Ameneh Bahrami was 23 years old when an inhumane and possessive man destroyed her life. Having had his marriage proposal rejected by her, Majid Movahedi decided the only answer to his emotional suffering would be physical pain and lifelong debilitation for Ameneh: he decided it was his right to pour a bucketful of sulfuric acid on her face as she was crossing a street in Tehran in 2004.
Since that incident which has left her disfigured and completely blind, Bahrami has felt it was her right, not only personally, but legally, to seek retaliation for the crime against her. In the last seven years, following trials and appeals interspersed with tens of surgeries to restore her face and vision (unsuccessful), Bahrami was finally granted a decision of qisas.
In Iran’s legal system, as in Pakistan’s, there is a kind of justice called qisas – blood money, or retaliatory punishment, that pre-dates Islam (it can be found in the Old Testament of the Bible). It’s more commonly understood as “an eye for an eye” – punishment that equals the crime
In Iran, qisas has two main components: the victim can either forgive the assailant (or in the case of a murder, the victim’s family can be the forgivers) and therefore a monetary compensation should be made to the victim or the victim’s family, or, secondly, a punishment that fits the crime can be administered. In the case of a murder, the punishment would be execution of the assailant.
In the case of Ameneh Bahrami, the request was that she personally be given the opportunity to blind her attacker, thus ensuring that he not only received the same treatment she received (minus the total disfiguration of her face, years of surgery, and indescribable pain), but that he would truly understand what it is like to be blinded. This year, Bahrami was granted her wish and Movahedi was to be sedated in a Tehran hospital and administered 20 drops of acid in each of his eyes – administered by Bahrami herself – on May 14.
But the punishment was postponed at the eleventh hour, perhaps due to international outcry, or perhaps due to domestic controversy – Iranians themselves are divided in their views on the matter. But there are very few people anywhere who question Bahrami’s motivation. Yes, she and the Iranian legal system are being portrayed as barbarians for allowing what some believe to be archaic and cruel punishment (in the United States, Israel, China and elsewhere it is practiced in the form of capital punishment) but no one doubts her reasons for wanting it.
What some people doubt is whether qisas is effective in achieving more than the satisfaction of revenge: the deterrence of crime. The public prosecutor who defended Bahrami’s wish for the punishment said that his hope was that it would deter such crimes in the future. However, it is well known that in countries with trends of acid attacks – such as Pakistan and India – not only are a tiny percentage of the attacks reported but a miniscule percentage of those reported are prosecuted and an even less detectable figure of those prosecuted actually involve any kind of punishment.
The deeper problem is not only that these attackers are not made answerable for their crimes but also that they are too often accepted back in their societies when news of their crime is made known. Some experts argue that the most effective deterrent against crimes – especially violent crimes – is the engendering of a culture of intolerance for them. For instance, if an acid attacker knew that he would be shunned by his society for such a crime, it would be less likely that he would do it. After all, most of these crimes occur within the context of honour. In the case of acid attacks, it is a personal honour that has been offended, but if there were a societal culture of dishonour surrounding such attacks, the stakes would be even higher than dealing with a mere personal issue.
Ultimately, however, debates of qisas and the controversy surrounding Bahrami’s wishes are really discussions of how far the law will allow a victim to go in determining her own justice. While it’s easy to judge from a distance, only a victim can know what could possibly satisfy her needs following a life-altering crime. Just ask any member of the staff of Depilex beauty salon in Lahore. Mahatma Gandhi once famously said that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” but he had never been the victim of an acid attack.
The writer is a US-based political analyst and a former Producer for BBC and Al-Jazeera. Follow her on Twitter @ShirinSadeghi