Iran's Courts Are Still Blaming Rape Victims for Their Attacks

By Hussein Kesvani

Rayhaneh Jabbari

A woman in Iran faces public execution for that most heinous of crimes: defending herself against a rapist.

Rayhaneh Jabbari, a 26-year-old from Tehran, was scheduled to be hanged two weeks ago for killing her attacker in self-defense. However, after pressure from Iranian human rights groups, the Supreme Court is now reviewing her case for a second time. 

Rayhaneh, who was an interior decorator before her arrest, was 19 when Morteza Abdolali Sarbandi—a former intelligence officer and, at the time, a high-ranking member of Iran’s government—invited her to his home to discuss a decorating job. When she arrived, she was offered a fruit juice, which forensics later confirmed contained sedatives, that she refused to drink. After blocking a number of aggressive sexual advances, she took a knife from her bag and stabbed Sarbandi in the shoulder in an “act of self-defense.” Her attacker died from blood loss.

While Rayhaneh’s case is currently being reviewed again, most campaigners don’t believe it’ll be enough to save her life, despite the fact that lawyers for Sarbandi’s family have been changing their story throughout the trial. For instance, the knife Jabbari used has now “become” a foot and a half long, considerably larger than its original 6 inches, and the fruit juice apparently contained laxatives, not sedatives, even though forensics proved otherwise. 

Many also believe that the authorities are trying to extract a confession from Rayhaneh. Obtaining information through torture is illegal in Iran, but it’s something the government tends to turn a blind eye to. It’s also a time-tested tactic, used during the early days of the Islamic Republic, when state dissidents—especially socialists—were forced to admit that they were traitors, before being executed.

According to British-Iranian human rights activist Maryam Namazie, Rayhaneh has spent many of the years since her arrest in solitary confinement, where she’s allegedly “undergone brutal interrogations, endured physical abuse, and has been pressured by her jailers to falsely confess to having murdered Morteza for political purposes.” Namazie added that, despite all that, Rayhaneh has “stood her ground and has continued to maintain that she acted in self-defense.”

Of course, maintaining your innocence doesn’t get you off scot-free elsewhere, so there’s no real reason it would in a situation in which the odds are already stacked against the defendant. Despite all the evidence presented to the court—including records of text messages showing there was no personal relationship between Rayhaneh and Morteza—the authorities are still inclined to place the blame on her.


Many of Iran’s female activists blame the country’s “medieval” judicial system, which they believe favors the opinions of men and, more often than not, indulges in victim blaming.



Speaking to me on Skype, women’s rights activist and lawyer Arifa (who didn’t want her full name published for security reasons) said that Rayhaneh’s treatment is similar to what many Iranian women could expect were they to report a rape. “There have been lots of cases like this, which Iranian officials don’t want to talk about,” she told me. “They like to put on a front that they punish men who rape, or who indulge in anti-religious sexual activity. But in reality, it’s actually quite easy for men to get away with it.”

From all the cases that she’s read about and campaigned for, Arifa has formed the conclusion that this male advantage comes down to the way judges in Iran actually examine rape cases. “Judges, police, and politicians all go to the woman first—they look at her behavior,” she explained. “If they see that a woman wears loose or colorful clothing, or they wear a scarf so that it shows some hair, they say that the woman was inviting herself to be raped. It makes it very difficult for women to fight their cases, and one reason that rape punishments are so low is because barely any rapists are sent to jails. That, and less and less women are actually reporting the crimes.”  



Besides justice for the attacks themselves, it’s also difficult for women to get fair consideration if they’re taken to court for defending themselves against their attackers. Because of Iran’s penal code, women who claim self-defense have to prove that they used a level of force “appropriate” to the attack, and that physical force was used as a “last resort.” Of course, because that’s impossible to prove conclusively, most women brave enough to enter the dock in the first place end up losing; according to Arifa, there have been less than five cases in over a decade where claiming self-defense has actually worked.

Rayaneh’s story isn’t uncommon. Iranian rape victims are often subjected to further punishment after their initial ordeal. For example, in 2005, Afsaneh Nowrouzi, a 34-year-old mother, was sentenced to death after killing a high-ranking police officer who tried to rape her. After seven years in one of the country’s most severe prisons, where she was beaten, abused with pepper spray, and left to starve for days, she was eventually released—and that was only because the police officer’s family granted her a pardon.

Even today, despite Iran’s gradually improving record on women’s rights, the number of sex-abuse crimes is unrecorded. And because Iran doesn’t publish any type of prisoner records, nobody knows how many rape cases have been filed or how many rapists have been sent to prison.

These, of course, are huge issues that need confronting. But for the immediate future, a woman remains on death row for inadvertently killing a man in self-defense after he tried to sexually abuse her.

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