(Beirut) – Iran should address the loopholes in the long-awaited draft law on violence against women, which provides limited protection for victims of domestic violence, and present it to parliament for a vote, Human Rights Watch said today. During the past year alone, numerous cases of violence against women have been in the spotlight, the news of which has spread widely and aroused nationwide outrage. The authorities should repeal discriminatory laws that place women at risk of domestic violence.
Iranian women’s rights activists have launched campaigns calling for a similar law for 16 years, and President Hassan Rouhani’s administration has been working on the bill since the 2013 elections. The cabinet has been reviewing the draft law on “Protection, Dignity and Security of Women Against Violence” since September 17, 2019, after it The judiciary announced the completion of its review of the project and returning it to the government. The vice president for women and family affairs, Masoumeh Ebtekar, told the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) in August that submitting the bill to parliament is imminent. The authorities must act now, during the Sixteen Days Campaign Against Gender-Based Violence.
“Decades have passed and Iranian women are waiting for comprehensive legislation to prevent violence against them and prosecute their aggressors,” said Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch.
A national study conducted in 2004 showed that 66% of married women who participated in the survey had experienced domestic violence at least once in their lives, and 30% had been exposed to physical violence, compared to 10% who had been permanently hurt as a result of this violence.
In a case that caught national attention in 2020, on May 21, the 14-year-old girl, Romina Ashrafi, was brutally beheaded, allegedly by her father. Soon after, the Iranian authorities rushed to pass a 51-article bill “supporting children and adolescents”. At the same time, several Iranian government officials, including members of Parliament, have urged the government to speed up the passage of the bill to protect women from violence.
Human Rights Watch reviewed the draft law and spoke to five lawyers and women’s rights defenders who were directly familiar with the drafting process.
The draft law includes several positive provisions, including the formation of an interministerial national committee to formulate strategies and coordinate the government’s responses to violence against women. The project also obliges ministries and government agencies to take measures to contribute to preventing violence and assisting women, including the formation of special police units to deal with these issues, in addition to issuing restraining orders, and establishing a fund to support women.
However, the bill falls short of international standards. While it gives a broad definition of violence against women and criminalizes various forms of violence, it does not criminalize some forms of gender-based violence, such as marital rape and child marriage. It also did not amend the problematic and limited concept of rape, which explicitly excludes marital rape, in the penal code. Capital punishment is the mandatory punishment for rape, which may deter women from reporting that they have been subjected to it.
The bill does not define the concept of domestic violence. Some of the crimes he mentioned violate the right to privacy and other protected freedoms, such as proposing an “unlawful relationship” on a woman and encouraging or persuading her to commit acts contrary to “chastity.” Although Iranian law does not include a clear legal definition of what are considered unchaste acts, judges have interpreted it to include, and thus to criminalize, consensual sexual relations other than sexual intercourse and same-sex relations.
The draft law includes several positive provisions to enhance prosecution, including requiring the police and judiciary to expedite the investigation of complaints. This is important, according to two lawyers interviewed who had represented women in domestic violence cases, because prosecutors and police officers often mistook these cases as “family disputes” and not as crimes.
The draft law states that, in cases where the parent or husband is accused, the authorities should refer the case to mediation for a month, and return it to the judiciary if not addressed. UN Women’s “Handbook of Legislation on Violence against Women” states that mediation should be prohibited in all cases of violence against women and all stages of legal proceedings because mediation prevents judicial scrutiny.
Encouraging reconciliation presumes that the two parties possess equal negotiating capabilities, and may be equally guilty, which reduces accountability of the perpetrator.
The mediation period may also create further obstacles for victims of domestic violence to obtain immediate protection from a protection order. The law provides such orders, but only if the victim files a criminal complaint and is at high risk of beating or additional harm. UN Women recommended that victims of domestic violence be able to seek protection orders without resorting to any other legal procedures, such as bringing criminal charges or instituting a divorce case.