a professor of women's studies at California State University, Northridge. "[Based on] such customs, a man sees it as his prerogative to want and possess the woman he desires, regardless of her feelings and mutual love." Tohidi adds, "This 'eye for an eye,' tribal approach to crimes underlies how the law reinforces a cycle of violence instead of reducing it. A young blind man is going to be added to a young blind woman for society to take care of."