The current Iranian government is again trying to pass a law that would finally criminalize domestic violence, reviving an unsuccessful draft from five years ago. However, the efforts to finally provide victims, and potential victims, with the protections they deserve are at risk of being undermined due to resistance from conservative members of parliament.
Iran and domestic violence
As MP Fatemeh Alia stated in an interview in November 2014: “Violence against women in Iran is rare but in the West, it’s a constant trend (…) The government should explain whether it is coming up with ideas to protect women against violence by relying on our own experts or is it just trying to impress international organizations?” Her words stem from the idea that domestic violence is mostly a Western problem, and that its existence in Iran is greatly exaggerated and distorted by international organizations. This position is also reinforced by Iran’s patriarchal notions of marriage and the roles of women in society. Addressing this form of violence may need another approach that broadens its scope beyond gender roles. Categorizing domestic violence in terms of human rights may aid in challenging the circumstances and practices that let it persist.
No law, no victims?
In Iran, there are no laws specifically aimed at criminalizing domestic violence. Although other kinds of gender-based crimes are recognized, such as harassment and abuse of pregnant women, violence in the home perpetrated by family members or intimate partners is placed under the umbrella of “crimes against rights and responsibilities within the family structure,” as stated in the Iranian Code of Criminal Procedure.
This categorization is particularly problematic due to the imbalance of power between husband and wife in Iran, a country in which the male spouse is considered to be the sole head of the family with the obligation of being the breadwinner (women do not have any obligation to work if they are married). According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, the concept of obedience (tamkin) is central to the idea of marriage, but women’s obedience is more emphasized than men’s – in fact, a woman who is considered disobedient (nashezeh) may suffer divorce, forced polygamy or domestic violence and the husband’s action will be considered to be justified. In fact, a woman might be obligated to satisfy her husband sexually whether she wants to or not, a mindset that encourages and perpetuates marital rape.
In addition to laws and practices that tend to undervalue the free agency of women in Iran, the cultural taboo of getting involved in another family’s private sphere must also be considered. Most people will be hesitant to get involved in what they consider to be a family dispute, and encouraging people to go public (e.g. go to the authorities) is seen as shameful. It is typical for Iranians to instead encourage husband and wife to make peace.
A 2014 report by Women Living Under Islamic Law clearly highlights the challenges women face in having their complaints taken seriously. In order to prove they are victims of domestic violence, battered women must provide two male witnesses to support their allegations, for example. Even when women are able to present such witnesses, the perpetrators can usually escape prison time and instead be required to pay a fine.
Documenting domestic violence
It is hard to pinpoint exactly how many women or families are affected by domestic violence in Iran. The last major study dates from 2004 and it was supported by the government of the time. The leading researcher, sociologist Ghazi Tabatabaei, along with many others from 28 provinces in Iran discovered 66% of women admitted to having suffered some kind of domestic violence in the first year of their marriages. Although women who admitted to being sexually or physically abused formed a much smaller percentage, it is unclear whether they might have been hesitant to share their experiences.
Since then, there have been surveys and theses on violence against women in Iran as well as domestic violence, but none as far reaching. Indeed the Census Bureau in Iran even discourages such studies and prohibits international organizations from doing their own, creating further barriers to addressing the issue.
Domestic violence on a global scale
While domestic violence is a global issue, currently only about 140 countries have laws addressing it. Even in those countries, laws are not always enforced correctly and there might be a state policy of discrimination against victims, leading to human rights violations (the European Court of Human Rights ruled that in Moldova and Turkey there was indeed a systematic practice of discrimination, for example).
Although domestic violence can affect people of all genders, it is mainly recognized as an issue of violence against women. As women are the majority of the victims, this kind of violence is usually a side effect of gender inequality and patriarchal notions of a woman’s place in the home and society.
However, there are no international treaties devoted to domestic violence in particular as there are for the protection of and even the famed Convention of Istanbul (which mostly covers European countries) is limited. In many countries across the world, domestic violence is not even recognized as a crime. Unfortunately, this is also the case of Iran.
Reframing domestic violence as a human rights issue
Iran is not an isolated case when it comes to domestic violence. In fact, it shares the same problem present in many other cultures around the world: it tends to see domestic violence as a private matter, rather than a public one. Because domestic violence attracts much less attention on an international level and is hardly ever mentioned in the growing body of international human rights case laws, it is an issue that is almost always talked about within states only on a national level. Each individual country believes to be well-equipped to handle domestic violence according to its culture and, with the notable exception of a 2003 UN Resolution and the Convention of Istanbul, there are no international standards specific to domestic violence.
By reframing domestic violence as a human rights issue for which states can be held accountable for in terms of human rights violations, countries can be held accountable for providing better support to the victims and properly prosecute the perpetrators. Although boycotting is never the answer, the international community needs to rethink how to handle domestic violence and make legal gaps such as those present in Iran become a thing of the past.