The video is unbearable: For 30 seconds it shows a grinning man parading in the streets of Ahvaz, in the Iranian province of Khuzestan, holding a knife in one hand. In the other hand: his wife’s head. He has just decapitated her after she ran away from their forced marriage. The incident has received international attention since February 5, and is rare visual proof of the persistence of “honour killings” in Iran, as detailed by our Observer.
An Iranian media website published the video on February 5. The victim, named Mona, was 17 years old. Her husband and killer, Sajjad, age 21, beheaded her just minutes before the footage was taken, with the help of his brother. As he walked through the town, passers-by applauded and cheered him on with cries of “Long live Sajjad”.
Mona’s story began at age 12 when she was forcibly married to Sajjad. According to Iranian media reports quoting friends of the young woman, she became a mother at 14, before finally fleeing domestic violence in mid-2021. She then found herself without money and abused by another man, when she called her father for help. He took her back to Ahvaz. Her husband found and killed her on February 5.
The video is a reminder of the reality of “honour killings” in Iran, particularly in the southwestern tribal region which has a large Arab population. Honour killings are “committed by male family members against female family members who are perceived to have brought dishonour upon the family”, according to Human Rights Watch.
These crimes can be related to the refusal of an arranged marriage or sexual favours, as well as a request for divorce, especially in a case of adultery. While Iranian authorities tend to hide or manipulate statistics on honour killings, activists are keeping track.
Mona (centre) with her father on her right and uncle on the left, in Turkey. Observers
‘It’s not an act of madness. These are planned assassinations’Fatemeh Hassani, a women’s rights activist, closely follows the practice:
According to activists’ figures, there are between 375 and 450 “honour killings” in Iran every year [Editor’s note: according to official statistics, there are about 1,800 homicides in Iran every year, so “honour killings” would account for about 20% of all homicides]. Nearly 40% of honour killings are recorded in the three western provinces of the country: Khuzestan, Kermanshah and Ilam, on the Iraqi border.
However, we are convinced that the real number of honour killings is higher, because many of these murders are counted as suicides or accidents. Other crimes are even forgotten because no one files a complaint or follows up with the case.
There are victims in all social classes. And most of the criminals are men who are part of the close family circle: husbands, fathers, brothers, or cousins.
‘A woman has no control over her body, her sexuality or her love life’Honour killings are more common in these regions because of their social structure. They are very conservative regions with a restrictive tribal social order. In these regions, individuality has no meaning: if someone is dishonoured, or has committed an act considered shameful, the whole community is dishonoured. Women are not considered as individuals, they are objects, to be protected by male family members. A woman has no control over her body, her sexuality or her love life.
If a girl does something ‘wrong’, it is the fault of the male family members. A huge social pressure then forms around these men, who are seen as ‘guardians’ of women, forcing them to restore their honour and that of the community.
When I say ‘doing something wrong’, it may be leaving home and going to Turkey to escape a forced marriage to an abusive man, as in this recent case, or exchanging a few text messages with another man in other cases.
And restoring honour means killing the woman. In this social order, this man beheaded his wife and took her head, showing it as a badge of honor. The man behind the camera praises him. It’s not an act of madness. These are planned assassinations. And beheading the victims seems to be one of the main methods of these honour killings.
The Khuzestan-based NGO Reihaneh estimates that in the last two years, 60 women have been killed in honour killings. Some were between 10 and 15 years old.
‘This is our tradition, we clean our name’Fatemeh Hassani continued:
In many cases, when we ask killers why they killed their daughter, wife, sister or cousin, they say: ‘If we didn’t do it, we couldn’t show our faces in the street’, or “This is our tradition, we clear our name like this’. Some even suggested that they did not want to do it, but that social pressure made them.
While local practices and customs contribute to this phenomenon, the few sanctions provided by Iranian law do not help to change things. It even makes them worse:
Femicides or honour killings have never been recognised by the law of the Islamic Republic. The law even exacerbates the situation by legalising killings under certain conditions, encouraging the killers.
According to Article 630 of the Islamic Republic’s law, if the husband sees that his wife is having an affair with another man and he understands that she was consenting, he can kill both people. But if the wife did not consent, the husband can kill only the man.
In reality, what happens in the courts is that the husband pretends his wife was cheating on him, that he is sure, and he goes free. At best, he pays a fine. And if a father kills a daughter, he faces between three and 10 years in prison.
Satellite view of the poor district of “Kassaei” in Ahvaz, where the video was shot. Google Earth
According to Reihaneh, in the last two years, no man was punished for any of the 60 honour killings committed in Khuzestan. Still, no complaints have been filed by the families of the victims.
In an interview with Iranian media, Mona’s father described his son-in-law as “a sportive type who had given [his] daughter a good life”. But he said he had filed a complaint.
In August 2020, a man was sentenced to nine years in prison for killing his 14-year-old daughter after she ran away with her adult boyfriend. On June 14, 2020, another woman was decapitated by her husband. The court has not yet decided on any punishment.
‘We need safe places for victims of domestic violence’For our Observer, the laws must change in Iran in order to stop this phenomenon:
We urgently need laws that protect women first. We also need to teach people, especially in tribal areas, that they must respect the law and cannot judge and condemn on their own. We also need to teach them to recognise the rights of women in these areas, where they are seen as objects that belong to the tribe.
We also need safe places for victims of domestic violence in these areas. Public television must stop justifying domestic violence and honour killings, and promoting the idea that women belong to men in films and series.
Iran is one of six countries in the world that has not signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. After Mona’s murder, more than 1,000 women’s rights activists signed a petition, calling on the UN to force the Iranian government to take action to end domestic violence.