A Daughter Is Beheaded, and Iran Asks if Women Have a Right to Safety

The so-called honor killing of a 14-year-old girl in Iran has shaken the country and forced an examination of its failure to protect women and children.

Before he beheaded his 14-year-old daughter with a farming sickle, Reza Ashrafi called a lawyer.

His daughter, Romina, was going to dishonor the family by running off with her 29-year-old boyfriend, he said. What kind of punishment, he asked the lawyer, would he get for killing her?

The lawyer assured him that as the girl’s guardian he would not face capital punishment but at most 3 to 10 years in jail, Mr. Ashrafi’s relatives told an Iranian newspaper.

Three weeks later, Mr. Ashrafi, a 37-year-old farmer, marched into the bedroom where the girl was sleeping and decapitated her.

The so-called honor killing last month, in a small village in the rolling green hills of northern Iran, has shaken the country and set off a nationwide debate over the rights of women and children and the failure of the country’s social, religious and legal systems to protect them.

Romina Ashrafi

It has also prompted a me-too moment on social media of women pouring out their own stories of abuse at the hands of male relatives in hopes of shedding light on a problem that is usually kept quiet.

Minoo, a 49-year-old mother of two in Tehran, said her husband had beaten their 17-year-old daughter when he spotted her with a male friend in the street.

Hanieh Rajabi, a Ph.D. student in philosophy, tweeted that her father had lashed her with a belt and kept her out of school for a week because she had walked home from class to buy ice cream instead of taking the school bus.

Others shared stories of rape, physical and emotional abuse and running away from home in search of safety.

"There are thousands of Rominas who have no protection in this country," tweeted Kimia Abodlazadeh.

In many ways, women in Iran are better off than those in many other Middle Eastern countries.

Iranian women work as lawyers, doctors, pilots, film directors and truck drivers. They hold 60 percent of university seats and constitute 50 percent of the work force. They can run for office, and they hold seats in the Parliament and cabinet.

But there are restrictions. Women must cover their hair, arms and curves in public, and they need the permission of a male relative to leave the country, ask for a divorce or work outside the home.

In many ways, women in Iran are better off than those in many other Middle Eastern countries, but they need a man’s permission to work outside the home.Credit...Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

Honor killings are thought to be rare but that may be because they are usually hushed up.

A 2019 report by a research center affiliated with Iran’s armed forces found that nearly 30 percent of all murder cases in Iran were honor killings of women and girls. The number is unknown, however, as Iran does not publicly release crime statistics.

Horror over the killing of Romina Ashrafi, a round-faced high school student with a bright smile, was nearly universal, condemned by liberals and conservatives alike. Her father is in jail awaiting trial.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for “harsh punishment” for any man who abuses women in what appeared to be a reference to Romina’s case.

But the question of what to do about it broke along familiar lines.

“Everyone is infuriated and shocked because it’s a reminder that these laws are abnormal, these laws need to change,” said Shadi Sadr, a prominent women’s rights lawyer living in exile in London. “These laws were not meant for a woman or a child to be killed.”

Conservatives defended the existing laws and blamed Romina for promiscuity and disobeying religious and cultural strictures.

“The laws for violence against women are enough,” Mousa Ghazanfarabadi, a conservative cleric and lawmaker, told local media. “We cannot execute Romina’s father because it’s against Islamic law.”