More than a dozen women have been executed this year in Iran, activists say, raising concerns over a rigid judicial system that automatically seeks capital punishment for a killing without taking into account the circumstances.
Most of the women executed in Iran in recent years have been hanged for murder, the majority of cases related to the killings of a husband or partner, rights activists say.
Iran's religiously rooted law of retribution known — where another life must be taken after a killing unless the victim's family forgives or accepts a payment — means that extenuating circumstances such as domestic violence may not be taken into account by a court.
According to Iran Human Rights (IHR), an Oslo-based NGO which closely monitors the use of the death penalty in Iran, one of the women most recently hanged was Susan Rezaeipour, executed on October 27 for the murder of her husband — who was also her cousin.
IHR said she had been in prison for six years and was executed after the victim's next of kin — who was also her maternal uncle — refused to forgive her.
A source told the group that Rezaeipour had stated in her confession that her husband was drunk from the afternoon and then would beat her, so “I couldn't stand it any more".
'Tried to defend themselves'
“Behind the numbers of women executed we see many other issues of grave concern,” said Mahmood Amiry Moghaddam, director of IHR, which has counted at least 15 women executed this year and 170 since 2010.
“There have been cases of an abusive relationship, of child brides and — in traditional communities — women offered as a bride as a reconciliation between tribes,” he said.
He said that the legal interpretation was incompatible with international law as it “puts this responsibility of punishment on the family of the victim” even though the judiciary claims to mediate with the families.
One of the most notorious cases in recent years was the October 2014 hanging of 26-year-old Reyhaneh Jabbari, who was convicted of murdering a former intelligence officer she maintained had tried to sexually assault her.
Jabbari said she had been tortured into making incriminating confessions and there was an international campaign for her life to be spared. But the victim's family insisted she must die unless she dropped her position that she had acted in self-defence.
“It is the weight of the patriarchy, these discriminations that are important to understanding the reason why there can be so many women executed in Iran,” said Julia Bourbon Fernandez, of Paris-based NGO Together Against the Death Penalty (ECPM).
“Many tried to defend themselves against attempted rapes at home or there was an overall context of violence and explosive conditions,” she told AFP.
Most defendants in such cases are also from the most marginalised parts of Iranian society, activists say.
“They are often poor and rejected by their own families as well. So, they are very vulnerable and out of our reach,” said Roya Boroumand, co-founder of the Washington-based Abdorrahman Boroumand Center.
The centre has counted about 100 cases of women executed for murder or adultery in the Islamic republic and such cases “often have to do with domestic violence, early marriages and the difficulty in getting a divorce”, she said.
There is growing alarm about the numbers of people being executed in Iran across the board — the country is second only to China for its number of executions.
After a decline sparked by a 2017 law change that meant far fewer people were executed for drug-related offences, numbers have ticked up again, with over 100 people executed on drug charges in 2021, including several women.
Among the most recently executed on drug charges was 41-year-old Myriam Khakpour who according to IHR was hanged on November 25 in the city of Isfahan. Her husband had also been convicted but was merely sent to prison.
On December 9, three women were among six executed on drug-related charges in the eastern city of Kerman, said IHR, which has counted at least 116 prisoners, including five women, executed on drug-related charges in 2021, compared with 25 in 2020.
Activists complain the judicial system discriminates against women from its very basis, with the criminal responsibility of a girl set at 9, as opposed to 15 for a boy, and court testimony from women carrying less legal weight than from men.
Ms Bourbon Fernandez said that aside from the disturbing statistics a brighter aspect was the increasing mobilisation in Iranian society against the death penalty.
This manifests itself in films like There Is No Evil, which won the Golden Bear at the 2020 Berlin film festival.
Some intellectuals have spoken out and the hashtag “edam nakon” — “don't execute” —went viral both within and outside Iran.
“Contrary to what one might think, there is a rather strong pro-abolition movement, which stands in stark contrast to the stance of the authorities,” said Ms Bourbon Fernandez.